African Spirituality and Its Contribution to the Ecological Crisis
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Marcel Uwineza, SJ

 Marcel Uwineza, SJ / Issue 1709 / Published Date:14 October 2017/Last Updated Date:19 July 2019

Introduction

“No one throws a stone where he or she has placed a container of milk.” The wisdom of this Rwandan saying has never been as needed as it is today, particularly with regard to the depletion of the environment. We continue to throw stones that destroy our “common home.”[1] I use this proverb to underline that African moral principles are founded on taboos or proscriptions that spell out what ought to be done or not be done in order to “preserve balance and harmony within the community, among communities and with nature.”[2]

Most studies on climate change and the environmental crisis have been generated or dominated by the West, and yet the crises continue to emerge. So we join other theologians like Laurenti Magesa to argue that African spirituality offers an alternate ethical approach to the ecological crises. Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ notes: “upon careful scrutiny, the wisdom of the African spiritual tradition … offers resources for cultivating sound ecological virtues and commitment.”[3] With some illustrations from Rwanda we will show how African spirituality invites us to an aggiornamento, a return to our origins (ressourcement), to use traditional African resources in deep appreciation of and conversation with Pope Francis’ exhortation to care for and dialogue with our “common home.”

Ecology represents a new frontier for theological ethics. Given the complexity of environmental degradation, there is a need for different regional spheres to learn from each other. No individual or community can claim to have all the answers. What is clear is that the escalating destruction of the environment is mostly due to human activity. In his encyclical Laudato Si’ (LS), Pope Francis writes, “the earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS 21). As the earth cries out, there are multitudes of poor men and women who are especially affected by the damage to the planet. There is an urgent need for reconciliation with creation and solidarity in trying to find common and practical solutions to minimize the increasing devastation of the planet.

Laurenti Magesa, one of Africa’s most prominent theologians, remarks: “Jointly recognizing the threat to the earth’s survival … humanity can work collectively to find an adequate response to this predicament of imminent disaster.”[4] Similarly, Michael Amaladoss, an Indian Jesuit theologian, points out that “togetherness spells the way of dialogue that is in our day an essential ingredient for [our human] pilgrimage here on earth.”[5] In other words, there is a moral duty to work together to create environmental protection networks and taskforces.

There is also an invitation to sincere openness and self-restraint in our use of the earth’s limited resources, as well as tolerance of one another as humanity seeks to heal the planet. Pope Francis warns us: “if we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out, and that includes religion and the language particular to it” (LS 63).

Scientific discovery, and advances in technology that come from these discoveries, cannot alone resolve the ecological threats to human and universal existence. On the local and global level there is a need for “a comprehensive transformation at all levels of human existence.” Practically, economic structures must be renewed to take account of an equality in the possession and use of material resources of the earth to meet the universal fulfillment of all; political ideologies must continually be transformed to become amenable to the rights and dignity of every person; social relationships must be geared toward dialogue and mutual understanding or “universal solidarity” in constructing policies; and an honest spirituality must develop everywhere.[6] Therefore, we are all in this together, as the saying goes, because we share a damaged environment and no one is immune from its consequences.

Before embarking on the contribution of African spirituality to the ecological crises, let us first look at the challenge the world faces.

The earth and humanity at the threshold of collapse

Our global village is in bad shape and is seriously wounded by the environmental degradation whose effects are felt in the form of climate change. In her book, The World as Creation: Creation in Christ in an Evolutionary Worldview, Emily Binns warns that the worst is yet to come; we have yet to experience the full magnitude of the climatic changes the greenhouse effect will inflict on us. “Famine and social disruptions are unavoidable consequences to befall us following the present carbon dioxide emissions, and the sulfur oxides which are bringing us acid rains and the pollution of the seas that are killing our fauna.”[7] Five of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific are already underwater. The sea has swallowed some coastal towns in Ghana, and the Marshall Islands are in imminent danger of disappearance. The current president of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim adds a voice of warning saying that the year 2014 was among the warmest on record in the past 15 years. He points out that “the world is approaching extreme temperatures that touch the physiological limits of what humans and animals can withstand.”[8]

Global warming has given rise to other devastating effects such as floods and droughts in different corners of the globe. In 2014, Malawi experienced floods that inundated people’s farmlands and destroyed crops. “In March 2015, 600,000 people were affected; 64,000 hectares of land were flooded. This was followed by outbreaks of cholera and other diseases.”[9] Malawi is just one example. There are many examples in other parts of the world. In May 2016, the towns neighboring Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, were inaccessible because of floods. Regrettably, those who suffer most from the effects of global warming and flooding are mostly vulnerable, poor nations. As the African saying goes, “when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” When nature fights back against human exploitation; it is the less fortunate, those without the means to afford suitable housing, healthcare, education, security, etc., who bear the consequences.

