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Clerical intellectualism vs African historic religion: critiquing Mudimbe (short version)


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

Wim van Binsbergen


edited version of the shortened argument as presented orally at SOAS, 1st February 2001; click here for the full text version (4x longer); or for the present, short version in downloadable TXT format [1]

Tales of Faith[2] is also, and perhaps mainly, about an incomprehensible miracle — that is, an extraordinary event in the world. These lectures constitute an invitation to meditate on my composite narrative, which contemplates difficult statements that are contradictory in their effects and, in any case, unbelievable for the agnostic that I am.’[3]

to Patricia Saegerman, my beloved wife, born in Stanleyville, Belgian Congo


This text was first presented as the first lecture in a series around Valentin Mudimbe, organised by Louis Brenner and Kay Kresse. Born in 1941 in the former Belgian Congo (subsequently Zaire and Congo), and now holding appointments at Stanford and Duke in the United States, as well as being Chair of the Board of the International Africa Institute, London, Mudimbe is one of the leading Africanist scholars of our time. His large oeuvre spans the fields of belles lettres (poetry and novels), philosophical essays, classical philology, the history of ideas, and edited works assessing the state of the art in African studies especially philosophy and anthropology. In Africanist circles he is probably best known for two books which trace the political and intellectual trajectory of concepts of Africa from Antiquity to the late twentieth century: The invention of Africa, and The idea of Africa.[4] There is no way in which, in the scope of the present argument, I can begin to do justice to what is clearly one of the great creative cosmopolitan minds, and one of the great intellectual and literary oeuvres, of our times. I have to substantially narrow down the scope of my argument, and I will do so on the basis of a number of related considerations. In this opening seminar, I think it is fair to situate Mudimbe in a particular social and intellectual context, and this is not difficult since his publications abound with salient autobiographical detail — not to say that his entire oeuvre may be read as a sustained attempt at autobiographical self-definition.[5] One of his latest books, Tales of faith (1997) happens to be an intellectual and spiritual autobiography disguised as a detached history of ideas of Central African intellectuals and their work and aftermath in the twentieth century.

                        The study of Central African religion has for decades been my main contribution to African studies, and has brought me in contact with Louis Brenner, my host today. Moreover, Tales of Faith was originally delivered as the Louis H. Jordan lectures at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1994, so that this specific argument by Mudimbe may still have considerable resonance in this room by its own original impetus. I will therefore concentrate on Tales of faith, but connecting as much as possible to the rest of Mudimbe’s work, and to his person to the extent this transpires in the published texts. I will be very critical, not out of lack of respect and admiration, but because the fundamental issues of Africa and of African studies today manifest themselves around Mudimbe as a central and emblematic figure, and we need to bring out those issues. After briefly indicating Mudimbe’s surprising methods I shall pinpoint what Tales of faith is about (the adventure of clerical intellectualism in Central Africa during the twentieth century), what metacontents it contains (homelessness as Mudimbe’s central predicament), and what all this means for the practice and the study of African historic religion,[6] the uninvited guest of Tales of faith and of Mudimbe’s work in general.

Mudimbe’s method in Tales of Faith

When we try to pinpoint the method by which Mudimbe constructs his texts, the first thing that meets the eye is that his method is kaleidoscopic and eclectic. In Tales of Faith, his approach is alternately

     definitional (especially the first chapter, where he seeks to define religion).

     autobiographical (passim, and especially parts of chapter 2, where he most convincingly evokes and clarifies the micropolitics of Central African education for the priesthood in the middle of the twentieth century by reference to his own trajectory through this education;[7] micropolitics is here taken in the Foucaultian sense[8] of the instilling, in individual minds through the construction and manipulation of small-scale interaction situations, of the preconditions for submission to, or for the hegemony of, a macro-level system of domination, such as (in this case) the colonial state and the Roman Catholic church.

     exercises in the field of the history of ideas (especially in the second and third chapter, where he explains the processes through which, in African-based ethnotheology and philosophy during the twentieth century, the liberation of difference was effected within the seedbed of missionary Roman Catholicism.

     critical, in the narrowly described manner of the book review neatly summarising, situating and appraising one or more specific items of academic or literary production within the limited space and with the limited ambitions of a published book review.

     deliberately and explicitly hagiographic, in his treatment of Ishaku Jean and of Alexis Kagame.

     philosophical, when he seeks to articulate differnce, identity, knowledge and representation in the context of his Central African historical narrative.

                        The kaleidoscopic effect of the intertwined use of various genres, the frequent lapses into autobiographical reminiscence, the fact that his book is more of a heterogeneous (and hasty!)[9] collage than a sustained argument, has a deeper significance, especially since as a literature scholar Mudimbe knows full well what he is doing. What these stylistic and compositional techniques convey is the fact that he resigns himself to his incapability of resolving the contradictions of his situation, and that instead he mediates these contradictions in a fairly unprocessed form to his readers. This resignation at incomplete consistency marks Tales of faith as primarily a literary collage, whose constituent elements happen to look like fragments of state-of-the-art scholarship. In fact Mudimbe is and expresses the contradictions between and within the constituent elements of his tale, and he is the homelessness which the heterogeneity of their genres suggests. At a function organised on the occasion of his delivering the Jordan lectures in 1994 at the School of Oriental and African Studies, he solemnly passed around his United Nations passport for the stateless, as if this constituted his main or only existential and academic credentials.[10]

                        As a result of his departures from common expectation among Africanists, Tales of faith is scarcely about ‘religion and politics in Central Africa’ as many empirical Africanists would expect it to be. There is hardly any discussion here of the way in which the political as an institutional sphere linking local and regional processes of power and performance to the national state and to intercontinental power relations, takes a religious guise or is informed by religious phenomena, however defined. Such major popular responses in the religious history of Central Africa as: Kongo religion, cults of affliction in the field of diagnosis and healing, Kimbanguism, the emigration of the defeated Lumpa church from Zambia to Congo, the close alliance between church and state under the Mobutu regime, the selective caricatural virtualisation of African historic culture in the context of Mubutu’s politique d’authenticité, the emergence of local independent churches and mass movements such as Le Combat spirituel (see below) which specifically address the effects of colonial intellectual and spiritual alienation in a framework that has departed very widely from missionary Roman Catholicism and from the existential and signifying predicaments of Roman Catholics priests as an intellectual elite — all these and many other themes are surprisingly and shockingly absent from this book.

