IN THE Apartheid Museum one wall was engraved with the names of some of the repressive racial acts that had helped to keep the state in order. There was no longer apartheid, but it had lasted long enough—thirty-six years—for people to be made by the intrusive laws. Fatima, our guide and arranger, had been made by the laws. Someone less remarkable would have been crushed. Fatima had literary ambitions; this idea of nobility helped her to keep her soul. She also had an idea of other cultures outside—in the beginning she dreamed of the Islamic world—and though this Islamic dream was misguided, it also in the end helped her.
She told us when we met that she was “coloured.” This was a South African word, it could mean someone of mixed race in a purely descriptive way. It had another meaning as well, and then it was loaded with unspoken insult. It came from the remote past and it implied that an ancestor was a Bushman: the equivalent here of what a pigmy was in Gabon, physically negligible, but also to be considered the first man, full of wisdom about trees and plants and poisons. In the “Origins Centre” at Witwatersrand University they endlessly ran short films (scratchy and loud from being run over and over again) about Bushmen singing and dancing and hunting the magnificent eland, which they poisoned and killed in a terrible way.
On her mother’s side there was a great-grandfather who was English. Her great-grandmother was Xhosa. She claimed to be of mixed race (already the fantasy created by apartheid legislation), but Fatima saw photographs of the lady and thought she was very much a Xhosa woman. Fatima’s paternal grandfather was very black, but the family spoke Afrikaans and hated dark skin; and when Fatima went to visit them they took her to the hairdresser and had the kinks in her wiry hair straightened out so that she could look white.
So she grew up as “just a coloured girl,” without any identity. The Xhosa girls at school all had identities, and she had nothing. She grew up in a coloured community. She had Muslim neighbours and she saw they had feasts and rituals and a complete Muslim identity; and it was no doubt to grasp at this identity that when she was twenty she married a Muslim cleric. She was very pleased to have done that, feeding off the religion from the source, as it were. She began to “cover up”; she started with a head scarf, and soon she was all covered, except for the face and hands. She did this on her own, but then her husband made more and more demands. He didn’t like her sitting in taxis with other men; he didn’t like her shaking hands with them. He threatened to divorce her. Her job as a reporter became impossible; her dream of an Islamic identity fell to the ground. It had already taken a knock when she went to Durban and tried to attach herself to the Indian community there. They weren’t easy; they wanted to know her family name, her village; invariably, at the end of this inquisition, when they understood that she was coloured, they dropped her. She read a lot about Islam; she got to know more than the Indians and Muslims who quizzed her; it didn’t help. She went on the pilgrimage to Mecca, but felt nothing; she saw only the restrictions on her as a woman.
She began to look then for a black identity, but it was hard. Her coloured background again got in the way; the blacks rejected her as someone without a country or culture. So the whole South African journey for her was a discovery of pain: from her coloured beginnings to the Islamic dream, to the Indians of Durban, to the blacks of the townships. There were townships in Durban but they were near the airport and she didn’t see them. She saw them properly only when she came to Johannesburg and began to work with the blacks. It was only then that she understood the great pain and, with that, the deception, for Africans, of political freedom and the end of apartheid.
Fatima said, “I see that the blacks here reach out more than the white South Africans. They, the whites, want the blacks to be ‘there,’ not near them. They cannot reach out or forgive, and they want a distance from the black. They are full of preconceived ideas, like Soweto is dangerous and that a black boy friend is bad.”
I had wanted, when I began this book, to stay away from politics and race, to look below those themes for the core of African belief. But rather like Fatima looking for identity, I felt stymied in South Africa and saw that here race was all in all; that race ran as deep as religion elsewhere.
Monthly Archives: February 2011
Dr. Schweitzer came out to Gabon in 1915. The French colony had been established more than sixty years before, and missionary activity, both American and French, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, had been going on for almost all that time.
The English traveller Mary Kingsley came to Gabon in 1893 and 1895. Her famous book, Travels in West Africa, was published by the house of Macmillan in 1897. (This was the year in which Somerset Maugham published his first novel; it gives a kind of context.)
Mary Kingsley describes a busy river life in Gabon, with traders and missionaries. Dr. Schweitzer, when he came to Gabon twenty years later, in 1915, would not have had to live the life of Robinson Crusoe. Mission life by this time would already have been formalised. African children would have been trained in housework; the missionary whose energy was low needed only conduct a service in his church, which might be next door to his house.
