By King’asia Mamati
Review of Religious Conversion in Africa, edited by Jason Bruner and David Dmitri Hurlbut. Basel: MDPI, 2020. 128 pages. ISSN 2077-1444. £46.14 / $61.17. Available open access at: https://www.mdpi.com/books/pdfview/book/2976.
The editors of Religious Conversions in Africa, Jason Bruner and David Dmitri Hurlbut, primarily aim for this volume to offer new scholarly approaches to the study of religious change that transects time. Besides, they also sought to ‘examine the limitations of a long-standing bias toward Christianity regarding the study of conversion’ (p. 5). Using the diverse contextualized articles by different authors, the book offers new in-depth insights on religious conversion in Africa with empirical and contextual examples from a wide range of religious traditions.
Kimberly Marshall and Andreana Prichard in their article ‘Spiritual Warfare in Circulation’, provide an in-depth context on how individuals in different communities (Pentecostal churches) experience conversion. They discuss how continuity and localization of spiritual warfare affect converts. In this article, they exhaustively discuss how spiritual warfare circulates, especially through network structures of evangelization and missionization. They use two case studies that are contextualized at both local and global levels.
Devaka Premawardhana in his article ‘Reconversion and Retrieval: Nonlinear Change in African Catholic Practice’, criticizes Horton theory of linearity conversion. Citing different accounts of reconversion from other scholars who have done studies on conversions in Africa, he adopts Aguilar’s and Baum’s non-linear conceptualization of conversion within the framework of the Catholic Church. He uses a case study of a Catholic priest, Father Giuseppe Frizzi, from Italy who has syncretized Christian traditions with Makhuwa traditional religious culture in Mozambique, arguing that reconversion, in this case, goes beyond inculturation and can be seen as interculturation, in Frizzi’s own words.
In the article, ‘We Stand for Black Livity!: Trodding the Path of Rastafari in Ghana’, Shamara Wyllie Alhassan focuses on Rastafari women in Ghana. The author discusses the idea of Black livity as a driving force to “trodding the path”, advocating the latter term as a key concept when studying and analyzing conversion among Rastafarians. Pan-Africanism and Garveyism are cited as important sources of information for the motivation to become a Rastafarian. The author further argues that hair and clothing styles are key to Rastafari identity and black livity. Shamara illustrates how Rastafarian women affirm their African identity by “trodding the path”, despite facing discrimination and stigma in a predominant Christian Ghanaian society.
In their article ‘Conversion to Orthodox Christianity in Uganda’, Dmitri M. Bondarenko and Andrey V. Tutorskiy give a well-expounded background on the first converts, mainly of priests, to Orthodox Christianity, and their subsequent reconversion to different brands of Orthodox Christianity that emerged in Uganda. They give a broader socio-economic context of how religious change has occurred in Uganda and provide several reasons for conversion and belonging to a particular Orthodox church and its influence on converts’ lives. They point out that the major reason for conversion from other religious traditions to Orthodoxy was the search for “true religion”. They base this true religion on ritual practices that would help them achieve the best earthly and after-life desires, which can also be seen as typical of African traditional religions. The authors, however, do not provide contemporary examples of the ritualized life of Orthodox Ugandan Christians other than the cult of ancestral worship. They argue that Orthodox Christians are in a dilemma in their encounter with modernity as they adopt Orthodoxy in an attempt to strike a balance in the post-colonial world.
Anna Redhair Well’s article, Hagiography as Source: Gender and Conversion Narratives in The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church takes a different approach in understanding conversion as it goes back to hagiographical literature to explore different aspects of conversion from a gendered perspective. The author challenges the popular held narratives that men were the only agents for religious conversion. Citing relevant examples from “The book of the saints”, the author points out how women converted many people, especially due to familiarity; as compared to men who converted individuals with no close ties as they utilized their power or official positions. The author advances a new approach in understanding the role of women in religious conversion that has been historically ignored in studies on conversion in Africa, by focusing on a historical text.
David Dmitri Hurlbut’s article on the conversion of Obinna to Mormonism challenges Obinna’s narrative of conversion by offering an alternative social explanation by drawing largely from the historical and archival sources. The author points out that besides Mormonism resonating well with Igbo culture, just as in the case of conversion to Orthodox Christianity in Uganda, for Obinna and his family there were other socio-economic reasons which motivated them to convert.
In Katrin Langewiesche‘s article, ‘Conversion as Negotiation: Converts as Actors of Civil Society’, she rightly illuminates on how the drive to engage in social services and personal belief played a key role in an individual’s conversion. The author uses Humanity First, an NGO affiliated to Ahmadi Islam, to give two case study of conversion. The converts are in constant negotiation as they get involved in communitarian service, social and civil commitments for the vulnerable and the marginalized in the society.
The book Religious conversions in Africa is a significant addition to scholarly work on religious conversion in Africa; it takes a context-based approach in examining the phenomenon of religious change in Africa. Authors of the various articles have shown and critiqued that conversion is a complex reality that cannot be limited to the conventional understanding of ‘breaking with the past’ nor limited to only belief. More nuanced with different novel approaches to conversion, the book elucidates dynamism of continuity and discontinuity in a diverse African religious landscape.
King’asia Mamati is a PhD student in social and cultural anthropology at the University of Cologne His research interest is on the intersection between religion, human-environment relations and climate change in Africa.