Published in Mission Studies 2005 pp. 249-263.

Four thousand forgotten generations. The longue durée in African History challenges mission, theology and piety.*

Paul Jenkins

1. Introduction

It is, perhaps, possible to find oneself asked to work on African History as a broad, general subject while simultaneously researching or teaching the history of churches and missions at a regional level. But this combination of interests, or responsibilities, does not seem very frequent. When it occurs, as in my joint responsibility in recent years to teach African History in the University of Basel while also working as the archivist, and in some ways as the historian, of the Basel Mission, it seems to me to be potentially very stimulating and very worthwhile. This exploratory essay minutes thoughts which came up as I left my sheltered office in the Basel Mission House each week in the Summer Term of 2002 to teach in the University. I had resolved to attempt an introductory course with first- and second-year students which would cover the whole history of humankind in Africa up to 1900. This involved trying to find ways of looking at a history which, according to a fairly well-established research consensus, includes la durée in human history la plus longue du tout – the history of human life in African environments, in all its aspects, from its beginnings as humanity first evolved up to the arrival of industry-based western colonialism.

My “guide, philosopher and friend” in this enterprise was the Anglophone scientific journalist John Reader, and my students tackled, week by week, chapters of his book Africa: A Biography of the Contintinent. Reflecting on the question whether this experience can be brought back into the history of church and missions I found myself focussing on his depiction of the way homo sapiens sapiens exists in the fossil record in Africa for 100,000 years – or 4-5,000 generations. Right throught these millenia, homo sapiens sapiens has had the same bones as us, down to key details of their articulation. And homo sapiens sapiens has had the same skull form as we do. His and her neural equipment, and its development from birth through adulthood to old age will have been, over this immense period of time, no different from ours (Reader 1992:79-80, 90 ff.)

I found these observations an enormous challenge when I returned from the university to the mission house. And I still do. How do we who concentrate on church and mission history in Africa place ourselves in a perspective of this scope and size? We concentrate on the “truth of the Gospel”, perhaps. For most of us African church history and the history of the mission work which often initiated it, are less than 10 generations old, a process which begins with the end of autonomous African history, and runs concurrently with colonialism, the independence struggle, the short-lived period of confident independence, and the current backlash wanting to assert the power and legitimacy of globalising institutions and global authority in Africa. But what do we do with the history of the 3,990 generations of Africans before the arrival of church and mission in most parts of the continent? Can we afford to refer to what I suppose we could cynically call the “economy of salvation”, concentrate on the history of what is specifically christian, and claim that this longue durée of human history is of no practical relevance to our thinking and piety? Can we really allow these generations to be lost, to play no significant part in our understanding of our universal faith?

2. Thinking about 4,000 generations of ancestors in Africa – science as a constitutive part of human culture from the beginning

In situations like this I like to refer to what I regard as a central tenet of the Quaker part of our common Christian tradition: the assertion that there is a spark of God in every human heart. My statement of faith is that this will have been true of every one of the people who lived in those 4,000 generations. Simplistically, perhaps, I assume that means that we regard a capacity, and a desire, for something that we would see as religion has always belonged to the fundamental constituting make-up of the human being – just as, say an aesthetic sense or an interest in trade evidently go way back into the ages, also in African History, when we look for evidence of their existence. Without being in any way equipped to judge the degree of biblical basis which there may be for this kind of idea, I continue to think that in all sorts of ways – not least in our approach to people practising other religions nowadays – this simple Quaker aphorism can offer us the basis we need for getting away from a disrespectful and discriminating approach to other religions as somehow lesser belief systems than ours. And it also offers a point of approach to the 3,990 generations about whom I have so far in my life found it difficult to think, at least in Christian terms.

John Reader offers little in the way of an explicit point of contact to the idea of the “spark of God in every heart”. What he does do, however, is take the mental capacities of the first generations of homo sapiens sapiens seriously, and join in the discussion about the common contents of our skulls for the last 4,000 generations. And this will, I trust, bring us back to the history of religion in Africa and therefore to a concern with mission and church history. Why, indeed, did the human brain evolve – demanding, as it does, a lot of energy and a very precise temperature control? Answers to that question can be highly relevant to a theological assessment of the thousands of generations of Africans whose lives we can, mostly, only touch or even visualise in the most indirect of ways (Reader 1997: 81-9, 111-122).

