12 April 2006

Modernity sweeps Africa

According to this article

The typical assumption is that Africa is primarily animistic. This judgment is based on our vision of Africa: ritual drums being beaten, diviners casting cowrie shells, a dervish possessed, and ceremonies to appease angry ancestors. However, Africans, especially those in East and Southern Africa, are steadily moving away from animism.

But what is wrong with the assumption is not just that it is out of date; it may be seriously questioned whether it was ever valid.

Modernity has been around in Africa for a long time, if by "modernity" we mean the worldview that developed in Europe as a result of the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. It took about four centuries for modernity to become established in the West, and it came to Africa in its Christian guise. It was Christian missionaries imbued with the spirit of modernity who brought Christianity and modernity in Africa (though in the 19th century they didn't call it "modernity", but "civilisation").

Much of Africa, however, preferred the premodern worldview. But was the premodern worldview "animistic"? The concept of "animism" was an attempt by people with a modern culture to understand premodern culture, and failing to do so. The cultural gap between modern Europe and premodern Africa is probably very similar to that between modern and premodern Europe.

And the effect of the encounter between modernity and premodernity in Europe is similar in some ways to that in Africa. Early modern Europe was swept by the witch craze, and as modernity sweeps Africa, so does witch hunting. The increasing intensity and frequency of witchhunts in many parts of Africa is perhaps a sign that modernity is sweeping Africa. But maybe Africa has an opportunity to learn from what happened when modernity swept Europe, and avoid making some of the same mistakes.

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