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‘AN INCOMPREHENSIBLE MIRACLE’

Central African clerical intellectualism versus African historic religion: A close reading of Valentin Mudimbe’s Tales of Faith (full version)

Part 2. Clerical intellectualism in Central Africa

Wim van Binsbergen

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Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Part
1.
Mudimbe's method
Part 3a. Mudimbe's homelessness: No African home, Afrocentrism, death
Part
3b.
Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Part
4.
Historic African religion
Part
5.
Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared

What Tales of Faith is really about: (1) the narrative of clerical intellectualism in Central Africa

Mudimbe situates himself in a multi-generation process of conversion which begins, two or three generations before his, with adherents to African historic religious forms dwelling in some Central African village or royal court environment, and which concludes with him and his fellow clerical or post-clerical intellectuals. In the latter’s experience African historic religion has become completely eradicated. Instead they have gone through Roman Catholicism or other Christian denominations, either remaining there or proceeding to agnostic, atheistic, materialist etc. positions. In the process of affirming their difference in the political context of missionary Christianity, they have ended up in full command of globally circulating universalising skills and qualifications: fluent in several Indo-European languages as well as in several African ones; writing poetry, novels, and philosophical and historical treatises; operating libraries, computers, Internet, academic committees, and publishing resources. Thus they have reached a vantage point from which, as intellectual producers, they both serve, and critique at the same time, the power-knowledge structure of North Atlantic hegemony, using Africa as an exemplary reference point in the process.

                        Here retrodiction appears as a major technique:

‘In both moments of negation, as illustrated by Kagame and Mulago, as well as by most ethnotheological disciples of Placide Tempels, retrodiction seems to be the main technique that establishes both the new right to speech (and the power of spatializing indigenous localities) and the intellectual efficiency of its interpretation). Retrodiction — from Latin retro (on the back side, behind, in time back) and dicere (to speak) — denotes the idea of speaking (and thus synthesizing) from an illusory, invented moment back in time. In the process, the present invests its values in the past with its questions and hypotheses, and rediscovers in the invented, reorganized spaces, laws, paradigms, or the truth of its suppositions. Indeed, the new creation is often in contradiction with the colonial adapted Enlightenment paradigms and its library.’[1]

‘...by the 1950s retrodiction was already a paradigm (...) Africans can read, interpret and reorganize traces of their own past in order to sum up the spirit of their own history or constitute the signs and modes of a religious revelation.’ [2]

                        Mudimbe describes the situation of the exemplary African clerical intellectuals of an earlier generation, such as Mveng, Kagame, Mulago, and Kizerbo,[3] in terms of cultural métissité, let us say ‘the condition of being of mixed cultural descent’.

                        Mudimbe uses strong words indeed to characterise the process that brought about ‘mixed cultural descent’, and its results. Kagame is, for Mudimbe, a saint; he relates

‘how, in the name of Catholicity, the missionaries has imposed a foreign name, Mungu, as the appellation of God who, in Rwanda, was known for centuries by the name of Imana. As a priest, he had to accept this sacrilege that, from his knowledge of the Rwandan tradition, he knew was an extreme affront to the divinity and to his kin. But out of fidelity to his vocation and to Rome, he did submit. God alone knows [ this is a self-problaimed agnostic scholar writing — WvB ] how he suffered until the day when the Church of his country reinstated the name of Imana, after rejecting the Mungu of the missionaries. With his death, Africa has lost not only a learned man but perhaps, and even more, a servant of Imana, and if Imana has a meaning, Alexis Kagame was, I presume, its luminous sign among us. May he remain so!’ [4]

Here, suddenly, there is no longer question of the representation of African historic culture as inherently problematic:

‘his extreme kindness...was a gift of the heart and understanding which, in certain circumstances, particularly when one attacked the milieu that he thought was the authentic expression of African culture, could be transformed into dreadfully violent fits of anger. When this happened, Alexis Kagame would abandon the art of parenthesis and detour to express his keen indignation, for example, to those young Westerners working abroad, in lieu of military service, whose brief stay in Africa succeeds in transfiguring into Africanists and in confirming their intellectual certainties.’[5]

Mudimbe’s extensive treatment of Kagame is cast the superlative terms, it is a downright hagiography, and Mudimbe’s use of that genre is deliberate. The same genre reappears in his extensive description, borrowed from Lamar Williamson,[6] of the Protestant minister Jean Ishaku: killed by Mulelists i.e. Simbas in 1964 because during a raid on their mission station he could not be forced to verbally betray — like Peter was to betray Jesus thrice before the cock crow[7] — his American fellow-missionary and former teacher.

