Religion, like politics and money, is a difficult topic to tackle. Banished from dinner tables, protected by national law, and defended fervently by believers, broaching the subject with another is done delicately – like that old joke about how porcupines make love – and even then you’re liable to find yourself with a fight on your hands. Well, I want to pick a fight.
A little over a year ago, when the 51 trainees in SA-22 arrived in South Africa a few days after the end of the World Cup, the word on everyone’s lips was ubuntu. On the evening news, in magazines and newspapers, batted back and forth at gas stations and local markets, we couldn’t go a day without hearing it. Riled up by the hype of all things culturally South African that the games had celebrated, regular South Africans of all ethnicities, it seemed, were obsessed with ubuntu.
Loosely defined, ubuntu is a southern African version of the “Golden Rule,” an aspect of a belief system that historically formed the backbone of many different indigenous cultures in the region for thousands of years. If you google it, the common definition you’ll find is: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” In essence, ubuntu is a beautiful synthesis of western individualism and eastern communitarian beliefs.
Long before the arrival of Europeans in the cape region of South Africa (or, for that matter, elsewhere in southern Africa), ubuntu provided stability and lent structure to tribal life. By no means was it all milk and honey: tribes warred, drought was common, and the traditional patriarchal system repressed women’s rights. There was, however, a measure of respect for each other that allowed for the progress of the individual while maintaining the cohesiveness of the community. And then Christianity destroyed it.
Since arriving at site in late September, as the glow of the World Cup faded, I have counted the number of times I have heard the word ubuntu uttered by South Africans: zero. There has not been one instance in which anyone even referred to the concept. On the other hand, I am unable to report how many times Jesus, God, or any aspect of the Christian religion has been mentioned, as it occurs with such frequency on a daily basis that I can’t keep it straight.
A few days ago, a teacher with whom I am exceedingly close visited another primary school in the village with me. We traveled there to speak to the principal about a boys club we’re trying to get off the ground. The goal is to pair educational sessions about substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, critical thinking skills, adolescence, and personal responsibility with fun games and events that reinforce the topics. We wanted her support.
During our visit, the principal told us that she had recently been contacted by a NGO based in Johannesburg; that the NGO drills bore holes for water taps for free (this usually costs around R50,000 or more); and that it seemed they were arranging a further donation to modify some of her school’s grounds for a new building. She was as ecstatic as I’ve ever seen a rural South African. My teacher friend, a particularly religious man, expressed his happiness for her and the school and then suggested we pray.
This was in the parking lot, on our way to leave. Back into the school we went, to her office, where the two of them held an impromptu prayer session during which they spoke rapidly and loudly in siSwati to God and Jesus, thanking them for their generosity and omnipotence. At times, it almost sounded like they were trying to out-pray the other, as if to win some contest. This went on for at least five minutes.
About a month ago, in the lead-up to the mid-year exams and winter break, I arrived at one of my primary schools to spend some time working in the library. We recently received a substantial donation of books and I’ve been sorting, cataloging, and shelving them. As I walked into the school courtyard – a massive dirt lot with a sole, dying tree in the middle – I could see several male teachers sitting under it, chatting. Not 100 feet away, two classrooms full of 7th graders were out of control: children running in and out, fighting with each other, screaming and jumping on desks, throwing trash out the windows. It might as well have been a prison riot – and there wasn’t one teacher in there with them.
So, in the indirect manner of South Africans, I walk up and greet the teachers and persist in making small talk with them for five minutes. The best way I can explain it is, when you want to talk about something, you must first spend time talking about anything but. Finally, I ask one of them what’s going on. He explains that the teachers who are supposed to be in those classrooms during this period left school earlier that day (he doesn’t explain why, and it’s such a common practice here, I’ve learned to stop asking).
But Baba, I say, “why don’t you teach those learners?”
“It’s not my period to teach right now,” comes the reply.
“Right, I understand that, but surely there must be something you can teach them.” Playing to his ego, I add, “Baba, I am sure that there is something you know that those learners do not. It does not even have to be your learning area; you could teach them anything!”