The concern for healing the world arises from the fact that the earth and humanity within it are in impending danger of collapse. “If human attitudes and behavior toward the world do not change, then this will have an impact sooner rather than later.”[10] Pope Francis highlights several areas of human behavior that need immediate change to save the environment. There are different forms of pollution that lead to climate change and the resulting loss of biodiversity that is essential for ecological health and human survival. There is misuse and subsequent depletion of natural resources, such as water, that are indispensable to life; there are social inequalities and injustices between individuals and within and between nations that threaten local and global peace. Are there any positive contributions from African spirituality? The following pages give some answers to this question.

Contribution from African spirituality

African spirituality seeks to link the African person to God by means of African patterns of life or culture as its starting point. It is a spirituality rooted in the totality of how Africans view the world and conduct themselves in it. It is an integrated combination of a system of beliefs about everything and behavior toward everything in existence. It refers to thoughts and actions of individuals and the entire society. This spirituality cuts across many African countries as one finds similar patterns of living in different cultures.[11] It has a religious significance on account of the spiritual power with which all creation is endowed. In short, it is a spirituality that reminds humanity that creation is essentially sacred.

In matters of ecological depletion, Africans are no exception. We have many instances of abuse and misuse of natural resources of land, water, gas, animals and forests because of excessive greed, intensive farming, overgrazing and deforestation. A large percentage of Africa’s population relies on forests for their livelihood and subsistence farming for survival. “More than 70 percent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa depends on forests and woodlands for its livelihood; one fifth of rural families’ daily needs come from forests. Woodlands and forests supply approximately 60 percent of all energy. Forest-related activities account for a large part of the GDP of most of the continent’s countries.”[12] People cut down the forests in order to expand their farming land to feed their growing families. Some collect firewood or make charcoal, timber to build their shelters and storage bins, and to make utensils. Others use some herbs and trees for herbal medicines. It goes without saying that these, when not properly controlled, deplete resources upon which humanity depends for its existence.

The increased depletion of the world is probably what Catholic theology means when it refers to the wounded or broken humanity in us. It is one manifestation of the “original sin” from which no one is exempt. When it comes to creation, it seems clear that we all have solidarity in sin because of the human abuse of creation. “Refusal by humanity – motivated by original sin – to honor boundaries in its relationship with creation inevitably presages the consequent annihilation of creation and human destruction.”[13]

What are the resources within African spirituality to deal with this crisis? We propose seven symbols and themes from African cultures that, if properly understood, appropriated or adapted, can foster our ecological awareness and preservation.

1. The umbilical cord is significant and can be used to foster humanity’s mutual dependence on nature. It links a baby to its mother in her womb. The growing fetus cannot survive in its mother’s womb without the umbilical cord. “In many African cultures, when it is cut after the birth of a child, the umbilical cord is buried in a special place in the homestead, to signify the belonging of the newborn not only to the clan and its spirits, but also to the ancestral soil from which it should normally not be alienated.”[14] Just as a woman carefully carries the fetus linked to her through the umbilical cord, we are linked to this world, the ruin of which entails our own destruction.

Most African cultures have the umbilical cord buried in the ancestral land in order to signify that both the mother and the new baby are inalienably and inseparably linked to the “living-dead,” the ancestors. If the umbilical cord is carelessly thrown away, this suggests disregard of this link. Therefore, when Africans say, “there is no place like home,” this is not a simple statement from one who misses one’s relatives or native food. Instead, most Africans refer to this link to the land of their ancestors and their community. It is what is missed most! It is what makes “home” special.

The connection of the umbilical cord to one’s land has an ecological dimension. It connotes humanity’s connection with the universe. To carelessly handle or to lack respect for the umbilical cord means the destruction of humanity’s link with the world. For Magesa, it “implies the death of humanity in the long run. By destroying nature, humanity slowly loses belonging. It has nowhere to belong to, no other place to call home, and no ambiance to deeply and meaningfully connect with in life and with which to enter into communion after death.”[15] Indeed this is an invitation not to throw a stone where we have placed our umbilical cord, like where we place our treasured milk, or by analogy it is an invitation not to worsen the cracks within our “common home.”