                        It is remarkable that in one and the same book Mudimbe should discuss the spread of Christianity in Africa, and the rise of a science of, for, and by Africa. The implication is simply that the clerical intellectualism produced both Christian religious expressions, and African philosophy, and African social science, often by the same persons. He addresses this question explicitly[8] and once again his explanation is psychoanalytical and death-related. Perhaps in this case we are closest to the essentially utopian solution which Mudimbe has taken for his own predicament, his relation to Africa and to the global domain of academia:

‘In the invocation of Africanization policies, by insisting on its dream of self-sufficiency, I wanted somehow to interrogate indirectly a subjective project and its almost suicidal terms, by playing silently on a simple Lacanian tension that is represented in the difference between death-drive and being-towards-death. I mean, on the one hand, the apparent epistemological eccentricity of the African subject, such as a Mveng, Kagame, Mulago or Kizerbo who, in their projects, are divided between their ego and ‘something’ else — the real, symbolic and imaginary spaces of conflicting fields of sciences opposing their own articulation as historical subjects in an intellectual configuration. On the other hand, in their consciousness, the personal experience of a possible fragmentation in an espace métisse, as magnificently illustrated by Eboussi-Boulaga in Christianity without Fetishes (1981),[9] might indicate signs and dangers for a complete collapse of individuation. Under such an interrogation, the best resoluteness leads to a rivalry of value systems or, at best, as witnessed by Mveng and Eboussi-Boulaga, to a desire projected in an unnameable future. One could thus refer to Lacan’s Ecrits: ‘Who, then, is the other to whom I am more attached than to myself, since at the heart of my assent to my own identity it is still he who agitates me’ (Lacan, 1977: 172).’[10]

‘The prophets of the recent African cultural maturity — such as Kagame, Kizerbo, Mulago or Mveng — stand as mediators between this level and that of confusing and confused disciplines of African studies, which attend to the adaptation and indigenization of supposedly universal paradigms of sciences and those of revealed religions of the letter. The truth that gives them the right to question the pertinence of such an immense claim is, paradoxically the same that define [ sic ] them as particular subject [ sic ] able to produce value and true or false statements, and to make himself or herself understood because of his or her submission to a normative and paradigmatic epistemological order and its intellectual and ethical procedures.’[11][ Follows a long quotation from Foucault,[12] predictably ] .


Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Part
1.
Mudimbe's method
Part 3a. Mudimbe's homelessness: No African home, Afrocentrism, death
Part
3b.
Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Part
4.
Historic African religion
Part
5.
Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared


[1]              Tales, p. 95.

[2]              Tales, p. 119.

[3]              Mveng, E., 1965, L’art d’Afrique noire: Liturgie et language religieux, Paris: Mame; Kagame, A., 1955 [ 1956 ] , La philosophie bantu-rwandaise de l’Être, Bruxelles: Académie royale des Sciences coloniales; Mulago, V., 1965, Un visage africain du Chrstianisme, Paris: Présence africaine; Ki-Zerbo, J., 1972, Histoire de l’Afrique d’hier à demain, Paris: Hatier.

[4]              Tales, pp. 144f.

[5]              Tales, pp. 142f.

[6]                Williamson, L., 1992, Ishaku: An African Christian between two worlds, Lima (Ohio): Fairway.

[7]              Cf. Matt. 26: 34: ‘Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.’

[8]              Tales, p. 174f.

[9]              Eboussi-Boulaga, F., 1981, Christianity without fetishes: an African critique and recapture of Christianity, New York: Orbis.

[10]            Tales, p. 175; Lacan, J., 1977, Ecrits: A selection, New York: Norton.

[11]            Tales, pp. 181f.

[12]                Foucault, M., 1971 L’ordre du discours. Gallimard, Paris, pp. 35f.

Proceed to:

Part 0. Introduction and links to other parts
Part
1.
Mudimbe's method
Part 3a. Mudimbe's homelessness: No African home, Afrocentrism, death
Part
3b.
Mudimbe's homelessness: plurality of African cultures; death; métissité
Part
4.
Historic African religion
Part
5.
Conclusion: Mudimbe's and van Binsbergen's itineraries compared


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page last modified: 05-02-01 19:55:26