BRINGING THE AFRICAN CULTURE INTO THE CHURCH

 

By Buti Tlhagale

 

 

1. Introduction

 

It is easy on hindsight, to speak of the African culture meeting with the western and Christian cultures in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and in search of those common elements that reinforce the values embedded in each culture. This has not always been the case. Colonialism did not create space for the African culture. The dominant group did not recognise that African culture had its own wisdom, insights and values that informed the lives of Africans. African culture appeared to have had an arrested growth. At any rate the aspiration of the dominant group was to civilize the Africans or to assimilate them into their culture. At times the intention was to keep them at bay. This was the case under the apartheid system. It was the refusal to recognize Africans as equals, the refusal to recognize their own worldview and its inherent values that gave rise to the emergence of exclusively African churches. It was also this denial that compelled Africans to accept Christianity and yet cling to their own culture. The upshot was that the African culture in many ways remained closed and challenged in part by the new dominant culture or aspects of it withered away under pressure from both western and Christian cultures.

 

The initial discourse on inculturation presupposed a culturally hostile environment. Culture was then understood normatively: "It was a matter of acquiring and assimilating the tastes and skills, the ideals, virtues and ideas" of the dominant groups. Discourse on inculturation began when the universalist and classicist views of culture began to give way to the pluralist way of conceiving culture. Inculturation became a plea from the African heart for recognition. This plea for cultural recognition went hand-in-hand with the demand for political recognition. The recognition of cultural pluralism has not always been a given. It is only when the diversity of cultures is recognized that one can speak of the meeting of cultures. Even then, there is no doubt that the dominant culture accepts this grudgingly. The issuing of norms for inculturation suggests that there is a perceived need to control the process of inculturation. Unexpected surprises are kept at bay. Inculturation does not presume that faith can be preached outside the medium of a given culture. Faith in South Africa has been brought through the medium of western/Christian culture - comprising of the messenger, steeped in a foreign culture, language, written texts, symbols, liturgy, rituals, utensils, gestures, hymns, vestments, a belief system, a worldview, concept of persons and community etc. Inculturation recognizes that faith has its own life. It is not like a spirit imprisoned in a bottle or in a particular culture though it is always expressed in one or another cultural form. Inculturation argues that faith can find a home in an African culture and indeed open up its new home to new challenges. Faith, because it has its own life, its own norms, will necessarily transform the host culture so that it becomes of that culture and yet not of that culture. In this situation, there obtains what Cardinal Ratzinger describes as a fruitful tension, a tension that "renews faith and heals culture". Faith creates a new culture, a new meaning even though this new culture may use distinctive features of the host culture. Faith is the leaven that unshackles the African culture from its own self-imprisonment, from the limitations inherent in the African worldview.

 

Western culture, hand-in-hand with Christianity, has also had a critical impact on African culture. Both these cultural forces exposed the African culture to the influence of progress, self-cleansing and a deeper understanding of the culture itself.

The following represent some of the ideas or beliefs that have either been critically challenged or whose meaning has been purified.

 

2. Freedom from the fear of the dead

 

Faith in God as the all-powerful father, as the all-merciful mother, as the creator and foundation of all being, has dethroned the ancestors from the human-made pedestal. The belief in the power of ancestors to inflict pain or to enhance life, the belief that they can control the destiny of human beings, has been radically adjusted. Their god-like status as superhuman beings has been reduced to the status of deceased human beings. Indeed they no longer are ordinary human beings for they now belong to the world of the spirit. They have increasingly ceased to be the cornerstone of the Africanís religious consciousness though they remain an essential part of it. Faith in God has progressively become the determining factor of religious consciousness. It is the spirit of God that brings about enlightenment and freedom. Fear of the capriciousness of the ancestors gradually gives way to the gospel of freedom and hope. It no longer becomes necessary to indulge in elaborate rituals which serve to pacify the malevolent spirits. It is Christ who brings freedom, freedom from the fear of the dead.

