Professor John Samuel Mbiti was born on the 30th of November 1931 and saw at least eighty-seven more Novembers before his untimely death in October 2019 at a nursing home in Switzerland. He had done his best but he was fighting for the wrong team.
Mbiti challenged the imperial view that Africa has no history, civilization or religion. Emory University’s Professor Devaka Premawardhana, therefore, observed that during his life, Mbiti had made a habit of “uncovering and undercutting the very foundations of Western supremacy”. It is as good a eulogy anyone can get.
As a respected theologian, Mbiti had argued for the Africanisation of Christianity. He thought, “The days are over when we will be carbon copies of European Christians. Europe and America westernized Christianity. The Orthodox easternized it. Now it is our turn to Africanize it.” Thus he was of the view that African Traditional Religions were forerunners for “the ultimate” religion – Christianity. But therein lay the problem. Celebrated Ugandan writer, Taban lo Liyong, after studying Mbiti’s work accused Mbiti of being “a thief of gods”.
In Taban lo Liyong’s words, “But Professor Mbiti is a smooth dealer: he takes one for a ride, and an enjoyable ride it is. He praises African religions, or rather pays them lip service, so that, should he at the end lead them to church, they would joyfully sing their way to extinction therein. Not satisfied with individual conversions, Mbiti attempts to convert whole religions to Christianity.”
The two intellectuals had their very serious disagreements but agreed on one central issue: African traditions and cultures are important; it is the context of their importance that caused the debate. Mbiti wanted the assimilation of African traditions within Christianity while Liyong was fighting for the continued existence of African Traditions as disparate value systems rather than precursors of Christianity. Mbiti’s theology was based on a reduction of African religions into vassal antecedents of Christianity. This meant African indigenous religions were imperfect forms of the true religion – Christianity. It was an argument he packaged in the most flattering and endearing terms yet at its very core, it was a gross insult on African societies. Mbiti was stealing African gods much like Bible translators.
Godslaughter and Heists in Translation
The Story of Mwari
Never has the Bible been translated as much as it was in the past 250 years. The translations were driven by modern colonialism. Dora Mbuwayesango’s “How Local Divine Powers Were Suppressed: A Case of Mwari of the Shona” discusses the grand heist of the Zimbabwean Shona people’s Mwari deity. The Shona were monotheists worshipping Mwari – a genderless and local deity. Mwari was a majestic, transcendent, sky dwelling deity with creative powers. They even called him Musikavanhu, directly translated – Creator of mankind. In translating the Bible, the Biblical God was named after the Shona people’s Mwari and Mbuwayesango says this meant, “…Mwari becomes the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of the Hebrews. This is a direct usurpation of the Shona deity by the biblical deity…the translation resulted in the colonization of the Shona God. Mwari ceased to be the God of the Shona people and became the God of the Hebrews.”
For the Shona to worship Mwari, they now had to abandon their traditions as these were now considered reprehensible and unacceptable. Mwari had been stolen by the colonialists.
Modimo in the Setswana Bible
Modimo of the Batswana was stolen too. To exemplify the disrespect involved, the Wookey’s Bible of 1908 in Matthew 10:8 read “kgoromeletsan badimo ntle” which was supposedly a translation for “cast our demons”. Badimo, the ancestors charged with communicating with Modimo were equated with Christianity’s evil spirits while Jesus was cast as being more powerful than Badimo. Ntloedibe Kuswani, therefore, concluded, “Undoubtedly, the form of translation Christianizes, colonizes, and hijacks many African religious divinities, many of which do not share attributes with the biblical God.”
The heist of African gods comes from the mistaken belief that everything under the sun ought to be interpreted in Western and Christian terms. The belief that Africans could have fully developed belief systems on their own – but these were praeparatio evangelica (imperfect forerunners of Christianity) is born out of the signature narcissism of the colonialists. Further, since African gods and Africans themselves did not bow to Western gods, the simple solution was to pretend African gods were really just disguised Western gods. Thus Africans would be hoodwinked into deserting their traditions believing they were still worshipping the same gods. It was jiggery-pokery of the highest caliber.
Rescuing African Gods
Musa Dube who wrote extensively on religious colonization quoted Eric Hermanson who exposed his colonial inclinations in his missionary work. Hermanson, in Missionary Translations of the Bible into the Zulu Language wrote, “It would seem that the cultural baggage attached to traditional names for God in other languages does not necessarily degrade the God of the Bible. Rather the revelation in the Bible of the true nature of God can transform the words so that the original connotation becomes completely obliterated in a new knowledge of and personal relationship with the one true living God.”
This is the long form for: The Biblical God stole the names of African Gods and jettisoned them from the consciousness of Africans. African Gods were stolen in translation. Modimo, Mwari, uThixo, uNkulunkulu, Olorun and many others were falsely equated to YHWH. Professor Lamin Sarneh speaking of the spread of Christianity in Nigeria once observed, “When a Nigerian Yoruba Christian prays to God the Father, he prays to Olorun. This Yoruba word has all sorts of important cultural connotations for him, and with which he can readily identify. When a Yoruba Muslim prays to God, he prays not to Olorun, but to Allah, the God of Islam.”
It is a fraud of epic proportions. The spread of Christianity in Africa rode on the fallacy of familiarity. This feigned familiarity was a direct result of systematic appropriation and thievery which amounted to unforgivable godslaughter.
But all hope is not lost for our gods trapped in the Christian purgatory. They can be freed by the pen. Musa Dube argues, “The pen should rescue the Shona deity. Writing merged Mwari with the biblical god and it is through writing that the identification of Mwari with the genderless Shona deity will be reclaimed.”
It is a message that rings true for all communities whose gods were appropriated in translation for evangelistic expediency. Africans should reclaim their stolen gods and leave the Christian god to stand on his own.