When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released, it generated both curiosity and criticism for its portrayal of Christianity. For Ivy Akumu ’15, it sparked an interest in the history of Christianity and, by extension, of other religions. Her growing fascination led to an Emerson Foundation-funded research project this summer, titled “Demystifying African Religion.” Through this project, she aims to deconstruct misconceptions about traditional African religions, partially through drawing parallels between them and Christianity.
Akumu hopes to reach a deeper understanding of African religions and then share her findings, countering common misconceptions. She remarked that “people make assumptions that [African religions] are barbaric and not intelligent.” Today, many Africans are also denouncing traditional spiritual practices. Akumu explained, “During colonialism very negative stereotypes were formed against African religions by the colonialists and missionaries as a way to ‘civilize’ Africans.” Now, more Africans are becoming followers of other religions, such as Christianity and Islam. Akumu wants to ensure that an understanding of traditional religions is not lost. She asserted, “These religions are a precious and interesting part of African history.”
For Akumu, traditional religions are particularly important to study because they are imbedded in so many aspects of African culture. She’s found that religion is present in the political, economic, and political spheres of society.
She commented, “From basic things such as our names to complex practices such as sacrifices, religion is intertwined into most African traditional thoughts and practices.” This is true even for followers of other religions. For instance, Akumu observed, “it will be easy to find a Christian who still pours libation for his or her ancestors.” Because traditional religion is present in so many parts of life, Akumu is finding that it is an effective gateway through which to study society and culture in general.
In her research, Akumu is focusing on the Bantu ethnographic group, which she chose “because it comprises of ethnic groups that have cognate religions, cultures and languages.” She is studying their religious practices primarily through reading and will be visiting the religious studies department of the University of Nairobi, which provides special studies on African religions. Akumu also plans to interview people in Kenya in order to better understand the perceptions of African people on traditional religions.
Akumu has found a number of strong parallels between Bantu and Christian beliefs. She explained that contrary to a common stereotype that Africans exclusively worship their ancestors, the Bantu peoples believe in a god, which most ethnicities in this group refer to as Anyambe. She noted, “They often call to the God in time of distress, say during floods, drought or other major calamities. Otherwise they live cautiously, looking not to do anything that would anger the God.” They also believe in life after death and hold that after dying, spirits go to a place that Akumu equates with the Catholic purgatory.
Akumu hopes that by observing these parallels and drawing on passages from the Bible, she can shake the misconceptions that many people have about traditional African religions. For example, she found that a passage in Corinthians acknowledges that devoted Christians may talk in tongues if possessed by the Holy Spirit. “This idea is conventionally acceptable among Christians,” she remarked, “However, in comparison, when African traditional religious leaders speak in unfathomable languages, they are often dismissed as either witches or con men.” It is exactly this kind of dismissal that Akumu hopes to challenge by spreading a deeper understanding of traditional African religions.
Akumu is a graduate of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa.