Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Teaching American Students About Africa: Lesson One, Part One

Now that the rant is over, I think its useful to elaborate on some teachable moments in the last post. Most (but, most definitely not all) of my first-generation--raised in the Bible Belt--raised during the 9/11 years--students would see little problem with a faith-based solution to the "problems of Africa". I think we can all agree that the best we can give our students is the view that the assumptions of their own socialization process need to be rethought in a college environment.

These are the issues I would like to come out in discussion:

Non-interference versus we need to teach them to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

This is the "easy" one, after all: a religious agenda is interference. Yeah, right, she says, voice dripping with sarcasm. If you are a person of faith, as some of my students are, this argument is difficult because the non-interference doctrine of anthropology is directly contrary to evangelical goals. This is a good moment to let other students make your arguments for you. With luck, this happens. If not, then I have learned that you have to draw careful distinctions between the goal of anthropology and the goal of proselytising. I am very upfront about telling them that they are free as individuals to do as they please and it is not my job to tell them what their choices should be but it is very clear what my choices must be as an anthropologist. I never back down from that perspective and repeat it many times in many discussions, in many contexts.

"But it isn't interference if they already believe, is it? Aren't Africans Christians already? Wait, no, they are heathen pagans who practice Voodoo and witchcraft" is usually the next discussion on the plate, so, let's deal with that now.

My students usually, need a good discussion on the historical context of religious belief in Africa. I like to use Tanzania as example for this discussion; which is nominally labeled one-third Christian (Catholic, Anglican, and, increasingly, evangelical--Assemblies of God, for ex.), one-third Muslim, and one-third "other". We discuss the east African slave trade and the spread of Islam from the coast and into the interior. Then we have a discussion of the situational nature of religious conversion

I tell them about the village of Mtamba in Morogoro. The French built a Catholic Mission there in the 1880's (pictured above on the left). When I arrived there in 1987, a group of elders were waiting for me when I pulled up in my truck (pictured above). They had heard I was collecting stories about their past and they wanted to tell me theirs (yes, it was an anthropologists wet dream--awesome beyond belief). Among the things that they shared with me is that the above pictured men, were almost all christened with Christian names and now have adopted Muslim names--So, Peter has become Mohammed. At this time in Tanzania, support--both financial, educational, and ideological, was most readily given through Muslim channels. The only books in the village were Korans given to the local mosque, madrasas were providing educational opportunities for young men, and although I am glossing a complex situation--Islam was perceived, at that time, as a male power choice. Interestingly, women were not interested in this conversion and the wives gathered around me in the picture above remained staunchly Catholic--Beatrice is still Beatrice.

With this story I hope to get my students used to the idea that religious conversion isn't simply a matter of the power of faith or the acceptance of spirit.

And, of course, here is the opportunity to bring up the possibility of all those "other" complicated African beliefs that still exist and happily co-exist with major world religions. That other one-third in Tanzania. Cue E-P and both the Nuer and the Azande for this one. This discussion is easier for me these days because I have so many students who are latino/latina and I can reference their grandmother's beliefs (and their own) in Ojo. The Anglos in the class always learn a lot from this moment of sharing. I always feel great in my anthropology shoes during this discussion because you can see the relief on my students faces that I am not surprised or offended by these beliefs--for many, it will be the first time they have talked about "such things" in an educational format. They feel great. I feel great. Its a teaching high.

Next Post in our series on Teaching Africa and Push back to Rick Warren: Lesson One, Part Two: The Growth of the Evangelical Movement.


dogscratcher said...

" I never back down from that perspective and repeat it many times in many discussions, in many contexts."

Doesn't seem very "relativistic." ;)

Pamthropologist said...

Since the perspective I never back down from is being an anthropologist, yes, I would say that is very relativistic. I can't even pretend to objectivity if I start from a faith-based (or for that matter a Human Terrain System-based) perspective.

ryan a said...

great site...i just found you via the savage minds folks. keep up the good work.

these kinds of subjects are always really difficult, and when i teach someday i hope that i am prepared to deal with them effectively. it's not about forcing a view, but getting students to consider how they have been socialized, as you say. the hard part is actually pulling it off with a group of 40 students.


Pamthropologist said...

Thank you very much, Ryan. Teaching our discipline can be a challenge. And you are right 20 is easier than 40 and easier still than 120.