2. In many African cultures, God is both connected with and transcends creation. God “influences history not from without but from within.”[16] Oneness, harmony, mutuality, and interdependence are central to most African cultures’ conception of existence because everything that is exists as a being-with-others. Life in the world is so interlinked that to upset one aspect of it is to begin to put an end to the whole of it.

Additionally, the physical world is the place where the divine dwells. Most African traditions hold that the earth is a footrest of the divine. “Nature is a privileged locus for encountering the gods, goddesses, deities, and ancestral spirits.”[17] Rwandans go further to note that God spends the day elsewhere, but sleeps in Rwanda. This is to highlight the fact that God is not remote from God’s creation. According to Margaret G. Gecaga, this spirituality of locating God within the physical universe allows humanity “to unlearn to view the physical world as a sphere of profanity and darkness.”[18] In other words, African cosmology shuns dualistic tendencies that separate the sacred from the profane. For Laurenti Magesa, “the spiritual, including God’s own spirit, exists only in the physical as an indistinguishable and inseparable composite.”[19]

African traditional beliefs share a commitment with Ignatian spirituality, namely, that as part of the creation, in and to which God is present, we actually have both the ability and the calling to find God in all things. Ignatius of Loyola invited those who undertake the Spiritual Exercises to “reflect on how God dwells in creatures: in the elements giving them existence, in plants giving them life, in the animals conferring upon them sensation, in people bestowing understanding.”[20] This reflection must be accompanied by or lead to moral responsibility to care for the world as we rejoice in the wonders of creation, the marvels of human life, the beauty of the stars, the forests and the macro and micro systems of our universe. Consequently, African societies issue an urgent invitation to us to stop the damage we do to the air, the earth, and oceans, etc. We are urged to “expand our horizons in understanding justice which comprises Human-Earth relationship.”[21]

3. Solidarity is a central theme in African indigenous ways of life with practical implications. “In traditional African political and economic structures, no one died of hunger when some community members had plenty. This principle undergirded the sense of communion in the community, often dubbed ‘African socialism’ and represented above all by the ‘Chief-Provider’.”[22] The African role of a chief as a provider for his community is a symbol to be used for the preservation of creation. This traditional symbol of Chief-Provider admittedly connotes some measure of paternalism, but in its positive African interpretation it is rather a symbol of human justice as a chief seeks to provide the necessities of life for all his sons and daughters. Since in many African societies the chief was by and large the wealthiest person due to his different entitlements, whatever the chief owned belonged to the community in the sense that his first obligation was to care for whoever was in dire need. His first role was to be a provider for his people.

There are some universally broad social justice implications that follow from this reading of the symbol of Chief-Provider as the agent of solidarity. This commitment to solidarity challenges wealthy nations to assist the needy of our world. It challenges the wealthy and powerful men and women of Africa to attend to the needs of their neighbors and change their lifestyles. Theologians are also challenged to do theology that bears relevance to the suffering poor. Edward Schillebeeckx wrote, “What does it mean that I, as a theologian who believes in God, claim to find salvation in my belief in God when two-thirds of humankind is unfree, enslaved and starving to death?”[23] One of the answers is that we cannot do “ivory tower” theology detached from the living conditions of God’s people and the universe we inhabit. Our salvation entails saving the world as well as ourselves.

Laurenti Magesa rightly remarks, “the basic needs of the majority must temper the insatiable wants of some.”[24] This has ethical and ecological implications. It urges respect for the dignity and rights of the poor and protection of the limited resources of our universe. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis invites the world, Africans included, to re-examine our ways of living and see how they hurt not only the poor of the earth but also the earth itself. Francis invites us to nurture what Thomas Berry calls “a more benign mode of presence,”[25] through which we confess that “never have we so hurt and mistreated our common home as we have in the last two hundred years” (LS 53). More than ever, we need to expand our horizons in a merciful and loving concern for the natural world. We cannot truly love one another without loving and respecting the earth.

4. In an era of intense individualism and ecological crisis, we have to reinterpret human relationships. Known as inhabitants of a continent where communal life is cherished, our African humanity invites the world to learn to go beyond solidaristic relationships to mutuality with creation. Life encompasses all created reality including plants, animals and nature. “Life is the guarantee of wholeness and universal harmony within and between the material and the spiritual realms.”[26] The point is that there is an unbreakable relationship between nature and the society that lives in it. Pope Francis states: “Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it, and thus in constant interaction with it” (LS 139). In other words, one can live meaningfully only by mutually and reverently relating to nature.

