The Influence Of African Indigenous Religions On Roman Catholicism The Igbo Example


Whether the truce in the age-old hostility is permanent or not, the recent shift in the official attitude of the Catholic Church towards non-Christian religions including African indigenous ones, is as historic as it is revolutionary. The Second Vatican Council remains both the culminating point as well as the point of departure for bold and positive developments that we witness currently in inter-religious relations. Up until the Vatican II, the official policy of the Church in relation to other religions and their millions of adherents was, to put it
mildly, unchristian. That was the protracted era of extra ecclesiam nulla salus (outside the Church there is no salvation - whatever interpretation one gives to that). Incontestably, the negative attitude reflected the dominant mind-set and extreme ethnocentrism of the age in the West. Social analysts and writers like Auguste Comte and George J. Fraser, inspired by Darwin ’s theory of evolution of species had suggested a similar unilineal evolutionary trend for human society and culture. Black sub-Saharan African races, if at all human, were thought to be at the lowest stage of the evolution ladder. The cultures and religions of the “so-called savages” were “barbaric” and in dire need of civilisation and conversion.

The negative policy was often complicated in the mission-field by the bitter competition that characterised Christian evangelical enterprise by rival groups. The heydays of missionary campaign were between the 19th and first half of the 20th-centuries in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa . The literary artist, John Munonye (1966) tries to re-capture the prevalent sentiment of the era in the following words he puts into the mouth of the Father Superior of one of the major expatriate missionary congregations. “… call it vote of the masses if you like. In pursuit of that objective, I’m afraid we’ve got to be impatient with the culture of the people. There isn’t time to sort out first and label their customs as acceptable and unacceptable. To be ruthless in our method and yet successful in our aim, we must ensure that all along we present to the people good and tangible evidence of the advantages of Christianity”.

            But, it would be wrong to conclude from the largely negative attitude of the pre-Vatican II era, that African Indigenous Religions had no influence on Roman Catholicism. Not only would that contradict one of the canons of socio-cultural change (a view that would definitely excite considerable interest among social analysts and researchers), but it could also be a case of pre-mature conclusion drawn without adequate attention to the facts. In fact, as the Igbo example which I propose to elaborate in this paper illustrates, there has always been some kind of influence of African Indigenous Religions on Roman Catholicism in the Continent, albeit in varying degrees, and either positive or negative, from one phase of the interaction to another. I shall indeed be arguing that in the Igbo case, this influence commenced from the earliest stage of the advent of the Catholic missionaries in the late 19th-century, and has continued ever since to the present. It is possible to distinguish certain distinct phases in that continuum, such as the stage of initial huge interest and influence of the Igbo language for purposes of disseminating the gospel message, particularly in preaching and production of basic literary texts. There is also the phase of direct influence on the received Catholic tradition of several other aspects of the indigenous religious culture such as art, music and dance, title-system, age-differentiation system, architectural design, as well as organisational patterns.

The impact of visible indigenous cultural forms may be readily evident and easily measurable, but as I intend to argue in the latter part of this essay, it is really at the ideational level (that is, the level of fundamental perception of reality/world-view) with the inter-related attitudes, value orientation and moral disposition, that the influence of the indigenous religious culture on Roman Catholicism comes into bold relief. The attainment of national selfhood/independence (in the 1960s for several African countries), and more relevantly, the Second Vatican Council are two major developments that provide the backdrop to the acceleration of the rate of influence. I plan to give due attention to that phase. I shall try to conclude on a note that should be viewed more as a personal reflection than a critical academic analysis, of the cumulative effect of the Indigenous Religion on Roman Catholicism currently in Igboland.

The Influence of Igbo Language

In spite of their disdain for the indigenous religious culture, pioneer Christian missionaries in general (whether Roman Catholic or Protestant), knew pretty well they had to depend on the indigenous language to communicate the gospel message to the people. While the doctrines and principal religious ideas remained those of their respective Christian traditions, the local language as the primary medium of communication with their host, provided the bulk of the concepts, terms and linguistic symbols and imageries. That is not all. It set limit to thought and understanding of the received message of the missionaries.