Mary Kingsley writes especially about Dr. Nassau, a very early missionary from the American Presbyterian mission. He had been working among Africans for forty years when Mary Kingsley met him. She is full of praise for him; and he is clearly an unusual man, of high intellect, full of energy, and wise about the ways and beliefs of Africans. The subject of African religion interests Mary Kingsley, too. She consults Dr. Nassau at length about what she calls “fetish,” which is her portmanteau word for African belief, and she gives the subject five chapters in her book, a hundred pages.
Set beside Mary Kingsley and Dr. Nassau, Dr. Schweitzer doesn’t shine. Among Africans his reputation, which has lasted down to our own time, is that of a man who was “harsh” to Africans and was not interested in their culture. This perhaps is the true mystery of the man: not his ability in 1915 to turn his back on the civilisation of the time (though the 1914 war might have been a factor), but the—almost heroic—idea of his own righteousness that enabled him to live apart in Africa for all that time: the ideal of the missionary taken to its limit, the man less interested in serving men than in beguiling them.
Early on her travels Mary Kingsley saw the ruins of the first mission house Dr. Nassau built on the upper Oguwé. It was on one side of a ravine, and in front of it, “as an illustration of the transitory nature of European life in West Africa,” was the grave of Mrs. Nassau. The four or five lines about this—the ruined mission house above the grave—make a telling point about dedication and loss and the swift growth of bush.
Quite different is the cluster of granite crosses beside the Lambaréné hospital building. The crosses are close together. They seem not to leave room for anyone else. These are the Schweitzer family graves. They speak more of possession and triumph than tragedy. Nearby is a caged, depressed-looking pelican, padding about on trampled mud. Dr. Schweitzer had a pet pelican; and this unhappy pelican, flying nowhere, diving nowhere, is kept in his memory.
From A Most Magnificent Machine: America Adopts the Railroad, 1825-1862, by Craig Miner (U. Press of Kansas, 2010), pp. 1-2:
A young lady wrote to a Pennsylvania newspaper in the summer of 1827 about her journey along the state-operated system of internal improvements. Having left Reading at three in the afternoon, she arrived at Mount Carbon the next evening after a passage of 49 miles by canal, “a great journey for me to make in one day.” The mountain scenery impressed her, as did the band on board the canal boat, but greater wonders awaited. From Mauch Chunk (population 1,300), she elected to ride to the nearby coal mines, 9 miles up a considerable slope, on the Mauch Chunk Railway. This line, built in September 1826, comprised, along with a shorter (3-mile) one from the Boston tidewater to a granite quarry at Quincy, Massachusetts, the first elements of the railway system in the United States.
There were three carriages that day each loaded with six passengers. A horse drew the train up the 3-foot, 7-inch gauge track to the mine, 900 feet above the Lehigh River, in 1 hour and 25 minutes. Coming down, there was no horse, only a rope wound at the top around a wheel with a friction brake to control the descent. That ride reached speeds of 30 miles per hour—faster than the passengers had ever experienced. The cars seemed at times on the verge of shooting off a cliff before a curve came into view and took the gasping tourists around. Wrote the young lady, clinging to her seat: “It really appeared like flying.”
The Mauch Chunk and Quincy Railroads were in those years (the mid-1820s) a national phenomenon, a tourist attraction of a magnitude far beyond their limited economic function. Newspapers competed for details. Also, they collected news from British journals of the architecturally impressive railroad lines completed in 1826 between Stockton and Darlington and Liverpool and Manchester.
At Quincy the attraction was the tremendous weights that could be moved with relatively little effort by means of rails. A load of 21 tons of stone made its way down a slight grade along the Quincy road in October 1826, pulled by a single horse. The horse easily pulled the empty cars back. “It is a matter of astonishment,” went a Massachusetts governmental report, “to consider how great an advantage is gained, by merely providing smooth iron tracks for the wheels of carriages to run on; and though, in every kind of machinery, simplicity tends to increase its value and beauty, yet in no instance, can we find, from so simple an arrangement, effects so striking, or which promise to be so extensively beneficial.” An extension of a railroad system, the report concluded, would impart energy to all kinds of business and produce circumstances that would improve the reputation of the state and of society in general. By the spring of 1827, people from around the nation were visiting the Quincy railroad, giving business to an inn and interfering substantially with the main business of the road in order to satisfy the demands of tourists. The little Quincy Railroad became an object of study for civil engineers and legislative committees thinking of more ambitious rail projects. The economic advantages were obvious. The railroad had made granite so inexpensive that in Boston a house could be built of that durable material more cheaply than with bricks, even when the bricks sold for as low as $4 per thousand.