 

It was the advent of Christianity that taught Africans to pray in a more elaborate and spontaneous form. While sacrifices were common, these were not necessarily accompanied by prayers. Even today, the slaughtering of sacrificial animals is generally performed without prayers. Fred Ellenberger in his History of the Basotho, Ancient and Modern writes that "there is no trace whatever of any prayers, sacrifices, etc., for the dead, all these being to the dead on behalf of the living." He further writes that the living-dead "were not believed to suffer any remorse, or indeed any punishment for evil committed on earth". Christianity on the other hand, has brought about a new understanding. The living have to pray for the dead for they too need to be saved. Prayers continue to be directed to the dead but above all to God on behalf of the living and the dead. The state of the dead is not a repetition of their earthly life. They have been transformed into an entirely different state of being. Casalis wrote that the generally held view was that they "wander about in silent calm, experiencing neither joy nor sorrow". St Augustine taught that our souls will not rest until they rest in God. Christianity breaks this state of lukewarmness and instils a message of hope and a promise of eternal joy. It was also argued that longevity was a reward for the sacrifices offered to the ancestors. Christianity on the other hand, teaches that long life on earth is as a result of adhering to the gospel values.

Traditional healers (mathuela, izangoma) - not herbalists - claim that "they receive instruction regarding herbs directly from the ancestors". Such claims defy reason. They attribute to ancestors what ordinarily appears preposterous. The dead do not talk back. They neither inflict sickness nor prescribe a cure. The claims of the healers must be found wanting. It is plausible however that a social order that gives rise to specific illnesses is also capable of ritually addressing these ritual illnesses.

Ancestors (amadlozi, badimo) are always referred to in the plural. They are a collective. Once the proper burial rites or rites of incorporation (ukubuyisa) have been performed, the deceased become members of the collective. They are never singled out for veneration. This belief is at odds with the Christian belief that maintains the subjective identities of individuals after death. Each man or each woman is expected to give an account of his/her stewardship.

 

3. Freedom from the Yoke of Magic, Witchcraft and Divination

 

Both the process of Inculturation, the deepening of faith and the ever-increasing influence of education have an effect of subverting the belief in magic, witchcraft and divination. It is important not to underestimate the depth of the belief in the African worldview. While this worldview is in the process of transformation, of opening itself up to the influences of other cultural forces, it nonetheless continues to have a firm grip on the minds of many Africans. Many Christian believers have an ambivalent attitude to the practices of magic witchcraft and divination.

 

4. Magic. False association of ideas

 

The belief that human beings can control their social and physical environments to their advantage is still pervasive. The curiosity to have prior knowledge of events still persists and so the practice of magic continues. It is this desire to manipulate impersonal powers by means of ritual that is challenged by Christianity and by education. Magic blames human beings for the misfortune incurred or for whatever natural calamity that befalls people. The practitioners of magic believe that they can produce an effect by a simple art of imitation or that they can affect a person by simply acting on an object with which that person has been in contact (James Frazer). Magic posits a belief in an "impulse" or a "secret sympathy" which connects two separate objects. Virtues of certain materials or substances have been literally understood to possess extraordinary qualities. In the case of ritual murder, parts of the human body (the heart or sexual organs) are used to concoct medicine which is expected to achieve the desired effect. Mutilation of the body or corpse of a strong person is intended for medicine which is supposed to give strength or skill of the person whose body has been mutilated. Powder medicine made out of the skin of the snake, thorns, lionís claw, hair from a lionís mane or from a bull etc. is believed to possess the same qualities as the animals or plants from which it has been made. James Frazer gives an example of Batswana warriors who wear the hair of a hornless ox because a hornless ox is hard to catch or they wear the skin of a frog on their mantles because it is slippery. Magic he writes, "is a mistaken association of ideas". Such beliefs are being challenged by education by breaking the false association of ideas. There is a clear danger that the belief in magic is likely to be transferred to Christian belief and practices. Blessed items such as holy water, blessed oil, candles, Easter palm branches, incense, scapula, medals etc. are thought to possess magical power that can effect an immediate cure or offer protection from evil spirits just like amulets from a traditional healer. Under such circumstances, the boundary between magic and faith becomes very tenuous.

