Pentecostalism, media and cultural discourse in Africa

By  on March 06, 2007
Sankofa: Pentecostalism in African Cultural Discourse

Many African countries have dug deeply into traditional values for cultural symbols of unity. In the rainbow ideology of South Africa, the television features a stimulating jingle, Simunye-e-e-e, we are one! In Ghana, Sankofa, a Twi word, is one of the symbols used to promote unity based on the recovery of Ghanaian cultural heritage. Each of the symbols affirms a salient value that should be cultivated. Sankofa is the bird that turns its head to look backwards in the direction from where it came because a person who is not conscious about where a journey started may not know where he /she is going. This symbol urges people to “go back and take it”, or look back and reclaim the cultural heritage.

Pentecostal cultural discourse must be set within the other discourses canvassed as scholars explain the recent explosion of Pentecostalism in Africa. The historical discourse takes a long view to show how the movement’s historical origins hold clues to its contemporary salience. It fits the movement into the trail of ferment in African Christianity and the African’s attraction towards the charismatic or pneumatic tradition within the gospel. Some scholars have deployed the instrumentalist explanation that runs into various grooves. It images the growth of the movement as an aspect of a religious response to contemporary cultural challenges and Africa’s struggle to respond to the economic, social and cultural forces of modernity and globalization. It is a functionalist analysis that examines the response of the movement to a cultural environment embattled by external global cultural forces. Hot Christianity becomes a solace from the harsh realities of the collapse of economies, marauding poverty, softness of the state, failed leadership and legitimacy crises. The tendency is to start the analysis from the external cultural contexts and show how Africa responds to the forces of externality: modernity and globalization. It ignores the indigenous factor and limits the interpretation of Pentecostalism to its salience in “globalizing economies.”

An awkward strand applies a conspiratorial theory to expose the covert activities of the American security forces in alliance with the American Right-Wing fundamentalists.2 Undeniably, there must be a religious response to the socio-economic and political forces in contemporary Africa. Indeed, every religious form addresses the issues of the day or risk losing relevance. It is however unclear why certain choices are made in a congested religious market place. The religious discourse images Pentecostalism in Africa as primarily a religious movement. To ignore this will be like watching a dancing madman without hearing the music playing in his ears. Africans say that the madman may look stupid but he is hearing the spirits blowing sweet tunes with the conch.3 They also say that how a spectator describes a masquerade procession depends on where the person stood. These scholars have interpreted the movement from various stances, methodologies, biases, vested interests and ideologies. The movement should benefit from the interdisciplinary resources because it will be reductionist to fasten onto any mono-causal mast.

The burden here is to explore a different discourse, the cultural discourse and to start from a different location. The cultural discourse argues that Pentecostalism has grown because of its cultural fit into indigenous worldviews and its response to the questions that are raised within the interior of the worldviews. It asserts that the indigenous worldview still dominates contemporary African experience and shapes the character of African Pentecostalism. It interprets African Pentecostalism as the “setting to work” of the pneumatic semen of the gospel in Africa, at once showing how Africans appropriated the gospel message, how they responded to the presence of the kingdom in their midst, and how its power transformed their worldviews. Exercising a measure of agency, African Christians absorbed new resources generated internally and externally in reshaping their histories. The face of Christianity acquired a different character in the encounter because it was now expressed in the idiom of the African world. This means that the conversation partners in shaping Pentecostal ideology and praxis are the indigenous religions and cultures, the experiences of individuals and communities of contemporary cultures and competing religious forms in urban and rural contexts, biblical resources and a certain ecclesiastical tradition or the pneumatically-driven Pentecostal image of the church. These are not discreet categories but shape the being, saying and doing of the Pentecostal movement. They are useful sources for revisiting the debate on Pentecostal response to African cultural heritage.

Recently, the social scientific method in doing the cultural analysis and this has become quite a significant voice in constructing the image of Pentecostalism. This voice virtually drowns the theological voice because it is “scientific” and is embellished with prolific jargons. It is built on certain assumptions, worldview and methodology that jar with theological method. According to Michael Barnes, the history of secular social science theorizing has put theologians on guard. Some treat the social sciences

less as a servant than as an animal to be domesticated, like goats worth milking once in awhile but to be tethered outside the tent where their gamey odor will not disturb the finer air of theology.4

  • Yet some models of cultural analysis share the same assumptions in theological anthropology. From both perspectives, we must be attentive to three dimensions in the conversation between religious traditions and cultures: how the religious traditions challenge cultures by posturing in a prophetic stance, how religious traditions are challenged by cultures and how religious traditions could engage the resources of cultures in pursuit of their own religious mission.
  • Equally important is a revisit of political economy under the colonial canopy. To profile the terrain, we deploy the theory of three publics that modifies P.P. Ekeh’s concept of two publics. He argued that colonialism created two publics, that the African exploited the niches between the traditional and civic (modern) publics in negotiating citizenship and responsibility.5 It is more complex. There are three interpenetrating “publics” in the African political and moral universe: the indigenous culture or public, an emergent culture/public created in the encounter between the indigenous and the western cultures and the external western public that is maintained by multinational corporations, international organizations and other agents of globalization who operate with a western mindset. Foreign education and global forces keep the character of the western public in Africa’s present. One could hear the white complaints about their hosts’ different work ethics, priorities and lifestyle, indicating that this public is peripheral but influential because of the amount of resources that it controls. The most powerful political space is located in the emergent public that is neither primal nor western, a veritable mélange of both. One of the songs by the Afro-jazz artist, Fela Ransome Kuti dubbed it, shakara culture (lacking stable roots), spawned in the sabob gari(strangers’ quarters) of the urban environment. It has its own value system bred in the anonymity of the town. Studies on African urbanity have described the strangeness, allure, opportunities and challenges of this environment. Under the imprint of Heinneman’s Africa Writers series, novelists such as Wole Sonyika in his The Interpreters, Alex la Guma’s Down Second Avenue, Cyprian Ekwensi’s Lokotown and Jagua Nana have recreated the noise, bustle, slums and chaos in African cities. As a society is thrust into the enlarged or re-organized macrocosm, new lifestyles and ethical options are spawned.6

From this moral perspective, it is as if the urban is a deviation, lacking authenticity, a veritable wasteland inhabited by “black Englishmen” who were neither English nor authentic Africans. Changing value systems ensured that people did things in the emergent public that they would not dare to do in the indigenous or western publics. In the latter they would be imprisoned; in the former gods were the policemen. But the emergent public was regarded as the white man’s world where people did the white man’s work and live in “half London.” To foray there successfully was an achievement to be celebrated with the flute and drum. People learned to loot in the emergent public without due repercussions in the primal context as long as they were not caught and brought home and shared the wealth with the kinsfolk. The interplay between the three publics has been used to explain the breakdown of social control models and the moral collapse in contemporary culture. James Ferguson has theorized the cultural dualism in rural connections and urban styles in his book, Expectation of Modernity. He urges that urban scholarship should focus on circular migration rather than rural-urban migration precisely because most African migrants spend the period in the urban environment in planning the re-entry or return to the homesteads. So, he designed the character of urban life as a spectrum from two polarities, the cosmopolitan capability and localist capability. As a town dweller shows a high cosmopolitan style and urban competence, the risk may be a decreasing capability to perform localist expectations. Villagers often label such people as being ‘lost.’7

  • It, therefore, matters where an analysis starts or is located because many studies on African Pentecostalism are usually placed in the contemporary period and in the context of urbanity and its shakara (rootless) culture. From here, assertions are made that ignore in-depth ethnographical research and that presume a higher degree of urban ethos than exists in Africa. It does not recognize the force of cultural villigization of the modern public space; that most of the inhabitants of the towns carry medicine made in the villages to empower their successful foraying in the towns. As Ellis and ter Haar observed,
  • Many Africans today who continue to hold beliefs derived from their traditional cosmologies apply these to everyday life even when they live in cities and work in the civil service or business sector. Religious worldviews do not necessarily diminish with formal education.8

Perhaps, western scholars start from their own experience because the rise of Pentecostalism in the United States was ascribed to rapid social change, urbanization, social mobility and the undermining of traditional values and structures of meaning. Thus, there is a connection between the movement and urban anomie, deprivation and cognitive dissonance.


  • The analysis of contemporary experience in Africa does not start from globalizing cultural forces however crucial. The force of traditional cultures in determining behavior and policy in the modern public space compels an in-depth study of its salience and resilience. Pentecostal cultural policy demonstrates an acute awareness of this powerful reality for the majority of Africans, in a continent where most people live in the rural areas and where the urban dwellers cultivate their roots in their villages. As a cultural aside: this explains why towns are deserted during Easter, Christmas and census holidays! People return to their villages. Pentecostalism has learnt to follow them to the villages, taking their worldviews, fears and hopes seriously and preaching the gospel of a super –powerful Jesus who can defeat witchcraft and ancestral curses.
  • Notes

  1. Cephas Omenyo,Pentecost Outside Pentecostalism:A Study of the Development of Charismatic Renewal in the Mainline Churches in Ghana( Zoetemeer:Uitgeverij Boekencentrum,2002).

  2. Paul Gifford, The New Crusaders (London: Pluto Press,1991).

  3. Ogbu U. Kalu, “The Third Response: Pentecostalism and the Reconstruction of Christian Experience in Africa, 1970-1995,” Studia Ecclesiasticae Historiae, University of Pretoria,24 ,2,(1998):1-34.

  4. Michael H. Barnes, ed., Theology and the Social Sciences (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis,2001),xi

  5. P.P.Ekeh, Colonialism and Social Structure (Ibadan: University of Ibadan Press, 1983):28-29.

  6. R.W. Hefner, Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

  7. James Ferguson, Expectation of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life in the Zambian Copperfield (Berkeley,CA: University of California Press,1999), chapt.,3

  8. Stephen Ellis and Gerrie ter Haar, Worlds of Power: Religious Thought and Political Practice in Africa (New York: Oxford University Press,2004),51.

Ogbu Kalu is Henry Winters Luce Professor of World Christianity and Mission, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, USA. He is an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Nigeria and has served as visiting professor at several institutions. His publications include Power, Poverty and Prayer: The Challenges of Poverty and Pluralism in African Christianity 1960-1996 and as editor History ofthe Church in the Third World: Vol. III, African Christianity: An African Story.

March 06, 2007
Categories:  Media Development

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