Recently, a pastor in Ogun state in Nigeria’s south-west was found trying to destroy shrines of traditional deities. Although the full facts are yet to emerge, this incident is one of a number of such attacks in that country and across the continent.

Although traditional African spirituality and practices on one hand and Christianity or Islam on the other co-existed in the past, these days the two are increasingly being framed as being in opposition to each other. Against a backdrop of increasing religious fundamentalism, traditional religions are attacked for being backward, blasphemous and idol worshipping.

The rise in religious fundamentalism and its impact on culture was one of the key themes of the discussions.

Earlier this month, I was in Bahia, Brazil, attending the 13th edition of a forum organised by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID). Held every four years, the forum brings together feminist activists from around the world. The rise in religious fundamentalism and its impact on culture was one of the key themes of the discussions that I attended.

Breaking apart culture and religion

Religion is being used and misused to justify violations of human rights. There is a long history of women’s bodies being used as a battlefield to gain and hold power. In recent years, we have also seen more virulent homophobic and transphobic rhetoric with the same aim. However, what is often missing from most analyses of religion and its role on the continent is its impact on culture itself.

Many times we hear that women’s rights and homosexuality are against the African way of life. Not only does a single ‘African way of life’ not exist but this narrative does a disservice to culture by ignoring the rich histories of women’s leadership and power, living outside heterosexual attraction and desire, and fluidity in gender expression and identity.

Orixá panels at the Museu Afro-Brasileiro. Photo: 365salvador.wordpress.com
Orixá panels at the Museu Afro-Brasileiro. Photo: 365salvador.wordpress.com

Popular discourse views culture and religion as synonymous, static and unchanging. Furthermore, this culture and religion does not recognise the reality that these are two separate entities. It disregards how both Christianity and Islam on the continent are the products of conquest, colonialisation and forcible conversion – in this way, the two religions displaced the cultures, religions and traditions that existed before, and this is something that continues to happen.

Removing cultural diversity in favour of the ‘one true religion’

At the forum, many participants spoke of ‘cultural flattening’, of the devaluation and loss of cultural identities and traditions. They also spoke of being pushed to identify only with religious identities, to the exclusion of ethnic, national, linguistic and other identities, and religion being interpreted in increasingly narrow ways across all faiths. The militants in Libya and Mali who destroyed the centuries-old tombs of Sufi saints, damaged mosques and banned music – despite the central place of music in Malian cultural life – are possibly the most visible example of this trend in Africa. However, they are part of a spectrum of what is happening across the continent.

What is often missing from most analyses of religion on the continent is its impact on culture itself.

Fatou Sow of Women Living Under Muslim Laws talked of how Christianity and Islam had previously been deeply rooted within traditional religions in Senegal but that this had changed. She linked the rise of fundamentalism with the export of very conservative Wahhabist discourses from Saudi Arabia and the conflation of self with religious identity. “We have been interpreting Islam in different ways, according to our cultural practices. Being Muslim is only one of a thousand parts of my identity – but overnight I started being categorised as only Muslim and part of the Muslim community,” she said.

Candomblé. Photo: Wiki commons
Candomblé. Photo: Wiki commons

Another speaker also talked about how completely and quickly Wahhabism had transformed Islam in Africa. She pointed to photographs of her grandmother wearing a bikini at the Somali coast and the reaction that this would get today. She noted that it is people of the Muslim faith, mostly women, who were targeted for deviating from strictures imported into their countries while simultaneously being viewed as potential terrorists by the authorities.

Preserving African cultures… in South America

All of this contrasts with how African cultures are continuing elsewhere. In the days after the forum, a number of us decided to explore the state of Bahia, where over a third of all those who had been taken from Africa as slaves were brought. The Candomblé religion, a blend of Yoruba, Bantu and Fon religions mixed with Catholicism and indigenous American traditions, is strong here.

Popular discourse views culture and religion as synonymous, static and unchanging; as ‘cultureandreligion’. This ‘cultureandreligion’ does not recognise the reality that these are two separate entities.

Despite attempts by the Catholic Church to convert and persecute Candomblé followers, many of those who had been enslaved prayed to their own gods when alone or with each other. They concealed their sacred symbols inside the figures of Catholic saints and created black Catholic groups for Candomblé worship and to plot revolts. A sect linked to Islam chose Friday as the day to worship their gods.

Persecution stopped only in the 1970s, after which many who wished to reclaim the culture that enslavement had taken away from them joined. In Salvador, the state capital, weekly mass is held on Wednesdays at ‘the black church’ in the city centre. After mass, there is a street party in honour of the orixá Ogun. The Museu Afro-Brasileiro displays wood carvings, pottery and artwork that are infused with African iconography. One room is completely filled with 27 wooden panels that depict the orixás of Candomblé with their animals and weapons.

It is difficult to think of African deities being displayed in museums, celebrated in the street or attracting growing followers in many African countries. What I saw in Salvador is an awe-inspiring testament to the power of cultures to survive despite attempts to stamp them out. While we should fight against attempts by fundamentalists to create a globalised culture and religion, we need also to celebrate this continuation of African cultures in the Americas.