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai put it beautifully: “Nature is not something set apart, with or against which we react. It is not a place to fear as something within which we might lose our humanity or, conversely, a place where we might gain perspective and simplicity away from the corruption and treachery of the court or the city. It is instead something within which human beings are unfolded.”[27] Moving beyond solidarity to mutuality means treating nature as a partner to humanity. This recalls what Benezet Bujo names “world ethos” and “salvation ethos,” which is an ethic of respect for the environment on the part of humanity and more importantly it refers to the understanding that “the African’s whole world is religious.”[28]

5. The biblical theme of covenant resonates with many African societies. In traditional Rwandan society, kunywana (covenant) is a powerful sign of friendship whereby two families who enter into a covenantal relationship promise to one another that they will be there for each other for better or for worse. According to Agbonkhianmeghe E. Orobator, SJ, covenantal relationship has various dimensions. Primarily, it “presupposes mutuality and shared interest between ‘humanity and nature.’ It cannot be an impersonal pact. It is deeply inter-personal.”[29] As there is no covenant without “a certain feeling” for the other; South African theologian Peter Knox is right to say that “without taking a mystical approach, a first step toward the salvation of our planet must be developing a kindred feeling for the planet and every one of its inhabitants.”[30]

Covenantal relationship presumes mutual responsibility and longevity.[31] Each party knows that for the relationship to work there have to be ways of working together and there is permanency in this relationship. Likewise, humanity’s connection to nature entails responsibility and long-term commitment. Humanity “honors, protects, and reverences [nature], while the latter sustains humanity in a variety of ways.”[32] It is a give-and-take relationship. This is close to Pope Benedict XVI’s argument that our individual and communal understanding of self has a lot to do with our understanding of our environment: “The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa.”[33] As a result, covenantal relationship should be expanded to include humanity’s pact with the environment.

6. Many African societies give great respect to role models or ancestors, those who have died after living righteous lives. In Rwanda, we say that a community that has no role models is cursed. African role models stand for life and also “stand against all forms of oppression and suppression of human dignity.”[34] This oppression includes excessive exploitation of the planet. We need to endorse and encourage models, heroes and heroines of the environment. The Kenyan Wangari Maathai remains an outstanding model. She cultivated interest in the care for “our common home.” She promoted tree planting in many parts of Kenya and threatened to sue the Kenyan government when it wanted to use Uhuru Natural Park (right in the middle of Nairobi) as a construction site. The Norwegian Nobel Committee summed up her unwavering commitment: “Professor Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.” The Nobel committee praised the “holistic approach” of her work and called her “a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent.”[35]

7. African spirituality gives great respect to creatures. Some trees and rivers are considered sacred in their relationship to humans. Orobator writes: “In our natural environment there was hardly a thing that did not command some measure of respect. The ancestral tree was an object of reverence – in fact, it was the sacred place of worship and ritual performances.”[36] Nature has then its sacredness that calls for reverence because as Wangari Maathai points out, “this or other trees are understood by their communities as nodal points that connect the world above with the world below … places where one’s ancestors and/or their spirits reside.”[37]

The point is that in African traditional beliefs we find spiritual resources and an imagination that can contribute creatively to caring for our common planet. Since nature gives assurance of sustenance to humanity, then our understanding of life must be “expansive and inclusive” of all reality in order to encompass nature, including animals, plants, and geo-ecological life such as “land, rain, and crops.”[38] This implies that the whole created order must be protected, not only because of what people get from it but as a matter of religious commitment and conviction.

Finally, teachers have a moral responsibility to help students acquire and exercise “prudence, justice, courage, unselfish and aesthetic attitudes, self-discipline, respect for others, and nature; and commitment to the common good.”[39] These pro-life and pro-nature virtues are already present in African spirituality, but more than ever they need to be vigorously promoted in most of Africa’s school systems. They increase students’ awareness of the full meaning of the web of human life and nature.

Additionally, prayer can also be a transforming and educational tool. Village days of prayer as well as provincial and national days of prayer for the protection of the environment need to be given greater vitality. In some places, they do not even exist. Village elders, leaders and other stakeholders must be encouraged to come together to draft these prayers and disseminate them in African villages to pray for the change of mind and heart toward proper use of the environment. As the saying runs, “a community that prays together stays together.” And this togetherness includes nature. A community that cares for the nature in which it finds itself cannot throw a stone where it has placed the container of milk. This container is nature itself!

