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In Witchbound Africa

Not having space to consider the above re-examination in detail in this article, I simply want to look at the implications of anthropology being conducted in Western languages, and being extractive. I begin with the latter.

Most anthropologists are scholars who have made a (laudable!) effort to root themselves in social realities that remain out of sight to others in the West, classically by stints in the field making observations while frequently participating as much as possible in the life of those being researched. The above degrees of commitment are not to be belittled.  Anthropologists first immerse themselves in theory. Then they carry out fieldwork. Afterwards, they interpret their research in terms of extant theory. The ‘theory’ they are expected to use is Western (Halliburton 2004). That is; it is dualistic; it is theory that has arisen essentially in the modern era. When anthropologists write, they engage with other anthropologists and with other disciplines in academia. They do not engage primarily with the people they have researched; the latter typically have no power to confer the degrees or other potential salary-earning rewards for obtaining an accredited qualification that the anthropologist is looking for. To engage with anthropologists one has to know anthropology (i.e. what the anthropologists have been doing). Simply knowing something of a non-Western people is far from adequate for such engagement.

Unfortunately, in the course of extracting, discussing, dissecting, then relocating what they find on the field into Western scholarship, anthropologists can distort extant reality. Ironically, in today’s world of so-called ‘globalised education’, non-Western scholars are required to base their research on their own communities on the anthropological accounts that have become identified with them. For example, an African scholar writing a thesis in Nairobi must use definitions of ‘witchcraft’ devised in the West. A pre-requisite for such scholars to be taken seriously in the global educational scene, in other words, is for them to write on the basis of an identity other than their own. E.g. Kikuyu[5] authors are required when they write about the Kikuyu to do so as if they (the authors) are European.

A large part of the above issue concerns choice of language. A Tanzanian colleague of mine recently wrote, at a Kenyan university, a PhD thesis about the development of a church in Tanzania. Tanzanians think largely in terms of mother-tongue and Swahili languages. I expected his thesis to analyse the implications of translation into English. “Ignore all that and just write in English”, his Kenyan supervisors apparently advised him.[6]

Should for example a Luo person wanting to engage with the rest of global scholarship be told that his people practice witchcraft, a term that describes something that used to happen in the UK and America, he must accept this to be true. The basis of the accusation will be that certain practices of the Luo are parallel to ancient European beliefs in witchcraft, and parallel to practices of other people around the world who are also said to believe in witchcraft. In order to be better informed he needs to read books in English about witchcraft. He is expected to super-impose the understanding he acquires onto his own understanding of his own people. Asamoah-Gyadu, apparently the only non-Westerner contributing to the 39(1) issue of IBMR, has had to go through such a process. Asamoah-Gyadu cites the following twelve Western scholars in his article: Stephen Ellis, Gerrie ter Haar, Hans W. Debrunner, Aylward Shorter, Robert S. Rattray, Peter Geschiere, Harold W. Turner, Gerhardus Oosthuizen, Birgit Meyer, Peter C. Wagner, Rebecca Brown, and C. H. Kraft. He also cites nine African scholars, Elias Bongmba, Kwame Bediako, Emmanuel Milingo, E. A. Asamoa, Douglas Akwasi Owusu, Asonzeh F.-K. Ukah, Opoku Onyinah, Emeka Nwankpa, Eastwood Anaba. The latter have of course built their understanding on the foundations of Western scholarship in the course of long intense studies. Asamoah-Gyadu’s biography emphasises his credibility by saying: he “has served as visiting scholar at Harvard University (2004), Luther Seminary in St. Paul (2007), and the Overseas Ministries Study Center (2012)” (Asamoah-Gyadu 2015:23). Now I do not blame Asamoah-Gyadu for doing this! I am simply pointing out that credibility in those scholarly circles arises from one’s track record in engaging with the West. Unfortunately, to get a ‘voice’ in Western scholarship; he might have had to ‘invent’ witchcraft for his own people.

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Category: In Depth, Spring 2016

About the Author: Jim Harries, PhD (University of Birmingham), is is professor of religion with Global University and adjunct faculty with William Carey International University. He works closely with a wide variety of churches in western Kenya in informal theological education. These include many African founded churches, Pentecostal churches, and the Coptic Orthodox church. Jim uses indigenous languages, and local resources in his ministry. He chairs the Alliance for Vulnerable Mission and is the author of Vulnerable Mission: Insights into Christian Mission to Africa from a Position of Vulnerability (William Carey Library, 2011), Three Days in the Life of an African Christian Villager (New Generation Publishing, 2011), Theory to Practice in Vulnerable Mission: An Academic Appraisal (Wipf and Stock, 2012), Communication in Mission and Development: Relating to the Church in Africa (Wipf and Stock, 2013), Secularism and Africa: In the Light of the Intercultural Christ (Wipf and Stock, 2015), New Foundations for Appreciating Africa: Beyond Religious and Secular Deceptions (VKW, 2016), and a novel African Heartbeat: And A Vulnerable Fool (2018). Facebook: Vulnerable Mission. Twitter: @A4VM.

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