“Noooo, Nhlanhla (that’s me), no. I would be undermining the other teachers if I did that. If they found out that I had been teaching their classes, they would be angry with me for embarrassing them. I cannot.”
I close my eyes and force out the urge to scream at this man. “But Baba, they are the ones who are not doing their jobs. They are the ones who are absent. You are just doing what’s right – you are teaching learners.”
He shakes his head at me as if speaking to a child. “I cannot do that, Nhlanhla. Only the principal can pressurize (South African for exert influence on someone) another teacher. If I did that, I would be betraying that teacher.”
“Betraying another teacher? What about the learners, baba? They have no one to teach them. They could hurt each other!” Grasping for anything, something sparks in the recess of my mind. “What about ubuntu?!” I can’t imagine a more salient case for helping others in need.
“Ubuntu?” he laughs at me. Turning to the other teachers, he shares a look of amusement. I stand there, insistent, refusing to excuse the point by pressing another angle. No retort comes; he chuckles and the men turn back to each other. My argument is so improbable he won’t deign to reply. It is left hanging in the air, like the courtyard dust, to be dismissed with the wind.
The issue I have is not with Christianity itself, but the manner in which it has eroded the previous value system without adequately replacing it. There are, of course, arguments to be made about the decline of traditional belief systems and indigenous cultures worldwide even as a small handful of major religions replace them. And that goes doubly for language. Those discussions require a wider lens, though, and individuals more experienced in such subjects than me.
In rural South Africa, I have witnessed thousands of rand invested into the building of yet another Christian church while that same impoverished village remains unable to provide water to its members year-round. I have seen immigrants welcomed with open arms into a church community while South African citizens belonging to another church are ignored at the market. I watch as the TV broadcasts prime time commercials for cell phone texting scams (in which the user is automatically enrolled in a subscription service) selling gospel songs and highlights from the sermons of famous preachers.
Daily, I see the practitioners of Christianity exploit the poor, the uneducated, and the sick – and where ubuntu would have given them food, or milk, or the clothes off its back, Christianity asks for donations and supplication and faith in suffering. Christianity eschews daily life in favor of an eternal future and in doing so divorces its followers from reality. Why struggle to eat healthfully and take your expensive ARVs when Heaven awaits? Suffer now, struggle not, and you will be saved.
It is only fair to point out that there are several different religions that have made inroads into South African culture in the last 400 years, it is only that Christianity is easily the most successful of them. Something like 80% of all South Africans identify with some denomination of it. And Christianity alone cannot be blamed for the disintegration of the tribal way of life; it’s a complex problem with an equally intricate series of causes and effects, economic and political in nature as much as they are religious.
What I do know is that last week, one of the smartest men in my village related the story of a recent TV special to me in which a prominent businessman had undergone an exorcism from a popular preacher. The businessman had apparently been successful for many years before suddenly disappearing one day, leaving his son and wife to wonder what had happened. After several months, they had gone to this preacher who had finally located the businessman, living in the bush like an animal. After many protestations from his family, it was finally the preacher himself who succeeded in talking the businessman into a car, where he was taken back to Johannesburg and the exorcism performed. Afterward, the businessman claimed he could see everything happening to him at the time, but was powerless to stop it, as if watching himself from outside his body. He said he had been cursed.
That last part is key. In traditional South African culture, sangomas (or witch doctors) place curses on people for money, usually at the behest of a family member or friend who feels the other has wronged them. This preacher had combined elements from disparate belief systems, using the indirect reference to a witch doctor to legitimize his claim to divinity. Like a perennial zelig, religion has a way of adapting to its climes, interweaving itself into the fabric of a people. The question is, what does it supplant in the process? After hearing that story, all I could think of was this:
“I’m for anything that gets you through the night, be it prayer, tranquilizers, or a bottle of Jack Daniels. But to me religion is a deeply personal thing in which man and God go it alone together, without the witch doctor in the middle.” –Frank Sinatra