The Role of Religion in Development – Haar and Ellis

Before this week’s African Religion & Ritual lecture I read Haar and Ellis’ article “The Role of Religion in Development: Towards a new relationship between the European Union and Africa”. The article focused on the interesting subject of how religion in Africa can be used to its benefit in terms of development. As western/more developed countries move toward a more secular society, African countries stay very attached to religion and do not seek to rid themselves of it. 

The classical theories of development do not include or pay attention to religion due to the fact it is not considered to be relevant, a sentiment also held by the European Union, this may have worked for western counties with their more secular societies, though may not for Africa. 

An example I found rather interesting was on the subject of conflict. Conflict prevention usually tries to take some level of religion into account when dealing with such a situation, though religion is never usually incorporated into international organisation’s initiatives. Nonetheless, in Africa religious leaders have a very high level of authority which allows them such power as to help end conflict as well as continue/start it.


Religion, Media and the Public Sphere – Meyer & Moors

In preparation for the groups presenting this week on Religion and the Media, I read some chapters from Meyer and Moors’ “Religion, Media and Public Sphere” (2005). Personally, having never studied politics I found the reading quite challenging and difficult to get my head around as a link to politics was made throughout the articles. From the introduction, the articles show how different forms of media, including cassette tapes, radio, video, television and the internet, are used within religious groups to spread their messages. I particularly liked the inclusion of “The Passion of Christ” by Mel Gibson as an example of the integration of religion into the Hollywood film industry as a form of media on a grand scale. It seems as though in different African countries, some forms of media are more widely used than others, for example in Ghana and Nigeria it seems as though Pentecostal movies seem particularly popular. No matter which forms of media are preferred, it is clear that media has provided a vehicle for the nation-wide and even world-wide spread of religious beliefs and politics.

In the “Public Piety and Popular Media in Egypt” article focus is placed on cassette-are corded Islamic sermons which have become a part of society’s canvas – they’re played everywhere from butcher’s shops to most forms of public transportation. This is interesting as this is not something commonly seen in the UK, although it is a historically Christian country is have become very secular and it seems as though there are always disputes over one being too obvious about one’s religion such that a phenomenon such as the widespread of cassette playing would never be something that would find footing in the UK.

The “Shifting Terms of Public Debate in Mali” article describes how since 1991, following “economic liberalisation and the introduction of multiparty democracy” there has been a surge in media and religious and political groups. In Mali, Muslim actors use a number of media forms to spread the Islamic message and enter into public debates.

The reading goes to show how different areas in Africa employ media to spread a religious message and how this ties in to politics. 


Lienhardt’s ‘Divinity and Experience”.

In preparation for next week’s African Religion and Ritual lecture I read chapters one and four of Godfrey Lienhardt’s “Divinity and Experience”. The chapters focus on the Dinka people, some 900,000 individuals, who reside in the Sudan. The Dinka are spread over a large area though they are very much one community though their dialects may vary from area to area. In the first chapter, Lienhardt describes the Dinka culture and how it relates to the properties of the land they live on, though I had a lot of trouble understanding the chapter on divinity as their beliefs and rules are very complex with many layers.


The Dinka place huge amounts of importance on cattle and they play an integral role in their day-to-day lives. Although, nowadays the Dinka tend to import metal and beads these items don’t tend to outlast a generation and the only recognised wealth that can be inherited is cattle/livestock. Cattle provides a range of products for the Dinka – aside from the obvious milk and eventual beef, when the cows die either naturally or from being sacrificed their skin can be used as hides to sleep under and as rope. Cattle urine can be used to disinfect milk and dried cow dung is used to repel insects.


Cattle are also central to the Dinka’s religion as they are used for sacrifices, though the importance of cattle in the Dinka’s lives is really emphasised by the fact that the names give to cattle depending on the “colouring and shading” of the cow can be used as personal names for both men and women. The cattle thought of so highly in the Dinka community that those who kill cattle purely just for meat are looked down upon and it is believed that the the cow will haunt whoever slaughtered it, though in order to appease the ghost of the beast one may call their next child the beast’s name.

 In conclusion, it was interesting to see the vats importance that the Dinka place on cattle in their society though I found it very difficult to keep up with Lienhardt when it came to chapter 4 on the divinity of the Dinka. 


Paul Spencer, “Becoming Maasai, Being in Time”.

In “Becoming Maasai, Being in Time”, Spencer emphasises the strict and rigid stages one must go through in order to be a part of the Maasai and the importance that time plays in these stages. The image of a Maasai is one that is achieved through defined rituals and is passed on through generations to ensure the Maasai community lives on.


