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One significant outcome of the European civilising mission in the early days of colonialism in Africa, before the aggressive conquest took place, was the development of a new religion founded on Christianity and all its associated facets, including language, mannerisms, and identities. Nigerian academic John A. Njoku states that “during the early years of European colonialism in Africa, a new religion was formed based on Christianity and its accompanying features, including language, customs, and identities.” This op-ed explores how early missionaries manipulated African languages, traditions, beliefs and identities in furtherance of the European civilising mission.
The first English missionaries arrived in South Africa around 1737 with a mandate to penetrate the interior, which means that Christians preceded the state machinery in establishing contact with Africans. Europeans had probably not seen Africans in large numbers since they decided to make the Cape of Good Hope their permanent home in 1652. Not to be outdone, France dispatched its missionaries not as pastors to the Boers of Huguenot descent, but as “founders of a mission among the heathens”. The arrival of missionaries had an adverse effect on African languages, customs and customs.
The goal of the missionaries was to deliver Christianity as the mainboard for civilisation, the highest state of being which will forever remain elusive in the minds of people, much like heaven itself. The basis of the first interaction between Europeans and Africans was to “civilise” them, and Christians were tasked with converting ‘savages’ to accepting God and singing the gospel. The earliest tasks for the holy visitors from the civilised continent were to learn the language as quickly as possible to preach the word of God, introduce white superiority, and rationalise brutality. Once they learned the languages, they were in a powerful position to redesign society through education, dogma, language, and religion. If diplomacy is another form of war, then Christianity was a form of violence and continues to play this role to the present. Thus, the actions of Europeans had far-reaching impacts on the people themselves and how they looked at themselves and their surroundings.
Besides education and classism, the translation of the Bible into African languages was at the top of the list. The Bible was written in European languages like French, English, and Dutch, so the words and lexicon were foreign to African languages, which were mainly unstructured and unsuited for the mythology contained in verses and scripts. In ‘Missionary Adaptation in Africa: Historical Reflections on a Contemporary Debate’, Dana Robert argues that early Christian missionaries had to adapt their approach to evangelism to suit the local culture and customs in order to be effective. This adaptation, explains Effiong Johnson, was necessary to make Christianity more relevant to the people and to help them see the connections between their traditional beliefs and Christian teachings.
A new language had to be developed from scratch and integrated into what people spoke to make things easier to preach, convert them to Christianity, and educate them to accept Western ways. In all likelihood, as much as 70% of what we regard as African languages was made up. This means that if our ancestors were to wake up today and hear us speak Zulu, Tswana, Xhosa, and Venda, they would barely recognise the speech, let alone understand the content of the conversation due to the influence of imposed words and syntax, that borrowed heavily from the early days of evangelism.
The creation of the ‘new’ language involved taking one dialect or sub-language and making it the language for everyone, through the church and school. If many people had not gone to school or converted to Christianity, the civilisational project would have been a huge disaster. This would have also made colonisation extremely difficult and protracted. To understand the role that Christianity, language, and education played in recreating African societies, we can compare the Christian religion and so-called African belief systems.
In the context of civilisation, both the Christian religion and so-called African belief systems mean exactly the same thing in the sense that they share many similarities, overlaps, and complementaries through language and form. The missionaries’ approach to the evangelisation of Africans often involved modifying the language to reflect European concepts and ideas. Among others, they translated the word ‘God’ as ‘Supreme Being’ in African languages that did not have an equivalent term for the Christian God. This may be disturbing to some, but the existence of Nkulunkulu, Modimo, or Zimu is a Western missionary concept that came with Christianity.
The manipulation of African languages and traditions by Europeans during colonialism was not limited to language adaptation but extended to the manipulation of religious beliefs as well. This God is positioned above ancestors or amadlozi, who are presented as a form of angels to align with Christian beliefs. As a result, the ‘traditional belief system’ was encouraged to flourish under colonialism, potentially making it easier for the Europeans to govern and control the local population. Traditional beliefs system were allowed to coexist with Christianity for as long as they recognised the elevated position of the Christian God above them.
