YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – A Cameroonian priest and intellectual has published a ground-breaking book that could potentially change the way African Traditional Religion is perceived by the Catholic Church.
In Studying the Faith of Our Ancestors: A New Approach to African Traditional Religion, Father Humphrey Tatah Mbuy argues that African Traditional Religion has historically been misunderstood and denigrated, due to a lack of understanding of its intrinsic value. He argues that ATR must be studied as a religion in its own right, and contends that Christianity as we know it today actually has its roots in African Traditional religion.
The book argues that Africans have always been a people steeped in faith, but the colonizing influence of the west made the African peoples feel inferior and their religious practices demonized.
“There are no pagan in Africa,” Mbuy told Crux in an exclusive interview shortly after the launch of the book on August 12. “There is no African who does not believe in the Supreme.”
The following are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Mbuy.
The narrative has always been that God was brought to Africa by western missionaries. Is this book a negation of that narrative?
Mbuy: In this book I point out that the concept of one God actually came from Africa, not from Europe, so it is Africa who became the first monotheists, not the Europeans. We are unfortunate that the truth about us has never been known, and we don’t make enough effort to find out about ourselves.
Coming to Christianity, Jesus Christ would have been born African, because the Jews were in Egypt and we drove them out, and when they went out he came back to Africa, and would have been still back in his home and we again drove them out. … There is no such thing as a “pagan” in Africa. This might surprise anyone, because a pagan from the Latin word paganus means someone who does not believe in a supreme being. There is no African who does not believe in the supreme. So, Africans are all believers. [Some] don’t believe in God the way Christians do … they are adherents of African Traditional Religions. We should begin to teach this religion as a religion by itself.
You just claimed that Africa is at the origin of monotheism. Isn’t that a little bit contradictory when you look at the various ‘gods’ that Africans tend to worship?
The six stones of African traditional religion are, first, a belief in a supreme, then a belief in deities or what we call divinities who are both good and bad. The third stone is belief in our ancestors – a those who were title holders who lived well, died and are with God, who are part of the living dead. The fourth is belief in human life, the fifth is belief in the community, [and] the sixth is belief in culture as the rule of morality.
If you go to Europe and America, they also believed in some gods. Look at all the seven civilizations of the world, there is not one that did not have their gods, and it may shock you to know that what we have today as all the 12 months of the year are named for Roman gods. So are we accepting the Roman gods and can’t accept our own? The problem with us has been our nonchalance, and the lack of the courage to dig up what belongs to us and assume our right and our identity.
Did early missionaries come to Africa with a colonization agenda, given that they demonized the African gods, shelved the existence of ‘gods’ in their own history, and projecting Christianity as the only way to Salvation?
I do not want to think in those terms. They came from their own background. When you enter a place, you carry with it your own background.
When they came here, they talked of “church,” and they were looking for buildings. We had shrines, so they didn’t see churches. They saw shrines and thought these were adulterations, rather than signs of the presence of God. The Nso people [the tribe from which Mbuy comes] went under trees and rivers and sacrificed themselves to the Supreme God, and [the missionaries] thought they were worshiping stones and rivers. They did not understand, and the Africans … did not explain matters to them as should have been explained.
For example, if you watch very carefully where the people worship on a stone, it’s not just any stone, it’s a stone which has a certain strangeness about it, and it is that atmosphere of strangeness that evokes the presence of God. When you look at where they are at rivers, it is where the river is silent and it is that atmosphere of silence that evokes the presence of God. Look at the mountains, it is a mountain that is different. So, it is a lack of understanding of the culture of the people.
There’s nothing like a superior culture and inferior culture. Unfortunately, we have always made ourselves into the laughingstock of the world. We have the things and others come to us, get them, and we keep on crying foul without doing anything. I think it is time that we stop even thinking of white colonialism and whatever they did. Just forget about it and let us now say the tiger has come of age and it should show what it is capable of, full stop.
In 1995, Pope John Paul II traveled to Cameroon to present “Ecclesia in Africa,” representing the conclusions of the 1994 Synod for Africa. Is this reconsideration of traditional religion part of his legacy?
I say with deep sadness, we in Cameroon don’t get our blessings. The church had never published a document of this magnitude outside the Vatican, and the first time that this was done was in Cameroon. We sat and just took it for granted, you know. We just take our own blessings for granted. I don’t even think that it struck Cameroonians, but that was a history-making event.
When the Pope came back here and launched “Ecclesia in Africa,” section 67 said we should go and teach African traditional religion. Our problem as anthropologists, as scholars, was where do we get the material from? That’s why together with the present bishop of Aguleri in Nigeria, I decided to champion the course with him. We went all over Africa, gathering scholars to get this think-tank. This [book] is a fruit of what we did, and what they asked me to do.
I think, again, this is a primer. It’s coming from Cameroon. We take it so much for granted that I’m just wondering when are we ever going to know that this country is special and we can get many special things from there.
I’m just wondering how you went about writing this book. Obviously, it required a lot of research but also overcoming a lot of obstacles.
You are right. This is my 25th book. Usually, I take a year or a year and six months and I’m done with a book, but this took me 10 years. First, I had to read about 250 books on African traditional religion from different angles by various experts on the field, then go out for field work and meet the scholars themselves, some of them, and discuss with them. It hasn’t been easy. To put all that together, I think it was the grace of God that we came out with this. We’ve already done the French translation because Francophone Africa has been asking for it too.
