Sunday, August 24, 2008

A Missionary Tale

A central theme in Okot p’Bitek’s African Religions in Western Scholarship is the imposition of Western categories and conceptual schemes on African life and thought. For instance, p’Bitek tells the story of the missionary efforts of Catholic priests on the Acholi people of Uganda in 1911. The priests asked the elders of the Acholi who it was that created them. Now, the Acholi language is called Luo and, on this account, it does not contain a word for create or creation. Nevertheless, the priests wanted an answer, and the question was eventually rendered “who is it that molded you?” The practical Acholi simply responded that this was a strange question, since human beings are born of their mothers. The priests were unsatisfied with this answer and pressed on. Apparently, an Acholi elder thought of what it must mean to be molded, and realized that one’s spine seems to be molded when he or she is afflicted with the ailment that we know as scoliosis. Now, the Acholi believed in forces known as the jogi. These forces or powers are seen to be the reasons for particular things that happen in Acholi life. It is a Jok (for this is the singular of jogi) called rubanga that is responsible for the affliction that we know as hunchback. The elder told the Catholics that it is rubanga who molds the Acholi people. The Priests, finally satisfied, went on to preach that “Rubanga was the Holy Father who created the Acholi.”[1]

Suppose someone told you this story and said, “But things are better now.” The content and tone of your follow up questions would reveal the angles of your status and the divisions between us would be set.

[1] Okot P’Bitek, African Religions in Western Scholarship (East African Literature Bureau, 1970) 62

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