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You are what you buy and what you speak

Over 60 years of research into religion has made it clear to the researchers at ASCL and elsewhere in Leiden that politics, the economy and religion in Africa cannot be separated. The modern gospel of prosperity and individual responsibility presents a threat to traditional values. Linguists and anthropologists are studying what this means for the identity of the population.

Language as self-definition

We use language to determine our identity, our position. Young people in the Netherlands pepper their sentences with Surinamese and Moroccan words, opponents of Apartheid in South Africa used prison slang to register their resistance to the regime. This is the same everywhere, says linguist Maarten Mous, but unlike in the Netherlands, youth-speak in countries such as Kenya is not limited to a small group. Student or market vendor – everyone speaks the language of their new cosmopolitan city. With their linguistic creations, the young do not express opposition as much as their self-definition as modern, urban citizens.

In Côte d’Ivoire, a bottle is called a ‘basilica’. This refers to the copy of Saint Peter’s in the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, Yamoussoukro. President Houphouët-Boigny had an exact replica of the church built, but one metre larger. He may have been getting one up on the Europeans, but now his own subjects are using it to mock him.

Foreign language, foreign knowledge

Alongside their own linguistic creations, young people are expected to speak an official language that is radically different from the languages that they grew up with. As many African countries encompass areas in which dozens of languages have always been spoken, many authorities use the language of their former coloniser. Secondary education is often taught in French, Portuguese or English. This has dramatic consequences, says Mous. ‘Everything you learn at school is in a language that is foreign to you and associated with a culture that is foreign to you – the culture of your former rulers. As a child, you then make a distinction and decide that all that knowledge – physics, biology – does not belong to you. It belongs to someone else. That is detrimental to understanding and the idea that you have about yourself.’

Gospel of prosperity

Exposure to new world views may provide fertile ground for the emergence of the Pentecostal Churches, which have become a dominant force in many African countries in recent decades. Anthropologist Rijk van Dijk sees tensions with the older generation. Whereas the old mission churches emphasized solidarity with the poorest members of society, the new Pentecostal churches preach prosperity and individual responsibility. Their gospel of rebirth encourages members to make their own decisions rather than be governed by old traditions, parents or family members.

As the Pentecostal Churches see personal prosperity as an explicit sign of divine intervention, it is flourishing among the emerging middle classes. ‘The more prosperity a leader can exhibit, the more favourably inclined God is to him,’ says Van Dijk. ‘I’ve been told many a time that Jesus was a rich man.’ One of the countries in which Van Dijk conducted research was Botswana, which has seen rapid economic growth. Here engaged couples no longer need to go cap in hand to their parents. Instead bride and groom both take out bank loans to pay for status symbols such as expensive cars and exorbitant weddings. Their new religion justifies this open embrace of consumerism.

Forget old approaches

However, the emerging middle class is not the only group in which the Pentecostal Churchesn are gaining a foothold. As its members must generally donate 10% of their income to the church, there are also faith healers for those who cannot or do not want to but who do want spiritual support.

Business people and some governments have also shown interest in the Pentecostal Churches over the years. Museveni’s recent anti-gay policy is said to have been prompted by conservative Pentecostal leaders. ‘The societal strength of the Pentecostal Church is truly enormous,’ Van Dijk concludes. ‘But if you continue to think in terms of a “division of power” you fail to see the full picture. In Africa, religion is politics, politics the economy and the economy religion.’

A faith healer from a Pentecostal Church at work in Sehitwa, Botswana.
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