Religion and Poverty: Pan-African Perspectives

Religion and Poverty: Pan-African Perspectives

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A Ghanaian scholar of religion argues that poverty is a particularly complex subject in traditional African cultures, where holistic worldviews unite life’s material and spiritual dimensions. A South African ethicist examines informal economies in Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, and South Africa, looking at their ideological roots, social organization, and vulnerability to global capital. African American theologians offer ethnographic accounts of empowering religious rituals performed in churches in the United States, Jamaica, and South Africa. This important collection brings together these and other Pan-African perspectives on religion and poverty in Africa and the African diaspora.

Contributors from Africa and North America explore poverty’s roots and effects, the ways that experiences and understandings of deprivation are shaped by religion, and the capacity and limitations of religion as a means of alleviating poverty. As part of a collaborative project, the contributors visited Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, as well as Jamaica and the United States. In each location, they met with clergy, scholars, government representatives, and NGO workers, and they examined how religious groups and community organizations address poverty. Their essays complement one another. Some focus on poverty, some on religion, others on their intersection, and still others on social change. A Jamaican scholar of gender studies decries the feminization of poverty, while a Nigerian ethicist and lawyer argues that the protection of human rights must factor into efforts to overcome poverty. A church historian from Togo examines the idea of poverty as a moral virtue and its repercussions in Africa, and a Tanzanian theologian and priest analyzes ujamaa, an African philosophy of community and social change. Taken together, the volume’s essays create a discourse of mutual understanding across linguistic, religious, ethnic, and national boundaries.

Contributors. Elizabeth Amoah, Kossi A. Ayedze, Barbara Bailey, Katie G. Cannon, Noel Erskine, Dwight N. Hopkins, Simeon O. Ilesanmi, Laurenti Magesa, Madipoane Masenya, Takatso A. Mofokeng, Esther M. Mombo, Nyambura J. Njoroge, Jacob Olupona, Peter J. Paris, Anthony B. Pinn, Linda E. Thomas, Lewin L. Williams

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822392309
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 11/25/2009
Series: e-Duke books scholarly collection.
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Peter J. Paris is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Professor of Christian Social Ethics Emeritus at the Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of Virtues and Values: The African and African American Experience, The History of the Riverside Church in the City of New York, and The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse. Jacob Olupona is Professor of African Religious Traditions at the Harvard Divinity School.

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Pan-African Perspectives

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4356-1

Chapter One


In this essay, I look at the religious, economic, and moral issues concerning West Africa's participation in the buying and selling of other Africans to work as slaves in the economies of the New World. Most scholars who study the transatlantic slave trade talk about quantitative numbers and business transactions without any mention of the ethical complexities that characterize the quality of African life that was lost during four hundred years of slavery. Due to the slave trade, all kinds of divisions were taking place. One of the most basic was the gradual disestablishment of the transference of skills when the traditional exchange of mutual obligations between the elders and youth was disrupted, which in turn drained the profitability and energy of particular African industries. It is a central component of my argument that Ghana's descent from being the Gold Coast to becoming the Slave Coast is a foundational paradigm for exploring the multiple connections between religion and poverty in Africa and the African diaspora.

I will draw extensively on a lecture, "The Slave Trade and Its Continuing Impact on Ghana," by Dr. Akosia Makola (a pseudonym), in which she tells the story of Ghana's willingness to profit from the capture of massive numbers of women, men, and children who were sold as chattel property. A professionally trained historian, Dr. Makola begins her lecture with the following observation: "Ghana's participation in the transatlantic slave trade (1520-1860) is not a topic for tea." She describes how she is often greeted with fear and hostility for challenging African politicians and journalists, who find it financially lucrative to jump on the more typical slave-export bandwagon. Most investigators of slavery in the Americas are familiar with enslavers who were Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, and British, but Makola's claim of Ghana's willingness to sell other Africans as slaves almost always earns her harsh criticism. She asserts, "As a person I am always in trouble with myself, because I must weigh how I present the facts so that I don't get in trouble with my people, and at the same time, I wrestle with presenting the materials so that I don't fall out with historians who will write me off as a charlatan."