                        A subtitle like ‘religion as political performance’ makes the uninitiated reader expect a discussion of a wide range of religious contexts in which political performance may be detected and subjected to exegesis: not just the struggles of Christian (more specifically Roman Catholic) and post-Christian African intellectuals, but also those of the millions of non-intellectual adherents of the same Christian denomination. I shall come back to this point towards the end of my argument. And if the explicit aim of the book is to present ‘stories of faith and adventure in intercultural problematics created by the expansion of Christianity in Africa’[11]) one can hardly entertain (like Mudimbe seems to do in the present book) the illusion that such an expansion took place in a context where religious alternatives to Christianity were entirely absent, muted, insignificant, or too insufficiently documented to deserve explicit discussion. Territorial or ecological cults, royal cults, professional cults of hunters and blacksmiths, ancestral cults, diagnostic and therapeutic cults of affliction, prophetism, sorcery beliefs and sorcery eradication movements, and to top it all the expansion of Swahili-related Islam towards the continent’s interior — the very texture of nineteenth and early twentieth century socio-cultural life in Central Africa was saturated with non-Christian religion, and one cannot simply take for granted (as Mudimbe through his silence on these issues appears to do) that the prospective clerics who entered the study for the Roman Catholic priesthood, did so without the slightest exposure to or knowledge of these alternatives and were completely indifferent about them.

                        Let me add that Tales of faith, one of Mudimbe’s latest books, is extreme in this respect. Elsewhere he did touch on aspects of historic African religion, e.g. prophetism,[12] creation myths, and everyday African life in Parables and fables,[13] whereas sorcery forms the topic of the important book by the Congolese anthropologist Buakasa entitled L’Impensé du discours,[14] which Mudimbe discusses in a short chapter of his L’Odeur du père.[15]

                        Provisionally, before even examining what Tales of faith is about according to its author (Central African clerical intellectualism), and what my close reading suggests that it is really about (Mudimbe’s homelessness in the face of death), the above discussion of his method and his making light with any disciplinary canon and method allows us to define what I would call the poetics of Mudimbe’s writing in this book. The book is composed of many heterogeneous small parts, which collage-fashion are only loosely connected, and many of which in their internal structure and conception are not manifestly consistent with any disciplinary canon of scholarship. These parts could be considered modules, most of which appear in the trappings of philosophical or empirical historical argument (others are autobniographical or hagiographical). What integrates them is not a sustained academic argument on African philosophy or the history of ideas, but a highly personal narrative of defining the author’s personal identity and itinerary. The modules are like the paragraphs in an experimental novel and especially like the lines and stanzas in a poem. Tales of faith is primarily a literary product to be judged by literary standards; its artistic originality consist in the fact that it rather effectively, and deceptively, manages to conceal its literary building bricks as pieces of consistent scholarly argument. This also explains the moving and revelatory effect which the text of Tales of faith has on the reader, at an existential level, prodding the reader to examine her or his own identity and life at the same earnest level of historical self-definition, loss, and hope. The book testifies to a great creative and scholarly mind who can afford to play with the canons of scholarship, first of all because his qualifications in this field are incontestable, secondly and more importantly because to him these canons are merely effective stepping-stones (the Wittgensteinian ladder he may cast away after climbing up), leading towards something even more valuable: the articulation of identity and personal struggle in the face of death and homelessness — expressing the culturally transmuted person that he is, that many African todays are, that all human beings are, and thus expressing the human condition in a unique yet recognizable and identifiable way.

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.

                        Mudimbe describes the situation of the exemplary African clerical intellectuals of an earlier generation, such as Mveng, Kagame, Mulago, and Kizerbo,[16] in terms of cultural métissité, let us say ‘the condition of being of mixed cultural descent’.

What Tales of Faith is really about: (2) homelessness as Mudimbe’s central predicament

Beyond the dream of an African home

It is almost as if in Tales of faith the politics of performance are reduced to the essayistic performance of autobiography concealed under the trappings of a chain of objectifying literature reports, philosophical intermezzi and other detached modules of scholarly production.

‘Tales of Faith is about the strange constructed place I chose to inhabit so that I could think about the unthinkable: how well the predicament of Sartre’s pessimism in ‘Hell is other people’ meets the supreme beauty of ‘I am an Other’. The two positions are inseparable in this space, in which identities are always mixtures facing each other as competitive projects aimed as, to use Schlegel’s language, an impossible ars combinatoria[17] — I mean a universal and definitive ‘logical chemistry’.[18]

This is the only real home he may claim as his own. He certainly does not perceive Africa as such a home, and he perceives his Africanness as problematic:

                        Although as much as anyone else aware of the unique complexities and potentialities of Africa as a situation,[19] Mudimbe is extremely concerned not to fall into the Afrocentrist trap which Stephen Howe caustically characterised as the construction of ‘mythical pasts and imagined homes’.[20] As a literature scholar Mudimbe is expertly at home in the realm of textual imagination (hence titles such as Parables and fables, and Tales of faith, for books in which he analyses crucial aspects of the twentieth-century experience in Central Africa), but he considers it his task to deconstruct such products of imagination, not to believe in them.

