Reflection on ‘Religion and Development in Africa’

This article examines the current focus of development enterprises in Africa, critiques these, and suggests alternative methods which incorporate religion.

The concept of human development has replaced the popularity of economic development in recent development practice. Human development emphasises aspects of people’s lives beyond the economic dimension, such as health and education. However, the authors note that economic growth and distribution of wealth remain central to development ideals and understandings.

The authors critique current development by stating that neither economic growth or state-building should be considered to be goals in themselves, that much development thinking has been too short-term and that the development enterprise has become complicated by the emergence of weak or ‘failing’ or ‘failed’ states.

A suggestion that the authors make for improving the efficacy of development enterprises is that the world of ideas of Africans, including religious ideas, need to be taken seriously. This means that policies ought to be modified to take account of traditional ideas rather than these policies simply imposing Western values and ideas on the people of Africa.

Religion is believed to be able to play a positive role in development in a number of areas. In terms of conflict prevention and peace building, it is thought that long-term reconciliation depends on religious notions of reconciliation and healing. Religious ideas can also play a role in wealth creation and production as they can influence people’s thinking on the legitimacy of wealth and on the moral value of saving or investing. The authors note that agriculture is a common means of income in many parts of Africa and suggest that it is important to integrate crucial elements of culture and religion associated with the prosperity of agricultural societies into agricultural policy. Regarding the governance of countries, it is thought that state and religious organisations ought to play a complementary role in order to effectively govern society and that religious groups should be instrumental in offering welfare. Religion is also believed to be important in health, education and the management of natural resources because traditional African religious ideas are used to understand healing and the relationships between people and their land.

Crucially the authors state that external developers need to form long-term relationships with members of religious and other networks and discuss with them what is required to develop African societies. They also note that African societies are not governable in the same manner or using the same techniques as other societies so Western officials need to change their mode of operation quite fundamentally.


Articles for Presentation on Western Media and African Religion



Liberia ritual killings warning


29 June 2005


The leader of Liberia’s transitional government, Gyude Bryant, has promised to use the death penalty against anyone found guilty of sacrificial killings.


During an address on state radio Mr Bryant said people were killing in the belief it would make them successful, rich, or the next president.


A BBC correspondent in Liberia says the number of ritual murders are growing.


Sacrifices have been reported in three of Liberia’s counties – the latest involving beheading and organ removal.


Election edge


“We’ll find you, we’ll arrest you, we’ll prosecute you and let me say again to everybody, if the judge passes down a ruling to say you must die by hanging, I will hang you,” Mr Bryant said. “I will sign the death warrant without batting my eye.”


The BBC’s Paul Welsh in Monrovia says that almost two years of peace in Liberia have done little to help ease the poverty in what is one of the world’s poorest nations.


Elections for the first president since Charles Taylor left the country are due in October, which, our correspondent says, is the likely reason for the increased number of ritual killings.

Human parts such as genital organs are believed to offer supernatural powers, especially by aspiring politicians and so the number of alleged ritual killing rises in the run-up to elections.

According to local media reports the latest such killing, which occurred in the northern Bong County, involved a female who was beheaded and had her genital organs removed.

“If you killed because you want to make a sacrifice to be president or senator, you fool yourself,” Mr Bryant said. “Stop ritualistic killings, it will not pay you anything, it will not make you rich, it will not give you jobs.”

In January extra United Nations peacekeepers had to be sent to south-eastern Liberia following violent protests over alleged ritual killings.



First, forget about witchcraft….

15 September 2013

By Celeste Hicks BBC News

The only psychiatrist working in the African country of Chad has his work cut out to convince patients their issues are medical, rather than spiritual.

The sign outside Dr Egip Bolsane’s surgery in the sleepy riverside district of Chagoua in the Chadian capital N’Djamena proclaims “the pioneer”.

Even by Dr Bolsane’s own account psychiatry was an unusual choice: it is not a discipline that many Chadians understand.

“Going to see a psychiatrist in Chad is a difficult thing for many people,” said Dr Bolsane, seated behind a sparse wooden desk with just a bunch of white plastic flowers in a gold vase as decoration.

