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Wim M.J. van Binsbergen

African Spirituality

An Approach from Intercultural Philosophy


This article intends to explore the term ›African spirituality‹, based on empirical research and personal involvement with issues of religion, healing, and knowledge in a variety of African contexts. One major concern here is the qualification of the term ›African‹ as related to common political experiences that created frameworks of everyday life; features of cultural or racial origin that Afrocentric discourse often argues for are said to have little or no relevance. Being ›African‹ is not defined by content, but in their complexity African traditions of knowledge and practice are principally open to outsiders for investigation and participation. The article tries to show how, in their interaction, they constitute a starting point for the practice of intercultural philosophy.



1. Introduction  1

Wim van Binsbergen:
African Religion.
Studies in anthropology and intercultural philosophy
external linkWebsite
1 There is currently a hype in the production of encyclopedias on Africa, and in this context Valentin Mudimbe approached me a few years ago whether I would be willing to write the entry on ›African spirituality‹ for an encyclopaedia of Africa and the African diaspora which he was editing. Never having used the word ›spirituality‹ in any of my own writings on African religion so far, and bargaining for time, I asked him what I was to understand by it: time-honoured expressions of historical African religion such as prayers at the village shrine; the wider conceptual context of such expression, including African views of causality, sorcery, witchcraft, medicine, the order of the visible and invisible world, and such concepts as the person, ancestors, gods, spirits, nature, agency, guilt, responsibility, taboo, evil, not to forget the ordering of time and space in terms of religious meaning; the expressions of world religions in Africa, especially Islam and Christianity; the accommodations between these various domains. Mudimbe's answer was: all of the above, and whatever else you wish to bring to the topic. Though unduly flattered by his request, I never came round to writing the entry: I could not overcome the fear of exposing myself as ignorant of the essence of African religion.
2 Very recently, I brought together in one website a considerable number of my papers on African religion as written over the years, also in preparation for a book largely to consist of the same material. This has made me reflect on the very topic Mudimbe invited me in vain to write on.
3 The readily available material from the website contains only some fifteen of the myriad writings on African spirituality which are in existence, and in that respect there is no special reason to take these specific writings as our point of departure. Yet I will do so, for the following reason: as far as these writings are concerned, I have first-hand knowledge of the specific empirical and existential conditions under which the statements they contain came into being, and of the personal evolution of the author who made these statements. Implicitly this means that I appeal to introspection as one of my sources of knowledge. While a time-honoured tool in the history of philosophy (think e.g. of Socrates' daimôn and Descartes cogito ergo sum), we are only too well aware of the dangers of introspection. The public representation of self in what may be alleged to be pure introspection inevitably contains elements of performativity, selection, structuring, and is likely to be imbued with elements of transference reflecting the introspecting author's subconscious conflicts and desires. Incidentally the same criticism applies, in varying degrees which have hardly been investigated, to all other philosophical and social scientific statements. Be this as it may, I rely on introspection only implicitly in the present argument: mainly I will acknowledge my personal recollection of the specific social processes of my own gaining knowledge, or ignorance, of African spirituality.
4 What I wish to do is pose a number of obvious and straight-forward questions, and attempt to give very provisional answers to them, in order to initiate our further discussion on these points:
– Is there a specifically African spirituality?
– Can we know African spirituality?
– What specific themes may be discerned in African spirituality?
– To what extent is African spirituality a process of boundary production and boundary crossing at the same time?
– Within these boundaries, what is being produced: group sociability, the individual self, or both?
– How can we negotiate the tension between local practice and global description of African spirituality?