The constant critique of her work creates this never-ending dilemma because, as a historian, she is compelled to present careful research and close reading of primary sources regarding the Ghanaian slave trade; and at the same time she is, as she notes, pitted against politicians and journalists who receive some gain for discussing Africans as enslavers, but who are easily forgiven for misleading impressions, half-truths, and unsubstantiated comments because they are not expected to have access to all the historical data. But we, the general public, consider historians obligated to present a systematic treatment of the information on record.

In order to explain the original texts of a wide variety of documents, Makola learned Danish and other languages. Aware of both the possibilities and pitfalls of this type of interpretative methodology, she then cross-checks the historical data in the Danish texts against British records and multiple Ghanaian rituals, festivals, and traditions. She pieces together a huge puzzle of Ghana's social history during the slave trade by drawing on correspondence between slave traders in the noble households of Europe, studying mundane details recorded in business transactions, especially bills of sale, culling legal petitions, and evaluating epigraphic evidence. She says, "When I was young, I used to travel to Denmark and read letters about slavery. And, I would come out of the archives so depressed with the materials I was reading. Imagine that you are twenty-one or twenty-two years old, and you are reading letters that were not meant for your eyes. The letters were written from European heads of state and sent to other European leaders, so they could really let themselves go. They used all kinds of foul language describing what they really thought about us."

Makola then interpolates these written texts with philosophical wisdom from the Ghanaian oral tradition. Invoking a Ghanaian proverb as an organizing principle in this scholarly endeavor, she argues persuasively that suffering exists on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean: "My child is dead and you are calling me a witch." "It was a heart-wrenching loss of African sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, and children. How sad it was for numerous loving relatives left behind. There is suffering on both sides of the ocean. So, if my child is dead, why are you accusing me of witchcraft? Unless you can unravel history and clearly delineate all of the culprits and all of the victims, then you may end up accusing the wrong person for the crime of slavery."

Especially given the growing demand by African Americans for reparation, payment for the grievous crimes committed against black people and the incalculable damage they have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of nearly 250 years of chattel slavery and one hundred years of legalized racial discrimination, Makola maintains that the pressure is increasing for Africans to admit that they sold their own people into slavery. "Africans in the Diaspora should never think that your parents sold you into slavery. Someone stronger than your parents enslaved Africans. We may be of the same color, but African raiders and traders did not think of themselves as Black against Black selling their own." They thought of themselves as Abos people in the Cameroon; Conia people in Senegal; Kabiye people in Togoland; Gango and Mandingo people in Sierra Leone; Ibos, Nagaas, and Yoruba people in Nigeria; Pombo people in the Congo; Akan, Coromatin, Ashanti, and Wassa people in the Gold Coast. Anyone outside one's own people group was considered the enemy, fair game in procuring captives for the slave trade.

Whatever side of the reparation dispute one is on, or even if one is not invested on either side of the debt that America owes to Africans and African Americans, Ghana's participation in the transatlantic slave trade is worth paying attention to because the trafficking of millions of Africans to the Americas is one of the most dynamic influences in the life of the country, challenging both age-old religious customs and socioeconomic-ethical systems.

Age-Old Religious Topography

One of the most significant keys to mapping the transatlantic slave trade is the role of religion. The first things to note are religiously based initiatives on the part of European leaders. During this historical period the feudal states of European countries were beginning to unite and major religious wars were being fought between Christians and Muslims, especially Moors.

Religion was also key in motivating Prince Henry, later called "the Navigator" (1394-1460), governor of the Algarve and administrator of the Order of Christ, to send men from Portugal down the west coast of Africa in search of the limits to the Muslim world, in order to halt the Islamization of West Africa. Some of the Portuguese Christians who traveled to Ghana in the fifteenth century were trying to find the legendary Christian empire of the fabled priest-king Prester John. Legends of Prester John's devout Christian-ruled kingdom, which was strategically placed in Ethiopia to ward off Islamic influence, began to circulate in twelfth-century Europe. His persona, along with the image of Ethiopia as an awe-inspiring, much desired ally that was both peaceful and united, and inhabited by exotic animals and people, combined to create an image of Ethiopia that caught the minds of Europeans and prompted them to covet African resources.