                        In a book which discusses the cultural and religious dimension of the colonial conquest, the devastating effects of Christianity upon African culture and spirituality, the Colonial Library as an objectifying ordered caricature of African socio-cultural realities, etc., Mudimbe finds mildness and patience for most of what came to Africa from the North Atlantic, but he is very dismissive of the Afrocentrists who, after all, seek to explode the heroic epic of cultural transmutation which Mudimbe sings in this book: the sage of clerical intellectualism. Afrocentrism is reduced by Mudimbe to a mere act of banal Freudian transference, i.e. distorted self-projection out of touch with reality. Elsewhere in the book the young African critics of Kagame,[21] or of the European missionising of Africa,[22] are dismissed by Mudimbe in similarly distancing terms. Here he finds himself in the company of Kwame Appiah, another cosmopolitan African philosopher who has endeared himself North Atlantic audience by rejecting the essentialism of Africanness and by mediating, instead, a sensible, middle-of-the-road image of Africa that no longer posits a radical defiance of universalising North Atlantic categories and procedures of thought.[23]

                        We would do injustice to Mudimbe if we did not realise that his reservations vis-à-vis Afrocentrism and the Black Athena debate, and his ignoring African historic religion, is not simply an idiosyncratic expression of his cultural and geographical homelessness and nothing more. At the back is a profound methodological dilemma, which attends the entire empirical study of African religion through participant observation or through African believers’ introspection, and which comes out clearly in Mudimbe’s discussion of Mulago’s project:

‘Theoretically, Mulago’s project can be summed up as follows: in the name of the truths of a locality or place, it questions the pertinence of colonial ‘scientific’ and ‘religious’ dominant discourses. Yet the project itself has recourse to the same controversial logical empiricism it wants to relativize. In fact, the invocation of the truths of the place against those of the interpretive space implies that there is somehow (almost necessarily) better reflections of the locality in the insider’s discourse; and this hypothesis then becomes an ideological framework and a means for negotiating a right to the authentic speech in the field of discourses about the native place.[24]

                        But by posing the question, and by contesting the validity of the local perspective by reproaching it for its claim of superiority, Mudimbe in fact claims for himself and his North Atlantic academic universalist science a similarly privileged, superior outside position — which apart from begin hegemonic would be very un-Foucoultian. African historic culture and religion have a right to affirm themselves for their own sake — which is why eleven years ago, as an accomplished North Atlantic anthropologist of religion, I opted to become a diviner-priest-therapist in the Southern African sangoma tradition. Moreover, there is another reason, one to be found within universalising science, why Mudimbe should be far less dismissive of Afrocentrism: beyond its consciousness-raising it contains major, testable hypotheses concerning Africa’s cultural past and Africa’s contribution to global cultural history — as I have argued in detail on a number of recent occasions.[25]

The prominence of death in Mudimbe’s work

Because of Mudimbe’s relentless insistence on origininality, there is an essential unpredictability about Mudimbe’s work, which markes it incomparably more difficult to read and to grasp than the average Africanist academic text production along disciplinary lines (African anthropology, history, religious studies, philosophy, theology etc.), and renders this oeuvre one of the most impressive, moving and original bodies of texts to have risen from the modern (post-eighteenth century CE) encounter between Africa and the North Atlantic. Like all true poets, Mudimbe’s writing is essentially a writing in the face of death. It took a while before this insight dawned upon me. I was at first puzzled by the uncanny prominence of references to parricide (often solemnly and in Freudian fashion called ‘the murder of the father’) in his approaches to African literature, ethnotheology and philosophy.[26] Thus when Paul-Michel Foucault in early adult life drops the ‘Paul’ which was the given name of his father and grandfather, and lives on with only the ‘Michel’ which his mother gave him, Mudimbe interprets this in the line of Lacan and Freud as parricide, even though by the same time Mudimbe claims to have proceeded to a Jungian perspective[27] which would lay less stress on the sexual scheme but instead would favour an interpretation in terms of a heroic mother-son myth.[28] Likewise it is Kasavubu’s rejection of Lumumba’s parricidal challenge of the former colonising power at the moment of Congo’s Independence, which, in Mudimbe’s off-hand analysis, led to Lumumba’s isolation and murder.[29] Parricidal is the revolt of younger African philosophers against their African predecessors,[30] while Kagame himself seems to have incited yet another form of parricide:

‘Within a few weeks, I saw him convert entire annual classes of students to a ‘‘nationalistic’’ view of African history and philology. I told him that I feared that such a perspective, by generously glossing over the epistemological preconditions of the murder of the Father, ran the risk of further perverting the discipline of the social sciences in Africa, already so encumbered by a priori ideological assumptions of ‘colonial science’. His response was surprising to me in its simplicity: ‘‘obsession is also a path to the truth’’ ’. [31]

From his own itinerary, this forms of parricide appears to be what Mudimbe fears most. For when in the middle of the twentieth century Central African Roman Catholic clerical intellectuals can be seen to struggle with how much of global Christianity and North Atlantic philosophy and science they can retain while asserting their rightful difference vis-à-vis that imported foreign body of ideas and vis-à-vis the hegemonic power of the Europeans who persuaded or forced them to accept that body and built it into their very lives, that retention is suggested to be a refusal on their part to proceed to parricide.                     The fact that, in the face of overwhelming evidence concerning the eradication of African historic religion, Mudimbe refuses to make a definitive statement against Christianity and its negative effects on Africa, means that (as Tales of faith makes very clear) even though he has become an agnostic, he cannot bring himself to commit parricide vis-à-vis the Roman Catholic Church.

                        Death appears not only as the murder of the father contemplated as possible but, after all, undesirable, or as the others’ parricide to be condemned, but particularly as Mudimbe’s own death:

                        On the one hand Mudimbe affirms, against the tide of the Africanist anthropology of the turn of the twenty-first century CE, the irreducible plurality of African cultures (the same plurality around which the Colonial Library was built and ordered). Mudimbe’s sympathy for the gems of classic anthropology as produced by Fortes, Middleton, Griaule en de Heusch, as discussed above, suggests that he sees them as an anthropological opening up to the liberation of African difference. But as he affirms, a greater liberation still lies in the realization that death (the central undercurrent in his work) is the hallmark of cultural purity (the kind of cultural purity affirmed by the classic anthropological model of ethnic diversity and boundedness), so that the affirmation of cultural métissité is nothing but the only effective strategy of survival:

                        Mudimbe analyzes other people’s Tales of faith, Parables and Fables, Ideas and Inventions of Africa, but for his personal needs retreats to the bare and windy rocks of agnosticism. His Africa is that of other people, it does not exist as a tangible reality for himself, but at best constitutes a context for contestation, a laboratory for the politics of the liberation of difference.