2. Is there a specifically African spirituality?

African Spirituality & Philosophy:
external linkInternet guide

Orisha Web Resources:
external linkInternet guide

African Traditional Religion:
external linkWebsite

Religious Traditions of Africa and the African Diaspora:
external linkWebsite
5 It is almost impossible to separate this question from the next one, concerning the epistemology of African spirituality. However, we have to start somewhere, and it may be best to start where the controversies and the politics of intercultural knowledge production are most in evidence. The existence of a massive body of writing specifically on African religion, and the institutionalisation of this field in terms of academic journals, professorial chairs, scholarly institutions, at least one world-wide scholarly association, has helped to make the existence of specifically African spirituality (or religion, I will not engage in terminological debate here) into at least a globally recognised social fact. But to recognise the nature of social facts as being socially produced at the same time raises the question of irreality, virtuality, performativity, existence by appearance only. If we argue that ethnicity is socially produced, we argue at the same time for the deconstruction of ethnic identity claims as inescapable, historically determined, absolute, unequivocal. 2 Something similar has been argued for culture. Is it now the turn for African spirituality to undergo the same treatment?
6 African spirituality features prominently in the increasingly vocal expressions by intellectuals, political and ethnic leaders, and opinion-makers who identify as African or who can claim recent African descent. 3 Of late such discussions have concentrated around the Afrocentrist movement 4 for which I personally have great sympathy.
7 Here a dilemma arises. One could either stress 5
1) the fact that the concept of ›Africa‹ is a fairly recent geopolitical construct and therefore is unlikely to correspond to any ontological reality informing, and mediated through, spiritual expressions some of which (like royal cults, ancestral cults, cults of the land) can be demonstrated to have existed for centuries if not millennia on the soil of the African continent. By taking this view one may have long-term historical reality on one's side, but at the same time one gives the impression of seeking to rob those who identify with ›Africa‹ from their most cherished possession, their most central identity.
8 Or, alternatively, one may
2) affirm that there is something uniquely African, not just in sheer terms of geographical location or provenance but also in substance, thus playing into the cards of the Afrocentrists and similar consciousness-raising forms of intellectual mobilisation. But then one must be prepared to run the risk of oversimplification, seeing one ›African spirituality‹ where in fact there are myriad different African spiritual expressions, some as far apart as:
a) the cult of royal ancestors in West Africa under the Akan cultural orientation, and
b) the ecstatic veneration of the Holy Spirit in Pentecostal Southern African churches; or
c) the veneration of land spirits in the somewhat thin Islamic trapping of local saints in North Africa, and
d) the ecstatic cults of affliction associated with misfortune, a unique personal spiritual quest, and the circulation of persons and commodities across vast distances of space, as in the South Central and Southern African ngoma complex; or
e) the meticulous cultivation of female domesticity and sexuality in South Central African girl's initiation cults, and
f) the annual cult of the descent of the Cassara demiurge, revenger and cleanser of witchcraft, in westernmost West Africa.
9 These examples, all within the range of my own African religious research in over three decades, may be multiplied ad libidum.
If we accept that ›African‹ today is primarily a political category reflecting the desire to assert self-identity and dignity in the face of subjugation and humiliation under North Atlantic hegemony, then ›African spirituality‹ can no longer be defined, naively, as a particular way in which the inhabitants of the African continent go about their time-honoured religion. 10 If many colleagues clamour to subsume these varieties of spiritual expression under a common label, as ›African‹, it is not so much because these expressions are situated in the African continental land mass, or manifestly pertain to a recognisable shared tradition, but largely because all of them may be cited to represent forms of local identity and symbolic production on the part of people whose image of dignity, whose image of spiritual and intellectual capability and autonomy, has been eroded in recent centuries of a North Atlantic mercantile, colonial and postcolonial hegemonic assault.
11 ›African‹ in my opinion primarily invokes, not a common origin not shared with ›non-African‹ or ›non-Africans‹, nor a common structure, form or content, but the communality residing in the determination to confront and overcome such hegemonic subordination. It is especially important to realise that ›African‹, when applied to elements of cultural production, usually denotes items which are neither originally African, nor exclusively, confined to the African continent. Elsewhere I have extensively argued how many cultural traits which today are considered the central characteristics and achievements of African cultures, have demonstrably a non-African origin, and a global distribution pattern which extends far beyond Africa. 6
12 This is not in the least a disqualification of Africa, for exactly the same argument, and even more so, may be made for so-called European characteristics and achievements, including Christianity and modern science. It is only a reminder that broad continental categories are part of geopolitics, of ideology and identity construction, and not of detached analytic thought. There is a famous passage in Linton's Study of man 7 in which he describes the morning ritual of the average modern inhabitant of the North Atlantic: from the slippers he puts on his feet to the God to whom he prays, the cultural items involved in that process have a heterogeneous and global provenance, most hailing from outside Europe.
