The Journal of Modern African Studies



Religion and politics in Sub-Saharan Africa


Stephen Ellis historian a1 and Gerrie ter Haar scholar of religion a2 1
a1 Afrika-Studiecentrum, Leiden, the Netherlands
a2 Utrecht and Leiden Universities, the Netherlands

Abstract

There is a thriving literature of religious tracts in Africa. The few formal bookshops, and the far more numerous market-stalls and itinerant hawkers who sell books, offer for sale pamphlets and popular works on religious subjects in every country of the continent, it would seem. Some are theological inquiries into aspects of the Bible or the Koran. Others contain moral lessons derived from these sacred books. Perhaps the most common category, however, is testimonies of personal religious experiences. Much of this literature hardly makes its way outside Africa and is only rarely to be found in even the finest Western academic libraries.

The most puzzling genre, at least for anyone educated in modern Western academies of learning, is that of the numerous works on witchcraft and other perceived forms of evil, sometimes in the form of a description of a personal journey into a world of spirits. While many pious works on Christianity on sale in Africa are authored by American evangelicals and published in America, popular books on witchcraft and mystical voyages are almost invariably written by Africans and published locally. Similar material is circulated through churches, sometimes in the form of video recordings. This is also true of African-led churches in the diaspora, among African communities on other continents. It is impossible to know with certainty how many people give any credence to stories like these, but the indications are that very many do so. Not only do pamphlets describing mystical journeys appear to circulate in large numbers, but such accounts may clearly be situated within an older tradition of stories about witchcraft and journeys into the underworld which is to be found in collections of folklore and even in the literature of high culture. Studies of churches and of healers in almost any part of Africa indicate that incidents of perceived witchcraft and of shamanism or near-death experiences are relatively common, and probably have been for as long as it is possible to trace. Such evidence may be drawn not just from studies of the pentecostal churches which have attracted so much scholarly interest of late, but also of many other sorts of church including African independent congregations, of Muslim communities and of indigenous religious traditions. Thus, the popular literature written by people who claim to have experienced spiritual journeys or to have expert knowledge of witchcraft is not, we believe, an ephemeral genre but rather represents a modern form of an important tradition of mysticism in Africa.



Footnotes

1 We are grateful to numerous people who have commented on earlier drafts of this article, notably during a presentation at the African Studies Association of the USA annual conference in San Francisco in November 1996 and at a conference on religion and politics organised by the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, 1–3 Oct. 1997.