Printer Friendly

From Philadelphia to Kamina: Bumuntu interreligious dialogue in the heart of Africa.

In the summer of 2010, Professor Leonard Swidler and Harry Halloran met with me in Philadelphia to discuss the root causes of violence in the Congo. The result was the creation of the Bumuntu Peace Institute, (1) the first African extension of the Dialogue Institute. This essay intends to articulate the challenges of interreligious dialogue in Central Africa, drawing from the field trips and the work of the Bumuntu Peace Institute over the last four years.

I. Introductory Narrative

It is January 14, 2015, and I am sitting in an Indian hotel. This is not Los Angeles or Bombay, but Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The television screen that runs non-stop news from CNN, BBC, and French agencies shows the picture of Amedy Coulibaly, a black African involved in the Paris shootings connected to the Charlie Hebdo attack. I hear the reaction of many Congolese around me: These Muslims are crazy. As Africans we already have many problems: wars, poverty, tribalism, racism, dictatorship. Why get involved in Arab issues and fight wars that are not ours? Outside, in the streets of Kinshasa, Muslim robes are everywhere. When I left the Congo some twenty years ago for studies in Europe and then the United States, Muslims were believed to be about two percent of the population. Now statistics point to ten percent or even more. Moreover, it is a population of affluent businesspeople, soon to be heavily involved in competition for political power in this country where power was traditionally held by Catholics, Protestants, and Kimbanguists. (2)

But, in this traditionally "Christian" country, Muslims are not alone in shaping the religious landscape. "Street-radio" (radio-trottoir) has it that many politicians belong to esoteric Indian cults that require them to commit incest or perform human sacrifices to secure their jobs, positions, and power. Here, "Indian religions" are feared as malefic magic. As for traditional religions, they are viewed by most Congolese as mere witchcraft that should be eradicated as quickly as possible.

The same opinion is prevalent in Lubumbashi and Kamina, where I have been teaching and doing research since 2011. Over the past four years I have regularly traveled to the DRC to teach and promote interreligious dialogue. After some attempts in Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, in this vast land, we focused on Kamina. Thanks to the support of the Dialogue Institute of Temple University (Philadelphia) and grants from the Halloran Philanthropies, we have progressively established the Bumuntu Peace Institute in Kamina to prepare young generations for peace.

In January, 2015, I was joined by Rene Sephton, a Greek-Australian woman who does research on the Bumuntu peace-making tradition. Together we have conducted several interviews among local people in various villages, while working with students from the Universite de Kamina, Institut Superieur Pedagogique, and the Methodist University of Kamina. It is the labor of these field trips and research that I would like to articulate here and to reflect on the state of interreligious dialogue in Central Africa, using Kamina as a paradigmatic case study.

II. Context: Africa Matters

In order to understand the scope of interreligious dialogue in Africa, let us observe the situation on the ground, that is, the religious landscape of Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the DRC, and finally the city of Kamina where our Bumuntu Peace Institute is based.

A. The Religious Landscape of Sub-Saharan Africa (3)

Africa is now home to four major religious groups: Christianity, Islam, African Traditional Religions, and religions of Asian origin (largely practiced by the political elite, mainly Mahikari, Hinduism, and Buddhism). The fifty-four countries of the African continent have nearly a billion people (15% of the world population, versus 5% for the U.S.A.). According to a Pew Forum study, more than 1,300.000,000 Christians live in the Global South (61%), compared with about 860,000,000 million in the Global North (39%). In Africa, atheism has failed to take hold. It is the place where Christianity and Islam register their fastest growth. Today the continent's Christians are estimated to be 46% of the population, which is nearly 24% of world Christianity. Of the ten largest Christian countries, three are African: Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the DRC.

Muslims living between the Sahara and the Cape of Good Hope numbered approximately 234 million in 2010; Christians, approximately 470 million. Northern Africa is heavily Muslim, while Southern Africa is heavily Christian. While tensions between Christians and Muslims have occurred in the Northern part, there is relatively peaceful coexistence among these religions in the Central and Southern regions of Africa, though Pentecostal and Charismatic independent activism is rising to counter the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa.

These independent churches, frilly run by Africans and beyond the direct control of Western powers or mainline Protestant and Catholic churches, include many members who left the Catholic Church or mainline Protestant denominations. In this post-colonial era, "Pentecostalism" has risen to such prominence that it controls a great many political leaders in Africa. Many ministers, members of parliament, and even heads of state have their personal "guru," who regularly prays for their economic and political success, such that democracy is slowly falling under the control of various theocratic Pentecostal pastors.