Let us dwell a bit on the notion of cultural métissité, which (although used by Mudimbe in an English-language book) I propose to translate as ‘the condition of being of cultural mixed descent’. The concept is borrowed, ultimately from the French colonial language of race, and more directly from an important critical reflection upon colonialism and its language, notably Amselle’s seminal discussion of African ethnicity[32] as a recent invention within colonial society. Schilder and I have tried to distance ourselves from the constructivism and presentism associated with Amselle’s view, albeit in terms which probably created misunderstanding and which Amselle declared a caricature of his views.[33] However this may be, the concept of métissité has implications which cast a critical light on Mudimbe’s analysis. In the first place it is a biological metaphor, evoking the necessity of the blind play of genes, as against the freedom, choice, contingency of cultural strategies. Mudimbe’s heroes, the clerical intellectuals, could freely contemplate and reject the idea of parricide on their European clerical superiors and intellectual predecessors while their historic African allegiance had already been killed by others then themselves; this shows that the biological metaphor of blind genetic necessity is misleading. Mudimbe must be aware of this, considering his lucid and state-of-the-art treatment of race as a biologically non-viable political ideology in contemporary science and society.[34]

                        The biological metaphor is also misleading for another reason. In the biological process of genetic mixture, the genotype displays the more or less equitable combination of two sets of identifiable factors (genes, chromosomes), each set making for either of the original two phenotypes involved; depending on how many different genes control the specific traits looks for in the original phenotypes, the features of the resulting mixed phenotype may range somewhere in between both originals, or (if few genes are involved and some of the values these genes take are dominant, other recessive) the mixed phenotype may look rather like one of the two originals. Neither situation obtains in the case of cultural mixed descent as described by Mudimbe. There is no evidence that in in the case of these clerical intellectuals African historic religion and Christianity have somehow achieved an equitable mixture, or that at least deep down, in subconscious layers of their personalities, the African cultural elements linger even though these do not directly manifest themselves in their overt behaviour, in their ‘performance’. They  are in fact mutations within the global clerical intellectual order — mutation here being defined in the original Hugo de Vries sense of a radical and unsystematic change (in genotype) leading to a radically new and unpredictable manifestation (in phenotype). These clerical intellectuals represent a new cultural form, whose Africanness perhaps consists in the somatic and geographical features of their bearers, and in the geographical provenance of the cultural material they distantly and selectively appropriate and transform in intellectual text products. Their Africanness does scarcely consist in any sort of lived and professed continuity with the African historic religion. What Mudimbe describes in Tales of faith is the emergence of a new local variant of global culture which has become dominant among the religious, educational and political elite of Central Africa, with similar forms elsewhere in Africa and in the Third World in general.

                        But again, Mudimbe seems to do himself to African historic religion what he exposes as a colonial hegemonic strategy: does he not himself, vis-à-vis African historic religion, assert, like the very Colonial Library he is critiquing?[35]

                        The point is not that Mudimbe’s understanding of the conversion process is to be faulted. Most illuminatingly he argues this process to consist of a triple negation: of otherness, of the plurality of histories, and of any rationality to be found outside the respectable Judaeo-Greek philosophical canon.[36] He demonstrates how in a nineteenth century North Atlantic thought spell-bound by Hegel, which does not allow for a plurality of histories, Africa does not and cannot exist. The point is that Mudimbe does not seem to realise that his very critique of this conversion process, which produced him and hence has taken on a personal reality from which he can as little detach himself as from his body or from the air (!) he breathes, overdetermines him to take such deconstructive, dismissive views of Africa and of African historic religion as he does take.

‘Consequently, conversion is an imperative, a sine qua non condition for inscribing oneself into a history.’[37]

Of course Mudimbe means this statement as a rendering of the hegemonic preconceptions of missionary Christianity. But that does not take away the fact that, in banning African historic religion from the substance of his argument, denying it rationality, repeatedly dismissing it as incredible as if it can be totally assessed by epistemological criteria, and in glorifying the project of clerical and post-clerical intellectualism from which his own career and mutant identify have sprung, he takes the personal fact and necessity of such conversion for granted.

Mudimbe and historic African religion

Remarkably, I have not yet spotted any passage in Mudimbe’s oeuvre (but I may easily have missed it considering its size and bilingual nature) where the concept of parricide is equally applied to the unmistakable lack of demonstrable retention of any historic Central African religion on the part of these clerics and (like Mudimbe himself) post-clerics. They tended to be second or third generation Christians, and hence one might surmise that others had done the killing of local historic religion for them: their own parents, and the missionaries who had somehow managed to substitute themselves as father figures in the place of the paternal kin of these African clerical intellectuals. The message, so implicit as to be entirely taken for granted, of Mudimbe’s kaleidoscopic and multi-genre narrative of the itinerary of these African clerical intellectuals in his book Tales of faith, is that by the middle of the twentieth century none of them was in direct personal contact any more, as a practitioner, with Central African historic religion.                        If African historic religion is no longer the dominant cohesive social force in the urban and intellectual context of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and other Congolese cities, this does not mean that such religion has entirely disappeared from the contemporary Congolese social life in the rural areas; recent ethnographic research by accomplished ethnographers like Devisch and de Boeck has demonstrated its continued vitality and viability.[38]

