Religions in Contemporary Africa

An Introduction

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Laura Grillo, Adriaan van Klinken, Hassan Ndzovu
  • New York, NY: 
    , April
     244 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The authors of this introductory book, Religions in Contemporary Africa, wrote it, as we learn from the introduction, to enhance scholarly attention and understanding of religions in African from a contemporary perspective and to better educate students on the subject, both in Africa and abroad. The book starts from an interesting premise: We cannot understand “religion” without taking into account African religions, and we cannot understand “Africa” without a proper understanding of the role of religion on the continent.

To help the reader understand both “Africa” and “religion,” the main focus in the book is on the three religions that the authors are most interested in: Christianity (van Klinken’s specialty), Islam (Ndzovu’s interest) and African indigenous religions (Grillo’s main subject area). All three authors are schooled in religious studies and African studies, of which the interdisciplinary features are clearly visible throughout the book. Taking these interests and focuses together, the book offers a splendid teaching tool for undergraduate courses on religion, Africa, and/or African religions.

The book is in two sections. In the first part, the main religions of Africa are elaborated on: African indigenous religions, Islam, and Christianity. In six chapters, the three religions are described from historical and contemporary outlooks. Throughout the chapters one can clearly detect the authors’ functional approach to religion: instead of focusing on what religion is (thereby engaging with centuries long discussions on this exact question), the authors focus on what religion does in the African societies under study. The main point about this section is that the religions are not separate entities, working on their own, but are very much in contact, conversation, and sometimes conflict with each other. Additionally, this is done on an equal basis: even though often assumed as such, indigenous religions are not treated in the book as “lesser than” or “unequal to” the Christian and Islamic monotheistic “world” religions.

The second section of the book, entitled “Topical Issues of Religions in Africa,” looks at contemporary issues in Africa (mainly sub-Saharan Africa) and relates these issues to religion in general. The topics chosen are obvious, as they are topics often discussed in contemporary Africa debates. They include witchcraft and modernity, power and politics, conflict and peace-building, development, human rights, illness and health, gender, sexuality, and media and popular culture. The authors want us to understand that religion is very much entwined with all spheres of life and should be studied as such.

The choice of topics might at first seem unsurprising, perhaps even a bit unprovocative and uninspiring. Topics that are less obvious in the study of Africa could have made the book more interesting. An example might be new religions coming to Africa, such as Buddhism. Also, while the presence of China in Africa is shortly mentioned in the introduction, the topic is not expanded on more broadly, even though it is a contemporary topic.

At the same time, the choice of topics makes the book perfect for its intended audience, namely undergraduate students of different departments (ranging from religious and African studies to gender and development studies). For them, the book offers an insightful, detailed and in-depth elaboration on topics that are both “close to home,” yet far away. Choosing topics and religions that mirror the life-worlds of these students seems to be the best practice for the book’s intention, and in this way the best way to describe and analyze religions in Africa. Having said that, a book that is based around contemporary topics becomes “old” sooner rather than later, and I hope that the authors will keep updating the book as time progresses.

The chapters are textbook style, and offer many useful examples, references, and links. Each chapter is well written in a clear and non-convoluted voice, without forgetting details. There are short textboxes (called “features”) with on-the-ground examples. Each chapter includes a few pictures, and ends with a short list of questions that can be used for classroom discussions. The reference lists not only contain the academic sources mentioned in the chapters but also further recommended readings that students can use to delve deeper into their subjects of preference. What is lacking in the book, in my view, is color. Pictures, textboxes, and other items are printed in black-and-white. This makes the book look a bit boring from the outset. A book printed in color might have given a better first impression.

Going back to the start: The authors indicated we can only understand “religion” and “Africa” if we bring the two subjects together. What does the book teach us about those two topics? We learn that religion is complex and constantly changing, a key feature to understanding the whole of society because of its intertwining nature with other spheres of life, We also learn that our understanding of ‘religion’ is still very much based on a Western construct which needs to be nuanced based on empirical findings in places outside the “West.” Regarding Africa, we learn that a focus on religion illustrates the postcolonial character of the continent, as well as the economic development and structural issues the continent faces (one of the reasons why neo-traditional religious groups, Pentecostalism, and reformist Islamic movements gain ground). For religious studies scholars and/or African scholars, these insights are of course nothing new. They do contain, however, messages that need to continuously be reemphasized to undergraduate students.

In the introduction, the authors provide a few lines of inquiry in which they allude to the many debates that are not covered in the book. It shows their knowledge and understanding of the vast landscape of studying religion in Africa, of which only a small part has been represented in the book. For scholars more advanced in the study of religion and/or African studies, the book might offer good insights into contemporary debates, but might not bring much analytical insight However, for its intended audience the book is a wonderful, detailed, and well-written textbook.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mariske Westendorp is an Anthropologist and Religious Studies Scholar.

Date of Review: 
August 26, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Laura S. Grillo is Affiliated Faculty at Georgetown University.

Adriaan van Klinken is Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at the University of Leeds.

Hassan J. Ndzovu is Senior Lecturer of Religious Studies at Moi University.



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