Religion did not motivate only the Europeans. It is also a key to understanding what was happening in Ghana during the era of the slave trade. The Ghanaian people are intimately influenced by traditional African religion and bound to ethical principles inherent in rituals, festivals, and oracle traditions that permeate the culture. It is not an exaggeration to say that West African oracles about spirit shrines represent specific beliefs. Spirit shrines were places where worshippers made prayerful requests for health, engaged in rituals of purification, mediated disputes, and greeted shrine spirits important to one's own household. For these reasons, shrine space was known as a sacred free zone. If women, men, and children captured in raids, marching in coffle caravans to the slave marketing centers on the coast, ran away to spirit shrines, they were declared free.

Admittedly, in order to make the point that the moral fabric was weakening, let us look at how religious shrines lost their significance due to the slave trade. According to old rules, traditional loyalty and customs, once targeted captives managed to reach the sacred ground of a spirit shrine, they could no longer be pursued as booty. This greatly handicapped slave-trading operations. The fact that slave raiders and trackers could not seize runaways once they reached the shrines converted shrines into havens of refuge. Slaves who became runaways, seeking sanctuary and security at the religious shrines, ended up in a lifetime of servitude to the priests and elders. They exchanged one form of slavery for another that was safer and supposedly more salvific.

Eventually, with the shift from small-scale mercantilist endeavors to large-scale ones, private traders of Europe, along with their armed African kidnappers who profited from the slave trade, realized that too many of the captured people were running away, seeking protection at spirit shrines, so the slave-raiding forces violently and brutally attacked the shrines. Driven by the motivation of profit, the raiders and trackers saw nothing reprehensible in violating sacred asylum space.

Makola argues that the breakdown of interpersonal relationships is of major importance. Families were broken apart. "The numbers of Africans who were enslaved, you can find in lots of books. Some people are saying at least ten million Africans were enslaved. Others say forty million. I haven't mentioned a lot about the depopulation of Africa because you can find those facts elsewhere. However, there is still too little evidence for what I am interested in, not the quantity of people enslaved, but the quality of life that was lost." Cooperation and reciprocity between neighboring states could no longer be taken for granted. Fear mounted between coastal people and people inland that created a dependency upon the Europeans for military protection in the castles and forts. That families were divided and hostility developed between neighbor states is scarcely a new or startling point, and will probably seem obvious to any one who studies slave societies, but what has often been overlooked by the traditionalist leanings of many scholars is how the slave trade perverted Ghana's religious principles and ethical practices.

In an illuminating translation by Makola of a document published in Denmark in 1750, there is much talk about the erosion of moral values in Ghana. "Our people could not read and write, but fortunately, in 1738 a Ghanaian man on the coast gave this opinion to one of the European officers, and this is what he recorded":

It is you, you whites they say, who have brought all of this evil among us. Would we have sold each other, if you had not come to us as buyers?

The desire we have for your enticing goods and brandy has brought distrust between brothers and friends. So, alcohol has been a great enemy of mankind, since time immemorial-yes, even between father and son.

From our fathers, we knew in the past that anyone guilty of malpractice, who had committed murder twice, was stoned or drowned. Otherwise, the punishment for ordinary misdeeds was that the culprit should carry to the offended party's hut or house a big log of firewood for two or three consecutive days and beg him for forgiveness on his knees.

We used to know thousands of families here and there on the coast in our youth. But now, we can hardly count a hundred individuals. That's depopulation. And the worst part is that you have become a necessary evil among us. For if you were to leave now, the Blacks up-country would allow us to live for a half-of-a-year, and then they would come and kill us, with our wives and children. And they bear this hatred because of you.

A disastrous consequence of the slave trade, and its corollary of slave raids, was a major shift of emphasis from forgiveness to punishment. The spirit of reconciliation, which had been a cardinal principle in traditional communal relationships, was replaced with seriously aggravated vindictiveness. Even though the power brokers in the transatlantic slave trade neglected some regions of Ghana in favor of other, more productive ones, no part of the country remained untouched.