                        If African historic religion has succeeded to survive to some extent in the countryside of Central Africa, why is it far less conspicuous in the big cities? Like in Belgium, Roman Catholicism was something of a state religion in Belgian Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. This does not mean that there is a 100% overlap between the religious and the statal domain; for as Mudimbe acknowledges that the Central African colonies, like Belgium, had a certain plurality of European ideological expressions (Protestantism, Freemasonry, and one may add socialism) rival to Roman Catholicism, and some of them with rather disproportionately great power in national politics. However, the effect of the practical coinciding of state and world religion is a particular form of micropolitics, which has a direct bearing on the eclipse of religious alternatives to Roman Catholicism from public and even private life. There is a constant reinforcing between statal and religious sanctioning in the policing of citizen’s everyday life. The state, which in its twentieth century form is primarily a democratically legitimated oligarchy, assumes reality partly through the citizen’s submission to and veneration of the representations of the church; and the intangible sanctions of the church somehow receive a vicarious backing from the display of physical force (the prison, the police, the army) and the powerful bureaucratic procedures proper to the state. The Enlightenment rationality of the modern state nicely matches the verbose doctrinal rationalisations of Roman Catholic theology. The result of all this is that in the consciousness and practices of the citizens all heterodoxy tends to be shunned as criminal and as an act of national treason, by virtue of strongly internalised modes of assessment, self-control, and domestication. Heterodoxy instils the ordinary law-abiding citizen with a sense of horror and especially shame, comparable to the shame adults feel in cases of imperfect public concealment of their own bodily functions (signs of incontinence, of menstruation leaking through, etc.). In a system of evaluation along such axes as child versus adult, animal versus human, stupid versus intelligent, exclusion versus inclusion, punishment versus reward, heterodoxy thus installs itself on the negative end. Mudimbe is as good a guide as any critic of colonialism to identify these social pressures towards compliance with world-religion orthodoxy, but it is important to realise that these pressures are not limited to the colonial situation. They can still be seen to work in post-colonial African societies: among the citizens as a mode of acquiescence; while among the political elite the semi-secret semi-public display of heterodox horrors (for instance in the occasional display of violence, sorcery, and human sacrifice) reinforces such acquiescence, since these horrors are profoundly threatening to the citizens.[39] Therefore, in the public culture of Central Africa from at least the middle of the twentieth century if not earlier, much like in the public culture of Botswana, considerable sections of the population (especially the urbanites and middle classes) are effectively shielded off from African historic religion by an effective screen of internalised shame. In Zambia in the early 1970s I detected (as a youngerand less sensitive observer) nothing similar, but over the past thirty years I have seen the gradual installation of a precisely such a screen. Today this altered state of affairs occasionally makes me appear a social fool in that country, when unthinkingly I publicly mediate a historic African religious identity as someone who has obviously not permanently resided in the country recently, whose main Zambian identity was formed in of the rural areas of central western Zambia in the early 1970s when African historic religion was still a dominant idiom there, who subsequently became a diviner-priest in Botswana according to a religious idiom which meanwhile has gained considerable public currency in Zambia as well, and therefore as someone who does not always realise that it is no longer socially acceptable to mediate African historic religion in the public space of the town and the open road.

                        One may wonder why Mudimbe should stop, like he does, at the evocation of the few heroes and saints of the cultural mutant order of clerical intellectualism (Kagame, Kizerbo, Mulago, Mveng), and not trace the installation of that mutant order throughout Central African society in the second half of the twentieth century. With the general spread of formal education (however low its level), and the prominence of clerical intellectuals in the educational system, the main conditions were set for the percolation of (admittedly: attenuated, compromised, versions of) this mutant order far outside the seminaries, convents and universities where it was originally engendered, to become, perhaps, a standard cultural orientation among tens, possibly hundreds of thousand of people of the urban middle class in Central Africa. Did this happen? If it did, how did this influence the political and religious itinerary of the societies of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi in the second half of the twentieth century? If it did, how did it help to explain Mobutuism, its politics of authenticity (which, much like clerical intellectualism, amounted to a virtualisation and thus effectively an annihilation of historical African cultural and religion), the specific form of proliferation of church organisations which took place in Congo, and the general emergence of a contemporary social order in which Christianity and literacy have become the norm, and African historic religion has been eclipsed or at best has gone underground, mainly to emerge in highly selective and virtualised form in certain practices of African Independent churches. Is perhaps the violence (more specifically the death) which forms the refrain of Mudimbe’s spiritual itinerary, and which I am inclined to interpret as the murder on African historic religion, akin to the extreme and extremely massive violence which has swept Congo, Burundi and Rwanda throughout the second half of the twentieth century? Anthropologists like Devisch and de Lame have struggled with the interpretation of the latter form of violence in Central Africa,[40] and their sociological interpretations, while adding a social scientific dimension to the psychoanalytical and philosophical hermeneutics of Mudimbe, certainly do ring somewhat naive in the light of Mudimbe’s essayistic philosophising, although the latter does lack sociological imagination and manifests the literature scholar’s disinclination to think in terms of large-scale social categories and their institutions.

                        This means that we might yet take seriously Mudimbe’s claim that Tales of faith is about any post-colonial individual,[41] and not just about himself and a handful of fellow clerical and post-clerical intellectuals from Central Africa. Despite his exceptional erudition, cosmopolitan orientation, and success, Mudimbe’s predicament is to a considerable extent that of the contemporary Central African middle classes in general. A glimpse of what lies at today’s far end of the itinerary that started with Kagame c.s., may be gathered from the following impression, which I owe entirely to the ongoing Ph.D. research of Julie Duran-Ndaya:

