The other day Luis was rocking construction of a retention pond outside of the temporary compound. We hired Francis to help. In addition to being the night watchmen for the town parish, Francis works construction. While he was working, I thumbed through a book he had brought with him. It was a catechism text, written in Acholi, with a picture of a Black Jesus on the cover. Well, it was clearly the regular white jesus painted brown, but you gotta start somewhere. Within its pages was written a name that surprised me.
When Francis finished work for the day, I asked him, what is this name, Rubanga? What does it mean? It means God, he said, the God that sent Jesus and such. Huh. I told him that there was a scholar, p’Bitek Okot, who said that once upon a time the Italian missionaries rolled up on the Acholi and began to ask them questions about who it was that created them. The Acholi could not understand what the white men meant by create, and eventually translated the word among themselves as “to mould”. Then they figured that the missionaries must be asking about how it is that some people get hunchback. So they told them; the jok rubanga molds us. The missionaries, at the start of their grand conversion schemes, figured that Rubanga was the holy father who created the Acholi.
Francis did not know what to make of this. He said that maybe it would be cool if I showed him the text in which this was written. He then told me about the difference between the jok and Rubanga, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His english was pretty good, but I could not get clear on his own beliefs concerning this matter. At times, he seemed to say that he might call upon the jok if he needed something. At other times he seemed to say that the jok styles were not for him. But he did tell me of some rituals involving the jok and described the role that “witch doctors” have in this traditional Acholi style. Like yo, maybe if you get sick for a really long time and the hospitals don’t act right, we can take you to a witch doctor. This cat will ask for a fee maybe, then do some stuff and you will be healed. Or maybe there is a drought and the crops need rain. So the whole town might roll up to this one rock and sacrifice some good snacks to it. Then they leave, the rain comes and everything is all good. I remembered in a philosophy class back in the day the great master K. Wiredu told us that what we think of as African religion is really a deeply empirical venture. (Wiredu, incidentally, thinks that there is no coherent distinction between the natural and the supernatural. His argument for this is so simple it hurts.) So spirits or gods or whatever are always evoked for a specific purpose. And if the spirits don’t deliver, they get rejected. The spirit may lose power, people could stop believing in them and they could vanish altogether.
This is the impression that I got from Francis. He would say things like, yo, if you are rocking a religious style that looks nice, I might take it from you and practice it myself. He also said that Christianity and the traditional style of evoking the jok are really like bananas and rice. One does not seem to be better than another, but some people prefer one. I asked him if he knew anybody that preferred the jok style up to this day. He was like, yeah, of course, my grandfather. I will take you to see him.
That night the homies were all sitting , eating snacks and staring at the stars. The meager ipod speakers began to play Nina Simone. Sinnerman. It occured to me that Nina was singing about a utilitarian approach to religions. In a time of need, she ran to the river. Then she ran to the sea. She ran to the rock, like, what’s the matter with you rock? Don’t you see I need you? And, though he sent her to the devil, she ran to God last. Perhaps Nina was telling me about the death and birth of belief.
The next day Francis took me off the main road to a collection of huts at which his family stayed. He took me into a biggish dwelling in which an old man sat in a low chair next to a radio and a massive pot of water. This was Justin Otin, chairman of the Acholi Council for Traditional Culture. With Francis as a translator, we spoke at length about the traditional styles. Types of jok. What they are responsible for. Particular names of jok. The role of witch doctors. During our conversation, I thought more about the notion of the empirical emphasis in traditional religion. I remembered a few passages from my recent readings in colonialism. The medical missionary, says a scholar named Buchart, did a great deal in bringing about conversion because they were able to link care of the physical body with care of the soul. If a native cat rolled up with pain, the physician would give them something proper, heal them up, and the native would see this as a manifestation of european religious power. It was in the name of God that the physician rolled up on the scene, after all. So, while western cats don’t pay much attention to the fact that our oldest hospitals are founded by religious denominations, it is actually kind of a big deal here, since the health unit and hospital, that is, institutions of supposedly secular influence, played an important role in religious conversion.
From this perspective, it seemed to me that Christianity couldn’t not be the dominant religion here. There are crosses above the door in every hospital. And people go to the health unit just like they used to go to the witch doctor for cure of their ailments. As an institution of political, monetary and educational power, particular formations of churches, like the catholic church, rival governments. If one were to see this power as essentially religious, conversion would be the only sensible move.
Just as I began to wonder what would happen if a Christian in this region found his or her desires frustrated at the hospital or at church, Francis tells me that his grandfather knows a great deal of people who go to church but who practice the traditional styles in secret. He also says that there are a lot of cats who openly respect the traditional ways of belief much more than the church. I ask Justin if he himself thinks that Christianity is better than the traditional style that it replaced. He tells me that, if his son were to walk up in here with newborn twins, he wouldn’t take them to the church for their blessings.
I also ask them if there are any witch doctors in Atiak. They both laughed hard. There are a lot, Francis tells me. We passed one on the road on the way here.
Yeah. Now I have a date with a witch doctor. Naive quests for authenticity die hard.