Another religion-related point that emerges from Makola's study is the fact that although African religion supposedly did not affect the lives of Europeans, when the Europeans got sick, the Africans took care of them. Local African healers used their accumulated plant knowledge of millennia to cure all types of ailments, including those of Europeans. Records show numerous transactions of Europeans paying African priests and medicine men for services rendered. Some of the best-known evidence for this is the numerous African talismans, charms, and amulets found hidden under the beds of European governors upon their death. The factual dynamics and their practical implications can be assessed in this way: "The African belief system directly impacted the Europeans. However, the Europeans wouldn't dare come out openly and say so, because they were busy saying to the folks back home that the Africans were sub-species in order to justify slavery. Even when you read books about how Africans were primitive, barbaric, etc., you cannot say accurately, nor correctly accuse the Africans of not knowing God" (Makola).

The historian Barry Boubacar has noted that, "beginning in the second half of the seventeenth century, the development of sugar cane, cotton, and tobacco plantations in the New World led to an expansion of the slave trade. So from the eighteenth century to the first half of the nineteenth, slave trading became the center of Europe's trade with Africa.... In this slaving era, the continent of Africa went through one of the most massive processes of human transportation ever to have taken place by sea." With the increase of external demand for wealth, more and more Africans were taken from Ghana to Spain and Portugal, especially Lisbon and Porto. Interestingly, it became fashionable for "exotic" Africans not only to work on farms, docks, and plantations but also to serve in the courts of the Iberian aristocracy. Perhaps the most remarkable shift in the Mediterranean world, beginning in 1501, is not the striking difference in the physiology of Africans and Europeans, but the awareness that African people could be differentiated from others according to their robust stature, hard work, and capacity to endure the chains of toil better than American Indians. Makola points out that it may sound surprising or far-fetched, but it was a reverend priest, Luis Rivera Pagan, who suggested that the Europeans should take Africans as human cargo to do the work in the New World in order to save the Amerindians, who were said to have had neither the numbers, the skills, nor the discipline to provide forced labor. (Continues...)

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Table of Contents

Foreword / Jacob Olupona ix

Acknowledgments xxi

Introduction / Peter J. Paris 1

Part 1. The Roots and Impact of Poverty

An Ethical Mapping of the Transatlantic Slave Trade / Katie G. Cannon 19

Feminization of Poverty Across Pan-African Societies: the Church's Response—Alleviative or Emancipatory / Barbara Bailey 39

Part 2. Challenges of the Global and Informal Economices

The Informal Economy and the Religion of Global Cities / Takatso A. Mofokeng 69

A Theological Perspective on the Effects of Globalization on Poverty in Pan-African Contexts / Lewin L. Williams 88

Part 3. Religious Strategies for Liberating the Poor

African Traditional Religion and the Concept of Poverty / Elizabeth Amoah 111

Religion and Poverty: Ritual and Empowerment in Africa and the African Diaspora / Linda E. Thomas and Dwight N. Hopkins 128

The Bible and Poverty in African Pentecostal Christianity: The Bosadi (Womanhood) Approach / Madipoane Masenya 152

The Struggle for Full Humanity in Poverty-Stricken Kenya / Nyambura J. Njoroge 166

Part 4. The Ambiguous Relation of Religion and Poverty

Poverty Among African People and the Ambiguous Role of Christian Thought / Kossi A. Ayezde 193

Religion and Materiality: The Case of Poverty Alleviation / Esther M. Mombo 213

Warm Bodies, Cold Currency: A Study of Religion's Response to Poverty / Anthony B. Pinn 228

Part 5. Practical Theories for Combating Poverty

Nyerere on Ujamaa and Christianity as Transforming Forces in Society / Laurenti Magesa 249

Caribbean Issues: The Caribbean and African American Churches' Response / Noel Leo Erskine 272

Africa's Poverty, Human Rights, and a Just Society / Simeon O. Ilesanmi 293

Self-Initiation: A Necessary Principle in the African Struggle to Abolish Poverty / Peter J. Paris



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