‘In July, 2000, Kinshasa was the scene of a major church conference of the Combat Spirituel (Spiritual Combat) movement. The conference involved close to 20,000 people, many of whom have travelled to Kinshasa from western Europe and other places of the Congolese diaspora. Obviously we are dealing here with a highly significant social phenomenon at a massive scale. The movement caters for upper middle class and professional people, especially women. Women also play leading roles in the movement’s organisation. The movement’s doctrine and ritual combine an original re-reading of the Bible with techniques of self-discovery and self-realisation under the direction of female leaders. The spiritual battle which members have to engage is, is a struggle for self-realisation in the face of any kind of negations or repressions of personal identity, especially such as are often the fate of ambitious middle-class women in diasporic situations. In order to achieve this desired self-realisation, it is imperative that all existing ties with the past, as embodied in the traditional cultural norms of historic Central African society, and as represented by the ancestors, are literally trampled underfoot. Thus a major part of regular church ritual is to go through the motions of vomiting upon evocations of the ancestors, and of violently and repeatedly stamping on their representations. The catharsis which this is to bring about is supposed to prepare one for the modern, hostile world. Some members experience very great difficulty in thus having to violently exorcise figures and symbols of authority and identity which even in the diffuse, virtualised kinship structure of urban Congolese society today have been held in considerable respect. But while this predicament suggests at least some resilience of historic African religion (otherwise there would be no hesitation at tramspling the past and the ancetors), it is practically impossible for diasporic Congolese to tap, for further spiritual guidance, the resources of historic African religion in the form of divination, therapy and protective medicine: not one reliable and qualified Congolese specialist in historic African religion (nganga) is to be found in, for instance, The Netherlands or Belgium.’[42]

The make-up of this topical situation is reminiscent of that of the clerical intellectual mutation half a century ago: the literate and Christian format appropriated as self-evident yet subjected to personal selective transformation, the rejection of an ancestral past and of African traditional religion, the total inability to derive any spiritual resources from the latter, and the effect of being propelled into a mutant cosmopolitan cultural and spiritual solution which is African by the adherent original geography and biology, but not in substance.

                        Mudimbe is a capable, creative and courageous thinker — one who can stand the vertigo of high anxiety, being fundamentally homeless and alone without other illusions than the quest for a placeless science and truth. To him, the rest is ‘incredible’, is belles lettres. 

                        Mudimbe’s Tales of faith amount to an ‘act of faith’ in the sense of auto-da-fé, the most terrible destructive act to which Roman Catholicism as a regime of control was capable of. The transmutation which produced clerical intellectualism and thus gave us Mudimbe, was also an auto-da-fé eradicating historic African religion from visibility and accessibility in Central African life today.


Both Mudimbe and myself have ended up, from socially very peripheral points of departure, in a secure central North Atlantic position, cherishing the comforting qualified universalism that comes with academia, philosophy, classics, belles lettres. For Mudimbe, the African heritage that was never to be his (because the micropolitics of clerical education denied him access to and accomplishment in African historic religion) continues to intrigue him. He has made it its life’s work to pinpoint the intellectual history and philosophical implications of these micropolitics, and to define, critique and increasingly control through his highly influential writings, how the image of Africa has been constructed and should be deconstructed. He has become the most qualified, almost plenipotentiary censor of his own spiritual and cultural loss as a post-African. For him, the Africa of historic local religious forms is a domain of the imaginary, of make-believe: fable, tale, myth, performance etc.

                        I feel that Mudimbe is stating only one side of the story. He has fallen victim to what we might call the deceptive politics of translocalisation, much as I have fallen victim to the deceptive politics of locality by becoming and remaining a sangoma.[43] The gods I pray to in a loosely African fashion (some of them as particular as my own or my patients’ ancestors, others tending to universality such as Mwali, or the Virgin Mary, or the God whose mother she is) do not need an epistemological validation because the rite turns them from imaginary into real and into social facts which make a difference since they decisively govern the behaviour of sizeable sets of people.

                        Performance is more than the liberation of difference for difference’s sake, it is the creation of a world which, while man-made and make-believe, yet takes on a logic and a relevance of its own, reshaping the contingencies of life into a place to inhabit, to cherish, and to heal. Religion is more than a definitional exercise, more than a defective epistemology believing the incredible: it is the symbolic transformation through which the locality created by performance is kept alive so that it may issue life, even in death and through death. And politics is more than ethnocentric textual comments produced in order to keep North-South hegemony in place (as Mudimbe defines politics); it is also the parochial struggle over meaning and resources which make up the smaller, local universe, turning it into vital locality. African spirituality,[44] whether historic of Christian or Islamic or syncretistic, is a social technology of sociability, whose forms create meaning, power and healing regardless of the Western epistemological status of its alleged dogmas and the supernatural entities features therein.

                        Thus conceived, African historic reeligion does go against the course of hegemonic history, and forms a genuine challenge for the self-congratulatory mildness with which Mudimbe depicts the project of clerical and post-clerical intellectualism in Central Africa, taking for granted the very impasse in which he ended up and from whihc he appears to bne incapable of escaping: North Atlantic academic rationality, and the end of African historic religion.


[1]              An earlier version of this paper was read at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London, 1st February, 2001, as the opening lecture in a series of four, entitled ‘Reading Mudimbe’, organised by Louis Brenner and Kai Kresse. The present text comprises, in revised form, the full text of my oral presentation at SOAS; that presentation however covered only 1/4 of the actual written text, to which I must refer the reader for greater detail on the topics dealt with here, and for major topics which had to be omitted from the 45 minutes presentation. I am grateful to the organisers for creating a stimulating framework in which I could articulate and refine my thoughts about Mudimbe’s work; to the African Studies Centre, Leiden, and to SOAS for financing my trip to London, and to Patricia Saegerman, Louis Brenner, Kai Kresse, Richard Fardon, Graham Furniss, and other participants in the seminar for stimulating comments on an earlier draft.

[2]                Mudimbe, V.Y., 1997, Tales of faith: Religion as political performance in Central Africa: Jordan Lectures 1993, London & Atlantic Highlands: Athlone Press.

[3]              Tales, p. 202.

[4]                Mudimbe, V.Y., 1988, The invention of Africa: Gnosis, philosophy, and the order of knowledge, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press/London: Currey; Mudimbe, V.Y., 1994, The idea of Africa, Bloomington, IN and London.

[5]              Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to consult his explicitly autobiographical book: Mudimbe, V.Y., 1994, Le corps glorieux des mots et des choses, [ place: publisher ] .

[6]              I prefer the expression ‘African historic religion’ to alternatives such as ‘African traditional religion’ or ‘African religion’ tout court, in order to denote forms of religious expression which existed on the African continent more or less independently from and often prior to the penetration of such world religions as Islam and Christianity, and which have persisted in changed but recognisable form into the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when many of these forms were drawn into the orbit of professional outsider description. The word ‘traditional’ has been used in so many ideologically charged contexts as to have become meaningless; and Islam and Christianity have ranked among the religious forms of Africa ever since the first millennium of the common era.

