Monday, June 04, 2018

Anthro. Insights

My two days in a village in Senegal allowed me time to learn, listen and observe.  You don’t have to have a PhD in anthropology do learn from culture, though a cursory understanding of cultural anthropology provides guidelines to what you are seeing and experiencing and, hopefully, give insights on how to present the Gospel within the context of the people.  Here are some of my takeaways in my recent trip.

Night time discussion

Folk Islam - If you ask the average Senegalese what their religion is, 97 out of 100 will answer they are Muslims.  In reality, however, they know very little of their religion.  I was in Senegal at the time of Ramadan, their thirty-day ritual of fasting.  Apart from abstaining from food or drink from sundown to sunup, many in the village didn’t follow the ritual of praying five times a day or go to the mosque.  The Senegal people are, for the most part, cultural Muslims. 

Most Muslims in West Africa are animist, believing in superstitions of spirits and unseen powers of evil and good.  Over the doorpost of our guest hung a fetish to protect their household from evil spirits.   They wear amulets around their arms and waist, also for protection.

I asked what was the difference between the work of an Imam and that of a marabout.  An Imam is a religious teacher of the Quran; the marabout is a spiritual leader who has power to discern evil spirits, provide cures and protection through rituals and even potions, including love potions.  In essence, they are witchdoctors.  While many Senegalese are not devout in their Islamic practices they are almost fanatical about their belief in their marabouts, which are many throughout the country.

Amulet for Protection

Social Control - Sitting late at night with our host there was quite a gathering of people in the compound.  The eldest uncle came in and said that if I had any questions he would be happy to answer them (I guess word got around that I was interested in their culture and asked a lot of questions).  I had my usual queries about marriage procedures, i.e. who within the clan they can or cannot marry (first cousin marriages are common); how are marriages arranged; issues of bridewealth and I even asked, “What’s more important, having five sons and no daughters or five daughters and no sons?” 

Musa, our host stated that his uncle, the brother to his late father (who was a marabout of unusual power), made all the decisions in the family.  Musa had written his uncle for permission to bring foreigners to the village and it was only when his uncle granted the request that Musa invited my son-in-law to his village.  What struck me was how difficult it would be for Musa to become a follower of our Lord because of the social control.  To be a follower of Isa would bring shame on his family.  This is a common problem for people all over the world who hear and maybe even believe in Christ and live in system where the community is strong.  Individual decisions are not supported, it’s the group that more important that the individual. It is the group that controls society.

Are you also a toubob?  Musa wanted us to see many people in the village.  We stopped to visit one family and a young lady; in her twenty’s asked this question to my son-in-law in French (the only person who spoke to us in French while we were in the village).  “Are you fasting?”

“No,” my son-in-law answered, “I am a follower of Isa and we don’t follow that custom.”

“Then you are Catholic?” she replied. 

Earnest, our Senegalese colleague who speaks the tribal language of Wolof and French tried to explain to this young lady that we were not Catholic, but were Protestants, strong followers of Jesus. 

Speaking to Ernest she asked, “So, are you also a toubob?” (The term they use to describe a European).  Stunning question as Ernest is clearly Senegalese but she identified him as a European because he was a Christian.

When Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism dominates a country they consider Christianity a Western religion.  That perception is used by those religions to discourage people from embracing faith in Christ.  To be Wolof is to be Muslim; to be Indian is to be Hindu and to embrace the faith of a Christian is to disown, not only their religion but also their cultural identity.  As I said, Musa has a steep climb in accepting Isa. 

These are just some anthropological insights from a two-day visit in a village in Senegal and how to understand culture as we find a bridge for the Good News of Christ.   

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