13 The cultural and intellectual achievements commonly claimed as exclusive to the European continent, are a concoction of transcultural intercontinental borrowings such as one may only expect in a small peninsula attached to the Asian land mass and due north of the African land mass, thrice the size of Europe. What makes things European to be European, and things African to be African, for that matter, is the transformative localisation after diffusion. Transformative localisation gave rise to unmistakably, uniquely and genially Greek myths, philosophy, mathematics, politics, although virtually all the ingredients of these domains of Greek achievement had been borrowed from Phoenicia, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Thracia, and the Danube lands. And a similar argument could be made for many splendid kingdoms and cultures of Africa. 8
14 If we accept that ›African‹ today is primarily a political category reflecting the desire to assert self-identity and dignity in the face of subjugation and humiliation under North Atlantic hegemony, then ›African spirituality‹ can no longer be defined, naively, as a particular way in which the inhabitants of the African continent go about their time-honoured religion, today, and in presumed continuity, to a greater or lesser extent, with the religious patterns such as these existed before European colonial conquest.
15 We know that ›African‹ is a meaningless category except in contrast with the ›non-African‹ implied in the term, and implicated in a particular political history of hegemony vis-â-vis what is so-called ›African‹. As befits the place of origin of mankind, the African continent has the greatest variety of somatic, cultural and religious forms in the world. We cannot define Africans by reference to that variety. What makes Africans Africans is not that they tend to have heavily pigmented skins and woolly curly hair covering their heads (this does not apply to all people residing in the African continent, and moreover it does apply to many people outside the African continent, including many not of recent African descent, such as the original inhabitants of Southern India, Melanesia, New Guinea and Australia), but that they have shared in the experience of recent intercontinental political, military and economic history. In asking the question as to the nature of African spirituality, we are no longer primarily interested in the ways in which ›Africans‹, of all people, use the concepts of spirit, and the actions of prayer, sacrifice, ritual, to endow their world with meaning, order, and intent, as if things African constitute their entire world. African spirituality can only be a political category, which seeks to define a local spirituality (better probably: a locality of the spirit) in the face of the threats, lures and inroads of global processes beyond the local.
16 ›African spirituality‹ then is a scenario of tension between local and outside, utilising spiritual means (the production, social enactment, and ritual transformation, of symbols by a group which constitutes itself in that very process) in order to try and resolve that tension. In the last analysis, African spirituality is not a fixed collection of such spiritual means (›spiritual technologies‹) which might be labelled specifically ›African‹ if that epithet is to denote geographical provenance. The means are extremely varied, as we have seen. And in many cases these means are imported intercontinentally from outside Africa. These cases probably include spirit possession, 9 and certainly such world religions as Islam and Christianity, – these three forms of African spirituality together already sum up by far the major religious expressions on the African continent today.
African spirituality is about both the affirmation of a South identity based on a particular historical experience, and the dissolution of that identity into an even wider, global world. 17 The latter does not mean that these three forms of African spirituality are inherently un-African and alien to the longue durée of African cultural history. Spirit possession is increasingly agreed to constitute a transformation, in recent millennia, of the religion of Palaeolithic hunters whose religious expression has been mediated world-wide (often in shamanistic forms iconographically marked by deer and circle-dot motives, which passed through Mesopotamia and the eastern Mediterranean basin in the second millennium BCE) in the particular form it took in the Northern half of Eurasia by the onset of the Neolithic. It is likely that this North and Central Eurasian spiritual expression was considerably indebted to the emergence of art, symbolic thought, and language by somatically modern man in Africa from 200,000 BP (and especially 100,000 BP) onwards. 10
18 Yet it is my impression that African cults of possession and mediumship derive primarily from a common Old World stock emanating from North and Central Eurasia, and not so much from the direct intra-African descendent forms of the Later Palaeolithic. More recently, both Islam and Christianity emerged in a Semitic-speaking cultural environment which was not only geographically close to Africa, but towards whose genesis African influences have been highly important: Mesopotamian influences on ancient Judaism have been stressed by scholarship from the late nineteenth century, but it is only in recent decades that the great influence of ancient Egypt on that seminal world religion is widely admitted and studied in detail; 11 by the same token, it is increasingly clear that the cradle of the Semitic languages is to be sought in Northeast Africa (where even today the wider linguistic super-family of Afroasiatic has its greatest typological variety), and that many of the basic orientations of the Semitic civilisations of Western Asia may have parallels if not origins in the African continent.
19 To try and define the conditions under which the process of the creation of locality in the face of a confusing and identity-destroying outside world takes place, is the main challenge of cultural globalisation studies today. 12 Also in some of my own writings, typically including those not emphatically appearing under the heading of African religious studies, this process has been explored. 13 Invariably, the process hinges on the creation of a sense of community which involves the installation, both conceptually (in shared language) and actionally (through control of the flow of people and commodities) of boundaries defining ›us‹ (a ›we‹ into which the acting and reasoning ›I‹ inserts herself) as against ›them‹. Without such boundaries, no spirituality, yet, as we shall see, the very working of spirituality is to both affirm and transgress these boundaries at the same time – so that ultimately, African spirituality is about both the affirmation of a South identity based on a particular historical experience, and the dissolution of that identity into an even wider, global world.

