Edited by Veronica Vivi
Art by Jazmine Sheckleford www.facebook.com/
Abubaker Adam Ibrahim’s short story, ‘The Whispering Trees’, follows the spiritual awakening of protagonist Salim, a Nigerian medical student, after being rendered blind from a fatal car accident. Shortlisted for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, this story stood out to me, with its ability to pair emotional familiarity with cultural insight and authenticity, raising personal questions on the compatibility or incompatibility of spirituality and religion. Seldom approached in Theology or Philosophy courses, the defeat of spirituality by religion and the ongoing practices of spirituality within the African community are subjects in need of more academic scrutiny.
Although open to many interpretations, my definition of spirituality in this discussion is the practice and belief of the metaphysical world without dependency on any God figure(s), but rather on the effects of the spirits held within nature. The ancient spiritual practices and modern spiritual influences of the African community are topics that must be more widely studied in academia. Before the worship of figures such as Jesus or the Prophet Mohammed, Africans worshipped spirits of the forest, of the land, and of the air: animism. Characteristics of this practice have had great influence on the style of modern worship as well as on personal and collective decision making. Regardless of religious beliefs, humans base their actions on their personal morality and ethics, what they feel is right to their soul.
Today, Africa stands as the largest Christian continent and, by 2050, is set to have a Christian population of 1.12 billion. This fact, accompanied by a 15% decrease in European Christians, raises questions as to how Africans have committed to a religion that was only relatively recently introduced to them. Many theories can be attributed to the rise in African Christians paired with the rise in the Western uptake of “spirituality”, where individuals usually strive to reach personal enlightenment. One theory is that the economic stability of the West, triggered by the Industrial revolution, provided more security in personal and national life. By contrast, many African countries still rely heavily on agriculture, for example, for which one must pray relentlessly, for good conditions to survive. With the promise of an omnipotent God, would it not be foolish to commit a life to Christianity or, for that matter, Islam?
In a culture where physical or mental illnesses are interpreted as works of the devil, punishments of sin and where they are accompanied by intense prayer–“one day my uncles came and bathed me with herbs…They smoked me with all sorts of ritual herbs…they concluded that it must be Iblis, the devil himself who had taken possession of my soul” (Ibrahim n.pag.) – it was refreshing to read of the protagonist disproving these beliefs and, through spiritual awakening, finding peace. “But as I was not possessed by the devil, my mind was not convinced to return…the spirit of the Whispering Trees pacified my soul and…I found such peace as I had never known” (Ibrahim n.pag.). Ibrahim sympathetically creates an atmosphere of defeat, the defeat of negative energy; he demonstrates how control over one’s own soul can lead to awakening, contrary to religious beliefs and rituals.
It was not until the 1970s that Christianity really blossomed in Africa, starting in the North after beginning in Palestine in 33CE and moving through Europe in the 1700s. This large-scale introduction has changed the face of African worship at home and here in the West greatly. Services have moved from simple sermons to the large scale, animated events we see in the Pentecostal world. Pentecostalism has a population of nearly half a billion people worldwide. The Pentecostal Church purportedly sees issues in a spiritual light, but the simplicity and authenticity of historical worship have disappeared. Misfortunes, disabilities, and serious mental conditions are, almost comically, drawn from the unfortunate by a self-proclaimed prophet. Although not all Christian establishments conduct such practices, the foundation of modern Christian belief and therefore moral thought differs greatly to those of ancient times.
When considering African religion outside of Christianity and Islam, the extent of spiritual consideration leads to the practices of the ancient Egyptians. Even in the instances where African religious history was taken further, the spiritual practices were usually seen as primitive and uncivilised. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that African religion was seriously studied and, even so, studies disregarded the unity created in African communities through spiritual rituals and traditions.
The spiritual life of Africans before Christianity was solely reliant on consideration of their Ancestors, rather than a deity. The spirits of the Ancestors lived on and were believed to dictate the outcomes of myriad situations. It is also interesting to learn that ancient Africans did not incorporate ‘God’ into their daily lives but believed that spirits walked the world with them to achieve certain purposes on earth. This draws parallels with New Age spiritual beliefs, introduced by Brad Steiger in 1976 through his book Gods of Aquarius, in which he argues that some humans have been born or walked into human life to fulfil certain duties. His ideas–dismissed by academia–were, interestingly, taken from ancient Native American spiritual concepts.
Salim, Ibrahim’s protagonist, loses his eyesight, misses his graduation, and falls into depression. He “longed for death…but death abandoned” him in his “hour of need” (Ibrahim n.pag.). His only hope is kept in his relationship with Faulata, who becomes less a girlfriend and more a carer. It is not until Faulata goes away to study and, in turn, marries another man, that Salim begins to rise out of his wretched, hateful, comatose state. Although blind, his eyes seem to open, more than he could ever have imagined. “I could see with my mind’s eye”; he begins to see people’s souls, “they were like blurred glowing lights…” (Ibrahim n.pag.).
Salim’s awakening led him to his childhood playground; the whispering trees. First, in a dream where he was told, “sometimes you see better with your eyes closed”. He later visited again and met with the soul of Hamza, his childhood friend who had died at the Trees. Hamza tells Salim, “if you had been a doctor you would only have been able to treat the ailments of the body…now you can treat ailments of the soul” (Ibrahim n.pag.). Themes here arise, similar to beliefs of the ancient Africans on spirits, with Salim discovering the purpose of his soul on the earth.
Salim lost his life to find his soul and lost his vanity to find his purpose.
Fesenmyer, Leslie. “African-Initiated Pentecostal Churches Are on the Rise in the UK – what Role Do They Seek to Play in Wider Society”. LSE Blogs, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/religionpublicsphere/2016/11/african-initiated-pentecostal-churches-are-on-the-rise-in-the-uk-what-role-do-they-seek-to-play-in-wider-society/. Accessed 29th August 2017.
Ibrahim, Abubaker Adam. The Whispering Trees. Parresia Publishers, 2012.
Kenneth, David. “African Religion Customs Before Christianity”. People of Our Everyday Life, http://peopleof.oureverydaylife.com/african-religion-customs-before-christianity-6960.html Accessed 29th August 2017.
Seidensticker, Bob, “Christianity Becomes an African Religion, Islam Overtakes Christianity, and Other Upcoming Changes”. Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2015/05/christianity-becomes-an-african-religion-islam-overtakes-christianity-and-other-upcoming-changes/. Accessed on 29th August 2017.
About the author:
Joycelyn Longdon is a Cardiff University, second year Physics and Astronomy student, seeking to discover more about African history, religion, and her own spirituality.