“Public opinion here thinks that it means something is really wrong in your head, it might be because you’re possessed.

“We need to demystify the more or less diabolical image of psychiatry.”

A listless fan rotates erratically behind him and he wipes the sweat away from his face – Dr Bolsane himself is not in particularly good health and he can’t afford air conditioning.

Mental health problems are poorly understood by the majority of Chadians who tend to conceptualise illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia as having a spiritual, rather than a medical cause.

Many people believe in the existence of witchcraft and curses, and phrases such as having a “hot head” or persistent headaches are often euphemisms for much more serious problems.

Lack of education

It is easy to see people whose mental health issues have been left untreated, and whose families can no longer cope, living rough on the streets of the capital.

Dr Bolsane said one of the biggest obstacles to changing attitudes to mental health – and getting people to understand that it is an illness and not possession – is lack of education.

“Mental health issues are not talked about in society,” he said.

“I often find when people come to see me that they don’t know how to discuss their problems with anyone.”

Improving mental health services is not easy in Chad, a country which comes fourth from bottom in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Dr Bolsane receives no state support for his services, his clients often have trouble paying his modest fees and often drugs are not available.

Anyone wishing to study psychiatry still has to go to France.

“A country of 12 million people which has lived through many years of war has enormous need for psychiatric help” he said.

“But I’m just one person. There is no way I can satisfy the demand even though I feel every day I’m trying to help people.”

Civil wars

From the early 1980s until just a few years ago, Chad endured a seemingly unending succession of civil wars, rebellions and coups which have left many thousands of people traumatised.

Under the 1982-90 brutal dictatorship of Hissene Habre, who was recently indicted in Senegal on war crimes and crimes against humanity charges, some 40,000 people disappeared and many more thousands were tortured and imprisoned without charge.

Both rebel groups and the national army are known to have persistently used child soldiers.

Dr Bolsane believes this background helps to explain what he’s observed about the occurrence of certain illnesses.

“I have observed that cases of schizophrenia here are much more common that you would find elsewhere, and my theory is that it’s linked to what the country has gone through.”

He has also noticed unusually high numbers of cases of paranoia, possibly brought on by substance abuse, and stress within family relationships.

Very few of these people have ever received professional medical help.

In a country which is currently battling an outbreak of malaria with 14,0000 new cases over just a few weeks, where polio and measles are still very real threats to children, and where the under-five mortality rate is 169/1000 live births, it is easy to see how resources will not be directed at mental health issues.

Dr Bolsane is disappointed that the country’s new found oil wealth has not contributed more towards improving all aspects of health provision in Chad – the country has earned some $10bn from oil sales in the last 10 years but many of the country’s hospitals are still in a parlous state.

So how does he manage to find the motivation to continue?

“The human being is not a machine which can just be easily repaired.

“Trying to understand the full range of the human experience, how emotion links to health, is one of the most exciting and challenging things anyone can do,” he said, with a smile.



In pictures: Tanzania’s traditional healers

17 June 2013


Many people in Tanzania – and across Africa – consult traditional healers for everything from curing illness to good-luck charms. Government regulations and Western medicine may have changed some of their activities, but from herbalists to diviners, they have adapted and remain important figures. Photographer Sasja van Vechgel met some of them. Here a healer, in his eighties, holds a horn containing medicine; he practises from a “kitala”, a specially made village hut for dispensing medicine.


Both men and women can be healers, and they vary in age. The most highly respected tend to have been apprenticed to a healer in their family. This man, in his forties, says he specialises in the treatment of paralysis. He travels with his herbal medicine from home to home to visit patients. Sometimes he uses a private hospital room to treat people. Although there is no scientific proof that such treatments work, many people prefer traditional healers. There is a widely-held belief among the Wahehe people of southern Tanzania that sickness is caused by supernatural forces.


“Most of those who come to me have already been to hospital,” says the young healer above. “They have not managed to get a solution for their problems. Injections and medicine that were applied have not shown any effect, it only soothes, but it does not treat. If I treat them successfully they tell their friends. I do not have any advertising,” he says.