I met lots of opposition from priests, from bishops, from all kinds of people who do not understand. But I didn’t see it as opposition. I saw it as an expression sometimes of ignorance.
What was their argument?
Many people still feel that everything African is bad. That’s why when somebody plays football well, they say, il joue comme un blanc (roughly translated ‘he plays like a white’) even if he’s African. When somebody is neat, he is as neat as a white man. I don’t know where it has come from, but we always feel that the good things belong to Europe and America and to the white race.
But we Africans, to be candid, we have so much, so much that if we sat back and looked into ourselves, to be candid, we would rule the world … If we managed things well for ourselves, we would have nothing to regret. Nothing.
This is a book, I understand, that is vetted by the Vatican. Was it your idea or did it come from the Vatican?
For 10 years I worked with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. There was a lot of material on Islam, a lot of material on Christianity, very little on African traditional religion. And that is where the impetus came, can we do something too? Various scholars in Africa have written on different angles of African traditional religion. For example, Laurenti Magesa has written on ethics from an African perspective. Other scholars have written looking at the community. But this is a holistic approach on how to study it and what it is actually. I think this is something which I can’t take pride in. I only thank God that we were able to reach this far.
Will I be wrong if I leave the Catholic Church and I go back to my village and pour libations to my ancestors, asking for blessings? Would that be the appropriate way Africans have to worship going forward?
I think if you leave now as a Christian and go back there, there will be something wrong.
There is a chapter where I first call African traditional religion “Anonymous Christianity.” When it is anonymous, it means that it has to be brought to light. Call African traditional religion the seed. You don’t take a seed for the tree. The seed has to grow into a tree. If we were to put it in terms of comparison, and I don’t like to do comparative studies, Christianity would be like the tree that has blossomed, and African traditional religion would be like the seed that was planted.
Now, when you already have the tree, you don’t bother about the seed, because the seed is already what you sowed to get the tree, and the tree is what you were actually after. So, I think from that perspective let’s try to talk more and that’s why my last chapter there is on inculturation. There are many things in African traditional religion that can help Christianity take better roots in Africa. In fact, if we had actually looked at our culture, Africa would be the most Christian place and our people, as Pope John Paul II said, should be truly African and truly Christian.
I’ve watched videos online of masquerades dancing in the church. Does that tie in with the concept of inculturation? What does it mean, actually?
There’s a big world of difference between enculturation and adaptation. We are still at the level of adaptation, which is about a thousand miles away from inculturation. Adaptation means you just adapt what is there, and sometimes you can adapt what is completely wrong. And I see people, all these jujus, if I were to stop one of those dancing jujus, I’d ask you, what was this juju meant for in your culture? And what enables you to bring it to church? How does that reflect and help you become a better Christian?
This is where our problems are. Inculturation does not mean anybody takes anything now and comes to church in the name of culture. Some people don’t even know what their culture is, and they just carry things from left to right and bring it. Some of the songs they sing in the country talk, and they sound very nice. If you sit down and analyze them, just grammatically, some of them are horrible. But we sing them in church, and everybody enjoys the melody, but nobody takes the time to analyze the theology and the meaning of the words that are used. This is adaptation, and sometimes downright syncretism and a bad melange of two things that you don’t even understand and you end up you don’t know what you wanted to do. So, in inculturation, we need experts, people who are experts in both anthropology and at the same time theology. Then you can do inculturation.
Does your book, in essence, bring Africans to Christ, or just highlight the various ways Africans have been trying to reach out to God?
There is only one God, whatever you call him. Whether you call him Nyuy, or you call him Feyin, or you call him Dieu, or you call him God, or you call him Deus, it doesn’t matter. He is God. There’s only one God.
That God, historically, came into human history in the person of Jesus the Christ. We cannot deny that. That’s a historical fact. That Christ, at Caesarea Philippi, established the one holy Catholic and apostolic church. That you can’t deny. That’s historical. Okay? So, if you are looking for religion as it has evolved, it has evolved from our own reasoning of how God is to God himself coming into our midst and from there everything goes on.
When you do studies of comparative religion, it’s very exciting because you put into context how each religion came about. You have historically Hinduism, then you have Buddhism, then you’ve got Taoism and from there Judaism, from Judaism Christianity, from Christianity you’ve got Islam and then the African traditional religion and other non-scriptural religions were the base.
You have to look at religion in a very wide perspective. Each and every one of us here has a religious sense and center. Without that religion, your life is meaningless … If you look at the history of the seven civilizations, look at the six civilizations that have passed, all of them depended on religion to survive. Each time they threw away religion, their civilization collapsed.
Now, you ask me whether I’m leading people to Christ or not. Christ is God and that is the only direction we lead people to. There can be nothing else, no salvation except through God and Christ is God made man. Sometimes you hear people saying Christianity is a foreign religion, but no. Some of the earliest Christians or followers of Christ were Africans. It was an African who helped him carry the Cross, Simon of Cyrene. Out of 264 Popes who have died, there are four of them who were Africans and all the four Africans are saints.
Sometimes we talk without understanding our own history and then we think we are being cheated. No, we are cheating ourselves … Africa is a giant, but the West has succeeded in making us doubt ourselves and transformed us into Lilliputians.