The Mauch Chunk line drew more attention still, so much that one editor commented it had become a “place of notoriety” Pleasure cars made the round-trip once every day and were always booked in advance.” One passenger reported riding “in pleasure carriages, which have seats like sleighs, and precisely like the sleigh, but longer and without back and front, and have small iron wheels.” It seemed a pleasant way to travel, “not a jolt, jar, or movement, to the right or left.” Birds, cats, and cows flew for their lives before the train: “They must have thought the end of the world was at hand.”
The December 2010 issue of the Journal of World History (on Project MUSE) has a very interesting article by Matteo Salvadore on “An Ethiopean Age of Exploration: Prester John’s Discovery of Europe, 1306–1458.” Here are some excerpts (footnotes omitted, links added).
Before the age of European expansion overseas and the Portuguese circumnavigation of Africa, Renaissance Italy became a common destination for scores of Ethiopian monks and dignitaries. These travelers presented themselves on the European scene as active agents of transcontinental discovery: interested in learning more about a region they regarded as the ultimate center of organized Christianity, they became the protagonists of an Ethiopian age of exploration. This article examines the dynamics of interaction between Italian elites and Ethiopian travelers throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The episodes of interaction here considered had lasting consequences for Ethio-European relations: they engendered dynamics of reciprocal understanding based on a common religious identity that ran counter to ideas of African and black inferiority that represented the cultural norm for much of the modern period. Ethiopians became in fact agents of discovery and purveyors of geographical knowledge in an era when the dominating paradigm of difference was grounded not in racial but rather in religious identity….
In 1122 a foreign visitor to Rome was audacious enough to introduce himself to Pope Callistus II‘s (1119–1124) entourage as a representative of “Patriarch John of India.” We know that by virtue of his alleged relation with Prester John the visitor was treated with deference throughout his sojourn. This is the first recorded encounter between a European sovereign and a Patriarch—or Prester—John who, together with his supposed representative, had by all means not even a remote connection to the rulers of Ethiopia. Less than fifty years later, in 1165, Byzantine emperor Manuel Komnenos (1143–1180) received a long letter through which a self-declared Prester John sought alliances with his European peers. It is undisputedly a forgery; the circumstances surrounding the drafting of the letter remain rather obscure, and a variety of theories have been advanced. What we know is that the author—most likely European—compiled a compendium of geopolitical knowledge injected with fragments of information about the distant Orient. In the twelfth century, Prester John is the quintessential representative of a distant and largely unknown Christian might, which by virtue of its faith embodies a very peculiar type of other. Prester John epitomizes a remote Christian world, thought superior to a debased Western Christianity that was losing its confrontation with Islam both in Jerusalem and in Southern Europe. It is telling that certain passages of the mentioned letter that meant to shed light on the reality of his kingdom had been inspired by St. Augustine’s City of God. In an era of defeat and regression for the Christian powers of Europe, Prester John seems to have been an icon used to exorcise the power of Islam and soothe the anxiety of the European elites.
The popularity of the imaginary sovereign was such that in 1177 Pope Alexander III (1159–1181) addressed a letter to “Prester John, the illustrious and magnificent John King of the Indies.” The letter epitomizes the Catholic Church’s effort to expand its rule over the known and unknown lands of the world as well as an attempt to find allies for the anti-Muslim cause. The idea of Prester John engendered a positive European outlook on the unknown and was instrumental to later efforts to explore and map the wider world during the European age of exploration. It stimulated the interest of European monarchs in overseas exploration, particularly in the quest for allies against Islam. In the second half of the thirteenth century, after the acquisition of a greater—or rather, less confused—understanding of the East, European elites relocated the imaginary sovereign from Asia to Africa. A number of chronicles compiled at the turn of the thirteenth century abounded with references to Prester John, yet his actual location became more and more the object of controversy. As the Mongols reached into Europe in 1237 and displayed traits that did not coincide with the European image of Christian piety, the figure of the pious Christian king from the Far East gave way again to that of the heathen barbarian. In the same years travelers to the Far East returned to Europe with information about the exploits of the Mongol Empire. The Mongols were not Christians and the fabulous Christian kingdom was nowhere to be found, yet the myth of Prester John grew larger.