In northern Tanzania, some healers have said that charms, especially those to make people wealthy, are more powerful if they contain body parts from people with albinism, which has led to a criminal trade in body parts. The southern highlander healers say they never suggest this. However, there are reports that the killing of a relative on the orders of a healer can bring riches. For the Wahehe it is a taboo topic, but one man told us his wife was killed by his son at the bequest of “a wizard in order to become rich”. Here a child wears a waistband, sold for about $1, which is supposed to protect against “dege dege”, the fever associated with severe malaria.



Behrend, Heike 2003 “Photo Magic: Photographs in Practices of Healing and Harming in East Africa”, Journal of Religion in Africa 33(2): 129-145.

Behrend, Heike 2009 “‘To Make Strange Things Possible’: the Photomontages of the Bakor Photo Studio in Lamu, Kenya”, in Kimani Njogu and John Middleton (eds), Media and Identity in Africa. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John 1993 “Introduction”, in Jean Comaroff and John Comaroff (eds), Modernity and its Malcontent: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

De Witte, Marleen “Afrikania’s Dilemma: Reframing African Authenticity in a Christian Public Sphere”, Etnofoor 17(1/2): 133-155.

Hackett, Rosalind I.J. 2006 “Mediated Religion in South Africa: Balancing Airtime and Rights Claims”, in Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors (eds), Religion, Media and the Public Sphere, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Meyer, Birgit 2006 “Impossible Representations: Pentecostalism, Vision, and Video Technology in Ghana”, in Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors (eds), Religion, Media and the Public Sphere, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Meyer, Birgit and Moors, Annelies 2006 “Introduction”, in Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors (eds), Religion, Media and the Public Sphere, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Schultz, Dorothea E. 2006 “Morality, Community, Publicness: Shifting Terms of Public Debate in Mali”, in Birgit Meyer and Annelies Moors (eds), Religion, Media and the Public Sphere, Indiana: Indiana University Press.


Reflection on Introduction to ‘Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa’

‘Modernity and its Malcontents: Ritual and Power in Postcolonial Africa’ is a collection of essays by a number of anthropologists who focus on African societies. The introduction by Jean and John Comaroff introduces ideas that are explored in the essays and focus particularly on the concept of modernity and its impact on Africa, and also the relationship between modernity and rituals.

In terms of modernity, the Comaroffs assert that many early anthropologists thought that ‘modernizing social forces and material forms would have the universal effect of eroding local cultural differences’. However, conquered and colonized societies were not ‘made over in the European image’ but instead maintained their own identities. Despite colonizers’ attempts to give the local people European values and ideals, this was largely unsuccessful as the locals often continued with their own traditions, beliefs and ways of understanding the world. Therefore, it is evident that the world has not been reduced to sameness, but instead remains plural, with many cultural variations.

The concepts of modernity and colonization bring to mind the differences between the two countries I have lived in, Australia and England. Many people perceive these countries as having very similar cultures but there are subtle (and in some cases extreme) differences between the language, values, traditions and general way of life, even though Australia was colonized by England. So despite many people’s perceptions, in reality colonized English speaking countries are not all culturally equivalent. This raises questions about what shapes a society and their culture. Is it environment, or history, or something else?

The Comaroffs also touch on a concept popular in early anthropological thought, which is that of the evolutionary theory of societies. This is the idea that European societies started off ‘primitive’ but slowly evolved to become the advanced societies they are today, and that other societies, such as those in Africa, are not as far advanced. The authors state that this evolutionary concept has continued in most Western social thought and that modernity is considered to be ‘the terminus toward which non-Western peoples constantly edge—without ever arriving’. So, Western societies are thought to be modern, whereas ‘other’ societies are considered to be moving towards modernity but never quite reaching it.

Regarding ritual, this is seen as having an important role in African modernity as it features in the efforts of people to empower themselves, and to ‘assert a measure of control over worlds often perceived to be rapidly changing’. Ritual is viewed as a response to contradictions created by social, material and cultural transformations, which are processes involved in modernity.