Basically the exposition which John Reader offers for the presence of the brain as one of the ancient constituent essentials of human existence has two aspects, roughly speaking a social side and a scientific side (Reader 1997: Parts 2 & 3 passim). I concentrate here on the scientific side. Our mental capacities are essential to our ability to engage in comprehensive individual and joint observation of those parts of ourselves and our environment which are accessible to the observation of our five senses. They are also concerned with observing the impact of applying various kinds of physical treatment on natural materials and foodstuffs – soaking and boiling; burning, baking and smelting; stamping; drying; tanning.

Reader is following the assertion that a human group which inhabits the same environment for a number of generations will have developed a near-comprehensive knowledge of the animal, vegetable and mineral foodstuffs and raw materials on offer, and develope knowledge, too, of how human beings can make use of them. J.P. Warnier put this approach very eloquently in an introduction to a Basel Mission publication about handicrafts in the Cameroon Grassfields:

….this highland savannah ecotone provided people with a vast array of natural resources….more than a thousand plants provided medecines, chemicals and raw materials for the craftsmen and women. Cultivated plants did not only yield foodstuffs, but also raw materials such as calabashes, the sticking gum of the plantain, the fibres and leaves of the banana tree. Livestock and wild fauna provided meat, hides and other resources. Learning the names, uses, physical properties, qualities etc of such a large number of natural resources – several thousands of them – required a long training, and the acquisition of various manual skills to extract, process and use the materials. (Knoepfli 1998:7)

What Warnier does not add here – but a point Jan Vansina, a father-figure among us Africanists, makes explicitly – is that far too few of the outsiders who have pursued research in Africa have been intellectually equipped to follow local people when they have inventorised their environment, explained their use of specific natural resources and talked about their strategies for surviving crisis and shortage. In his pioneering study Paths in the Rainforests Vansina indeed goes further and uses the word “science” to describe African cultures’ relationships with their environments:

The extent and character of knowledge of equatorial Africans about their natural habitats have been grossly underrated; if only because most [outside] observers were not trained naturalists [my italics]. The few extant inventories which list local names and uses of plants suffice to make this point…..They show that local communities knew much more about their habitats than they needed to know for utilitarian purposes. Precisely because the cognitive inventory of their environment practically matched the wealth of the physical reality around them, the inhabitants of these habitats had a wide range of choices….here as in other realms of life physical and cognitive realities stood in a dynamic interrelationship. Women tested new plants, hunters tried different types of rope or different sizes of meshes for nets….physicians experimented with novel medicines….the constant striving to match both realities [the cognitive and the physical] is the essence of science, and in that sense science was practised. (Vansina 1990:255-6)

He adds to this passage a personal footnote. “I know of the inadequacy of anthropologists [in studying African knowledge of the environment] from my personal experience among the Tio. I simply could not follow their instructions in the botany of their grasslands.” (Vansina 1990: note 7 p.255, text p.372).

It is, however, part of the modern consensus communicated by John Reader and traceable back to sensitive social historians of Africa like John Iliffe and John Lonsdale that – whatever the conditions which led to the rapid evolution to the beginnings of homo sapiens sapiens 100,000 years ago – Africa was and is a tough continent for human survival. Reader writes in terms of a consensus among demographers that African cultures generally know the permanent danger of demographic catastrophe and have organised themselves to assure their survival, as far as this was possible (Reader 1997:233-242). For the last 2-3,000 years African cultures have been in the strictest sense of the term “iron age cultures”, able, with their restricted technology, to survive because of the quality of their exploration of their environment. Before they became “iron age cultures” they were, of course, “stone age cultures”, possessing still less technological fire-power. Hence the assertion that humankind had near-comprehensive knowledge of those parts of the environment accessible to his and her five senses, and that this was essential to the serious task of survival.

3. Science and Religion – observation, abstraction, generalisation.

We may still seem a long way away from the history of missions and churches in Africa. But it would severely short-circuit the ideas I am trying to develop here, if we were simply to argue immediately at this stage that the permanent danger of demographic crisis was an invitation to a superior cognitive system and a superior technology to enter Africa with the missions of the 19th century – however correct that assertion may be. But having postulated that the neural resources which developed to make and remember observations of all kinds are constitutive of humankind, we can move from the basis I have tried to lay here towards an intellectual and religious history of a major part of the African experience. For it seems evident that it is also a constituent part of the abilities of homo sapiens sapiens not only to observe but also to ratiocinate, to think, about what has been observed, to analyse, to add two and two and make four. In other words humans beings have always not only had the capacity for observation, but also for generalisation and abstraction.