[7]              Tales, pp. 50-55.

[8]                Foucault, M., 1975, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison, Gallimard: Paris.

[9]              Apart from the used of unintegrated scraps of book reviews, the book’s level of copy-editing is remarkably low. The spelling of proper names in Mudimbe’s work is often defective to the point of dyslexia; e.g. Blummebach, Tales, p. 150, and Blumenback, p. 188, for Blumenbach; cf Blumenbach’s contemporary Hereen read Heeren, Mudimbe, ‘African Athena?’, p. 119; Barret, read Barrett (Barrett, D.B., 1968, Schism and Renewal in Africa, Nairobi: Oxford University Press), Tales, p. 74; Livingston, read Livingstone, Tales, p. 44, p.188 has it correctly; Al-Hjj Umar, read Al-Hajj ‘Umar, Tales, p. 90 and index (if he has the translitteration jihâd whereas that -i- is usually not explicitly represented in written Arabic, then he should also have the common translitteration Hajj for whose -a- the same is true). It is not only the copy-editing of Tales of faith which is surprisingly defective. Also the biliography shows major lacunae. The entire, massive oevre of Kagame is cited in the text (Tales, pp. 139-141) without a single entry in the end bibliography. And a Temples publication of 1959 is quoted without appearing the bibliography (Tales, p. 155); probably this is simply the English translation of Bantoe-philosophie, so for 1959 read 1979; Sally Falk Moore’s 1984 book is mentioned in the text but not listed in the bibliography. Fortes, M. & G. Dieterlen, 1965, eds, African Systems of Thought, Oxford University Press for International African Institute, is listed as edited only by Dieterlin, yet in Tales of faith, p. 161 a reference to ‘Fortes 1965’ appears which can only be this book; a very important quote is derived from a 1978 article by Mveng which does not appear in the bibliography (Tales, p. 173).

[10]            Personal communication, Richard Fardon, Graham Furniss, and Louis Brenner, London, 1st February, 2001.

[11]            Tales, p. ix.

[12]            Early eighteenth century Christian Kongo prophets, and twentieth-century Christian prophets in Southern Africa, are discussed briefly in Tales of faith, pp. 71f.

[13]                Mudimbe, Parables and fables. Especially in his discussion of the Luba genesis myth Mudimbe poses as one who, while not an anthropologist, has rubbed shoulders with anthropologists and moreover lays claim to a relevant lived experience apparently considered by him as the equivalent of anthropological fieldwork as a source of ethnographic authority:

‘One may ask: Whence comes this authority [ to speak on aspects of Luba or Songye culture in anthropological terms ] . (...) My answer will be simple. It is true that I am not an anthropologist and do not claim to be one. I spent at least ten years of my life studying ancient Greek and Latin for an average of twelve hours each week, with more than that amount of time devoted to French and European cultures, before being eligible for a doctorate in comparative philology (Greek, Latin, and French) at Louvain University. I do not know many anthropologists who could publicly demonstrate a similar experience about their specialty in order to found their authority in African studies. (...) My experience would define itself somewhere between the practice of philosophy with its possible intercultural applications and the sociocultural and intersubjective space which made me possible: my Luba-Lulua mother, my Songye father, the Swahili cultural context of my primary education in Katanga (Shaba), the Sanga milieu of my secondary education from 1952 to 1959 in Kakanda, near Jadotville (Likasi), and, later on, at the Catholic seminary of Mwera, near what was then Elisabethville, and my brief sojourn in a Benedictine monastery in Rwanda.’ (Parables and fables, pp. 124-125)

[14]            Buakasa Tulu kia Mpansu, 1973 L’Impensé du discours: kindaki et nkisi en pays kongo du Zaire. Kinshasa: Presses universitaires du Zaire.

[15]                Mudimbé [ Mudimbe ] , V.Y., 1982, L’Odeur du père: Essai sur les limites de la science et de la vie en Afrique noire, Paris: Présence Africaine, pp. 144-155.

[16]            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.

[17]            Cf. Platzeck, E.W, 1971, ‘Ars combinatoria’ in: Ritter, J., ed., Historisches Wörterbuch der Philosophie, Band 1, A-C, Basel/Stuttgart: Schwabe & Co, col. 521-522; a famous author of an Ars combinatoria was Leibniz, published in Frankfurt am Main, 1666.

[18]            Tales, p. 202.

[19]            Cf. Tales, p. 198:

‘the stories I have chosen to share in these lectures on conversion are, indeed, not only unthinkable outside of a space circumscribed by African elements but also well determined by anthropology and the colonial saga, as well as the practices and missionizing of Islam and Christianity’; italics added.

[20]            Howe, Stephen, 1999, Afrocentrism: Mythical pasts and imagined homes, London/New York: Verso, first published 1998.

[21]            Tales, p. 143.

[22]     ‘For people familiar with African Christianity, the conversion model [ i.e. the approach to Central African Chrstian intellectual history as propounded in Tales of faith — WvB ] in both its intention and realization would describe the African critique as generally violent and often, alas, excessive, not only in its evaluatrion of conversion policies but also of the missionary.’ Tales, p. 56; italics added.

[23]            Appiah, K.A., 1992, In my father’s house: Africa in the philosophy of culture, New York & London: Oxford University Press; cf. Tales, pp. 63f for a most sympathetic reading; and on Afrocentrism: Appiah, K.A., 1993, ‘Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism.’ Times Literary Supplement (London), 12 February, 24-25.

[24]            Tales, p. 89.