These are some of the contingencies that eventually engendered Prester John’s relocation to Ethiopia, but what is the bigger picture beyond them? The thirteenth century in Europe was a period of unprecedented knowledge production about the Far East. Before the rise of the modern explorer, traders started to gather information from distant lands and carry it through unsafe and discontinuous networks of communication back to Europe. If we look beyond the intricate network of first- and secondhand accounts we see the emergence of a new European awareness of the East: the wave of knowledge production emerged from the cradle of a still-infant capitalist world economy whose expansion facilitated the flow of information between continents and imposed innovative standards of geographic and political knowledge….
As Rome was struggling to regain Jerusalem in the second half of the thirteenth century, Ethiopia experienced the so called Solomonic restoration, a dynastic shift that brought about a period of unprecedented state building. At the end of the thirteenth century, Ethiopia emerged from more than a century of Zagwe rule (1137–1270) that abruptly ended when Yekuno ‘Amlak (1270–1285) was anointed Ethiopian emperor in 1270. At first sight the passage from one dynastic tradition to the other seems to have had a much more political than religious meaning as both dynasties were Christian. However, the restoration initiated a period of dramatic change both in the religious and secular realms. Taddesse Tamrat offered a compelling overview of the period and referred to the changes triggered in the late 1200s as “outward movements of both Church and States.” The Ethiopian nobility initiated an intermittent but long-lasting policy of expansion and consolidation across the highlands and laid out the defining elements of one of the most resilient monarchies in world history by giving birth to a military-religious complex—the sword and the cross—that would define the history of Ethiopia throughout the modern era.
The transformation and political consolidation of the Ethiopian highlands that started with Yekuno ‘Amlak was continued by his successor, Yagbe Ṣeyon (1285–1294), crowned emperor as Solomon in 1285. Did the news of the restoration reach Rome and Nicholas IV’s ear, enticing his curia to reach out to a potential ally? There is not enough evidence to know whether the letter addressed to “Imperatori Aethiopiae Illustri” was indeed directed to the Ethiopian emperor, but we do know that by the end of the thirteenth century the activity within the still-undefined boundaries of an embryonic contact zone acquired momentum. In a way we could argue that the emergence of an Ethio-European encounter was the result of parallel expansionist attitudes emerging on both sides of the contact zone….
Until the end of the thirteenth century, Christian Ethiopia had maintained a good record of collaboration and coexistence with Islam on both the international and domestic fronts. Ethiopian Muslims had long been an integral part of the local economy and had been instrumental to Ethiopia’s contribution to the regional economy of the Red Sea basin. Furthermore, the Ethiopian Church had been receiving its ‘abuna ([fn:] literally meaning “our fathers” in Ge’ez, … used in Ethiopia to identify leading clerics, heads of monasteries, and the head of the Ethiopian Church) from the patriarch of Alexandria as part of a complex process of mediation between different economic and religious interests competing along the shores of the Nile. One could say that until the rise of a new Ethiopian system in the early fourteenth century, the relation between Christianity and Islam in Ethiopia developed along the line of Muhammad’s plea to “leave the Ethiopians alone,” a plea that had been reciprocated with a partial integration of the Ğabarti on the highlands.
This is the backdrop against which a little-known group of Ethiopians officially opened the age of Ethiopian exploration in 1306. The first recorded encounter in the Ethio-European contact zone took place in an era when, on both sides, otherness was shaped by similar anxieties at a moment when both sides were redefining their relationship with Muslims. Presumably, Wedem Ra’ad sent a delegation of thirty Ethiopians to Europe, most likely for the purpose of forging an anti-Islam alliance with European coreligionists.
[Houphouët-Boigny] died at the age of eighty-eight. This was his official age; he was believed by many to be much older. His great age was further proof of his fetish-given power. He was said to have died on an important political anniversary. But no one in the country at large knew for sure. The private life of the ruler, the king, was always a mystery.
