Gesture and Power

Religion, Nationalism, and Everyday Performance in Congo

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Yolanda Covington-Ward
Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Yolanda Covington-Ward has rightly constructed a remarkable book that seeks to provide valuable insight on the dynamics of power, nationalism, religion, and performances in Congo. In Gestures and Power, religion and politics are themes around which debates evolve among all. Religion is not only inextricably linked with daily life in Africa but is also a controversial topic. J. S. Mbiti’s assertion that “Africans being notoriously religious and carrying religion everywhere” (African Religions & Philosophy, Harcourt Education, 1969) offers valuable clues as to how religion dovetails into other dimensions of life, in spite of the claims that African nations are secular states. One intriguing point that the author brings out is the use of religion in fostering national identities and ideologies in most post-colonial African nations (140). Religion functions like a “state scripted nationalism,” as posited by Jay Straker and exhibited by the new postcolonial governments—directly or indirectly—on their populations to affect their minds and performed through the use of the indigenization of political and economic structures, cultural nationalism, and nativism (140).

Another interesting point noted in Covington-Ward’s book is the contrast of the revitalization of indigenous religions and politics in modern Africa. The leaders of the Bundu dia Kongo movement “try to wed a new religion and revitalization of traditional culture with strategies to capture political power and representation” (3), just as had been done in the immediate, postcolonial African nations in the 1960s. And like their counterparts in other African countries such as Ghana who try to garner political will by claiming belongingness, or aligning their religious faith with foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam to ascend to power. This, I argue, speaks to the debate on “blackness” and “whiteness” regarding judgment in Africa, with black representing the indigenous religious traditions and white representing Christianity. While some voices posit that white is good and black represents bad in all instances, we see a reverse of this thinking in Covington-Ward’s work; where some Africans see their indigenous traditions as positive and use it in the pursuit of their political agenda (2).

The interplay of local religious politics in Africa with the black diaspora religious politics is also captured by Covington-Ward, through the weaving of the local beliefs of the people into her field data. For instance, Covington-Ward was perceived as the religious leader Tata Simon Kimbangu’s “prophecy come true” by the Luozi people (38). According to the prophesy, “Black Americans would come back to Congo to help liberate it, and also teach Congolese all the technical knowledge and skills they needed to be more successful than their colonial oppressors” (39). Being African American, the people interpreted Covington-Ward’s presence as an indication of the prophecy come true. Though local, this prophecy, was somewhat rooted in the larger diaspora religious politics spearheaded by Marcus Garvey, who Kimbanguist saw as the “King of the Americans” (40). Clearly, this epitomizes Garvey’s Pan Africanist ideas spreading throughout diasporic Africans as well as among Africans back home at that time.

Performance is an element Covington-Ward also stresses on throughout her work. She highlights performances of activities such as religion, culture, and politics throughout Gestures and Power. Covington-Ward cleverly massages the performance theory to make academic sense of the raw data. But the performance data failed as she tries to pull that card of a privileged American (57). This points to what Edward Schieffelin said about the burden of uncertainty on the performer. Schieffelin reminds us that performance is “inherently a contingent process … inherently interactive, and fundamentally risky” (Problematizing Performance in Ritual, Performance Media, 1998). The ultimate aim of a performer is to succeed and not to fail, as in the case of Covington-Ward and other performers. The sense here is that failure is possible as much as is success in a performative arena. 

Covington-Ward’s take on “consciousness and intentions” of performances leaves more to be desired (5). I agree with her use of John Searle’s scientific explanation of “humans and certain animals” in relation to consciousness and intentions (7), but the question of how one can affirm the consciousness or intention of a spirit-possessed indigenous priest or priestess who acts and performs activities in their possessed state of something abhorred in their normal life—such as smoking, drinking alcohol excessively, and not being drunk or even suspending in the sky—remains to be fully addressed. Would one term these as being conscious, or intentional, or unconscious? Can one affirm or deny their state of mind?

The author’s use of “performance” is valuable, as it will encourage scholars who research in such fields to pay attention to mundane and sacred activities, which were otherwise ignored. I think this book is a great contribution as it deals with so many delicate themes, expertly woven together. It will serve religious studies scholars, anthropologists, political scientists, and the broader social sciences field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Genevieve Nrenzah is lecturer in African traditional religion, contemporary theologies, and theologians and Christian ethics at the Christ Apostoltic University College, Kumasi-Ghana.

Date of Review: 
October 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Yolanda Covington-Ward is Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.



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