A Discussion with Gerrie ter Haar, Professor, ISS, The Hague
November 10, 2009
You have special expertise on African belief systems and argue that, if they are not taken into account, we cannot understand and appreciate what happens on the ground. In reflecting on agricultural development, what issues and dimensions should we take particularly into account?
I have not worked specifically on agriculture but I agree both that understanding underlying beliefs is important and that these have often been ignored. What is involved is a mix of culture and religion, and the influence of ideas about spirits and the invisible world.
In talking about agriculture, we are above all are talking about land, and there are land issues left and right. In looking at virtually all conflicts that are occurring at the local level, land generally has to do with them. Changes in land use present issues and sometimes conflict with traditional ideas and practices.
As an example, I recall that during a visit to northern Ghana, we had discussions with either a Catholic or Presbyterian church perhaps, about access to land. They were engaged in development projects and encountered problems. It emerged that they turned around women’s roles and beliefs and tabus around women. These are very common; analytically, it is easy to see that these beliefs are related to men keeping women in their place. In this case, there were tabus about women possessing certain agricultural tools and doing certain kinds of work.
Another area of taboos, again involving women, turn around fertility and purity, and may prevent women from doing certain tasks while they are menstruating or pregnant.
There are widely diverse practices, so what occurs in Ghana may be very different in another setting, though there are some common themes. And they can present big obstacles to practical development and involvement of women.
Issues arise around fertility, to assure that the land becomes fertile. Morality issues come in, as many beliefs hold that you must behave properly, as forces in the spirit world expect you to behave, whether it is God, Allah, or traditional spirits. In traditional religious beliefs these injunctions can take nastier forms that often harm women. The interests of women may be sacrificed in the interest of making the land prosper. A related issue, that is not that well known, is ritual bondage in Africa. To repair relations between humans and the spirit world, young girls may be allocated to a traditional shrine, becoming shrine slaves, in modern terms.
The most important lesson, that comes from experience in many places, is that it is important to seek the help of religious communities and leaders, raising their own awareness and working with them to help keep people on your side. They can help explain, and also foster certain beliefs so that people and communities can progress without violating principles that are vital to them. The challenge is very similar to that for religion and human rights—we need to interpret certain principles in a certain way, without violating principles.
Another important area is witchcraft, which is very widespread, though it takes different forms. It is a central part of how many people live and reason. There are many relevant beliefs and practices that relate to land and roles. Typically, if I have a piece of land and mine is doing well and yours is not, I may be suspected of using illegitimate means. This can produce big problems. Such beliefs can show up in a development project and many don’t know how to solve it. A first step is to be aware of it.
How far is this changing? Is it well studied?
We are beginning to see that beliefs in witchcraft will not change, as we had long thought they would, through formal education. A key lesson is that we need to pay much more attention to cultural issues. Some counter that this runs the risk of cultural relativism. That is nonsense. We must just try to listen to people on the ground, not only the educated leaders and the educated elite. We need to see what they believe, how, and why, and take your policies from there. That is not easy and it takes time, but it is essential.
My book, Imagining Evil, has many examples, and it touches on beliefs that affect development. It enters into many meetings and gatherings of all kinds of stakeholders, in South Africa and elsewhere.
In addressing the issues, a powerful combination can be scholars and church workers coming together. There are good examples—one of my colleagues, a professor and church leader, did quite a lot of awareness raising, using the media, including television, very skillfully. Of course, results are not immediate. But you can see the beginning of a process.
In South Africa, especially, another dimension that has practical effects is belief in zombies. A zombie is a person who is believed to work the land for rich people at the expense of poor people. Typically it is someone who is alive but dead. Real death is when you are spiritually dead. So in these cases someone has taken your spirit, and works it for you, managing your body. This belief can cause many human rights violations, and can involve actual killing.
How do you see these traditional belief systems intersecting today with different kinds of churches?
These are traditional beliefs but many of them find expression in the newer churches, whether independent or charismatic churches. They play important roles in many very different religious institutions today. That includes both the classical churches and more independent, newer ones.
It is worth remembering that in the 1990s in Zimbabwe, people saw that spirit mediums were very crucial to winning the liberation wars. Both guerrilla leaders and people more generally believed that the conflicts were guided by spirit mediums.
In Zimbabwe, a colleague (Professor Daneel) worked after the war with churches and traditional leaders and framed their work as a new war for development, a war of the trees. They dealt with land that had been deforested to large extent, and got communities to plant new trees. What was the key here is that they knew the communities well. They took the initiative, but worked from the bottom up. They worked especially with one organization, the African Association of Earth Keeping Churches together with organizations that knew Zimbabwe’s traditional ecologies, with academic institutions, and with an institute of religious research. They were able to advance development together with ecological programs, with local community participation.
An issue is always how much time you have. To be successful, you need a local organization. Often the best combination brings together academic and religious threads, in ways that are mutually beneficial.
What about water?
Water is also important and there are many beliefs around it. Especially in western Africa (though I have also seen it in Zambia and Zimbabwe), there are widely held beliefs in water spirits. In Nigeria, for example, the basic idea is that when you marry one of the spirits, a female water spirit, you will get rich. These are spiritual marriages, well known and documented, with many publications about these spirits that have names like “Mama wata.” The spirits look almost like mermaids, half human, and half spirit.
The theme of wealth and money seems to be part of this.