The royal compound was in the middle of the town of Yamoussoukro. This town was built around the site of Houphouët’s natal village. A chief’s village, but it would originally (before the French) have been close to bush. The compound was now surrounded by a high ochre-coloured wall nine miles long and was closed to ordinary visitors. From the outside you could see something like a young wood behind the wall. Heaven knows what secret rituals, what sacrifices, served by heaven knows what secret priesthoods, contrived to keep the king and his kingdom safe, at a time when nothing in Africa seemed solid.
Far away from the royal compound, at two different points in the new town which he had built, were mighty emblems of the imported faiths: a beautiful white mosque in the North African style, a style that had had to cross the Sahara to this far-off place in the wet forests of tropical Africa; and a cathedral that in its design paid homage to St. Peter’s. It was said to be higher than St. Peter’s (in spite of the pope’s request that its dome might be shortened by a metre or two). This was more than cross-cultural town-building. Mosque and cathedral, growing out of no communities, might have seemed like a game in the desert, the whim of a rich ruler looking for foreign approval. But they were seriously meant. Religion mattered to Houphouët; it was what kept him afloat; he would have felt, almost, that he ruled because he was religious. It pleased him, in his expensive new town, to honour these two world faiths, even while yielding to the profounder African stirrings which might have been played out in private rituals, meant for the king alone, in the royal compound, beyond the moat with its sacred crocodiles, fed at great expense every day.
Richmond had said that Houphouët’s magic had worked for him. And so it had. Power had stayed with him to the end. But even a king was only a man, and when his time had come Houphouët had died from prostate cancer.
Adesina’s father was born in 1904. To understand a little of his history was to understand the important history of conversion (to Islam or Christianity) in Nigeria. He did not go to school. He converted first to Catholicism, but he was unhappy with it. He didn’t understand the church service, which was in Latin. Later he met Arabs who had come to northern Nigeria with the trans-Sahara trade. These Arabs were teachers and missionaries. They translated the Koran into Yoruba, and they also preached in Yoruba. This was much easier for Adesina’s father and he converted to Islam. He always wished after that to be a good Muslim; he didn’t think Adesina was a good Muslim, and so he didn’t eat in Adesina’s house. But he was open-minded. He let people in the family read the Bible and he liked to debate with friends who were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It seems from this that religion had become a kind of intellectual activity, perhaps the only one, in the newly educated house. Adesina’s father’s younger brother stayed a Christian, while the third brother remained firm in the traditional African religion. Adesina, growing up, had the full range of available Nigerian belief to choose from. He was technically a Muslim, following his father, but he liked the uncle who practised the traditional religion because this uncle was a great one for sacrifices and in that house Adesina was always given meat from the sacrifices to eat. His parents disapproved and beat him, but still he went to the unconverted uncle’s house. He would go and watch the sacrifices, eat his meat, and come home to a beating.
Last Sunday’s Charlotte Observer reported on A religious revolution in Africa described by Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Rise of Global Christianity, who spoke at Westminster Presbyterian Church there. Here are a few statistics from that talk.
In 1900, Europe and North America accounted for about 85 percent of the world’s Christians. By 2050, that number will have shrunk to about 25 percent.
During the same period, he said the number of Christians in Africa have, well, skyrocketed seems too tame a word. In 1900, there were 10 million; in 2000, 363 million. By 2015, Jenkins expects 500 million. And, by 2050, he predicted that Africa would become the first continent to have 1 billion Christians. Put another way: One of every three Christians in the world will be African – and that’s not counting the Africans who will have moved to the United States or Europe.
In the 20th century, about half of the people on the African continent moved from a tribal or pagan religion to either Christianity or Islam. And, Jenkins added, “Christians outpaced Muslims considerably” – by a margin of about 4 to 1.
The Welsh-born Jenkins, a professor at Penn State and Baylor whose books are lauded by both conservative evangelicals and liberal scholars, was brought to town by Union Presbyterian Seminary at Charlotte….
In 1900, Jenkins said, Europeans outnumbered Africans 3-1. But by 2050, he said, there will be three Africans for every European.
Meanwhile, in Europe, population is stagnant. In Italy, the median age is 40, Jenkins said. In Uganda, it’s 14.
And any growth in the ranks of the religious in Europe – the continent that was the capital of Christianity for millennia – tends to come from migrants: Muslims from Turkey or Pakistan and Christians from Africa or the Caribbean.