            Missionaries of the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S.), who were the first to arrive Igbo territory (1857), had a further head-start over their Roman Catholic counter-part. Among their pioneers at Onitsha was Rev. John Christopher Taylor from Sierra Leone , an ex-slave of Igbo parentage. He and other saros in the company of the C.M.S. facilitated the initial effort of their group in terms of knowledge of Igbo language. The Roman Catholics, on the other hand, relied mainly on the services of local helpers and interpreters.  In their case, the full import of the maxim; “every translator is a traitor” was realised to the letter, as local assistants constantly betrayed their shallow grasp of instructions more in their mistranslation. Wrongly translated prayers, sacred hymns and catechetical materials from English/Latin to Igbo were for a long time, a common feature in liturgical books in use in Igboland. A poor grasp of doctrine and erroneous religious attitude that these fostered in converts, form part of the total impact of the indigenous religious culture on Roman Catholicism.

In another development, the opposition and eventual rejection in 1929 of the production of a common Igbo orthography, Union Igbo, as it was formally called, by expatriate Catholic missionaries, might have brought some short-term advantage. It was feared that erroneous doctrine would enter the fold from Protestants, if the Union Igbo was accepted. But, in the long run, it was counter-productive. Neither did the failure of missionaries, particularly from the time of Bishop J. Shanahan, to learn and use the Igbo language in their pastoral work, help matters. For too long, the Catholic Church retained the trappings of a foreign and elitist religion with many of its important terms and concepts left in foreign, rather than local language.

Older Catholics do still recall some of the caustic and laughable jokes illiterate members made out of such foreign religious jargons in the Catholic Catechism text, for example, the names of the seven sacraments; baptism, confirmation, holy eucharist, confession, extreme unction, holy orders and matrimony were mockingly rendered thus. (Sakaramenti buga ndia; baa-tism, confameshion, ukarika di-aso, Joseph Nwa-ekpili, nwanneya nke nwulu-anwu, dagbunyelu n’oku, na man-trimony). Or, the case of the old grand-ma by name Maria, who was reportedly harassed every week-end by her grand children to go to kwen-kweshion (sacrament of Reconciliation) on Saturdays in preparation for the Sunday holy Mass. Maria finally decides to attend the sacrament. There in the church at the confessional, the pastor queries; “Maria did you commit sin?” (Maria imelu njo?) She replies; “My son, I did not commit any sin, but if a fellow woman insults me, I give it back to her with an equally sharp insult” (Nwam emehowum njo-nwa, Kama agbala nwanyi ibe gwam okwu, arolum okwu dinma gwa-gwachaa ya-aru). The pastor then reportedly quipped, “Maria you may go, you did not sin” (Maria naba-nu imeho njo).

In a similar vein, an expatriate Catholic missionary was reported to have taught children at a catechism class that, “God has very much power in heaven”. In his attempt to speak Igbo he failed to respect the tonal marks and ended up saying that (Chukwu nwelu nnukwu ike, n’ enu-’igwe – God has a big bottom, on a piece of steel) While the catechist got the following answer from an old lady convert at the catechism examination for baptism, “how many types of spirit are there?” (Uzo otu nmuo one di. The old woman reportedly answered; “They are legion, where would one begin to enumerate? Would I mention Ulaga, or Ike-udo, or Ijele, or Nw’ikpo”(Fa abakanu-abaka. Kedu ebe aga ebido-ebido guba, Aga ebido na Ulaga, m’obu Ike-udo, m’obu Ijele, mobu na Nw’-ikpo? The old lady misunderstands the question and answers with a list of local masquerades which also are known as spirits by the Igbo. (I acknowledge the assistance of Mrs V. Onumajuru in the jokes).

Your guess is as good as mine about the quality of grasp of the faith and formation in spirituality such poorly-explained and hardly-understood concepts achieved. All that of course, forms part of the total impact of the indigenous religio-cultural background on Roman Catholicism in Igboland.

Certainly, there were several landmark achievements made by the Catholic missionary pioneers in respect of Igbo language, including the early publications of Father Aime Ganot of an Igbo Dictionary, an Igbo Grammar book and Katechismi Nke Okwukwe in the early 1900s; also the Ndu Dinwenu Anyi and the Igbo Catechism by the Catholic Mission in 1940 and 1944 respectively, etc. A full discussion of that important contribution together with the significant effort of the indigenous collaborators, including John Anyogu (later bishop), John Dureke, and Joseph Modebe is not of immediate concern to us in this paper.

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