Yes, people are very much caught up with the idea of finding ways to help you to get rich, to get rich quick. Everything has a price, and if you meddle with the spirit world, you may need to pay a price.
This leads to some very nasty things, again in different forms but across most African countries. Recently there were horrible stories about albinos in Tanzania. Murders were the result of a belief that certain vital organs of certain people, will make you more spiritually powerful, make you more prosperous, give you more luck in life, better health, and more strength.
Scholars have documented these beliefs and practices, so there is a recognition that these things exist. But it has been difficult to accept that they are not going to go away in the way we think should be obvious. That is not the case, and we find the beliefs at the top, across the worlds of power. One of the ways in which African politicians are able to stay in power, is that they are very skillful, very competent in relating to, and communicating with the spirit world. It is important to appreciate that this is not just acting. There is a real awe.
The same transfer of beliefs is seen in the new charismatic churches, which some, with a negative connotation, call the prosperity churches. The pamphlets and other publications that these churches put out are quite extraordinary—hard to believe. A lot of academics tend to brush this aside, as rather interesting and folkloristic. But in our book Worlds of Power  we argue that it you look at this stuff, you can understand how a lot of Africans express their concerns in many areas by using spiritual and religious language. We need to try to understand what they are trying to say.
Coming back to water, there is a very common story you hear, often told by a self made pastor who can attract huge audiences. They share their experience, telling how they have been, often, to the bottom of a lake. There, they saw or did awful things, and lived there, often for a few months. Then they come back and tell what happened. We dismiss these stories because we do not look at the issue from a spiritual perspective. But in Africa, if someone says, “I’ve been to the underworld, and now I am back”—to the water or the sky, people believe that these places are part of the real world, even though we cannot see it with our normal eyes. There are shamanistic ideas. In the developed world, people often not aware of these kinds of beliefs because our rationality limits us to what happens in the world we can actually see and sense.
How have you seen Catholic churches engage with these types of issues?
Catholic churches are very different by place and country, and their approach depends very much on who is in charge. While I did my dissertation research, I had a close friend who was a Catholic missionary in Zambia. I learned a lot about development from him. I saw him, and beyond him, two consistent themes going in tandem. He was interested in development, seen as material improvements in people’s lives. He was also interested in inculturation, and Africanization. While I have critiques often about how they have done this, what is important and positive is that they realize that culture is important to the Church, in Africa and elsewhere, and they respond positively to this. However, they often limit themselves to the external aspects, music, dancing, clothes, because they are such a rational church, with their Roman background. They have great difficulty in understanding or accepting the way in which people experience certain beliefs and doctrines.
My dissertation research was about Archbishop Milingo from Zambia [see Spirit of Africa, 1992], who now lives in Washington. He tends to be portrayed as a kind of weirdo, with strange beliefs, exorcising and creating many problems. But 20 years ago, as I was doing my work, he opened my eyes to a lot of things, including the challenges around inculturation. The main message is how important it is to take people's ideas seriously.
Coming back to the issue of land, the healing of land is important. If you are dealing with land in areas that have been subjected to serious conflict, you can’t just start using the land. You have to heal the land and create conditions that make it possible for it to prosper. If not, it will not yield what you expect. It comes down to relations between the human and spirit worlds, making sure you balance relations in the right way. Otherwise the land will not produce. That may mean reconciling the people who live on land with one another. Programs and rituals are important in this regard.
The point is, again, that one has to start from communities themselves. I believe very much in a bottom-up approach, even though it is much more time consuming. Finding reliable community leaders is important and there are many risks in contacts between foreign organizations and aspiring community leaders. Religious leaders may have conflicting interests in working with one or another agency, and may well work in ways that are not constructive. So it is important to find the right person. John Padwick, who works with independent churches, is a good example, as he and his bishops are doing development work on the ground [see Berkley Center interview with Padwick]. People like him have long established relations, are sensible, and respect and sometimes share beliefs, though they also appreciate that in modern times one cannot express all beliefs in older ways. In the newer churches, with some quirks, you can find leaders who combine academic skills and religious beliefs.
There is a large group of people that you could link up with. There are also some scholars who have taken on important responsibilities in churches in order to be able to filter down their academic beliefs. A good example includes Professor Kgatla from South Africa, who is both an important church leader in the Dutch Reformed Church and a professor in the University of Pretoria.
In the Netherlands, we have been exploring with the Knowledge Center quite similar questions. There is more work than you would think. Louise Fresco is an example of someone who could be engaged; she is well known in the Netherlands, has worked for FAO. David Renkema, policy advisor at Stichting Oikos, would be an excellent contact as well as, of course, Frank Ubachs from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Any summary comments? Recommendations?
I very much believe in starting small and working from there.
We need more and more attention to the need for cooperation between local actors and national strategists. There is a relative lack of coordination among these realms, and this is reflected in emerging national strategies. There is something to win in working together with others, also including religious dimensions. The strategic planners tend to be victims of our ways of doing things. Like us, for years they left out religion. This is true from the time the nationalist governments after independence brought change, but their development plans often mimicked the way their predecessors had done things. They believed this was the way to do it, but experience has proved that this was not the case.
The trends on land purchases are important to watch as they could give rise to conflicts down the way. The Chinese, for example, are buying large tracts of land in various countries to grow food. This is controversial. The Chinese are quite open about their motivation, which is food and energy for their own societies. They don’t deal with local communities, and they are not there to develop Africa.