3. Epistemology: Can we know African spirituality?

Central to my argument is that African spirituality consists in a political scenario, and that in that context the minutiae of contents of a specific cultural repertoire, and a specific biologically or socially underpinned birth-right, are largely or even totally irrelevant. 20 The above positioning of African spirituality has deliberately deprived the concept from most of its entrenchedly parochial and mystical implications. If the creation of community through symbols is a social process aiming at selective and situational inclusion and exclusion through conceptual and actional means, and if the process is not limited to a specific selection of cultural materials supposed to constitute, intrinsically, ›African spirituality‹, then the vast majority of people identifying as ›Africans‹ would at most times be excluded from the creation of community undertaken by other ›Africans‹ in a specific context of space, time and organisation.
21 For instance, a number of spiritual complexes, including one revolving on the veneration of dead kings, another on girl's initiation and the spirit of menstruation and maturation named Kanga, another on commoner villagers' ancestral spirits, yet another on spirits of the wild as venerated in cults of affliction and in the guilds of hunters and healers, together make up the spiritual life world of the contemporary Nkoya ethnic group. 14 This statement needs to be qualified in view of the fact that many who today identify as Nkoya, including the groups dominant ethnic brokers and elite, have undergone considerable Christian influence and would primarily identify as Christians of various denominations, primarily the Evangelic Church of Zambia, Roman Catholicism, and recent varieties of Pentecostalism. Moreover, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Islamic Swahili long-distance traders penetrated into the land of Nkoya and left some small cultural traces there. All these complexes define insiders and outsiders in their own right, to such an extent that most Nkoya people today could be said to be outsiders to most of what in some collective dream of Nkoya-ness would be summed up as the basic constituent features of the Nkoya spiritual world! All Nkoya men are in principle excluded from participation in and knowledge of the world of female initiation; women and all male non-initiate hunters are excluded from the hunters' guild's cults except from the most public performances of its dances and songs, and so on.
22 Over the past decade, my research on identity, culture and globalisation in Zambia has concentrated on the annual Kazanga festival, 15 the main rural outcome of a process of ethnicisation by elite urban-based Nkoya in the 1980s. The main feature of this festival is that elements from all these spiritual domains (with exception of Christianity, which however contributes the festival's opening prayer and the canons of decency governing dancers' clothing and bodily movements) are pressed into service in the two-day's repertoire of the festival. The effect is that thus all people attending the festival, whose globally-derived format (including a formal programme of events, the participation of more than one royal chiefs seated together, the re-enactment of girl's initiation dances by young women who have already been initiated, the use of loudspeakers, the opening prayer and national anthem, the careful orchestration of dancing movements by dancers who are uniformly dressed, and who receive payment for their activities, etc.) is entirely non-local, are forged into a performative, vicarious insidership, by partaking of a recycled form of spirituality devoid of its localising exclusivity.
23 Here boundaries are crossed and dissolved, and the most amazing thing is that – as I argued at greater length elsewhere – the Nkoya people involved do not seem to notice the difference between the original spiritual dynamics, and its transformation and routinisation in the Kazanga context. Or rather, if they notice the difference they appreciate the modern, virtualised form even more than the original village forms. However, one might also argue that it is only by sleight-of-hand that the illusion of a more extensive insidership is created here whereas in fact the essence of the virtualisation involved is that all people involved, also the original insiders, are turned into outsiders, banned from the domain where the original spiritual scenario could be seen to be effective.
24 When such transformations of inside participation and outside contemplation and exclusion exist, already within one cultural an linguistic community with a small window on the wider, ultimately global world, we should be very careful with claims as to the sharing or not sharing of the spirituality involved. Central to my argument is that African spirituality consists in a political scenario, and that in that context the minutiae of contents of a specific cultural repertoire, and a specific biologically or socially underpinned birth-right, are largely or even totally irrelevant.
25 This may be a difficult position to accept for cultural essentialists including many Afrocentrists. Yet it is a position which I have extensively elaborated and which subsumes my entire intellectual career. It is the position in which I claim to be a Dutchman, a professor of intercultural philosophy, a Southern African sangoma, and an adoptive member of a Nkoya royal family, all at the same time.
Can everything, especially everything spiritual, be expressed in language? The answer is inevitably: no, of course not.
Can everything, especially everything spiritual, be transferred from the specific domain of one language to that of another language? Here the answer is: yes, to a considerable extent, but not totally.
26 In the light of the constructed nature of any domain surrounded by the boundaries that spirituality both creates and transgresses, any spiritual domain, African or otherwise, is by definition porous and penetrable – in fact, it invites being entered, but at a cost defined by the spiritual boundaries surrounding it.
27 That cost is both interactional and conceptual. An exploration of this cost amounts to defining the place and structure of anthropological field-work as a technique of intercultural knowledge production; it is here that the introspection mentioned in my introduction comes in. Without engaging with the insiders along the locally defined lines of etiquette, implied meanings, shared local secrets, it is impossible to attain and to claim insidership. Without engaging with the linguistic and conceptual bases of such communality as the insiders create by means of their spirituality, it is impossible to achieve insidership in their midst. Such insidership is a social process also in this sense that it cannot just be claimed by the person aspiring it; quite to the contrary, it has to be extended, recognised and affirmed by those who are already insiders, and who as such are the rightful owners of the spiritual domain in question. These are complex processes indeed.
28 Not only the original outsider such as the anthropologist seeking to enter from a background which was initially far removed from that of the earlier insiders, but also these insiders themselves in their process of affirming themselves as insiders, have to struggle with massive problems of acquisition of cognitive knowledge, language skills, details of organisational, mythical, theological and ritual nature. Their credentials as insiders are socially and perceptively mediated, and as such contain a considerable element of performativity, which in principle stands in tension vis-â-vis actual spiritual knowledge and attitudes, for in the public production and perception of the latter a non-performative existential authenticity tends to be taken for granted. Also the initial outsider seeking to become insider must perform in order to affirm her eligibility as insider, and this adds a layer of potential insincerity to all claims of intimate spiritual knowledge of secluded local domains.
29 Yet, despite all these qualifications, I can only affirm that, yes, the very many distinct domains of locality created by African spiritualities are as knowable to the initial outsider as they are to the earlier insiders. The difference is one of degree and not of kind. Paramount is the political scenario of insertion, not the immutable facts of an allegedly fixed cultural repertoire or birth-right; least of all a congenital predisposition to acquire and appreciate a specific, reified cultural repertoire – as racists, including racist variants of Afrocentrism, would affirm.
30 Meanwhile knowing is not the same as revealing, and an entirely new problematic arises when one considers the problem of how much or how little the outsider having become insider in a specific domain of African spirituality, is capable of revealing the knowledge she has gained, to the outside world, globally, and in principle in a globally understood international language. Here at least three problems loom large:
31 Can everything, especially everything spiritual, be expressed in language? The answer is inevitably: no, of course not. 16
32 Can everything, especially everything spiritual, be transferred from the specific domain of one language to that of another language? Here the answer is: yes, to a considerable extent, but not totally (cf. Quine's principle of the indeterminacy of translation). 17
33 Can one mediate inside knowledge to outsiders without betraying the trust of fellow-insiders? Here the answer is: that depends on the extent to which one allows the process of reporting to be governed by the agency of these fellow-insiders – if that extent is minimal one's reporting is downright betrayal and intellectual raiding in the worst tradition of hegemonic anthropology; but it is not impossible to mobilise the earlier insiders' agency, for many insiders today welcome global mediation of their identity, and therefore may help to define the forms in which they wish to see their own spiritual insidership mediated. 18