With Pentecostalism's demographic explosion has come the sudden expansion of its efforts to shape politics and public life. Beyond electoral politics, Pentecostalism also impacts important sectors of African economic and public life. In Uganda and Kenya, for example, Evangelicals control numerous radio and TV stations. In Nigeria, the Pentecostal Redeemed Christian Church of God produces Christian-themed movies that have beaten secular rivals at the box office. Of special note for interreligious dialogue is that activism by Muslim politicians and groups in parts of sub-Saharan Africa has stimulated Evangelical public involvement, including public evangelistic campaigns to counter the perceived ascendancy of Muslims. Evangelicals also see themselves at war with traditional religions, which they consider "pure evil." Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam, yet also believe in the witchcraft, evil spirits, sacrifices to ancestors, healers, reincarnation, and other elements of traditional African religions.

B. The Religious Landscape of the DRC and Kamina

Kamina is a city of 300,000 situated in the province of Katanga in the DRC, a vast country of 75,000,000 people and 240 different ethnic groups. The DRC is one of the largest Christian countries in the world and is the largest Catholic country in Africa. Its population is 80% Christian (48% Catholic, 22% Protestant, 10% Kimbanguist); 12% Muslim; 4% traditional religion; and 4% other religions. Surrounded by nine neighbors, the DRC, the largest country in Central Africa and one of the four largest on the continent, is a land of great diversity with a complex and long history of ethnic and political violence.

It is fertile ground for interreligious dialogue. Although conflicts between Christians and Muslims have not yet reached the level of violence that is occurring elsewhere, the DRC, because of its vast mineral deposits, is a battleground for foreign powers--Muslim, Western, and Asian. The DRC and Kamina reflect the general religious trend of sub-Saharan Africa, with an overwhelming presence of Christianity, few Muslims, a dramatically dwindling number of traditional practitioners, and a powerful Pentecostal ism that remains very active socially and politically. Inside the DRC tensions are evident between and among the religious groups as they compete for the control of the government and natural resources. As my students in Kamina put it, there is a real "cold war" going on between various religions, especially evident in the job market with regard to hiring preferences, and in the election of government officials or members of parliament. Traditionally, a majority of government officials came from Catholic schools; in recent years the Catholic influence has dwindled with the rise of Protestant leadership, which has generated friction and uneasiness in some quarters.

III. Interreligious Dialogue

Kamina is situated strategically near a military base and along the railways that connect the south to the north and the east. There are three institutions of higher learning: the University of Kamina (UNIKAM), the "Institut Superieur Pedagogique" (ISP), and the private Methodist University (UMK), which include a total of 5,000 students. There is also the Catholic "Philosophat" Maximilian Kolbe, a Major Seminary that teaches philosophy. Besides public seminars with various base communities, interreligious dialogue is taught explicitly and implicitly. Explicitly, it is taught to students of theology (Protestant pastors) and Catholic seminarians in courses on "interreligious dialogue and world religions," "ecumenism, and philosophy of religion." Implicitly, it is taught to other students through courses of general philosophy and literature, especially Anglo-American, world, and African literature. For instance, students are invited to discuss religious tolerance by reading Thomas Jefferson (Declaration of Independence), Erasmus of Rotterdam, Thomas More's Utopia, and Bertrand Russell, or novels that address witchcraft.

Students are required to keep a journal throughout the course and write a coherent essay at the end about the most significant points the course contributed to their knowledge and their lives. Speaking freely about their experiences, students express their transformation and journey toward a dialogical mindset. These essays demonstrate the need for interreligious dialogue and critical thinking in the region.

Kamina has Jehovah's Witnesses, Adventists, Kimbanguists, ancestral religions (mainly Kishila and Mwabi), and various independent evangelical churches. The Catholic and Methodist churches have the largest followings and maintain social institutions, including hospitals, schools, and some job-producing businesses.

IV. The Need for Dialogue

Though Muslims are few in Kamina, most students have a very negative picture of them. The course on world religions helps them discover this long, rich, and diverse tradition and to appreciate Islam and lessen their fear and anxiety about Muslims.

