Religion and culture in African literature

Chinua Achebe

Chinua Achebe

At the Bookstore With Elliot Ziwira
RELIGION, according to Emile Durkheim (1988) is “a united system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things that set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church; all those who adhere to them”. He adds that culture is the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.

A close analysis of the phenomena reveals the complimentary role they play, as one cannot talk of one in the absence of the other.
Suffice to say, religion seeks to mould the individual to fit into what is considered the norm, based on adherence to the supernatural as culturally agreed.
Religion — like culture — has an oppressive inclination.

The individual is expected to behave or not to behave in a certain way, failure of which culminates in being labelled a blasphemer.
Culture may be classified as community, national, regional, gender, social and corporate.

Although culture — like religion — moulds the individual, it is its relativism and ethnocentrism that is the bane of humanity.
Cultural dynamism and acculturation cause societies to function, in some cases, at a tangent to generational norms.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some erroneously believe that their culture is intrinsically superior to others and should therefore, be forced on others. Culture is a people’s pride; hence, it should be guarded jealously.

Chinua Achebe, commenting on the role of the writer as a teacher in “African Writers Talking” (1972), notes: “What I think a novelist should teach is something very fundamental, namely to indicate to his readers, to put it crudely that we in Africa did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans.”

Thus “a writer has a responsibility to try and stop this, because unless our culture begins to take itself seriously, it will never take off the ground”. “This” is in reference to the misleading notion that Africa, as a “dark continent”, needs to be illuminated by Westernisation.

African culture should be given prominence in the continent’s literature and writers should converge and speak with a unified voice to preserve the mores and values of their people.

The issue of religion is becoming a melting pot in Africa.
Religion seems to rob the individual of choice because some aspects are stuffed into his/her mouth and he/she is expected to stoically swallow them wholesome.

Religious extremism leads to violence, hypocrisy, obsession, alienation and fear.
There seems to be no religious compromise or tolerance because, as posited by Chenjerai Hove (2000) thus: “The religious sometimes have the audacity to think that everyone must see the world as they see it themselves.

“Anybody who does not share their beliefs is considered heathen . . . in an attempt to make the world uniform, mono-cultural and mono everything else.”
In African literature religion is a prominent theme.

Basically three religions obtain; African Traditional Religion (ATR), Christianity and Islam.
Inasmuch as culture is as old as religion, it will be folly to presume that Africans knew of God through colonisation.

Africans had their own belief systems and worshipped God in their own way, as is vividly captured in Beti’s “Mission to Kala” (1957), Kanengoni’s “Echoing Silences” (1988), Mungoshi’s “Walking Still” (1997), Ba’s “Scarlet Song”, WaThiong’o’s “Secret Lives” (1975) and Chinodya’s “Chairman of Fools” (2005), just to pick at random, as other writers like Achebe, Soyinka and Armah also delve into the religious forte.

In “Secret Lives”, Ngugi WaThiong’o, like Mungoshi in “Sacrifice” (“Walking Still), and Kanengoni, explores how religion as a component of culture cannot be wished away.

It is as perilous as it is vain for Africans to run away from the norms and values obtaining in their societies — a case of one running away from one’s shadow.
This rationale is captured in the stories “The Village Priest” and “The Black Bird”.

Conflict between Christianity and ATR is revealed in a hilarious manner in the former and on a sombre note in the latter.
In “The Village Priest” Joshua, the priest is pitted against the rain-maker.

Africans have, since time immemorial, engaged the rain-maker to invoke the supernatural when the vagaries of nature spew out their venom at their doorsteps.
Joshua, who has been initiated into Christianity by the missionary Livingstone, promises the people rain through his Jehovah, and the rain-maker consoles his wards  by telling them that it will rain after traditional rites under the sacred Mugumo tree.

Joshua prays: “Please God, my God, do not bring rain today. Please God, my God, let me defeat the rain-maker today, and your name shall be glorified.”
As he prays, the rites are in full swing under the Mugumo tree. Joshua’s God does not hear his entreaties and it rains cats and dogs.
Defeated and humiliated, he decides to “go to the sacred tree and make peace with the people’s God”.

The rain-maker has the last laugh as he witnesses his confession.
Religious intolerance is also highlighted, though sadly, in “The Black Bird”.

Told in the first person, the story revolves around the spirit of a traditional medicine man whose paraphernalia is burned by Christian zealots, and he is forced to flee.
He comes back to haunt the family that wronged him in the form of a black bird.

The narrator tells the story through his friend, Mangara who becomes a victim of this generational curse, as he loses his entire family in strange circumstances; and subsequently commits suicide after failing his medical examinations.

Charles Mungoshi and Alexander Kanengoni also engage the reader on the detriment of taking one’s culture for granted.
The issue of avenging spirits, which is frowned upon by Christians, is as real as life itself to the African.

Mungoshi compellingly examines the spiritual existence of man in “Sacrifice” in the same way he does in “Waiting for the Rain” (1975) and “Coming of the Dry Season” (1972).

In the story, a family is torn apart by an avenging spirit that decimates its ranks.
A virgin and cattle are required to appease the spirit, and the parents of the unfortunate virgin, who have lost all their other children, cannot yield; leading to ugly fights in the extended family as death stares them in the face.

But the young girl volunteers to go, much to the surprise of all. At just about the same time an emissary from the offended family arrives.
Kanengoni reveals how liberation fighters were guided by the spirits of their ancestors throughout the struggle.

He also, like Mungoshi and wa Thiong’o, highlights the avenging spirit through the protagonist, Munashe, who is pursued by the spirit of the woman with the baby on her back whom he killed with a hoe handle on the instruction of his Security Commander during the war.

Like all combatants, he has to be cleansed after the war, but unfortunately his family carries out the ceremony rather late; and he sadly dies.
As the custodians of the mores and values of their communities, writers should come to truth’s defence by telling the African story as it should be told, and creating opportunities for compromise where possible.

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