 

 

5. Divination: A dangerous game of guesswork

 

Divination is "the practice of foreseeing future events or discovering hidden knowledge through supernatural means. Animal bones are used in the practice of divination. Before throwing the bones, the diviner (selaoli) or the patient blows upon the bone, thus imbuing them symbolically "with the spirit of the person seeking the answer they should reveal." Divining bones are attributed with "visionary power". Do they actually have any visionary power? Can they reveal the cause of sickness or misfortune? Gellner has this to say about judging traditional beliefs as being absurd: "It may be that the absurdity is located not in the original belief itself but in its translation, inspired by the failure to understand the original context." It was Omar Moore who likened the art of divination to the games of strategy and he also argued that "it is possible that through a long process of creative trial and error some societies have arrived at some approximate solutions for recurring problems". Today diviners use the method of questioning their patients, encouraging them to agree (vuma) with him or her in deciphering the cause of illness.

Credulous people continue to be duped by individuals who claim to possess skills of "reading" the divining bones or who claim to possess secret knowledge. Limit-situations compel suffering people to seek information about their situation with the hope of finding solutions to their problems or to their state of misfortune. Blaming it on the neighbour or jealous relatives as the diviner invariably suggests, only heightens tension and intensifies fear. It is the truth about the conditions of human beings that should be sought. Ignorance and credulousness must give way to knowledge and freedom. Under such circumstances, the formation of a good conscience becomes imperative so that people may be able to seek the truth rather than be subjected to the machinations of diviners who prey on the ignorant and the gullible.

 

6. Witchcraft: The "mistaken" symbol of evil

 

Feelings of envy and jealousy, of strong disagreements and cut-throat competition need not all be blamed on individuals whom the community regard as sinister and evil. Traditionally, witches were regarded and continue to be regarded as the embodiment of evil. They are a convenient scapegoat for the problems of the community. They are an irrational explanation of the ills of the community. They are said to possess mystical powers that can harm people. Such people are generally harassed by members of the community. This stubborn belief persists even today. Some people find it difficult to accept that objective conditions may militate against their success or well-being or that their condition of illness or misfortune has nothing to do with the next person. There is a clear reluctance to accept personal accountability for certain situations. Chance-events are excluded hence the need for scapegoats.

 

Faith education on the other hand brings along with it a morality of discernment, a critique of the local culture. Faith in Jesus Christ and his message of love challenges the indiscriminate attacks on so-called witches. They are after all neighbours. Witches can only be evil if their actions have evil consequences and not simply because people attribute evil intentions to them. It is also known today that there is no evidence that some people have mystical powers that enable them to change their own shape or to become invisible so as to harm others. Both faith and education act as yeast within the African culture thus bringing about a purification of culture. Individual consciences are gradually awakened. Personal responsibility is promoted. The belief that mystical powers are possessed by certain individuals is increasingly shown to be hollow. The explanation of evil is shifted from witchcraft and relocated in the human heart. Evil is simply personified as Satan or captured in the symbol of darkness.

 

7. Healing and Inauthenticity

 

Traditional healers (mathuela, izangoma) are believed to heal their patients through the mediation of ancestors. They are said to depend on the promptings or revelations of the ancestors. Some illnesses are said to be sent by the ancestors. Such ritual illnesses can only be cured by ritual performance. During the ritual performance, the use of the drum is, said to be of utmost importance because the drum is seen as a medium of communication per excellence between the healer and the ancestors. Wells offers an explanation that dream messages from the ancestors "are similar to attempts by the unconscious mind to restore equilibrium with the psyche by drawing attention to facts of which the conscious self was unaware". What is being challenged here is the superhuman role of the ancestors and the authenticity of healers who claim that they can induce the presence of the ancestral spirits and effect a cure. Ashton once wrote that women became healers (mathuela) because they were simply bored and not because there was any real value or authenticity in the healing practice. Sickness attributed to ancestral displeasures also raises a host of questions about the fertile imaginations of those who claim to receive promptings from ancestral spirits.