Conclusion

“He who does not know who bore him insults his mother.” The wisdom of this Rwandan saying rings so true in our era of ecological crisis. Individual and communal mistreatments and abuses of the ecosystem are a grave sign that we have disregarded the fact that nature nurtures us, as a mother nurtures her sons and daughters. We need to repent of this original sin.

Using some symbols from African spirituality this article has argued that the way most Africans treat the environment is influenced by their traditional belief systems. Certainly there is much to criticize regarding African spirituality. But it is easy for such critics to ignore African spirituality’s many positive contributions. In this paper we have argued that African spirituality offers positive resources to be employed in our common task to care for our “common home.” Our mother-earth will only rejoice if we reduce the number of stones we throw at her. This necessitates individual, communal, legal, and political will, but it also calls for rootedness and a return to the origins (ressourcement) in our cultures. In all the arguments in this paper, it is clear that African spirituality and its symbols offer opportunities and questions that will always be worth considering.


[1].Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter, Laudato Si’, no. 21.

[2].L. Magesa, “African Spirituality and the Environment: Some Principles, Theses, and Orientations”, in Hekima Review, n. 53, December 2015, 119.

[3].A. E. Orobator, “‘An Immense Pile of Filth’: Human Ecology and Communitarian Salvation”, in Duffy Lecture at Boston College, Unpublished Paper (March 29, 2016), 1.

[4].L. Magesa, “African Spirituality and the Environment…”, 119.

[5].M. Amaladoss, The Asian Jesus, New York, Orbis Books, 2006, 164.

[6].See LS 205.

[7].E. Binns, The World as Creation: Creation in Christ in an Evolutionary Worldview, Wilmington (DE), Michael Glazier, 1990, 71.

[8].J. Yong Kim, “Plan for the Planet: Confronting Climate Change”, in Public Lecture at Georgetown University, Washington (D.C.), April, 2015, see www.georgetown.edu/news/world-bank-group-president-on-climate-change.html/

[9].Ibid.

[10].L. Magesa, “African Spirituality and the Environment…”, op. cit., 120.

[11].From my conversation with Laurenti Magesa on March 25, 2017.

[12].The World Bank – Africa Region, Forests, Trees, and Woodlands in Africa: An Action for World Bank Engagement, June 14, 2012, see documents.worldbank.org/

[13].L. Magesa, “African Spirituality and the Environment”, op. cit., 121.

[14].Ibid., 122.

[15].Ibid., 122-23.

[16].Ibid., 72.

[17].A. E. Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, Nairobi, Pauline Publications Africa, 2008, 132.

[18].M. G. Gecaga, “Creative Stewardship for a New Earth”, in M. N. Getui – E. A. Obeng (eds), Theology of Reconstruction: Exploratory Essays, Nairobi, Action Publishers, 1999, 33.

[19].L. Magesa, “African Spirituality and the Environment”, 127.

[20].Ignatius of Loyola, The Spiritual Exercises, no. 235.

[21].F. Wilfred, Asian Public Theology: Critical Concerns in Challenging Times, Delhi, Ispck, 2010, 153.

[22].L. Magesa, “African Spirituality and the Environment”, 123.

[23].E. Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God, New York, Crossroad, 1990, 54.

[24].L. Magesa, What Is Not Sacred? African Spirituality, Maryknoll (NY), Orbis Books, 2013, 155.

[25].Th. Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, New York, Bell Tower, 1999, 7.

[26].A. E. Orobator, “‘An Immense Pile of Filth’…”, op. cit., 8.

[27].W. Maathai, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, New York, Doubleday, 2010, 93.

[28].B. Bujo, African Religion in Its Social Context, Maryknoll (NY), Orbis Books, 1992, 121.

[29].A. E. Orobator, “‘An Immense Pile of Filth’…”, op. cit., 11.

[30].Ibid., 11.

[31].Ibid.

[32].Ibid.

[33].Benedict XVI, Encylcical Letter Caritas in Veritate, no. 51.

[34].Ibid.

[35].D. Kammen, “Wangari Muta Maathai: A Life of Firsts”, in The Great Energy Challenge (http://energyblog.nationalgeographic.com/2011/09/26/
wangari-muta-maathai-a-life-of-firsts/), September 26, 2011.

[36].A. E. Orobator, “‘An Immense Pile of Filth’…”, op. cit., 4.

[37].W. Maathai, Replenishing the Earth … , op. cit., 93.

[38].A. E. Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot, op. cit., 132.

[39].E. Wabenhu, “The Ecological Crisis and the Normative Ethics of Being”, in Hekima Review, no. 53, December 2015, 46.