Many of us are beset by a static notion of “tradition“, one that does not effectively account for the exchanges that have occurred between Africa and the world. The most common manifestation of this are the “new holy wars“, but these manifest themselves in other problematic ways.
I recall learning about efforts to purge the Swahili of its Arabic and Farsi loan words. For someone who is driven by a quest for an imagined cultural purity, perhaps this makes sense, but this is only one way to look at things. The development of the language in its present form reveals the complexity, the multiple textures of the East African coast–the centuries of exchanges between there and the broader Indian Ocean world. Mugane’s Story of Swahili discusses this at length wherein he posits that the language reflects the cosmopolitanism of the coast.
I fear that for those of us who are the crusaders for an imagined cultural purity, that there is a deep underestimation of the resiliency of the African way in the face of outside cultures. I do not believe that this is a logical premise. Take for instance Hampâté Bâ’s magnificent work Kaidara. We find in this tale the Fulani tradition, one which reveals a synergy between Islamic & indigenous influences. It is far from the narrative of irreconcilable realities that many have suggested must characterize these two.
Consider also the various Black “radical” traditions that have gained expression through Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Whether we are speaking of Bishop Henry McNeal Turner, the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, or others–are these not instances of African agency in the US?
I argue that for African people, these religious faiths have been utilized as mediums of our culture and political agency. I do not see them in a deterministic lens, that is that these have inevitably been means of cultural corruption or degradation, but the quite the contrary. I argue that our interaction with these faiths has–in the best of times–evidenced a synergy between our irrepressible striving for self-determination, our rich and varied cultural traditions, and the ideals and traditions of these faiths themselves. Thus I do not consider Malcolm X’s Islam, or Bishop Turner’s Christianity, or Boukman’s Vodun, or even John G. Jackson’s atheism arbitrary. Similarly, I do not see our capacity as being negated via these religious vehicles, but rather providing them a means of expression.
Ultimately, if we are serious about getting free, we have to consider the idiocy of a politics of religious absolutism–that is that all African people must acquiesce to one’s own preferred religious dogma. This is not only improbable, it is corrosive of potential unity.