Reflection on Lienhardt’s chapter from Divinity and Experience

In the introductory chapter of his book Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka, Godfrey Lienhardt examines the ways in which Dinka people understand human identity as related to cattle. He particularly focuses on the relationship between cattle and the Dinka’s social, political and environmental setting; linguistics; names; and relationship formation and maintenance.

Regarding environment, the seasonal variations in the Sudan where the Dinka reside mean that they are more fruitful as pastoralists than as agriculturalists. The Dinka people are materially dependent on cattle as their products constitute a large part of their diet and provide many essential household items. In terms of politics, political groups are spoken of in relation to the cattle-herding group or cattle-camp rather than the homestead, village or settlement. Therefore, cattle are important for the survival of the Dinka in their hostile environment and are integral in forming the political structure.

Cattle also provide a way for the Dinka to understand and relate to their world. Dinka link cattle with features of the natural and social environment through perceived similarities of colour and shading. In fact, children often understand certain phenomena solely in terms of the colour of cattle because they have never seen the phenomena before. For example, many children have never encountered a leopard, but they know about their spotty appearance because cattle with similar markings are given a name that relates to leopards. So, it is evident that Dinka people add to their experience of their world through cattle.

A way in which Dinka people identify with cattle is through cattle-names. Men are given metaphorical ox-names which do not refer to their personal appearance but are a means of praising them and providing them with self-esteem and standing in the community. In the UK and other cultures, referring to people in terms of animals, or animal characteristics, is often negative. For example, calling someone ‘a cow’ is seen as an insult. This shows the contrast between the importance of cattle in the UK, and in Dinkaland where cattle provide a means of forming and preserving certain relationships within communities.

The Dinka also view human beings and cattle as linked through quasi-legal transactions. In many contexts, cattle are regarded as interchangeable with humans so can be exchanged when a marriage is to take place, or to compensate for homicide or adultery. In terms of homicide, in the UK there is a fundamental principle that human life is sacrosanct and cannot be replaced. The only means of perceived justice is the confinement of the person responsible, which implies that humans are the only substitute for humans. This is contrary to Dinka belief where cattle, an important means of survival, are substitutable.

I understand the Dinka self-identification with cattle to result from the fact that cattle are integral in sustaining human life, as they provide food products and protection from the elements. Whilst the ability to grow food and live in certain places is made difficult by the environment, cattle herds remain a steady source of provisions. In the UK I do not feel that people have any comparable self-identification as there is no such single source for survival and comfort.


Reflection on Turner’s Chapter ‘Betwixt and Between’

In his chapter ‘Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage’, Victor Turner examines a class of ritual which Arnold van Gennep termed ‘rites de passage’. The rites constitute transitions between states, a ‘state’ here meaning a ‘relatively fixed or stable condition’. Van Gennep identified three phases in these rites: separation, margin (or limen) and aggregation. Turner focuses on the second phase, that of liminality. In the liminal period, the transitional-being is described by Turner as being ‘no longer classified and not yet classified’. That means they are not what they once were and not yet what they are going to be; they are between states.


The liminal period in many rituals is quite short, however, I believe that some liminal periods are never-ending. For me, becoming a migrant enters a person into a liminal stage where they remain ‘betwixt and between’. In my first year of anthropology I focused on migrants and the ways they attempt to counter displacement in their new environment. I discovered that migrants feel they belong to both their original and new country (and culture) and at the same time, neither. This accords with my own experience as a migrant. When I was six I moved from England to Australia, and now I have returned to study for a year it is clear that I am both English and Australian, but at the same time I am neither. The moving from one country to another represents the separation phase. Migrants are detached from their former country, fellow citizens, social structure and set of cultural conditions. Once in their new country migrants are in the liminal period, they are no longer a member of their original country and not yet a complete member of their new country. Whilst migrants may go through a process and ceremony to become a citizen of the new country, this does not truly enable them to become a fully-fledged member of the new society and culture, because they will always associate with, and feel a part of, their original culture. They are forever betwixt and between.