[25]            van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 2000, ‘Le point de vue de Wim van Binsbergen’, in: Autour d’un livre. Afrocentrisme, de Stephen Howe, et Afrocentrismes: L’histoire des Afriocains entre Egypte et Amérique, de Jean-Pierre chrétien [ sic ] , François-Xavier Fauvelle-Aymar et Claude-Hélène Perrot (dir.), par Mohamed Mbodj, Jean Copans et Wim van Binsbergen, Politique africaine, no. 79, octobre 2000, pp. 175-180 — the next few pages of the present argument are an English rendering of part of my French article; van Binsbergen, Global Bee Flight; and: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ed., Black Athena: Ten Years After, Hoofddorp: Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, special issue, Talanta: Proceedings of the Dutch Archaeological and Historical Society, vols 28-29, 1996-97.

[26]                Mudimbe, V.Y. 1991 [ check ] , ‘Letters of reference’, Transition, 53: 62-78, 71ff; Mudimbe, V.Y. 1992 [ check ] , ‘Saint Paul-Michel Foucault?’ Transition, 57: 122-127.

[27]                Mudimbe, Parables and fables, p. xi.

[28]            Jung, C.G., 1987, Verzameld werk 8: De held en het moederarchetype, Rotterdam: Lemniscaat; Dutch translation of Part II of Symbole der Wandlung.

[29]            Tales, p. 131.

[30]            Tales, p. 104 (Diagne), p. 143 (Kagame).

[31]            Tales, p. 140.

[32]            Amselle, J.-L., 1990, Logiques métisses: Anthropologie de l’identité en Afrique et ailleurs, Paris: Payot. For a similar view on anglophone and lusophone Africa, cf. Vail, L., 1989, ‘Ethnicity in Southern African history’, in: Vail, L., red., The creation of tribalism in Southern Africa, Londen/ Berkeley & Los Angeles: Currey/ University of California Press, pp. 1-19; cf. Tales, p. 152.

[33]            Amselle, intervention at a 1995 seminar at Leiden. Schilder, K., & van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1993, ‘Recent Dutch and Belgian perspectives on ethnicity in Africa’, in: Ethnicity in Africa, eds. van Binsbergen, W.M.J. & Kees Schilder, special issue of Afrika Focus, 9, 1-2, 1993: 3-15; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1997, ‘Ideology of ethnicity in Central Africa’, in: Middleton, J.M., ed., Encyclopaedia of Africa south of the Sahara, New York: Scribners, vol. 2, pp. 91-99; van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1992, Kazanga: Etniciteit in Afrika tussen staat en traditie, inaugural lecture, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit; shortened French version: ‘Kazanga: Ethnicité en Afrique entre Etat et tradition’, in: Binsbergen, W.M.J. van, & Schilder, K., red., Perspectives on Ethnicity in Africa, specia; issue ‘Ethnicity’, Afrika Focus, Gent (België), 1993, 1: 9-40; English version with postscript: van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 1994, ‘The Kazanga festival: Ethnicity as cultural mediation and transformation in central western Zambia’, African Studies, 53, 2, 1994, pp 92-125.

[34]            Tales, p. 184f.

[35]            Tales, pp. 179f.

[36]            Tales, p. 147.

[37]            Tales, p. 59.

[38]            de Boeck, F., 1991a, ‘From knots to web: Fertility, life-transmission, health and well-being among the Aluund of southwest Zaire’, academisch proefschrift, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven; De Boeck F. and R. Devisch, 1994 Ndembu, Luunda and Yaka divination compared: From representation and social engineering to embodiment and world-making. Journal of religion in Africa 24:98-133; Devisch, R., 1984, Se recréer femme: Manipulation sémantique d’une situation d’infécondité chez les Yaka, Berlin: Reimer; Devisch, R., 1986, ‘Marge, marginalisation et liminalité: Le sorcier et le devin dans la culture Yaka au Zaïre’, Anthropologie et Sociétés, 10, 2: 117-37; Devisch, R., , 1991 Mediumistic divination among the Northern Yaka of Zaire: etiology and ways of knowing. In P. Peek (ed.), African divination systems: ways of knowing. Bloomington: Indiana university press 104-123; Devisch, R., & Brodeur, C., 1999, The law of the lifegivers: The domestication of desire, Amsterdam etc.: Harwood.

[39]                Toulabor, C., 2000, ‘Sacrifices humains et politique: quelques exemples contemporains en Afrique,’, in: Konings, P., van Binsbergen, W.M.J., & Hesseling, G., eds., Trajectoirs de libération en Afrique contemporaine, pp. 211-226.

[40]            Devisch, R., , 1996 ‘Pillaging Jesus’: healing churches and the villagisation of Kinshasa. Africa 66:555-586; Devisch, R., , 1995 Frenzy, violence, and ethical renewal in Kinshasa. Public culture 7:593-629; de Lame, D., 1996, Une colline entre mille: Le calme avant la tempête: Transformations et blocages du Rwanda rural, Ph.D. thesis, Free University, Amsterdam; published by Tervuren: Musée Royale de l’Afrique Centrale.

[41]            Tales, p. 198.

[42]            This passage based on Duran-Ndaya, J., 1999, Rapport de recherche provisionnel, Leiden: African Studies Centre, internal report. I am grateful for the many discussions I had with Mrs Duran-Ndaya on her fascinating ongoing Ph.D. research.

[43]                Appadurai, A., 1995, ‘The production of locality’, in: R. Fardon, ed., Counterworks: Managing the diversity of knowledge, ASA decennial conference series ‘The uses of knowledge: Global and local relations’, London: Routledge, pp. 204-225; de Jong, F., 2001, Modern secrets: The power of locality in Casamance, Senegal, Ph.D. thesis, Amsterdam University; van Binsbergen, ‘Becoming a sangoma’; van Binsbergen, ‘Sangoma in Nederland, o.c.

[44]            Cf. van Binsbergen, W.M.J., 2000, ‘African spirituality: An intercultural approach,’ paper presented at the Dutch-Flemish Association For Intercultural Philosophy, Research group on Spirituality, Meeting of 6 June 2000, Philosophical faculty, Erasmus University Rotterdam; also; curiously, this paper was a belated response to an editorial request made by Mudimbe.


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