Globalizing Africa

Below is an example of my mid-term essay in my African Studies course, where I explored the cultural identity of religion.

In November of 2011, Pope Benedict made a visit to Benin. According to BBC NEWS, The Pope’s visit was intentional, and his message to the people of Benin was specific. The nature of his visit was themed around modernity. During his visit, Pope Benedict campaigned for Benin’s infrastructure development and innovation. The context of his visit was centered around him wanting the people of Benin to know that amidst his encouragement for a more contemporary urbanity, he also wanted Africans to avoid “…the unconditional surrender to the law of the market and finance,”(BBC NEWS 2011) The Pope noted that “Modernity must not cause fear, but it cannot be built by forgetting the past, ” (BBC NEWS 2011). While there is validity in the Pope’s concerns, under closer examination it appears that The Pope’s language was also contradictory.  He disapproved of Benin’s religious practices.  By him doing so, The Pope is dismissing the cultural significance and historical heritage associated with Benin’s most practiced religion: Voodoism. Thus, The Pope encourages Benin to forget its past.

Pope Benedict’s remarks while in Benin is made curious by him wanting the people of Benin to denounce what he calls the “…exacerbated and useless nationalism or tribalism that can become deadly, extreme politicization, inter-religious tensions to the detriment of the common good or finally the erosion of human, cultural, ethical and religious values,” (BBC NEWS 2011). However, there is great meaning in the Pope’s criticism. By The Pope urging Africans to reject voodoo, he is denouncing the cultural & religious customs and traditions that are fundamental to the construction of this particular African society. The analysis provided by scholar, Jacob K. Olupona in his articles, “Engaging Africa: Reflections on the study of Religions of Africa and the African Diaspora” and Osun across the Waters, explains the broader social and political systems that operate within the religious heritage of African nations.  Olupona describes how the spoken disparagement that Westerners give for the indigenous style of worship practiced by Africans have meaning and value, most of which gets reaffirmed by the Pope’s critique of Benin’s religious mores.

When The Pope critiques Benin’s religion he is challenging broader social and political systems that have intention and significance; it means something larger. Similar to how Olupona interprets the Osun religious identity of the Osogbo community in Osun Waters, the same can be said of what Voodoo means to Benin. To the Osogbo, “…Osun provides a shared religious system of meaning that predates and transcends the community’s  “division of belief and practices…which is also called Osogbo’s civil religion,” (Olupona: 164). Olupona goes on to say that “Osogbo recalls the founding narratives of Yoruba towns and cities. Although these narratives contain historical facts, they are intertwined with sacred narrative and metaphor that the community believes to be true,” (Olupona: 164).  Given that the people of Benin honor voodoo in the same regard as the Osogbo with Osun, when The Pope criticizes the voodoo of Benin he is demeaning the fabric of the very reality that they hold true and expressive of their identity as a community.

The political independence of the believers of voodoo is being dismissed as well. The indigenous religious practice of Benin—a country that has a religiously pluralistic national identity—is being called to question by The Pope’s remarks. Such indigenous practices that gets supported by the heritage and the current and future generations of Benin is what inspires and strengthens their religious, political independence from the “evangelical and Pentecostal and Charismatic movements of the twentieth century,” (Olupona: 24).   Just as Olupona addresses in “Engaging Africa: Reflections on the Study of Religions of Africa and the African Diaspora,” because of Benin’s strong temperament given for the resistance of Western religious ideology, the very act of Benin keeping to their local traditions and belief systems makes their cultural resistance a protest against systems dismissive of the religious vitality of their local community.

The Pope’s remarks during his visit to Benin offer evidence of the cultural and social realities of religion—the ambitions of African nations to maintain community within religion, amidst the competing interests of Western thought. The Pope’s comments also invite greater exploration of the religious experience of African nations. Pope Benedict’s comments shows the West’s disengagement with the socio-cultural and historical identity of religion in other nations, and possibly even our own.


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