I also see similarities between university study and liminal periods. That is, university students are no longer school children, but are not yet fully developed adults with a set role in society. In England, there is also an aspect of separation for the university student, as they often choose to study away from their previous place of residence, where they were a member of society and a kinship group. The idea that university is a liminal period arose particularly when Turner was discussing the communication of instruction during the liminal phase. He found that such instruction teaches the transitional-being to ‘think with some degree of abstraction about their cultural milieu’. As anthropology students, we are being taught to step back from our cultural assumptions and understand other cultures, and our own culture, through unbiased eyes. I have also experienced this expectation of abstract thinking in all aspects of university study. It has been made clear since my arrival that University of Birmingham students are expected not to take things for granted, but to question and formulate unique ideas. Turner also states that transitional-beings return to society with ‘more alert faculties … and enhanced knowledge of how things work’ and that rituals are designed to ‘unite man and office’. Surely this is what a university is designed to do. It gives students knowledge and in many cases shapes them for a particular career. After graduation, students are considered ready to find their role in society. This represents the third phase of aggregation.

Therefore, there are a number of instances in our society where liminal periods are evident. They perhaps do not contain all of the symbolic elements that Turner outlined as being present in ritual liminality, but many of the characteristics are present.


Reflection on Mary Douglas’ chapter ‘If the Dogon…’ by Karina Dearden

Douglas starts by comparing the research techniques of French and British anthropologists. She notes that the French are best as literary and aesthetic investigation, whilst the English are more interested in primitive politics and kinship. This leads her to wonder whether the material we have on the Dogon, studied by the French, and the Nuer, studied by English Evans-Pritchard, would be different if anthropologists from the other culture had conducted research with them, or if a fusion of British and French techniques had been adopted. This suggests that there is not one method of study involved in anthropology and that different techniques can garner different understandings of the same culture.


In terms of Dogon beliefs, they consider their universe to be divided between Nommo and Yourougou (the Pale Fox). They consider Nommo to be a heavenly power which represents right, reason, society, ritual, order and formal appearances, whereas the Pale Fox represents enigma and disorder. However, truth, that is, speech which predicts the future and sifts the truth from lies, is associated with the Fox, which Douglas believes to mean they recognize that oracular truth is beyond formal appearances.


This reading makes me think about where the expression ‘as sly as a fox’ came from and when it arose in ‘Western’ culture. Sly means secretive or furtive, and this is often how foxes are portrayed in literature. I thought that the idea that foxes are sly was universal due to their hunting and luring tactics, but it appears that the Dogon believe foxes have different characteristics. Whilst the Pale Fox may be considered to be an unsavoury character due to his incest with his mother, foxes, rather than being seen as furtive, are considered to be able to divine the truth and reveal this to men. This is a distinction between Dogon and ‘Western’ beliefs.


Throughout the paper Douglas strives to defend British anthropology which has been repeatedly criticised over the years. Whilst the British are often seen to simply record informants’ views, Douglas states that what they are actually doing is building up information from which they can find truth and reasoning. That is, the truths that they are seeking to reveal are not known to the informants themselves. To me, this suggests that it would be most difficult to study one’s own society as growing up in it and being surrounded by it means one cannot separate one’s self from it in order to observe and divine reasoning. It would mean having to shed many assumptions and taken-for-granted understandings held since birth.


The idea that anthropologists are seeking to reveal truths that are unknown to the people studied makes me question the role of anthropology. If certain societies are content living their lives as they do, why does it matter how others interpret their behaviours, language or social structure? What benefit can the studiers or studied gain from anthropological research? Is it merely for the benefit of the studiers, to understand that their way is not the only way and to attempt to appreciate the differences across societies? Or is it simply to gain knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Perhaps it is a method of building relationships and assisting in communication between vastly different social groups. I know that anthropologists have recently been employed in Australia to assist in legal disputes relating to construction in places sacred to native Aboriginal people. However, from reading the works of early anthropologists I am not convinced that relationships and communication have always been the purpose of the discipline. This suggests that it has the ability to evolve, just like societies.