Witchcraft on the Small Screen

The STC bus that I caught from Accra to Tamale yesterday was equipped with a DVD player, and we were treated to four Nollywood productions, all of which were centrally concerned with witchcraft.  I didn’t catch the title of the first one, but highlights included a man getting up in the midst of the night to swat at a moth in his room, only to have the insect turn first into a bird and then into his wife.  Egg of Life portrayed a campfire story told by an older man to a group of children, about a chief’s son who was poisoned by the witches he had inadvisedly consorted with in his youth, and the group of female warriors who were sent to find the restorative Egg of Life.  (The traditional costumes were quite lovely.)  Brotherhood of Vipers was really beautifully lit, with deeply saturated colors lending interest to this story of business rivals using witchcraft to get ahead, whilst Super Warriors was a cheesy romp about a magician who cast down his enemies by shooting lightning from the Star of David painted on his forehead.

This put me in mind of an article I recently read by Stephen Ellis and Gerrie Ter Haar.  In “Religion and Politics: Taking African Epistemologies Seriously,” they argue that many African approaches to religion* treat the material and the spirit worlds as constituting a single spectrum of reality.  They note as well that this historical mode of thought may go some way towards explaining the warm reception of charismatic Christian churches in Africa, whose messages of spiritual healing (and the prosperity gospel) have proven increasingly popular over the last decades.  In Ghana, charismatic churches such as the Lighthouse Chapel International have been growing at the expense of the mainline Protestant and Catholic churches at least since the 1970s.

Paul Gifford touches on these issues in his recent study of Ghana’s charismatic movement, which offers up some telling observations of pastors calling upon the holy spirit to counteract juju worked upon members of the congregation.  Traditional typologies of spiritual forces may thus co-exist with biblical descriptors of the same phenomena, such as demons.  It’s fascinating to see the ways in which a set of cultural practices and beliefs that were at the first utterly un-African (i.e. Christianity) have slowly adapted themselves to their local setting.

*This isn’t intended to over-generalize, however; there’s obviously a huge diversity of religous practice and belief (or unbelief, for that matter) within the continent!

Nigeria & the Anglican schism

Whilst looking around on Worldmapper for my recent post on liberation theology in Africa, I found this map of the global distribution of Anglicans, which makes clear why the Church of Nigeria has played such a pivotal role in the potential schism in the Anglican Communion:

If you haven’t been following this debate, there’s a brief overview here.  To generalize a bit, there’s a conservative-progressive split in the communion that roughly corresponds with Southern and Northern churches, and it intensified over the Episcopal Church in the USA’s ordination of an openly gay man as the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.  I certainly think the ECUSA is on the right side of history on this point, but, as this thoughtful article from Killing the Buddha relates, African resistance to Northern theological hegemony is also tied in to historical legacies of colonialism and contemporary local-level struggles to expand the reach of the Anglican church.  Just like everything else, there aren’t any easy answers.

What happened to African liberation theology?

I’ve been puzzling over the titular question for a few weeks now, ever since reading about the connection that Samuel Huntington drew between the evolving Catholic church (with regard to Vatican II and liberation theology) and democratization in Latin America.  Liberation theology sprang up from the 1950s – 1970s as an intense critique of the church’s role in abetting oppression and poverty, of which there was plenty in both Latin America and Africa at the time – but whilst it left a lasting impression on both faith practices and (selon Huntington) politics in LatAm, it didn’t seem to spread across the Atlantic in any meaningful way. (The exception appears to be South Africa, where “liberation” had an unusually clearly defined sense.)

This might go back to the general debate over why Africans don’t protest more (see here and here), but I’m also wondering about the specific political facets of religious life in Africa that might have incentivized religious leaders not to adapt and adopt this type of faith-based social movement.  Were organized faiths regularly co-opted by by the state during this period?  Or did religious leaders & laypeople face the same incentives against rebellion as any other citizens?  Science Encyclopedia offers some stylized facts about religion and the state in Africa, but nothing systematic enough to draw conclusions.

With regard to Catholicism specifically, January Makamba points out that this tradition was not nearly as deeply entrenched in Africa as it was in Latin America, which could be relevant if theologians are less likely to adopt new ideas across denominational lines (or across different faiths all together, given that there are estimated to be more Muslims than Christians in Africa).  Check out Worldmapper’s depiction of the distribution of Catholics around the world:

For comparison, here’s a map of global population distribution:


Latin America clearly has a greater-than-proportional share of Catholics, although central and east Africa also appear to be holding their own, making it less immediately obvious that “lack of Catholicism” is a good explanatory variable.  Thoughts and recommendations for further reading would be welcomed!