My assertion would be that the characteristic form of abstraction, of generalisation, in African cultures is the search to encounter unseen, but essentially personal, powers, who cause events to take place and processes to occur. The typical goal of this ratiocination – the typical cognitive process – seeks out the unseen powers responsible for this or that type of process, and searches for a way to set up formalised relations in gifts and rituals which encourage that power to increase its benign – or reduce its malign – influence on human affairs. Changing technical skills were, in other words, interleaved with what we in the modern West would see as religious thinking.

I quite see that I am in danger here of relegating generations of other and complex studies of African religions to the sidelines of what I am arguing. But there is a growing undercurrent in the literature on Africa which sees that “religion” is a contested field in many parts of African history and that religious explanations of events have to “make sense”, in the long run, if they are to be authoritative. The investment in gifts and sacrifices has to be perceived to show results if a cult or a particular religious truth is to continue to maintain its influence. If this observation can be regarded as holding true in a particular cultural tradition, then we would have something like a process in which generalisations – in the form of projected perceptions of unseen forces – are tested and accepted or rejected. And we would also expect to find social locations in which this process is articulated.

There is, in fact, what is becoming a classical reference to thoughts of this kind in modern writing on African History – the title I have already mentioned from Jan Vansina, Paths in the Rainforests. It is true that, at first sight, the book might be regarded as cheeky and unsound, or even an offence. The author claims to be putting together a 3,000-year history of the Bantu populations of the rainforest regions of Central Africa in the form of an intellectual history. He provokes scepticism – he takes a chronological focus so broad we would scarcely attempt it for European history, and that in a region with no written records before the arrival of the Europeans. Vansina, however, is in an almost unique position to make this attempt. His knowledge of the different generations of the relevant anthropological and missionary literature in English, German, French and Flemish is unrivalled, so that he can develope a non-superficial assessment of the varied states of social and political organisation in this region at the beginning of colonialism. And he has himself pushed the comparative analysis of Bantu languages to the point at which they are examined to trace the evolution of a broad range of vital topics in the politics, economics and social organisations of the region (Vansina 1990: Appendix, 267-301). These two approaches help to give his book its chronological depth and its persuasiveness.

Paths in the Rainforests is, however, no easy read. It is extremely compressed, and my experience in using it as a source of texts to discuss with students has taught me that passages which seem clear enough to me can inspire unexpected reactions among people of other generations, other cultures, and other disciplines. Nevertheless if one seriously wishes to offer the hypothesis that the search for unseen powers was a vital part of human survival in pre-colonial Africa, and a part of what one may call African science, the ideas I am expressing here have to be checked against this monograph. It is true that in his general attempt to describe the basic features of “tradition” in the rainforest region, Vansina tends to stress continuities rather than change, or established continuities rather than the competition between different religious interpretations of events as they occur. There is the belief in the impact on contemporary life of the ancestors, which originally (judging by the etymology of the terms involved) referred to belief in the continuing power of heroes after death; the belief in nature spirits, in charms and in witchcraft and the possibility of witch-finding through the work of diviners (Vansina 1990:95-99). But he does emphasise, towards the end of this section, the possible dynamics of the “equatorial system of thought” –

The dynamics of religious thought and practice to cope with [new] disasters used analogical reasoning and prophetic “revelations” in dreams, and resulted in the creation of major new cults around a new collective charm. These could then diffuse and turn into religious movements sweeping from village to village…….(Vansina 1990:98)

It is when Vansina comes to his summing-up of precolonial developments (and it is somehow typical of the opaque side of this book that this is tacked on to a chapter dealing at first sight exclusively with the Eastern Upland rainforest region of Congo – it needs alert reading to understand that a section in that chapter entitled “Dynamics of Tradition” is central to the whole book) that he sketches a dynamism which easily leads one’s thoughts to the kind of interpretation I am suggesting here.

Innovations responded to shifts in environmental bases and economics, but the latter do not wholly explain the phenomenon….Given the crucial role of cognitive reality, it follows that new ideas conceivably could precede and lead to a change in practice…. Indeed, one suspects that in the elaboration of ideologies and in ritual especially, new ideas and values enacted in performance may well have created new statuses and roles and stimulated change….The [academic] discussion of the dynamics of innovation so far still remains somewhat surrealistic, in that it treats innovation as discrete, as if it began at point A and terminated at point B. In reality innovations formed chains of change. New disparities constantly appeared between the physical and the conceptual reality, and the gap had to be closed by altering the accepted conceptual reality, which in turn provoked new changes in physical reality (Vansina 1990:194-5).