 

8. Seriti versus Sehihi (Dignity v/s ill-luck)

 

A status of dignity (isithunzi) is achieved through self-construction, through oneís ability to create social value, to maintain or enhance oneís livelihood to create a family and to establish a network of relationships. Such a person is described as being alive (oa khona, oa phela).

 

But then it is possible for such a person to be overcome by the power of evil spirits, by misfortune or by the machinations of oneís fellow beings. Such a person is described as being in a state of "sehihi", (isinyama, ishwa). The Comaroffs describe such a status of being eclipsed by negative forces as "social death". The reversal of this condition is effected through ritual healing that aims at restoring self-confidence and balanced relationships.

 

9. Drums, Dance and the Clapping of Hands

 

In the past, the tearing of the skin of the drum was a symbol of conversion to Christianity. This was based on the belief that the drum was a medium of communication between the traditional healer and the ancestors. The sound of the drum is believed to arouse the ancestral spirits. It is believed that through the sound of the drum together with the accompanying rhythmic dancing and the clapping of hands, the traditional healer can bring about the presence of the ancestral spirits. It is believed that in the context of a healing ritual, dancing soothes the pain. It restores the lost equilibrium. It is therefore seen as a physiological therapy. Wells records that many healers said that they would often beat the drum before sleeping in order to request the ancestors to communicate with them through dreams.

 

The use of drums as a means of communicating with the ancestral spirits remain valid at a symbolic level. It is an intentional invitation to the spirits to heed the requests of the supplicants. It also has the effect of summoning the applicants to be attentive. It is for this reason that in some African cultures drums are being used during consecration not only to create an appropriate spiritual disposition but also to acknowledge the divine presence after the words of consecration have been pronounced.

 

10. Rite of renewal/purification

 

This is the ritual of the first fruits. While it is difficult to envisage such a ritual in the urban area where vegetables are available throughout the year from supermarkets, it does still make sense in rural communities. The first-fruits were ceremonially consumed at the chiefís place. The pulp of the leaves was rubbed onto the body. A new fire was kindled. Jean Comarroff writes that "this ritual served to tie the maturation of the crops to the recreation of the social community. The rubbing of parts of the body with pulp from the leaves of the first fruits suggests an intimacy with nature as it renews itself. In their symbolic interaction, human beings participate in the process of revitalization. The kindling of a new fire symbolises purification and the release of new personal and social energy.

 

10. Rites of Reconciliation

 

a) "Ukuthelelana amanzi" (to wash each otherís hands).

Berglund in his Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism, discusses the Zulu traditional ritual of reconciliation. When kinsmen are at loggerheads, a third party is called in to mediate. He or she invites them to cool the heat of anger or hatred. The divided two would be seated opposite each other. Water mixed with ash and traditional medicine would be given to each person to wash his hands. Each would then be given a chance to air their complaints or concerns. The mediator summarizes the statements of each person and asks them whether they are willing to forgive and forget. Each then takes a mouthful of water mixed with ash and spits it over his left shoulder. Thereafter the two drink beer from the same calabash.. This is the communion of purification. Meat or beer is used. Such a ritual can be adapted and limited to the washing of hands. The symbolic cooling effect of water points to a spiritual disposition of reconciliation.

 

b) Clasping hands with chime (mosoang)

Two enemies clasp hands with chime as a sign of reconciliation. Chime is used because it has the same cooling effect as water. After this ceremony of reconciliation, all eat together including the witnesses. This is once more the communion of purification and reconciliation. (see Ellenberger, 258, 1992). It is not always possible to kill an animal for the purpose of a reconciliation ceremony, a substitute with the same cooling properties as chime may be used (water, ash, urine etc.). If these rites were to be adopted, appropriate prayers that allude to the qualities of the symbols used would have to be composed.