My previous article explored how the traditional belief systems were used to create the white economy and how the ‘economics of amadlozi’ continues to support white Corporate South Africa. In brief, this entails spending large sums of money to buy livestock to be slaughtered during the bogus traditional ceremonies like lobola, weddings, umemulo, ingoma (initiation schools), and funerals. For these ceremonies, fast-moving goods like rice, beer, candles, beverages, and anything that can be bought at Makro, Shoprite, and Boxer are consumed in large quantities.
Even the notion of a sangoma is questionable. Sangomas create a parallel to prophets who have powers to ‘see’ the unseen and who also ‘communicate’ with amadlozi. Amadlozi or badimo are framed in the same mould as angels who link people with the ‘Supreme Being’. Also called Mvelingqangi, Nkulunkulu or Modimo, this ‘Supreme Being’ is the highest form of fiction that was used to trap people in the colonised world to believe in Christianity. Mind you, these are the same people who were described as having ‘no soul’ and who required extensive ‘civilisation’ and ‘Christianisation’ to have equal standing as Europeans.
Nonetheless, the conflation of traditional beliefs and Christian doctrines and practices is rampant in African evangelisation. When a person’s spirit is cleansed, dead or alive, in church or a traditional ceremony, he or she ‘connects’ or ‘transitions’ to another state that is usually not known to them. The highest state holds a promise of a better life. What has happened is that this civilising project does not have an end date, it runs to perpetuity. These people are often promised ‘heaven’ (amathamsanqa and wealth) that will be delivered via Modimo and/or his troops of amadlozi.
People wait in churches or emsamo carrying bibles or snuff and are prepared to sacrifice cattle, goats and other animals (umsebenzi) and money (tithes in church). They hope for heaven and good luck to come their way. Meanwhile, those who came to civilize them continually solidify their political positions and strengthen their material conditions. If Christianity or these belief systems were so noble, then why are the people involved as civilizational objects (lab rats) at the bottom of everything?
Religion and belief systems atone for the violence and dispossession that took place. Again, those who were maimed and robbed of wealth were constantly reminded to “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. Forgiveness is also a path to salvation on the way to heaven. Those who had accepted God met the oppressors’ violence and barbarism with forgiveness: “Thou shall not kill!” Thus, the ‘Supreme Being’, or the commander-in-chief of ancestors, will someday reward them for their restraint.
What most people are not aware of is that the Christianisation of Africans was perfected in Latin America, where the Catholic faith was blended with the belief systems of indigenous peoples to create a new form of Christianity. It is no mistake that the Catholic Church claims to have the largest following in places like Mexico and Brazil. Anyone who visits one of the biggest cathedrals in the world located in Mexico City, Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los cielos, will realise that the church service is unlike any other.
Mexican Catholicism has a patron saint known as the ‘La Virgen de Guadalupe’ (the Virgin of Guadalupe). She is depicted as a darker-skinned version of the Virgin Mary, with more indigenous features. In the Mexican practice of Catholicism, the Virgin of Guadalupe, akin to amadlozi and angels, serves the role of the appropriate messenger through the native Aztec language and means for reaching God. The man (Cuauhtlatoatzin) who purportedly saw the Virgin of Guadalupe was canonised – Saint Juan Diego – by the Catholic Church in 2002 as the only indigenous saint. European madness in the world continues unhindered, and religion still serves the good purpose of old: crippling the mind of the oppressed.
Like in African settings, the role of the Catholic Church in the Spanish brutal colonisation of Latin America’s indigenous peoples in the 16th century remains hidden. Today, one of the largest landowners in Southern Africa is the church, and this raises questions about how Christian institutions acquired so much land under conditions of oppression and violence. This land was taken from indigenous communities through force, fraud, or coercion. Churches then used the land to establish missions and schools, which were often used to further the process of colonisation and assimilation. For example, the church contributed to social stratification and classism within African societies, which led to the creation of the black elite or ‘amazemtiti’ in the Natal and Cape colonies.
Assimilated Africans embraced Christianity and this divided families into ‘amakholwa’ (Christians) and ‘amaqaba’ (pagans). But that did not mean the latter group was totally out of the civilisation mission. For them, amadlozi were infused with Jesus Christ, Abraham and the disciples as one thing. Modimo and his paratroopers of amadlozi are positioned as substitutes or complementaries in a belief system that is neither Christian nor animist. Sangomas and prophets are delusional, as are their followers. To this day, it is quite difficult to separate tradition and Christian faith. The creation of the so-called African churches like the ZCC, Shembe and Amazayoni was an outcome of the experimentation using modified evangelism.
It is important to stress that Christian missionaries initially saw the amadlozi as a form of pagan worship that needed to be eradicated. But, they soon realised that the amadlozi belief system was too deeply entrenched in the culture and that it would be difficult to eradicate it completely. Instead, the Christian missionaries decided to co-opt the amadlozi belief system and turn it into a form of Christian worship. They presented the amadlozi as a form of angels to match the Christian belief system. This allowed the amadlozi belief system to continue to flourish under colonialism, but in a modified form that served the interests of the colonial powers.
Christian beliefs (angels) have been intertwined with African belief systems (amadlozi) to create a hybridised version that serves the purpose of civilising and converting the African population. Congolese philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudimbe-Boyi argues that the result of the strategy of co-opting indigenous belief systems and traditions is that “African cultures were used to advance the colonial project and the spread of Christianity”. Essentially, the colonisers utilised the very cultures they aimed to destroy to achieve their own objectives.
The significance of the use of fiction or imaginative storytelling is central to the political, religious, and economic realities of the colonised world and cannot be understated. It served as a powerful instrument of control and authority, utilised by European missionaries in the past and later by colonialists to manipulate and shape the beliefs and behaviours of the masses. New elements in belief systems (and associated imagery) were readily absorbed and innovated and were eventually considered as “traditional” or, at the very least, communally important since they offered novel perspectives on how to perceive the world. In the Natal Colony, Christian and Hebraic myths coexisted or replaced traditional myths. In this regard, 19th-century missionaries like Henry Callaway, Samuel Tyler and John W. Colenso attempted to draw parallels between the cultural practices and belief systems of the local African and the Christian and Hebraic traditions.
A.T. Bryant argued in “Olden Times in Zululand and Natal,” published in 1929, that the Zulu tribe viewed all married men and heads of households as priests, and their cattle byre (isiBaya) as their temple, essentially making the entire tribe a priestly caste. The sacrifice of cattle for ancestors (go phahla) was seen as a commemorative act where meat was offered and spiritually consumed. He also praised the role of abangoma (sangoma) or umlozi (whistling spirit) as intermediaries between humans and the divine. However, Protestants feared the arrival of the Catholics, whom they believed would seduce the Zulu with „ostentatious ritual‟, baptize them too readily and incorporate the beliefs of the Zulus, as they did in Latin America.
The impact of the combination of Christianity and colonialism on traditional African beliefs and practices cannot be overstated. As explained earlier, early Christian missionaries in Africa had to adapt their approach to evangelism to suit local cultures and customs. They often had to develop or recreate languages, customs, and traditions to make Christianity more relevant to the people they were trying to convert. Even though some traditional African beliefs and practices were seen as primitive and superstitious, others were retained to advance the colonial enterprise and devastation.
A deliberate hybridisation of amadlozi and angels to achieve the European civilising mission means that although the mission church initially aimed to impose its values. Juliette Cécile Leeb-du Toit argues that Christianity was not always accepted by African societies and was then transformed into a crossbreed form that incorporated African traditions and beliefs. She adds that this often resulted in “a different cross-cultural amalgam, the latter often to the dismay of the original mission churches”. Therefore, early missionaries used a strategy of paralleling, also known as incarnating or indigenising, to implant Christianity or a specific sectarian system in Africa by acculturating it to the local beliefs and customs.
As it were to be expected, the suppression of traditional beliefs and practices had a profound impact on African culture and identity. It created a sense of dislocation and loss. People were either forced or manipulated to abandon their beliefs and practices in favour of a superior religion. This religion promised a safe passage to holiness and heaven, the highest desired state. It also created a sense of inferiority since people were made to feel that their traditional beliefs and practices were inferior to Christianity.
Siya yi banga le economy!