I found the article quite difficult to follow, especially when Spencer was explaining about men becoming Maasai, likening the prolonged stage of adolescence (which extends into their twenties) in the Maasai society, the Murranhood, to a barber’s pole and stressing the difference between age-sets and age grades. For a man, becoming a Maasai is a process, which involves many stages but a certain importance is placed on the Murranhood as the pinnacle of being a Maasai man. It is in Murranhood that a man is at his physical peak and can dress his most lavish; the elders look upon this stage both with fondness and jealousy. With regards to the ceremonies the men must go through, Spencer seems to regard these as more of a formality as they often result in conflict and less people turn up to spectate than expected. Though these rituals and ceremonies are important for all Maasai in all areas – the northern Massai, the Keekonyokie, begin the inauguration of new Murrans and no other tribes of Maasai can begin their inaugurations until the Keekonyokie have done so.  The synchronisation of rituals across the Maasai, unites them as one people across all tribes and areas. Once a man “graduates” from his Murranhood into being an elder his power which is regarded as physical during his extended adolescence is transferred into political power, and the elders are expected to live a more inconspicuous, less-lavish lifestyle.


Women, much like the rest of Maasai society, look fondly upon the Murran, and assume their role as spectators of this time period. Women are involved in Murranhood as girls who dance as part of the ceremonies, lovers to the Murran and as mothers who look proudly upon their Murran boys. The main function of a woman in Maasai society is to continue the existence of the community through child birth of more “to be” Maasai, if she is unable to do this, she is thought less of as a woman and less of as a member of the Maasai.


The Maasai is such a tight-knit community with such stringent rules as to what determines a member of the Maasai, nevertheless it is possible to integrate into the society as an outsider. As long as the outsider builds up his own herd, marries a Maasai woman and lives as a Maasai member, he will only be partially assimilated into the community, though it is possible for his children to be thought of a fully Maasai provided they live among Maasai and go through the appropriate stages in life in order to become fully assimilated. I found it very interesting to learn that it was possible for an outsider to become Maasai, I assumed with such rigid rules on what makes a Maasai, it would be extremely difficult for an outsider to assimilate. 


Nadel’s “Witchcraft in four African Societies”.

In preparation for next week’s lecture on Witchcraft, I chose to read S.F.Nadel’s article “Witchcraft in four African Societies”, from Witchcraft and Sorcery (1970). The article seeks to compare two pairs of communities and their views/beliefs of witchcraft, the Nupe and Gwari in Northern Nigeria and the Korongo and Mesakin in Central Sudan. I found this article particularly interesting, due to the differences in beliefs (or non-belief) between the communities although they are very similar in terms of religion, language and general environment.
The Nupe and Gwari communities are neighbours, sharing very similar characteristics including the succession both societies being patrilineal. They both believe in witchcraft, the fact that it is “evil” and that most of it takes place in a fantasy realm though differences do lie between the societies which prove to be very interesting. The Nupe society believes all witches are women, which is, in general how ‘western, witches are portrayed, echoed by Hollywood and cinema. The Nupe examples of witchcraft tend to involve a young man who is influenced by an older woman who happens to be a witch and places bad fortune onto the young man. On the other hand, the Gwari community believed witches can be either sex. I find it particularly interesting that in the Nupe community, the women tend to be he breadwinners, with the men being dominated in the society, I wonder if the belief of all witches being female has some link to this.
The Korongo and Mesakin societies of Central Sudan also share cultural similarities, which include the fact that children at the age of 6/7 can choose to leave their father’s house and live with their uncle. What is particularly interesting about these two very similar communities is that whilst the Mesakin community believes very deeply in the existence of witchcraft, the Korongo society has no such beliefs of witchcraft. In the Korongo society the anticipated inheritance from the uncle to the child is never refused, nevertheless, in the Mesakin community anticipated inheritance is often disputed which is explained by witchcraft. In this case it seems as though witchcraft is used to account for the disputes in the Mesakin community surrounding inheritance, which are not present in the Korongo society.
It seems as though in the cases in which the community believes in witchcraft, this may have been to explain certain misfortunes and situations, though Nadel suggests the same explanation, enforcing it by mentioning the Korongo, which doesn’t believe in witchcraft, has an elaborate and explicit mythology to explain all situations. Nevertheless Nadel also writes that there do exist some communities which believe in witchcraft and also have a mythological system, so this suggestion may not be valid for these communities. In which case there are very likely to be outside factors or events in history which have lead to the adoption of a belief in witchcraft in the community.