The kind of point Vansina is expressing here in general terms is made explicit in his references to the esomba brotherhoods of the Eastern Uplands of Congo (Vansina calls the sub-region being discussed here specifically “Northern Maniema”). In case of illness which could not simply be cured by the destruction of a noxious charm as cause

….the patient had to be initiated into the brotherhood appropriate to the disease….but it sometimes happened that the cognitive reality of the disease and its physical reality were not congruent….hence a new healing ritual ….[was] then required. This explains the frequency with which new ritual initiations replaced older treatments (Vansina 1990:188).

The argument that such groups articulated a pragmatic approach to the problem of disease and healing in which the success or failure of treatment fed back into the concept of what each brotherhood “was about”, and how it performed its healing role, is apparent. ***And note that Vansina is pointing us here not only to a tradition capable of innovation. He is also helping us conceive that there will have been in African history social locations in which innovation was articulated and tested and, if appropriate, made part of general consensus. We see here, in spite of the mists of time, the outlines of what we should not be ashamed to call the traditional African university.

Vansina is no average figure in the world of African Studies – he is now one of the grey eminences of the discipline, with an unusual background and a pattern of abilities and experiences which no-one can match (Vansina 1994). This, together with the plausibility of his main lines of analysis in the context of the argument I am attempting here justifies giving his results a prominence over and above any critique which may be offered to them on the grounds that they do not reflect a current anthropological consensus among younger scholars at the moment.

4. Concluding reflections

Clearly the question I posed at the beginning of this essay has personal roots. The reflections are partly driven by my fascination with the whole sweep of pre-colonial African History, and the command of different intellectual disciplines which this field requires from its devotees. They are also driven by the urge to break down the intellectual boundaries which easily seem to grow between the general study of African History’s longue durée and the geographically and chronologically narrower concern most of us in the missiological field have with the recent history and contemporary sociology of a particular African Volkskirche. It is finally stimulated by an uneasy feeling that if we are practising christians we cannot simply ignore, in our thinking about Africa, the long history of people who, in our belief, were also children of God, many still treasured in memory by their christian descendants.

The train of thought I have been following does indeed raise some pointed questions about the history of churches and missions. Basically, if we posit an African intellectual history with its own local and regional processes and points of articulation, then the question arises with real urgency whether the intellectual histories which occur when christianity puts down roots in the different regions of Africa, with its new scripture and its new ways of thinking, are linked into continuity and process with pre-existing intellectual histories or not. ***Have missions and churches in Africa recognised the role that traditional African universities should play in their communications and discussions?

Vansina answers this question with a resounding “No”. Paths in the Rainforests is, indeed, in the end, an angry book. And this anger also needs to be on our agenda, if we are going to look at Christianity in the whole sweep of the history of religions in the longue durée of humankind in Africa. In a chapter entitled “Death of a Tradition” Vansina argues that in the 40 years before 1920 equatorial tradition was destroyed with “the violence of an apocalyptic conquest” in what became the Belgian Congo (Vansina 1990:239-248, especially 246-7). A key element here was the association between missions and the colonial police.

Missions ridiculed and opposed nearly all expressions of the tradition….Whenever they could they invoked secular power to suppress institutions contrary to their ideas of “natural morality” and “law and order”. State agents everywhere outlawed public divining, poison ordeals, many healing rituals …… often without any idea of the consequences.

Vansina goes on to argue that the “cognitive part of the old tradition, its very core, went into an irreversible crisis” with the beginning of Belgian colonialism and that this continues to have fatal effects on peoples’ ability to live together there and cope with the new types of crisis colonialism and the independent state have brought with them.

One may wonder if Vansina is exaggerating. It is interesting that, for instance, Simon Kimbangu and the development of his church does not feature in any way in his discussion of the fault-lines between “tradition” and the modernity introduced by colonialism. ***But the terrible history of King Leopold’s Congo, and the evident weakness of traditional structures in healing the wounds of post-colonial Congo, do both point to taking Vansina’s main assertion about the colonial destruction of culture in this part of Âfrica seriously.

