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Review of Religion and Poverty: Pan-African Perspectives


By Kevin Ward

Religion and Poverty: Pan-African Perspectives. Peter J. Paris (Ed.). Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2009. Pp. 359. ISBN. 978 0 8223 4378 3 (pb). £16.99.

This is a collection of essays springing from a conference held in Johannesburg in 2002 entitled a ‘Pan-African seminar on Religion and Poverty’. The participants were all African or from the African diaspora in America (but none from the diaspora in Europe). Edward Blyden, Marcus Garvey, Walter Rodney, Nkrumah and Nyerere, the ‘ancestors’ of Pan Africanism, are the tutelary spirits who provide the inspiration for the project. A  number of common themes run through  the articles: an appreciation of African traditional spirituality as a base for constructing a distinctively African approach to poverty; a critique of the colonial legacy for creating (in the case of the slave trade and slavery) and undermining development in Africa in the light of capitalist exploitation of resources, devaluing African skills and creating economies  subservient to metropolitan needs; and a criticism of missionary Christianity for advancing and colluding in the colonial enterprise. Most of the contributors are themselves Christian, and keen to assert a post-colonial Christianity, created by  Africans  for themselves,  transcending its colonial heritage. The vast majority of the contributors are theologians  or students of religion rather than economists,  political scientists or students of development as such. Their focus is on African attitudes to poverty, and on using African traditional religion and culture as a resource to overcome it. They are concerned to utilise these distinctively African religious insights and to integrate them into the dominant Christian ethos of the four regions which are the focus of the essays: Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Jamaica.

The perspectives of African Islam are almost totally neglected, as is francophone and lusophone Africa.  The contributors  tend to be critical of the new Pentecostalism which is the fastest growing form of Christianity on the continent, in particular the preaching of a ‘prosperity gospel’ which exalts the conspicuous accumulation of wealth, a sign of God’s favour to elect individuals, but has no real contribution to the alleviation of poverty for whole communities. However, one of the most interesting articles is by Madipoane Masenya from South Africa. She is concerned with the way in which Pentecostal women in Botswana transcend the limited and individualistic biblical teaching of their tradition to reclaim the Bible to give them the heart and the spirit to struggle creatively to improve their lives.  the ‘Bosadi’ approach  (bosadi means womanhood in Setswana) is meant to utilise the utilise the faith of poor Pentecostal women, which has helped them to endure and survive, but to provide more communal and socially engaged approaches to Biblical texts, capable of challenging the ‘sexist, classist and racist structures of domination’. Musa Dube, a Motswana woman and theologian, has pioneered this approach. In Kenya the work of the Presbyterian theologian Timothy Njoya is evaluated in an article ‘’The struggle for full humanity in poverty stricken Kenya’, by Nyambura Njoroge, another woman theologian.

The most interesting articles, in my view, tend to have specific themes and relate to specific places, churches or communities. Perhaps too many of the articles are rather overly generalised, giving a good overview, but more appropriate as a public talk than as a scholarly article. The lack of much attention to economics or developmental theory can give these a somewhat idealistic pan-African gloss. Nevertheless, the collection as a whole is  valuable for providing secular developmentalists with insights into the importance of Africa’s cultural and religious heritage in devising policies to overcome the legacies of poverty.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 120-121]

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