West Africa's Women of God

Alinesitoué and the Diola Prophetic Tradition

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Robert M. Baum
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , November
     2015.
     316 pages.
     $32.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780253017888.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Robert M. Baum’s West Africa’s Women of God has three main strengths. To begin with, it gives a deeper historical account of the encounter between Diola traditional religions and colonial powers; the misunderstanding of Diola religion by the French (101), the subsequent conversions to Christianity (106) or Islam (109), and finally the domination, after which a tradition of male prophetic leaders—in the era before colonial conquest—turned into a predominantly female tradition (60). Baum reveals the strength of women’s intervention in the face of male religious leaders’ failure to repel the colonial presence. The women “whom Emitai has sent” or who are messengers of God used religion to explain the Diola’s loss of “political and economic autonomy” (61), and offered consolation to adherents through prayers to the Supreme Being “Emitai.” Alinesitoué “placed new emphasis on the Supreme Being’s involvement in Diola’s lives” (158), as opposed to other African religion(s) who have gods, and other spirits, controlling the affairs of men—with the Supreme Being as remotely distanced after creation.

Second, the monograph engages in a contentious subject in Africa religion—the place of the Supreme Being in the affairs of human beings. Scholars such as Robin W. G. Horton have asserted that “African religions paid primary attention to lesser spirits and divinities as part of their microcosmic focus” (31) and that, according to Kofi Asare Opong, “it is rare among West African societies to have priests and priestesses specially appointed for the direct worship of God” (West Africa Traditional Religion, Fep International Private Limited, 1978) as God has left the affairs of the world in the hands of his deities. Women of God offers a counterpoint to this perception as Baum uses Diola religions to show that “Emitai” the Supreme Being does feature directly in the affairs of humans by intervening “not for an individual but for all the Diola” (126). Baum uses a crisis situation in Diola to demonstrate this. When the Diola lost their political authority, religion, and agriculture to the French, Alinesitoue Diatta appears claiming to have received visions of Emitai in which she is directed to return to her land with a message from the Supreme Being. “She claimed that Emitai taught her what she preached and ordered her to spread the teachings among all the Diola … and inform them of special duties that the Diola had to Emitai” (162). Emitai promises the Diola that he would help them to control their destiny if they were righteous. Alinesitoué Diatta’s teachings on renewed concern for traditions other than Christianity and/or Islam and the imperial powers led to her brush with the powers that be and caused her arrest and subsequent exile. What Baum tries to establish, and what is of utmost concern here is the fact that the Supreme Being is not passive in most African traditions, as is claimed by many scholars. Additionally, one of the contributions of Baum’s work lies in his revelation that the agency of women in indigenous religious traditions in pre-colonial times did not end with colonialism, but rather prepared the groundwork for the era of “women prophets for the first time” (9). Somehow, these religious duties moved women leadership roles into the public sphere where they exerted power over men and women. (90).

The third and final contribution of the book has to do with its emphasis on “prophetism” in African religions. Baum elucidates that scholars working on Abrahamic traditions see a prophet as a person “who speaks in place of or on behalf of a god” (4). By this assertion, it is evident that the Supreme Being communicates with prophets in Abrahamic traditions. The sense however, is that in African religions “seers and spirit mediums … received privileged communications from a being or force,” though not the Supreme Being. From the cosmology of the African world we learn that the Supreme Being does not communicate directly with humans; rather he does so through the deities.

We are unfamiliar with the concept of prophets or prophetess in Africa Religions given that the category is associated more with the religions of the “book.” The closest we come to the idea of the African prophet is what Cephas N. Omenyo has discussed in his book Pentecost outside Pentecostalism (Boekencentrum, 2002). In this work Omenyo discusses William Wade Harris, John Swatson, and Sampson Oppong as African prophets whose combination of the Bible and African religious material and worldview helped in the spread of Christianity in Ghana and coastal West Africa. For Baum, “Diola prophets are quite distinct from seers, mediums, and diviners(4). Diola messengers claimed that Emitai spoke to them and commanded them to share what they learned with the people” (162). This book makes an interesting revelation on an African religion which has a portion of it behaving in the Abrahamic traditions and yet, retaining its traditional flavor. The issue of contention here is whether this phenomenon will attract a shared interpretation on the continent. Will other African communities see these Diola as divine agents in general as prophets in the normative sense of God’s mouthpieces or classify them as diviners, mediums, seers and priest or priestesses. What unique elements about Diola religion precipitated this way of looking at these women? I ask these questions because, even with the case of Prophet Muhammad, he was “not always clear initially what the origins of revelatory experience were” (5), that is, whether it was from Allah or djinn (spirits). If this is the case, then it is quite possible that the claims by these Diola prophets that they receive messages from Emitai are contestable. These messages could be from deities or lesser spirits and not the Supreme Being. Nonetheless, Baum has offered us a window into a phenomenon that inspires new ways of looking at prophetism in African Traditional religions.

To conclude, this intelligibly constructed and well-structured book will be useful to scholars of African religions, cultural anthropologists, and theologians alike. The field of African religious studies would certainly diminish without its contributions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Geneviève Nrenzah is an independent scholar.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robert M. Baum is Associate Professor of African and African American Studies and Religion at Dartmouth College. He is author of Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia.

Keywords: 

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