Emmanuel Katongole’s Who Are My People? Love, Violence, and Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa investigates the banality of ethnic, religious, and ecological violence in Africa. Katongole determines that the perennial presence of violence are echoes of a crisis of belonging in an Africa that is “already very modern” (3). Africa’s identity crisis emanates from a static way of conceptualizing identity, which postcolonial African nation-states and churches largely assume. Consequently, denying the actual fluidity and hybridity of all identities, Africans, and African Christians in particular, have struggled to live into the imaginative tension of what it means to inhabit hybrid identities, such as Hutu Tutsi and African Christian. Providing stirring counternarratives of Christian communities and individuals who eschew violence, Katongole proposes Christian identity as a “journey” towards the constitution of an inclusive new “we” (4).
Katongole employs an interdisciplinary approach that draws on ethnography, philosophy, and theology to develop his peripatetic framing of Christian identity. The first two chapters make up part 1 of the two-part text. Part 1 combines autoethnography with philosophical and theological reflections on Katongole’s intellectual journey to comprehend his identity as an African Christian. Part 2, which consists of the final three chapters, engages ethnographic interviews to delineate the counter-witness of Christian communities and individuals who resist the ethnic, religious, and ecological violence that characterize African modernity. Overall, Katongole’s employment of stories casts the book as an inventive work of narrative theology that stands in methodological continuity with his previous works on African political theology, namely, Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa (Eerdmans, 2011) and Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa (Eerdmans, 2017).
A philosophical inquiry into the meaning of African identity in the wake of the Rwandan genocide makes up the first chapter. Katongole embeds this discourse in his struggle to understand the carnage unfolding at the time in Rwanda. Katongole was working on his PhD, and one of his fellow students asked, “Why do your people always kill each other like this?” This awakened Katongole to the phantasmic images of Africa that animated the world’s lethargic response to the genocide (12). Katongole draws on Valentin Mudimbe and Ali Mazrui to show the historical and philosophical roots of the invention of this pejorative transethnic African identity. Katongole is equally critical of the Pan-Africanist account of African identity which romanticizes pre-colonial African history as a counterpoint to stereotypes of Africa. Katongole concludes that the Pan-Africanist notion of Africa is an abstraction, however, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s cosmopolitan concept of African identity, which takes for granted its hybridity or derivative nature, is more robust and genial to the task of fostering African solidarity beyond ethnocentrism and nationalism.
The second chapter provides a post-genocide theological reflection on the relationship between Christian and ethnic identity. Inspired by Cardinal Roger Etchegaray’s rhetorical question, “Is the blood of tribalism deeper than the waters of baptism?,” Katongole makes a case for the centering of identity in African theology (36). He is critical of the view that African identity is a static, pristine, natural, and God-given foundation fitted for the construction of African Christian theology and the modern African nation state (42). Constructively, Katongole argues for a pilgrimage framing of African Christian identity drawn from his experience inhabiting multiple identities, Vincent Mulago’s “stepping stone” theology, Andrew Walls’ indigenization and pilgrim principles, Miroslav Volf’s dialectic of departure from and belonging to one’s culture, and Virgilio Elizondo’s mestizo (in-between) concept of Christian identity. In sum, Katongole insists Christianity is a journey that begins from where we are in our natural identity (i.e. our ethnicity, our nationality, and so forth) to the constitution of a community whose membership transgresses ethnic, tribal, and racial boundaries (44).
Chapters 3 to 5 detail stories of Christian communities and individuals that substantiate the inclusive potential of living into African Christian identity. Katongole cites ecclesial communities in Uganda, Burundi, and the Central African Republic that are led by non-nationals and natives destabilizing the boundaries of ethnicity and religion. The example of Godfrey Nzamujo and the Songhai Center in the Republic of Benin corroborates the transformative possibilities of marrying technological innovation with African indigenous practices of care for ecological flourishing. Together, these stories authenticate the sociopolitical, economic, and ecological utility of reimagining African and African Christian identity.
Although not explicitly framed as such, one could read the first two chapters as Katongole’s philosophical and theological assessment of how identity and conversion are mobilized for politics in Africa’s unique modernity. Generally, African churches, nation states, and Pan-Africanists embrace linear theories of conversion wherein they frame conversion in either declensionist or progressivist terms. Declensionist accounts of conversion engender politics that seek to recover an essentialized African identity from a “pristine” past, and progressivist accounts of conversion engender the politics of grasping after sociocultural and political ideals unmoored from African traditional wisdom. As Katongole suggests, both declensionist and progressivist modes of framing conversion and politics produce alienation. However, Katongole’s framing of African Christian identity as a “journey” that begins with one’s natural identity does not destabilize the “home/destination” binary assumed in spatial metaphors of conversion. Diasporic concepts of identity from Black Atlantic scholars that challenge the “home/destination” logic would have been more salutary to Katongole’s project.
Furthermore, Katongole missed an opportunity to give us a portrait of how the ecclesial communities he profiled negotiate asymmetries of power and asymmetrical conceptions of love, justice, and ecological flourishing within their ecclesial communities. Such an account would yield a practical Christian vision of democratic politics in Africa. Most importantly, a preview of the political conflicts in the ecclesial communities would underscore the derivative (hybrid) nature of the church as both an ethereal and mundane entity negotiating the ambiguities of fallenness and finitude, of vulnerability and intimacy. It would also help illustrate the real co-constitutive and regulative relationship the church has with the world. To my mind, such discourse is critical to avert essentialized notions of Christian identity and community.
Notwithstanding these omissions, Who Are My People? calls into question the pervasive idea that African Christian reflections on identity belong to a bygone era in African Christian theology. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Katongole has compellingly demonstrated that African theologians and the church must revisit the conversation on identity and the contours of Christian conversion to reimagine solutions to the continent’s perennial ecological and political challenges.
Jackson Nii Sabaah Adamah is a ThD student in theology and ethics at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.Jackson AdamahDate Of Review:September 29, 2023
Emmanuel Katongole is professor of theology and peace studies at the Kroc Institute, Keough School of Global Affairs, and Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame and Extraordinary Professor of Theology and Ecclesiology at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa. He is author of several books, including The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa and Born from Lament: The Theology and Politics of Hope in Africa.