4. Themes in African spirituality

John A. I. Bewaji:
Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief and the Theistic Problem of Evil.
In: African Studies Quaterly 2.1 (1998).
external linkArticle

Dirk J. Louw:
Ubuntu: An African Assessment of the Religious Other.
Paidea World Philosophy Conference Paper.
external linkArticle

Isaac M.T. Mwase:
Kuona, An African Perspective on Religions: J.N.K. Mugambi's Contribution.
Paidea World Philosophy Conference Paper.
external linkArticle
34 I have claimed that in principle African spirituality is a political scenario devoid of specific cultural contents. In actual fact however the range of variation in the cultural material that has gone into the myriad specific constructions of African spirituality, although wide, is not entirely unlimited.
35 Let me give an example. In 1981, when guided by a hospitable new roadside acquaintance into a West African village in Guinea Bissau for the first time in my life, I could blindly point out the village shrine and improvise meaningfully on its social and spiritual significance, merely on the basis of having extensively participated in village shrine ritual in South Central Africa, at a distance of 5,000 km across the continent, and having written comparative accounts of shrines in South Central and Northern Africa. 19 The same applies to spirit possession, to whose South Central African forms I could relate on the basis of my earlier research into similar phenomena in North Africa. 20 The forms of kinship ritual and royal ritual in West and Southern Africa are amazingly reminiscent of each other, and I am gradually beginning to understand the historical reasons for this, especially the diffusion (taken for granted in the first half of the twentieth century, and ridiculed in the second half) of royal themes from Ancient Egypt. 21
36 The same similarity exists in the field of divination methods, albeit that here the underlying common source is not Ancient Egypt but late first-millennium CE Middle-Eastern Islam having undergone the distant influence of Chinese I Ching which goes back to the second millennium BCE. 22 But as the latter forms of oracular ritual already indicate, there is no compelling reason to limit our comparisons to the African continent, and in fact there are continuities and similarities extending all across Africa, extending all over the Old World and occasionally even into the New World. 23 It would be easy to spell out these themes and commonalities more fully, but for our present intercultural-philosophical argument they are not essential; what is more, they would only detract us.

5. African spirituality as boundary production and boundary crossing at the same time

37 Adopting a formal perspective that takes the greatest possible (or should I say: an impossibly great) distance from cultural specificities, I have suggested that African spirituality is a political scenario of community generation through spiritual means. In other words, African spirituality is a machine to generate boundaries. However, a boundary which is entirely sealed is no longer negotiable and amounts to the end of the world. The very nature of a boundary in the human domain is that it is negotiable, albeit only under certain conditions, and at a certain cost. I have attempted to spell out some of these conditions and costs.
38 The argument, if found not to be totally devoid of sense, has implications for intercultural philosophy beyond the mere analytical study of African spirituality. For also intercultural philosophy itself could be very well defined in the very same terms I have now employed for African spirituality. While forging a specialist inside language amongst ourselves as intercultural philosophers, we intend the boundary which we thus erect around ourselves to be porous, and to be capable of being transgressed by those we seek to understand, and by whom we seek to be understood. Both within, and across, that boundaries there will be limitations to the extent to which we can know, understand, represent and mediate; but the possibilities are well above zero.
39 There is an unmistakable kinship between my approach to African spirituality as a content-unspecific boundary strategy towards community, and Derrida's approach to différance as a strategy to both affirm and postpone the affirmation of difference; little wonder that the above argument was written shortly after I attempted to critically reflect on Derrida's 1996 argument on religion.
40 Besides my reluctance to spell out, at this point, whatever would appear to be the specific contents of African spirituality after all, another set of questions continue to bother me, leaving me rather dissatisfied with the above argument while upholding its general thrust, which would ultimately point to a definition of religion beyond ontology, beyond metaphysics, as mainly a (necessarily contentless) vector of sociability.