 

c) The rite of "TSU"

Hammond Tooke records a Tsonga reconciliation rite taken from Junod. In preparing for the rite, a herb called mudahomu (grass eaten by cattle) is poured into a broken shell of a fruit (sala). This shell is also used for drinking water. The divided brothers sit on the bare ground in the village square. The offender sips the medicine and spits it out making the sound of "tsu" and says: "This is our imprecation. We have pronounced it because our hearts were sore. Today it must come to an end. It is right that we make peace". The other repeats the same rite and says: "I was angry but let us make peace and eat from the same spoon and drink out of the same pot and be friends again". He breaks the shell and they then drink beer together. This reconciliation has taken place under the auspices of the ancestors. It certainly can take place before God the merciful father. Junod writes that such a ritual has no effect if is done with a stranger (whose ancestor does not belong to the same clan).

The process of inculturation challenges this restrictive interpretation of symbols. These symbols are given a meaning beyond the clan. The process of adaptation will uproot them from ó indeed free them from óthe narrow interpretation in order to relocate them within in a broader cultural context where the object of supplication is ultimately God and not only the ancestors. This stems from the realisation that in offending against the neighbour one sins against God hence the need to be reconciled to God and to neighbour. Indeed one has also offended against the ancestral spirits for they too are part of the community that has an interest in the well-being of its members.

 

The above-mentioned rites are social in their character and in their effects. They are not a private affair. The community bears witness to the act of reconciliation. This reconciliation has an impact on both the individuals and the community. This dimension appears lost in the current church practice. Within the context of evangelisation, the rite would assume a new meaning. Not only is the rite social but it would also be ecclesial. Sin offends God and "wounds" the church. Godís forgiving love is received through the act of being reconciled to the church. The rite of reconciliation in the church is also an act of community worship. The mediator is replaced by a priest though a case can be made for lay people to act as mediators in a non-sacramental ceremony. These new theological and liturgical dimensions would then enrich and deepen the meaning of a rite adopted from the local culture.

 

d) Purification by Fire

Today people walk over graves without even thinking twice. In the past, walking over a grave was a source of defilement. Purification was achieved by the ritual of singing, the feet of the ritually defiled person in the flame. This symbolism lends itself to being applied in similar cases of ritual defilement.

 

e) Horn (Lenaka) symbol of medicine

The Basotho used a horn to store their medicine. The horn became known as a medicine container. It became the substitute word for medicine. In thinking about artefacts such as a container for holy oils, a horn would have an aesthetic appeal within the local cultures.

 

11. The use of local idiom

 

I have to satisfy myself with simply listing examples of rites that are open to change while retaining the essential meaning of the rites. These rites, once they are purified they are capable if transmitting the Christian message. I now want to mention in passing that there will be a need to look at the idiomatic expressions of the local languages as we seek to translate words and concepts. An example that comes to mind is spirit possession. Within the Zulu culture, when an individual is about to become a diviner (isangoma) he/she is first possessed by an ancestral spirit. This is an indication that that person must undergo initiation. This kind of spirit possession is technically referred to as "ukuthwasa.". While the use of such a concept would have been associated with pagan rites, we contend that the same concept can be used to describe the activity of the Holy Spirit among Christians. The ancestral spirit is said to give light, knowledge of appropriate medicines and indeed effect a cure. The Holy Spirit on the other hand, endows Christians with the spirit of discernment, wisdom, courage, knowledge etc. The new meaning given to the term "ukuthwasa" builds on the original meaning of the word. Its new meaning derives from a new context, the Christian context. It also assumes that there is a radically different understanding of who the ancestors are and what their role is. It also presupposes an informed belief in God, the Holy Spirit. It should therefore not be seen as introducing religious syncretism. The meaning of the word would have changed radically because of its application to the role of the holy spirit. Inculturation is therefore a process that identifies, purifies and translates concepts that are best suited to communicate Christian experience.

 

12. Conclusion

 

The above indicate that the process of inculturation is at a moment when different elements of the local culture are being identified and discussed with the view to their transformation. The not-so-easy process of discernment has begun. The patrimony of the churchís teaching and tradition will increasingly play a critical role in recasting the original rites of the local culture. The goal of this process is to allow the Christian message as received and as experienced, to express itself in the local culture. There is no doubt that the African worldview as it was known, will never be the same again.