This blog is a week old today, but apart from what I wrote in the ‘About’ section I haven’t really had a chance to explain in any length what I want to write about more broadly here (it turns out Malawian elections are VERY distracting), and, more importantly, what the hell that picture at the top of the blog is all about. Explaining that picture is important to me, because in some respects it’s open to interpretation (kind of the point) but it feels important to at least set out for the record MY interpretation.
So, the where’s and what have you’s: I took the picture in 2008, opposite the central bus station in Lilongwe, Malawi. In the trips I’ve made to Malawi since then I haven’t been back there, which I kind of regret, so I’ve no idea if the sign is still there or not. At first glance you might think I posted the picture to make a point about ‘funny Malawians’ with their ‘funny Christian spirituality’, opium of the masses and all that. Indeed, I cropped the picture. Had I not you would see in the top left hand corner the logo of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Pentecostal evangelical church with operations all over the world, including London. One conclusion to draw from that then is that if Malawians have ‘silly’ beliefs then so do Londoners ( In his book, Season of the Rains, Stephen Ellis makes a simple but very eloquent point that it is now just as likely for African missionaries to be sent to Europe to evangelise as it is for European missionaries to be sent to Africa, somewhat inverting the historical colonial missionary endeavor. A colonial interregnum perhaps?).
However, the point of the picture was not to make a judgement about the beliefs of those who take the promises of the sign seriously. Rather, it was to problematise some of the more conventional leftist perspectives on the legacy of colonial rule in Africa, and in this particular case the legacy of missionary agents and their religious interventions in African life. I need to take you back to a public meeting I was at a couple of years ago at the Marxism Festival in London to explain what I mean by ‘conventional leftist perspectives’. The meeting concerned popular protest in Africa and was attended by Trade Unionists from across the continent. During the Q&A an audience member stood up and said something along the lines of “I’ve been to Zambia, and the problem in Zambia is that there’ll never be any kind of revolution because everyone’s been duped by Christianity”. Now, caveat time: let me put my hand up as a pretty firm atheist. Nevertheless I found this comment incredibly troubling, and incredibly patronising, in that ‘conventional leftist perspective’ kind of way. Thankfully members of the panel dealt with it (MUCH more politely than I probably would’ve done, which is what’s so great about solidarity). Given liberation theology, the spirituality inherent in many of Pan-Africanism’s greatest thinkers, you can’t just dismiss what huge amounts of people believe and then, crucially, ACT upon as standard ‘opiate of the masses’ claptrap. What may have been (partially true) in Western Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century does not automatically become an immutable law of history.
David M. Gordon, in his book Invisible Agents: Spirits in a Central African History writes how pre-colonial beliefs about the material agency (i.e. the here and now affect) of the spirit world informed all subsequent Christian development in Northern Rhodesia and subsequently Zambia, fusing with political movements including Kaunda’s humanism and Chiluba’s neoliberalism. Going even further, Jan Vansina illustrated how the BaKuba people of the Belgian Congo fused and even just straight-up ignored Christian eschatology all the way through the colonial period.
What does all this mean about the picture I posted at the top of this blog? For me, that picture is precisely a colonial interregnum. I don’t know enough about pre-colonial Nyasa, Yao, Lomwe, Lemba (and the roughly ten or more other groups I don’t know about) spiritual belief systems to know specifically what of those systems has found its way into signs like the one in that photo. What I do know is that the kinds of missionary activity promulgated by the arch Victorian David Livingstone would NOT have included prayers for spiritual healing and cleansing, and certainly no therapies for love! To me, this speaks to the syncretism of the colonial period, the agency that ordinary Africans exerted in their spiritual choices. Of course, these choices were often informed by material rewards, or the end of a chicotte, but there was always agency, representing an interruption in the colonial flow of things, a disruption of colonial – in this case missionary – intention.
As I continue writing this blog, I hope it begins to speak to some of the more contemporary interruptions and disruptions posed by African agency to the variety of imperial projects currently at play on the continent.
Signing off for now…