Intersectionality, language, and global “hybridities”: Africans and critics talk back to the Humanitarian Imaginary

The CIHA Blog’s Senegal conference on Health, Healing, Religion and Gender in Africa prompted important reflections regarding the place of this conference in the work of the Blog, and about where the Blog goes from here. Cecelia Lynch, CIHA Blog Co-Editor, made the following remarks during the closing final panel. We plan to post similar reflections and presentations by Lead-Conference organizer Mame Penda Ba and many participants in the coming days and weeks.

This conference has been extraordinary on a number of fronts, not least the ambitious nature of the program and the vast diversity of participants. The Senegal conference is consistent with the purpose of the Blog that seeks to explore ways to equalize humanitarian relationships, focusing especially on religious and critical voices that are sometimes not heard in the constant search for “solutions” to emergencies and poverty. Some might wish that “humanitarians,” whose work we tend to critique for its paternalistic assumptions and neo-colonial practices, would simply go away, but that is not the world we live in. Therefore, a critical outlook remains essential, but it should also be understood as prompting new forms of relationships in a complex world.

The Blog engages in its mission in many ways. Posts on “Track Changes” challenges stereotypical and problematic representations of Africa and Africans in the media. In “Religion and Culture,” we highlight religious voices and experiences to the fore. We retain our academic duty to submit them to the rigor of critical lenses. “In the News” brings what we consider to be good reporting on events on the continent to readers, etc. But this is not the only way we attempt to equalize things. Our own structure, processes, and logo reflect this ongoing, always-in-process goal. Our logo was designed by a Moroccan graphic designer.  An Ivorian tech specialist updated our site. We added French, Arabic, and English as well as an Akan symbol (tongue and teeth, to symbolize how humanitarianism, religion and critique have different functions and sometimes clash but also go together and are indispensable for each other), to demonstrate the complexity, hybridity, and linguistic variation, including in historical and contemporary power relations, that several participants have brought up during this conference.

Our structure has been to use the generous grant from the Henry Luce Foundation’s Program on Religion and International Affairs to fund graduate (or post-graduate) students at the University of Ghana, University of KwaZulu-Natal, University of Gaston Berger in Senegal, the University of California, Irvine, and the Hekima Institute in Nairobi, as well as pay the expenses for our three conferences. Our students, as you have been able to see from their presentations at this (and other) conferences, are simply fantastic. Our group of Co-Editors includes one of the pre-eminent scholars of gender in Africa or, for that matter, anywhere; a major South African Contextual Theologian, a prominent peace studies and conflict resolution theorist from the DRC who teaches in Kenya, and the first woman professor in Senegal to receive the title of Agrégation in Political Science and who also happens to be known by just about everyone across the Sahel and beyond. It includes scholars from the Catholic, Methodist, Baptist and Muslim faiths, among others, and also perhaps the only African who does not subscribe to any faith except critique. Now that I have essentialized my wonderful Co-Editors, they can essentialize me (but, alas, there probably isn’t time!).

Our three conferences, held respectively at the University of Ghana (2015), the Seth Mokitimi Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (2016) and in Dakar and the Casamance region of Senegal (2017), each probed contested issues in humanitarianism, past and present.

The first (2015), concerned the legacy of Biafra/the Nigerian Civil War as indicative of both a pivotal moment of humanitarian intervention (secular and religious) in Africa and one that has shaped debates about military as well as “compassionate” intervention ever since. It also reminded us of the wounds that have roots in colonial violence, that still exist, in Nigeria but also in other parts of the continent.

The second, on Religion and Governance in Africa (2016) considered problems regarding the religious governance of LGBTQ people as well as ongoing issues of governance in post-colonial – and post-apartheid – contexts. The South African conference also addressed the legacy of colonial missionary work, including a lively and important debate between Stephen Hendricks and Simangaliso Raymond Kumalo, both ordained ministers, Ph.D.s, and South Africans who suffered under apartheid, who presented very different views about the educational and paternalistic legacy of missions in their country. We were in South Africa at time of the “fees must fall” movement in South Africa, a malaise symptomatic of the legitimate impatience expressed by the South African youth two decades after the end of apartheid, which raised multiple questions about governance, including whether religious leaders are complicit in inegalitarian economic and political configurations, or are engaged in “speaking truth to power.” At the same moment, a “Gandhi must fall” petition was rocking the University of Ghana, raising the question of symbols and memory in postcolonial Africa.

I think we are all still processing this week’s conference on religion, gender, health and healing in Africa. We have lived an amazing week that has compelled us to combine, contrast, and intersect forms of knowledge and experience. Several issues, nevertheless, stand out for me: most obviously, the richness, marginalization yet ongoing power of “African religion” or African “tradition” – I use these inadequate terms very much in the sense of “living tradition” rather than in the more usual Weberian sense of rationalization (or disappearance) vis-à-vis other “received” traditions (e.g., Christianity, Islam).

Our experiences have led me to continue to question the intersection of religion and gender, particularly but not exclusively concerning women. I realize through my own question yesterday to the women fetishes of the village where the priestess Aline Sitoe Diatta is from, that perceptions and experiences of gender, including gender oppression, governance, and religious experience within hierarchies, need to be taken seriously. So do class, economic and educational hierarchies – and the assumptions that go along with them – necessitating that we constantly probe questions of “intersectionality.” Perhaps we can make “progress” on understanding these intersections, but they remain complex and perhaps, to a degree, irresolvable.

Finally, Fatima’s wonderful presentation followed several others in bringing to the fore the question of language. She made me reflect on experiences I have had here on the continent (as well as elsewhere) in crossing language divides. For example, I have been struck how difficult it remains to communicate across Anglophone / Francophone divides, including how this underlies particular power dynamics. Thinking about language, of course, must also include the importance of literature and film as interpretive keys to ongoing forms of experience, which both Cilas and Anthonia reminded us of in critically important ways.

A question that I always come back to, that I keep asking myself, is what is it that “people who want to ‘help Africa’ should know?”!! The more I experience interactions such as those of this week, the more fortunate I understand that I am to participate in, even as an outsider, some of the critical debates amongst Africans – religious, linguistic, historical, social, governmental – that go beyond what outsiders usually grasp and that are often submerged by “insiders” who either try to get with the humanitarian program or feel alienated from it.  In the end, however, what is what we might call dispositional about “egalitarianism” and what can be learned – and with what kinds of knowledges? This is perhaps the most critical question for me right now.

We hope that the participants in this and other conferences will remain part of the “Blog family” – and also join the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA). Akosua Adomako Ampofo is the incoming President and Toussaint Kafarhire the incoming Vice-President of this relatively new but absolutely essential organization which we have written about here and here. But, in addition to pushing out the terrific presentations of this week in Blog posts, journals, and volumes, how should we continue these discussions and debates?

Too often, as we all know, we attend conferences and everyone is excited and stimulated, then we all go home to a thousand things awaiting our attention and we get caught up in the immediacy of our next tasks. But, in my view, this week was too valuable to let the connections falter, and built too well on our previous conferences not to put them into conversation with each other. We are thinking of ways to keep the dialogue going among and across religious traditions and academia, for example, especially with healers.

We especially thank our Senegalese team for this extraordinary, week-long event (including the Casamance/Zinguinchor, Fatick, Dakar, and St. Louis experts who have done such amazing research, including photography as well as film and writing). We also thank the Advisory Board Members who were able to join us AND present their work this week, including Anthonia Kalu, Fatima Sadiqi, Stephen Hendricks, and Roderick Hewett, as well as others who could not be here.

I end by reflecting on Roderick’s comment regarding the need to keep notions of complexity and contradiction as what we consider to be “normalcy” in debates about Africa and by Africans, rather than continuing to search for some kind of homogeneity in identity (or, I would add, homogeneity in epistemology or ontology – including ontological perspectives on religion).

Roderick also used the term “hybridity” to connote an essential aspect of this normalcy. While I don’t have a better term at present, I think we must also question, continue to question why the terms “hybridity” and “syncretism” are employed for post-colonial societies and pre-colonial religions and ritual practices, but NOT for European or American ones.  In the end, the problems and questions that Fatou Sow has rightly engaged regarding what we have not been able to fully explore this week are always overlaid by the divisions of colonialism, including the colonial experience of categorization whose legacies continue in the post-colonial period. Sometimes what ensues is the attempt to create essentialist divisions, and at other times the resort to explanations about the existence of “hybridities.” But we need to look at other “hybridities” as well. For example, I am of Irish-American extraction, and Irish Catholicism and spirituality (not to mention poetry and music) remains strongly infused with Celtic and Druidic ontologies and “beliefs.” Similarly, if you go to the village of Gubbio in Italy, you will see that every house has two doors; one for people and a second, slightly higher up, called the “door of the dead.” Yet Irish and Italian Catholicism, and European Christianity in general, are seen as “pure.” It does not take much digging to uncover the differences that challenge any question of purity in religion.

So, what happens if we see ALL nationalities, religions, and ethnicities as hybrid or syncretic, rather than pure? When we reject the idea of original or pure identities, religions, or states, does that help in our quest for equality? I end with this question, and thank again all of the wonderful participants and commentators at this amazing conference.