One may also wonder if, compared with the whole history of Africa in the last 200 years, the colonial emasculation of traditional institutions was not especially thorough and fateful in areas under Belgian rule. Certainly my own reflections on chieftaincy in the Akan world, with its history of involvement in British indirect rule, would take me to other conclusions. If we are to look for points of intellectual articulation in that particular corner of Africa the chief’s courts will have to be seen as playing a predominant role. They were – and in many ways still are – not only places where the costly beauty of symbols of authority were generated and displayed. They were and are also places where other and non-material forms of excellence are gathered. However plural the Akan world may have been, chiefs gathered around them the best that they could in terms of invisible values like eloquence, knowledge of the past, knowledge of existing religious ideas, and the ability to analyse new situations and to work out how they could best be met. It was and is in chiefs’ courts that history is communicated, traditional legality defined, developed and administered, and at least indirect control exercised over institutions of all kinds, including religious ones. ***I am anxious, however, that institutionalised churches in Ghana continue to be hesitant to recognise the importance of these locations of social articulation. The relationships between post-mission christianity and pre-mission religion is at best a strongly contested field. There may be societies of Chiefs and Queen Mothers urging the churches to take a new look at their relations with traditional religion. But there is still a strongly-entrenched grass-roots Christian attitude which condemns the elements of pre-christian religion related to the authority of these offices to the status of heathenism and which dominates church behaviour in this field. Finding general arguments capable of gaining majority acceptance which can be employed on the side of the Chiefs and Queen mothers is, even now, not easy.

* * *

Is what I have written here more than a series of theoretical assertions for academic discussions? Can it be regarded as a serious attempt to conceive how missions, churches and the faith they carry find roots in African life? My answer is “Yes” to both assertions, and that in two ways.

First of all, as I have already hinted, this train of thought requires a conscious change of perspective in the way many people in missiology and the churches think about the institutions which concern them in Africa. Too much of our work puts the churches at the centre of our studies, and sees society and culture as dependent entities grouped around them. Too much we concentrate on translating the message, and not enough on the questions representatives of a tradition raise, in their own languages, in their own terms and forms of argument, of the new faith. Too little we recognise that society and culture articulated by their peoples’ own languages hold resources of knowledge of all kinds which have been vital to survival. Too little we recognise that cultures before the coming of the Gospel were moral communities. Too little we recognise that even from the fragments of an emasculated tradition energies can be set free which catch us all on the wrong foot if we are not able to understand how people of a particular region may still act in terms of their deep-seated cultural values and potentialities, their long-standing discourse about how to survive there in the particular environment where they live.

Secondly the kind of train of thought outlined here has something to say to African pride. Historians specialising on the longue durée find themselves with new ideas about the majesty and significance of African history. Iliffe writes about Africans as “the frontiersmen of humanity”, about the ability of African groups to survive over the millenia in acutely hostile physical environments (Iliffe 1995: the title of the first chapter).Vansina argues that “…the distinctive contribution and the special lesson to be learned from Equatorial Africa in the world’s panoply of political institutions [….lies in] the ingenious solutions found to allow for both almost total local autonomy and cooperation where needed” (Vansina 1990:253). Faced with confusions of uncontrolled globalisation a new discourse about the African contribution to the history of humanity, based on innovative findings of this kind, would do us all good. But christians with a traditional approach to other religions and cultures are especially challenged here to jump over their shadows. They need to find clear and striking ways of coming to a positive assessment of cultures and societies which existed before the Gospel, and which now exist parallel to, and interaction with, the churches.

So we have a long way to go. And my observation of myself in a European setting comes to the same conclusion. As the retired Archivist of a serious mission house I can measure how far we have to go by a simple reflection. For decades I have been inspired by the Quaker motto quoted above, that there is a spark of God in the heart of every human being. But until recently I have expounded this thought in my own mind in individualistic terms. Even with my local advantages, as archivist in the Basel Mission house, I have only recently begun to think that it also needs to be interpreted collectively in terms of groups, fellowships, societies. There is a spark of God in the different ways every human community organises itself. There is a spark of God in every human culture (Dah 1989: 95-6). I fear that the simple claim that every culture is a gift of God to the human race is not likely to gain majority approval among practising christians, even today. But taking seriously the history of the 3,990 generations of African who lived before their peoples came into contact with the Gospel would inevitably lead our thoughts in that direction.

Dah, Jonas N.,
1989 Kangsen as they saw him. Buea/Cameroon: Presbyterian Church in Cameroon

Iliffe, John
1995 Africans. The History of a Continent. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

In memory of Christoph Zimmermann
2005 Basel: Mission 21.

Knoepfli, Hans,
1998 Sculpture and Symbolism. Crafts and Technologies: Some Traditional Craftsmen of the Western Grassfields of Cameroon, Part 2: Woodcarvers and blacksmiths. Basel: Basel Mission

Reader, John
1997 Africa. A Biography of the Continent. London: Hamish Hamilton (1980: Penguin)

Vansina, Jan
1990 Paths in the Rainforests. Towards a History of Political Tradition in Equatorial Africa.
London: James Curry.

Vansina, Jan
1994 Living with Africa. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.