Among Muslims, as my research assistant Bakari reminded students, there is a growing aggressive, apologetic methodology. Muslims are taught the Bible systematically in order to refute it and point out contradictions and other negative points, in order to show the superiority of Islam. In cities like Lubumbashi, they call for public debates, which they often win in the court of public opinion. Therefore, the Bumuntu Peace Institute engages Muslims in the study of world religions and sacred texts, primarily the Qur'an and the Bible, where they discover the long Islamic tradition of religious tolerance by authors such as Ibn Arabi and Rumi, while the similarities between Christians and Muslims help them find a bridge for dialogue and mutual understanding.

On the Protestant side, the major problem in Kamina is that of proponents of the "prosperity gospel," in which tales of faith are coterminous with religion as political and economic performance. A great many pastors create their independent churches as businesses. Sermons often insist on one categorical imperative: "giving to God." Many people, intoxicated by lively music, give all their possessions, especially money, to these pastors, sinking in misery while the pastors grow rich. The rise of millionaire pastors in Africa has become a widespread phenomenon

On the Catholic side, we witnessed the survival of the pre-Vatican-II mentality. Colonial clerical arrogance is fully alive and well. Buttressed by the hegemonic drive of evangelization projects and a century of "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" indoctrination and supported by the colonial legacy of economic competitive advantage, European financial backing, and political and intellectual dominance--many young priests and their subservient parishioners gleefully and wishfully dismiss ancestral Luba religion as ignorant inconsequential paganism, shameful fetishism and evil witchcraft to be eradicated as quickly as possible for the betterment of society. This superficial "superiority complex" is reinforced by the fact that, after a century of colonial persecution spearheaded by Catholic and Protestant missionaries, traditional religion has few followers, lacks impressive houses of worship and institutions, lacks a centralized structure, and is led by-and-large by healers who are largely poor, illiterate, or without impressive academic degrees. For many, the extinction of indigenous religions is a good thing.

After the Catholic Church, the Methodist Church is the second greatest powerhouse in the region. It enjoys a special connection with the U.S. and benefits from some American and European donors. The Methodist bishop even has an airplane, which automatically moves him higher in the social hierarchy, far above traditional healers of "pagan religions." Many Methodist pastors and parishioners disdain adherents of traditional religions. In this poor area without significant industries, the only meaningful jobs available are those for teachers, nurses, and pastors. Becoming a pastor is a secure upward-mobility path that confers social status, respect, and wealth--no longer merely a vocation, but a business, or both.

Needless to say, followers of indigenous religions are aware of this mistreatment and are growing resentful as the Kishila leadership made it clear in our interviews in Kinkunki. Likewise, Kalala Ilunga's diviner in Kilubi and his wife explicitly expressed their joy and amazement that a professor coming from America could show them respect and be interested in their religion, while everybody around them dismisses them as stupid and evil witches. We heard the same views among another group of "traditionalists" in Kabongo. It is remarkable that, although all Christian bishops and the large majority of pastors and priests are Congolese, traditionalists still talk of Christianity as the religion of colonial domination. In the interviews we could feel the change in the tone of their voices and the rise of anger when talking about the issue. They openly expressed anger and frustration for being impoverished, dispossessed, exploited, oppressed, marginalized, despised, and mocked. God, they say, is black, while the Christian God is a white God of oppression. The Kishila of Kabongo even reference Marcus Garvey.

One recurrent theme among all the various groups of the ancestral Luba religion that we interviewed is that all the black people must return to the religion of their ancestors and heal their souls from alienation. Africa, they say, is poor and oppressed, and the only solution is to abandon the white God and reconcile with our ancestors. This version of "Black theology" has a long history in the Congo, since the first encounter with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, with the early mass movement of rebellion against slave trade by the young girl Kimpa Vita in the Kongo Kingdom, and the rebellion of Simon Kimbangu against the Belgian colonial regime. The latter culminated in the creation of the widespread independent church known as Kimbanguism, which has proclaimed Kimbangu himself God and, more precisely, the Holy Spirit in their version of the Christian Trinity.

It was quite surprising to find these ideas "in the bush," expressed in a militant tone by semi-illiterate peasants, far away from American black studies and Afrocentric departments. That the slogan "Africa for Africans' can be sustained several decades after the collapse of colonialism--by people who never read Kwame Nkrumah, Malcolm X, or any other intellectual from the Harlem Renaissance or the Negritude Movement--points to the existence of some deep-seated anxiety at the grassroots level, a phenomenon that genuine interreligious dialogue cannot afford to ignore.