6. The Politics of Sociability versus the Construction of the Individual Self in African Spirituality

African spirituality is not only a social technology but also a technology of individuality, of self. Is this reason to distinguish between, let us say, social spirituality (the technology of community) and religious spirituality (the technology of self)? Is such a distinction at all possible? Or is spirituality best understood as the nexus between self and community? 41 The following dilemma arises at this point. Such boundary creation and boundary crossing as goes on in the context of African spirituality, does not only create situational and contextual communities to which one may or may not be co-opted – it also articulates an I who by having the experiences engendered by these various spiritual technologies, involves herself or himself in these domains of community, and in the very process constitutes itself. Therefore my emphasis, in the above argument, on the implied political dimension of African spirituality, is demonstrably one-sided. It is not the ad hoc community created within spirituality-based boundaries, but the I who is the locus of these experiences, because it is only the individual who possesses the corporeality indispensable as the seat of experience at the interface between self and outside world.
42 As Henk Oosterling aptly pointed out, spirituality necessarily amounts to an embodied project. African spirituality then is not only a social technology but also a technology of individuality, of self. Is this reason to distinguish between, let us say, social spirituality (the technology of community) and religious spirituality (the technology of self)? Is such a distinction at all possible? Or is spirituality best understood as the nexus between self and community, as the technology which (in the classic Durkheimian sense) 24 renders the social possible despite the centrifugal fragmentation of the myriad individual conscious bodies out of which humanity consists?

7. Spirituality between Local Practice and Global Ethnographic, Intercultural-Philosophical Description

43 A second and related point addresses my own positioning within the above dilemma. I came to intercultural philosophy in the late 1990s out of dissatisfaction with the objectifying stance of cultural anthropology; before reaching that point, this dissatisfaction had brought me to suspend professional anthropological distance: I joined (1990-1991) the ranks of those whom I was supposed to merely study, and became a Southern African diviner-priest (sangoma), in ways described in several of my papers. 25 The present argument goes a long way towards explaining how I can be a sangoma, a North Atlantic professor of philosophy, and a senior Africanist social researcher, at the same time: if the essence of African spirituality (and any other spirituality) is contentless, then the affirmation of belief is secondary to the action of participation. The problem of actually believing in the central tenets of the sangoma world-view (ancestral intervention, reincarnation, sorcery, mediumship) then scarcely arises, and largely amounts to a sham problem.
44 But not quite. For at the existential level one can only practice sangoma-hood, and bestow its spiritual and therapeutic benefits onto others as clients and adepts, if and when these beliefs take on a considerable measure of validity, not to say absolute validity, at least within the specific ritual situation within which these practices are engaged in. The community which this form of African spirituality (and other forms of African and non-African spirituality) generates, clearly extends beyond the level of sociability, and has distinct implications for experience and cognition. It is a political stance to insist on the validity of these sangoma beliefs and to engage in the practices they stipulate, and thus not to submit one-sidedly to the sociability pressures exerted by another reference group (North Atlantic academic) and the belief system (in terms of a secular, rational, scientific world-view) they uphold; yet the latter belief system is worthy of the same kind of respect and the same kind of politically motivated sociability, as the sangoma one.
Discursive language is probably the worst, instead of the most appropriate, vehicle for the expression and negotiation of interculturality. 45 The dilemma is unmistakable, and amounts to an aporia. I solve it in practice, day after day, by negotiating the dilemma situationally and being, serially in subsequent situations I engage in within the same day, both a sangoma and a philosopher and Africanist. But as yet I do not manage to argue the satisfactory nature of this solution in discursive language. And I suspect that this is largely because the kind of practical negotiations that produce a sense of solution and that alleviate the tension around which the dilemma revolves, defy the consistency, boundedness and linearity of discursive conceptual thought, – in other words, the dilemma itself seems a rather artificial by-product of rational theoretical verbalising on intercultural and spiritual matters. As I argued elsewhere, 26 discursive language is probably the worst, instead of the most appropriate, vehicle for the expression and negotiation of interculturality. And this renders all academic writing on African spirituality of limited validity and relevance. But why confine ourselves to writing and reading, if the real thing is available at our very doorstep?
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 4 (2003).
Online: http://them.polylog.org/4/fbw-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
© 2003 Author & polylog e.V.


I am indebted to Henk Oosterling, Cornée Jacobs, and Frank Uyanne for their constructive remarks. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1994): "The Kazanga Festival: Ethnicity as Cultural Mediation and Transformation in Central Western Zambia". In: African Studies 53.2, 92-125. go back
»Recent« is here taken to mean: having ancestors who lived in the African continent during historical times, and specifically during the second millennium of the common era. There is no doubt whatsoever that the entire human species emerged in the African continent a few million years ago. go back
M.K. Asante (1990): Kemet, Afrocentricity, and Knowledge. Trenton: Africa World Press; J. Berlinerblau (1999): Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy and the Responsibilities of American Intellectuals. New Brunswick et al.: Rutgers University Press; Stephen Howe (1999): Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes. London – New York: Verso; F.-X. Fauvelle-Aymar / J.-P. Chretien / C.-H. Perrot (2000): Afrocentrismes: L'histoire des Africains entre Egypte et Amérique. Paris: Karthala. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1997): "Rethinking Africa's Contribution to Global Cultural History: Lessons from a Comparative Historical Analysis of Mankala Board-Games and Geomantic Divination". In: W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1997): Black Athena: Ten Years After. Talanta, 221-254 (Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society 28-29). go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1999): "Islam as a Constitutive Factor in So-called African Traditional Religion and Culture: The Evidence from Geomantic Divination, Mankala Boardgames, Ecstatic Religion, and Musical Instruments". Paper for the conference on Transformation processes and Islam in Africa at African Studies Centre and Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World, Leiden; forthcoming in: A. Breesveld / J. van Santen / W.M.J. van Binsbergen: Dynamics and Islam in Africa. Leiden: Brill. go back
R. Linton (1936): The study of man. New York: Appleton-Century. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (in preparation): Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World – Beyond the Black Athena thesis. Hamburg – Münster: LIT / New York: Transaction Press. go back
A. Lommel (1967): Shamanism. New York: McGraw-Hill; M. Eliade (1968): Le chamanisme: Et les techniques archaoques de l'extase. Paris: Payot; J. Halifax (1980): Shamanic Voices: The Shaman as Seer, Poet and Healer. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; M. Winkelman (1986): "Trance States: A Theoretical Model and Cross-Cultural Analysis". In: Ethos 14, 174-203; J. Campbell (1990): The Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. New York: HarperPerennial; F. Goodman (1990): Where the Spirits Ride the Wind: Trance Journeys and Other Ecstatic Experiences. Bloomington: Indiana University Press; C. Ginzburg (1992): Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; J.D. Lewis-Williams (1992): "Ethnographic Evidence relating to Trance and Shamans among Northern and Southern Bushman". In: South African Archaeological Bulletin 47, 56-60. go back
W.E. Wendt (1976): "'Art mobilier' from Apollo 11 cave, South West Africa: Africa's oldest dated works of art". In: n: South African Archaeological Bulletin 31, 5-11; E. Anati (1986): "The Rock Art of Tanzania and the East African Sequence". In: Bolletino des Centro Camuno di Studi Preistorici 23, 15-68; E. Anati (1999): La religion des origines. Paris: Bayard; C. Gamble (1993): Timewalkers: The Prehistory of Global Colonization. Stroud: Allan Sutton, with very complete bibliography. go back
R.J. Williams (1971): "Egypt and Israel". In: J.R. Harris (ed.) (1971): The Legacy of Egypt. Oxford: Clarendon, 257-290; D.B. Redford (1992): Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in ancient times. Princeton: Princeton University Press; J. Assmann (1996): "The Mosaic distinction: Israel, Egypt and the Invention of Paganism". In: Representations 56, 48-67; M. Görg (1977): "Komparatistische Untersuchungen an ägyptischer und israelitischer Literatur". In: J. Assmann / E. Feucht / R. Grieshammer (Hg.): Fragen an die altägyptische Literatur. Studien zum Gedenken an Eberhard Otto. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 197-216; M. Görg (1997): Die Beziehungen zwischen dem alten Israel und Ägypten. Von den Anfängen bis zum Exil. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft. go back
A. Appadurai (1995): "The production of locality". In: R. Fardon (ed.) (1995): Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge. London: Routledge, 204-225; B. Meyer / P. Geschiere (1998): Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure. Oxford: Blackwell; R. Fardon / W.M.J. van Binsbergen / R. van Dijk (1999): Modernity on a Shoestring: Dimensions of Globalization, Consumption and Development in Africa and Beyond. Leiden – London: Eidos. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1998): "Globalization and Virtuality: Analytical Problems Posed by the Contemporary Transformation of African Societies". In: B. Meyer / P.L. Geschiere (ed.) (1998): Globalization and Identity: Dialectics of Flow and Closure. Oxford: Blackwell, 273-303; Wim M.J. van Binsbergen (2000): "Sensus Communis or Sensus Particularis? A Social-Science Comment". In: H. Kimmerle / H.A.F. Oosterling (ed.) (2000): Sensus Communis in Multi- and Intercultural Perspective: On the Possibility of Common Judgments in Arts and Politics. Würzburg: Königshausen und Neumann, 113-128. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen / P.L. Geschiere (1985): "Marxist Theory and Anthropological Practice: The Application of French Marxist Anthropology in Fieldwork". In: W.M.J. van Binsbergen / P.L. Geschiere (eds.): Old Modes of Production and Capitalist Encroachment: Anthropological Explorations in Africa. Londen – Boston: Kegan Paul International, 235-289; W.M.J. van Binsbergen: Religious Change in Zambia: Exploratory Studies. London – Boston: Kegan Paul International; W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1992): Tears of Rain: Ethnicity and History in Central Western Zambia. London – Boston: Kegan Paul International. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1994): "The Kazanga Festival: Ethnicity as Cultural Mediation and Transformation in Central Western Zambia". In: African Studies 53.2, 92-125; W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1999): "Nkoya Royal Chiefs and the Kazanga Cultural Association in Western Central Zambia Today: Resilience, Decline, or Folklorisation?". In: E.A.B. van Rouveroy van Nieuwwaal / R. van Dijk (1999): African Chieftaincy in a New Socio-Political Landscape. Hamburg – Münster: LIT, 97-133. go back
W.V.O. Quine (1960): Word and Object. Cambridge: MIT Press. go back
W.V.O. Quine (1960): Word and Object. Cambridge: MIT Press; C. Hookway (1993): "Indeterminacy of Translation". In: J. Dancy / E. Sosa (1993): A Companion to Epistemology. Oxford –Cambridge, MA: Blackwell; C. Wright (1999): "The indeterminacy of translation". In: B. Hale / C. Wright (1999): A Companion to the Philosophy of Language. Oxford: Blackwell, 397-426; W.V.O. Quine (1970): "On the Reasons for the Indeterminacy of Translation". In: Journal of Philosophy 67, 178-183. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1984): "Can Anthropology Become the Theory of Peripheral Class Struggle? Reflexions on the Work of P.P. Rey". In: W.M.J. van Binsbergen / G.S.C.M. Hesseling (1984): Aspecten van staat en maatschappij in Afrika: Recent Dutch and Belgian Research on the African state. Leiden: African Studies Centre, 163-180. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1979): "Explorations in the Sociology and History of Territorial Cults in Zambia". In: J.M. Schoeffeleers (ed.) (1979): Guardians of the Land. Gwelo: Mambo Press, 47-88. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1980): "Popular and Formal Islam, and Supralocal Relations: The Highlands of North-Western Tunisia, 1800-1970". In: Middle Eastern Studies 16, 71-91; W.M.J. van Binsbergen: Religious Change in Zambia: Exploratory Studies. London – Boston: Kegan Paul International; W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1985): "The cult of Saints in North-Western Tunisia: An Analysis of Contemporary Pilgrimage Structures". In: E.A. Gellner (1985): Islamic Dilemmas: Reformers, Nationalists and Industrialization: The Southern Shore of the Mediterranean. Berlin – New York – Amsterdam: Mouton, 199-239. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (in preparation): Global Bee Flight: Sub-Saharan Africa, Ancient Egypt, and the World – Beyond the Black Athena Thesis. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1995): "Four-Tablet Divination as Trans-Regional Medical Technology in Southern Africa". In: Journal of Religion in Africa 25.2, 114-140; W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1996): "Time, Space and History in African Divination and Board-Games". In: D. Tiemersma / H.A.F. Oosterling (1996): Time and Temporality in Intercultural Perspective. Amsterdam –Atlanta: Rodopi, 105-125; W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1996): "Transregional and Historical Connections of Four-Tablet Divination in Southern Africa". In: Journal of Religion in Africa 26.1, 2-29. go back
The latter applies e.g. to cat's cradles (games consisting of the manual manipulation of a tied string), certain board-games, and the form of the Southern African divination tablets, which have amazingly close parallels among the North American indigenous population. S. Culin (1975): Games of the North American Indians. New York: Dover. go back
E. Durkheim (1912) : Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1991): "Becoming a Sangoma: Religious Anthropological Field-Work in Francistown, Botswana". In: Journal of Religion in Africa 21.4, 309-344. go back
W.M.J. van Binsbergen (1999): "Enige filosofische aspecten van culturele globalisering: Met bijzondere verwijzing naar Malls interculturele hermeneutiek". In: J. Baars / E. Starmans (1999): Het eigene en het andere: Filosofie en globalisering. Acta van de 21 Nederlands-Vlaamse Filosofiedag. Delft: Eburon, 37-52. go back


Wim M.J. van Binsbergen (*1947 in Amsterdam) is Professor of the Foundations of Intercultural Philosophy at Erasmus University Rotterdam, since 1998. He received his Ph.D. from the Free University Amsterdam in 1979, and has been a leading member of the African Studies Centre, Leiden, since 1977. He was Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Free University Amsterdam (1990-1998). He has lectured widely at universities in Africa, Europe, and elsewhere. His numerous books are in the fields of African religion, intercultural philosophy, African and Ancient history, the Black Athena debate, political science, globalisation, and poetry. His most recent book is Intercultural Encounters: African, Anthropological and Historical Lessons Towards a Philosophy of Interculturality (Berlin – Münster: LIT, 2003). He is editor-in-chief of Quest: An African Journal of Philosophy. Besides his academic and literary work, he is a practicing diviner-healer in the Southern African tradition.
Prof. Dr. Wim M.J. van Binsbergen
Erasmus University Rotterdam
Philosophical Faculty
P.O.Box 1738
3000 DR Rotterdam
The Netherlands
external linkhttp://www.shikanda.net
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