All these groups of ancestral religion are raising children in their traditional beliefs and are in various ways engaged in land disputes with government officials and Christian owners. It is predictable that as these religions get organized--such as the Orisha religion in Nigeria or traditional religions of South Africa--a showdown is inevitable. In the near feature, with their strong belief in birthright regarding ownership of land, they may fight for equal representation in the government and claim as their ancestral land and worship shrines territories that are owned by Christians or Muslims or that were sold to private businesspersons by state administrations. The Diviner Kalulu whom we visited claims as his sacred place and the home of the spirits he worships the waterfall of the Kilubi River, where the dam providing electricity to the military base and the city of Kamina is built. Removing him from that location will entail an open armed conflict, which is likely to be viewed as a holy war by the members of the traditional religion there.

Although practitioners of ancestral religions are few, poor, largely illiterate, and seemingly weak and powerless, their priests are still sought after by many, including Christians and Muslims. People's need for divination and healing make traditional religion relevant, even though Christians were long taught to reject traditional medicine as satanic witchcraft. In a region where modern Western medicine is rare and expensive, life is in the hands of healers--hence, the power of traditionalists, even though many Christians have learned the techniques from their grandfathers,' uncles, or aunts. In a land with deep-seated beliefs in magic and witchcraft, many politicians consult "traditional priests" for spiritual help to win elections, get richer, or gain more power. In time of war, traditionalists are indispensable military strategists and the source of mystical power needed for victory on the battlefield.

Far from being powerless or a mere nuisance, "traditionalists" are widely feared for their magical power and secret knowledge of medicinal plants, including many poisonous ones and the famous "weapon of the poor" prevalent in the region, the disaku, a mysterious poison, used against bosses, those who "play" with their spouses, or persons one hates or envies. Difficult to detect, the disaku causes horrible diseases and misfortunes and incapacitates victims for many years.

A great majority of the people in Kamina have a fundamentalist approach to Christianity, with a literalist approach to the Bible. Although fully enmeshed in the web of African social life, most of our Christian students have inherited a set of theological and philosophical blinders that render them unable to see virtue in African traditional religion, the very religion practiced by their grandparents, which remains the foundation of African civilization.

After our course on world religions, most students expressed surprise that African traditional religions contain some positive elements. As one put it, "I was running away from my grandmother. We all called her a witch in the family. But now I am going to have dialogue with her and listen and learn." It seems as though the whole current of African theology developed in Kinshasa, with its emphasis on the study and appreciation of traditional religions, has not yet reached Kamina.

Most students and the population at large agree that interreligious dialogue and religious tolerance are necessary for peaceful co-existence. It became clear that in Kamina interreligious dialogue requires the following:

1. Critical thinking regarding Christianity and the Bible, in light of the prevalent belief in witchcraft

2. A study of world religions to provide a better understanding and appreciation of "other religions"

3. A rediscovery of the Christian tradition of tolerance and interreligious dialogue

4. A rediscovery of the ancestral Bumuntu philosophy

It should be noted that, while the teaching of interreligious dialogue is useful for enlightening the mind and overcoming ignorance about other religions, there is a de facto dialogue going on, on the ground. Many of the seminarians and Protestant pastors come from families that practice a variety of religions and grew up on a kind of interreligious-dialogue setting. There is a tradition of prayer for unity and peace in Catholic and various Protestant churches. While I was in Kamina in January, 2015, the Methodist Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda attended the mass at the Catholic cathedral, which was celebrating the 110 years of his own mother, who is a Catholic.

In other words, there is a social foundation for religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue in Kamina. Ironically, it is a foundation stemming from the very traditional religions that are being ignored and despised by younger generations


Anxiety about African identity under the forces of globalization means that any discussion of interreligious dialogue in today's global village requires a better understanding of the complexity of the African social, cultural, economic, political, and religious landscape. Promoting interreligious dialogue in the DRC, which has been mired in extreme violence for almost four centuries, is very complex. More than mere academic training sessions, it entails confronting the deeply entrenched legacy of colonial Christianity and traditional beliefs in witchcraft and the incoherent beliefs of post-colonial reconstruction of traditional religions. The growing disappearance of ancestral Bumuntu virtues and the rampant economic misery pave the way for economic and political competition between members of different faiths and subsequent religious violence.

Bumuntu spirituality regards the intoxication of religious prejudice, religious intolerance, and religiously induced wars as "lufu" (death), at once a scandal, a blasphemy, and a folly--a crime against humanity and its creator, the very antithesis of life and love (bumi ne buswe). The modus vivendi and modus operandi among some vociferous Islamic groups, some evangelical prosperity-gospel marketers, some Marcionist and Tridentine Catholics, and other "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" devotees suggest that the attempt to cultivate the nobler art of peace requires the purification of religion through not just piety and untested faith but also through the wisdom enlightened by higher learning and the fire of sophisticated critical thinking. Such is the scope and hope of the Bumuntu epistemology known as "bwirto ," the holistic embodiment of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.

To paraphrase Max Muller, the Baluba bxvino understanding of knowledge and wisdom is grounded in the fundamental belief that "he who knows one knows none." This same vision guides the Baluba in their traditional understanding of religious knowledge and Truth, for they believe, with ancient Vedic sages, that wise is the one who recognizes that Truth is One and one only, but wiser still the one who accepts that Truth is called by many names, and approached from myriad routes. (4) Unfortunately, it is a wisdom that needs now to be taught to young Baluba in a world where indigenous religions risk extinction, as do African languages. This is why the Bumuntu Peace Institute strives to maintain some balance between tradition and modernity, for mental alienation produces people who are incapable of fully appreciating modernity itself.

Indeed, much of the African sociopolitical tragedy is due to the loss of memory about the ancestral "Bumuntu art of becoming humane" and the inability to embrace fully the positive values of modernity. As a result, life for many Africans is increasingly becoming "solitary, nasty, brutish, and short" at the hands of mercenary kinglets of Caligulan proportion, heartless henchmen of neoliberalism, and ruthless merchants of prosperity fables and misguided progress. The Congolese people recognize the dire situation of a post-colonial context dominated by Kafkaesque bureaucracies, grotesque Machiavellian politics, and the progressive loss of traditional Bumuntu values of solidarity, hospitality, and religious tolerance.

In the DRC, the land of Belgian genocide and Condradian violence, interreligious dialogue is not merely a technique for peaceful coexistence but the very rediscovery of the path to African humanity itself, for, as Pope John Paul II acknowledged in 1994 during the first African Synod of Bishops held in Rome:
   Although Africa is very rich in natural resources, it remains
   economically poor. At the same time, it is endowed with a wealth of
   cultural values and priceless human qualities which it can offer to
   the Churches and to humanity as a whole ... values which can
   contribute to an effective reversal of the Continent's dramatic
   situation and facilitate that worldwide revival on which the
   desired development of individual nations depends. (5)

Such is the challenge of the Bumuntu paradigm of interreligious dialogue in the land where Bumuntu itself is quickly disappearing. (6)

(1) "Bumi" means the sacredness of human life.

(2) See p. 178, below.

(3) I present here a broad summary of data from various sources, mainly the Annuario Pontificio and data from Pew Forum Research Center. See, and

(4) Cited by Wole Soyinka, "The Tolerant Gods," in Jacob K Olupona and Terry Rey, eds., Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religions Culture (Madison, WI. University of Wisconsin Press, 2008), p. 41.

(5) Maura Browne, ed., The African Synod: Documents, Reflections, Perspectives (Maryknoll, NY. Orbis Books, 1996), p. 245.

(6) The attitude of young seminarians and Methodist pastors vis-a-vis African traditional religions makes it clear that traditional wisdom in no longer known to young people. Likewise, in a discussion on African culture in a course of African literature of English expression, 1 was told by male and female students from the Institut Superieur Pedagogique of Kamina that, "in our ancestral tradition." women were treated "like animals" and had nothing to say. In the same city, however, the old sage "Papa Tharcisee Kyamilundu" and some sages from the court of King Kasong'wa Nyembo of Kikunki gave us a long lecture on the traditional wisdom of human dignity (Bumuntu), including respect for women.
COPYRIGHT 2015 Journal of Ecumenical Studies
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Nkulu-N'Sengha, Mutombo
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6ZAIR
Date:Jan 1, 2015
Previous Article:The importance of dialogue in Turkey.
Next Article:Abbreviated curriculum vitae for Leonard Swidler.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |