The Prophetess and the Rice Farmer: Innovations in Religion, Agriculture, and Gender in Guinea-Bissau

The Prophetess and the Rice Farmer: Innovations in Religion, Agriculture, and Gender in Guinea-Bissau

One characteristic of the Upper Guinea Coast (the region from Casamance to Liberia), is its ritual pluralism. The coast is populated by a series of overlapping ethno-linguistic groups with a myriad of specialized cults related to agricultural work, fertility and healing. Using R. Fardon's notions (Fardon 1988), P. Richards has referred to this proliferation of cults as a ‘ritual involution' and has placed it in a wider context of ‘maroon' ethnogenesis (Richards 2007). According to this author, mangrove swamp communities (Jola, Balanta, Baga, Temne, Bulom, etc.) can be seen as ‘maroon' because they have been made up of refugees escaping from the hinterland into the mangroves, where they have developed an ingenious rice farming system. This proliferation of cults, however, is only one side of a coin. Its other side is that very often that Coast is scenario of innovative prophetic movements that go in the opposite direction: instead of shattering the community into a mosaic of small, competing cults, they unite it around a cult of the ‘high god' type. In recent times, the most impressive among such cults has been the Kyangyang among the Balanta rice farmers of Guinea Bissau. This movement was born around Ntombikte, a young prophetess (still active today) who in 1984 started to announce commandments she received from God. It was a time of a complex social, political, ecological and food crisis, and her movement tried to help the community overcome the pressures. Yet, because it was politically persecuted and repressed for several years, the movement also created new stress onto the Balanta. Ntombikte's movement falls into the classic paradigm of an ‘African religious movement' as defined by the literature in our state of the art. As in many of the historical, well-know African religious movements, Kyangyang was born around a prophet.

Similarly to what happened in other movements, Kyangyang helped reconstruct an anomic society in the mid 1980s and tried to give self-respect and work incentive to a much demoralized community. This much is common to these movements. Yet, it has some striking peculiarities that set it aside and that fully justify that an in-depth study be undertaken to fully grasp its place in the making of a pubic space in contemporary Guinea-Bissau. Firstly, the fact that it happens among Balanta, the largest ethnic group, the biggest rice producers and the community that contributed the most with soldiers to the liberation and the civil war, but that nevertheless after Independence felt marginalized by the state. It is, besides, a largely understudied community. Secondly, it was started by a woman in a strongly patriarchal religious culture. Prophetic movements initiated by women have been reported in Africa. However it is unusual, even unheard of, for Balanta to let women take on such religious leadership. Unlike other coastal groups, Balanta traditional religion does not have women's ‘secret societies' such as ‘Bondo' or ‘Sende' to be found in similar populations further south. Thirdly, it is a women-initiated religious movement that alters gender relations in an explicit way. It is our aim to place the gender transformation in the religious sphere within the framework of wider changes in gender relations we observed in the agricultural life of the Balanta, not all linked only to the emergence of Kyangyang but to other structural factors too (youth absenteeism, new marriage arrangements, new cash crops, etc.). The way these transformations in gender rights and expectations are interlinked to each other is complex and so far unclear. It is part of what is to be found out. Fourthly, the relationship between prophecy and economic rationalization (already noticed by Max Weber in his studies on ‘charisma') has impinged upon Kyangyang followers a strong ethos of work that has direct and tangible consequences in agriculture performance. In the context of the food crisis of today's Guinea-Bissau, this is very important. Fifthly, this rationalization process leads Kyangyang followers to the ‘will to be modern' common to other Guinea-Bissau peoples (see Gable 1995 for the Manjaco), but that in this particular case brings about a most imaginative religious culture. Kyangyang converts be some authors of a most original ‘prophetic art' (paintings, carvings, narratives, etc.) that we also intend to analyse. Many of the messages this art conveys are about establishing new, ‘modern' gender relations and new, ‘modern' diversified farming systems. Lastly, Kyangyang is a prophetic movement that happens in an independent country, therefore escaping the classic paradigm (Balandier, Peel, Fernandez) which saw the emergence of prophetism almost exclusively as a form of anti-colonial resistance. This will allow us to advance some new theoretical insights about the place of prophetism in today's Africa and its relationship with processes of nation-state making and global crises.

PTDC/AFR/111546/2009 - Financed by FCT 

Estatuto: 
Proponent entity
Financed: 
Yes
Entidades: 
Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia
Keywords: 

Religion,

Agriculture,

Gender,

Politics

One characteristic of the Upper Guinea Coast (the region from Casamance to Liberia), is its ritual pluralism. The coast is populated by a series of overlapping ethno-linguistic groups with a myriad of specialized cults related to agricultural work, fertility and healing. Using R. Fardon's notions (Fardon 1988), P. Richards has referred to this proliferation of cults as a ‘ritual involution' and has placed it in a wider context of ‘maroon' ethnogenesis (Richards 2007). According to this author, mangrove swamp communities (Jola, Balanta, Baga, Temne, Bulom, etc.) can be seen as ‘maroon' because they have been made up of refugees escaping from the hinterland into the mangroves, where they have developed an ingenious rice farming system. This proliferation of cults, however, is only one side of a coin. Its other side is that very often that Coast is scenario of innovative prophetic movements that go in the opposite direction: instead of shattering the community into a mosaic of small, competing cults, they unite it around a cult of the ‘high god' type. In recent times, the most impressive among such cults has been the Kyangyang among the Balanta rice farmers of Guinea Bissau. This movement was born around Ntombikte, a young prophetess (still active today) who in 1984 started to announce commandments she received from God. It was a time of a complex social, political, ecological and food crisis, and her movement tried to help the community overcome the pressures. Yet, because it was politically persecuted and repressed for several years, the movement also created new stress onto the Balanta. Ntombikte's movement falls into the classic paradigm of an ‘African religious movement' as defined by the literature in our state of the art. As in many of the historical, well-know African religious movements, Kyangyang was born around a prophet.

Similarly to what happened in other movements, Kyangyang helped reconstruct an anomic society in the mid 1980s and tried to give self-respect and work incentive to a much demoralized community. This much is common to these movements. Yet, it has some striking peculiarities that set it aside and that fully justify that an in-depth study be undertaken to fully grasp its place in the making of a pubic space in contemporary Guinea-Bissau. Firstly, the fact that it happens among Balanta, the largest ethnic group, the biggest rice producers and the community that contributed the most with soldiers to the liberation and the civil war, but that nevertheless after Independence felt marginalized by the state. It is, besides, a largely understudied community. Secondly, it was started by a woman in a strongly patriarchal religious culture. Prophetic movements initiated by women have been reported in Africa. However it is unusual, even unheard of, for Balanta to let women take on such religious leadership. Unlike other coastal groups, Balanta traditional religion does not have women's ‘secret societies' such as ‘Bondo' or ‘Sende' to be found in similar populations further south. Thirdly, it is a women-initiated religious movement that alters gender relations in an explicit way. It is our aim to place the gender transformation in the religious sphere within the framework of wider changes in gender relations we observed in the agricultural life of the Balanta, not all linked only to the emergence of Kyangyang but to other structural factors too (youth absenteeism, new marriage arrangements, new cash crops, etc.). The way these transformations in gender rights and expectations are interlinked to each other is complex and so far unclear. It is part of what is to be found out. Fourthly, the relationship between prophecy and economic rationalization (already noticed by Max Weber in his studies on ‘charisma') has impinged upon Kyangyang followers a strong ethos of work that has direct and tangible consequences in agriculture performance. In the context of the food crisis of today's Guinea-Bissau, this is very important. Fifthly, this rationalization process leads Kyangyang followers to the ‘will to be modern' common to other Guinea-Bissau peoples (see Gable 1995 for the Manjaco), but that in this particular case brings about a most imaginative religious culture. Kyangyang converts be some authors of a most original ‘prophetic art' (paintings, carvings, narratives, etc.) that we also intend to analyse. Many of the messages this art conveys are about establishing new, ‘modern' gender relations and new, ‘modern' diversified farming systems. Lastly, Kyangyang is a prophetic movement that happens in an independent country, therefore escaping the classic paradigm (Balandier, Peel, Fernandez) which saw the emergence of prophetism almost exclusively as a form of anti-colonial resistance. This will allow us to advance some new theoretical insights about the place of prophetism in today's Africa and its relationship with processes of nation-state making and global crises.

PTDC/AFR/111546/2009 - Financed by FCT 

Objectivos: 
With this general aim in mind, our specific objectives are: <p> </p><p>a) Reconstruct the wider ethno-historical picture. Collect more data on Balanta farmers, on their history, institutions, cosmology, environment and relationships with colonial and post-colonial interventions.  </p><p> </p><p>b) Conduct the life-story of the prophetess Ntombikte, whom we have already interviewed in the past. Compare the biography with other prophetess in Africa and frame it in a theoretical framework on gender and prophetism. Contextualize it within the wider range of gender transformations that the Kyangyang movement impinges on Balata society.</p><p> </p><p>c) Interview and analyze the discourses of her followers along the theoretical lines presented in this research proposal: religious change, appropriations of modernity, interface between religion, gender, and agriculture. We will also pay special attention to the fact that Kyangyang converts become healers because it is this role, we believe, that has facilitated the integration of the movement in the Balanta community (see below). </p><p> </p><p>d) Gather more evidence on their pictorial and material production. Kyangyang converts are extremely productive. They draw pictures, write ‘books' in indecipherable glossography, carve sculptures in clay or wood. Analyse this ‘prophetic art' in terms of the anthropology of images and imagination in order to explore the ideal world Balanta converts envisage for their community. </p>
State of the art: 
<p>This project studies the interface between a prophetic movement, agrarian conditions and gender by studying the Kyangyang, a massive yet understudied prophetic movement, mostly unknown to the scientific community apart from the monograph by historian of religions I. Callewaert (2000), who only looks at its theological and religious aspects, and the partial mention of it by de Jong (1987), who only looks at the psychiatric aspects. We intend to use our previous knowledge on the region and on Balanta (Sarr&oacute; 2009; Temudo 2009) to complement the scant literature on Balanta ethnography (Handem 1986; van der Drift 2000; Lundy 2009) but, most especially, to say something new about what E. Ardener called &lsquo;the prophetic voice' (Ardener 1988) screaming out of Africa.</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>The literature on African religious movements similar to the one studied in this project is enormous. In colonial times, prophetic movements were common across the continent, and they drew the attention of researchers since the days when G. Balandier (1953) saw in the emergence of prophetism and millenarianism instances of popular resistance to colonial penetration. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African prophetic and revivalist movements were systematically studied by scholars with the intention to build a body of theoretical work on the relationship between colonial oppression and religious innovation (e.g. Lanternari 1960; Barrett 1968). Monographs such as J. Peel's Aladura (Peel 1968), J. Fernandez's Bwiti (1982) or W. MacGaffey's Modern Kongo Prophets (1983) showed us different ways in which Africans enduring harsh colonial rule used their prophetic imagination to create their own space. </p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>A problem with the study of innovation in Africa was its tendency to see religion as a liberatory practice or a result of the modernisation of African societies. The importance of religion is unmistakable in many of the essays in the volume on protest and power in sub-Saharan Africa edited by R. Rotberg and A. Mazrui (1970) or, more recently, in the review of sources on rural protest written by A. Isaacman (1990). Yet this tendency does not account for the fact that although in colonial times religious movements were mushrooming across the continent, the African religious imagination is proving equally inventive now that we are no longer living in the colonial situation: this led authors to look for alternative interpretations. T. Ranger and I. Kimambo (1972) edited a collection in which the authors argued that African religion in general had to be studied historically and, more importantly, that it would be methodologically na&iuml;ve to assume that only under direct colonialism did Africans think of rebellion or protest; accordingly they offered a wider picture of revolutionary action through religion, beyond the purely anti-colonial aspect of it. W. de Craemer, J. Vansina and R. Fox (1976) wrote a seminal article arguing that the manifestations known as African religious movements, which according to most anthropologists at the time were typical of the colonial situation, were not as new as such views assumed. There was good evidence that socio-religious movements of the kind described existed in pre-colonial times too. Ten years later, T. Ranger (1986) wrote a thorough, if now a bit dated, review of perspectives. In the 1990s, the most innovative study on prophetism in West Africa, and one that inspired much of our own previous work on these phenomena, was the thorough study on the role of prophetism in the making of C&ocirc;te d'Ivoire by J. P. Dozon (1995).</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>The study of gender, which in our study is going to bring together agriculture and prophetism, is today also a leading theme in the study of agriculture in rural Africa, as well as in that of African religion. Works such as M. Silberschmidt's or&nbsp; D. Perry's on the feminization of labour in a time of &lsquo;crisis of masculinity' (Silberschmidt 2001; Perry 2005); works such as D. Berliner's on the &lsquo;feminization' of customary religion among Bulongic, or that of T. Sanders on the importance of gender in maintaining raining shrines in Tanzania (Berliner 2005; Sanders 2008), show that the position of women is not only very prominently taken into account by Africanist scholars of, respectively, agriculture and religion, but also that this position is changing in a very rapid way, although this is hardly a new point; it was thoroughly explored by the (then) innovative series of articles on the role of women in new religious movements in Africa edited by B. Jules-Rosette (1979), as well as by the various studies -very relevant to us - on female prophetesses such as A. Roberts' on Alice Lenshina (Roberts 1970), J. Thornton's on Dona Beatrice Kimpa Vita (Thornton 1998), H. Behrend's on Alice Lankwena (Behrend 1999) or R. Baum's on Alinesitue (Baum 2001). Our research is innovative in that, unlike the studies just cited, we are crossing the literature and debates on women in agriculture with the literature and debates on women in religion, showing that a plural perspective can help us understand better the interconnection between gender relations, religion, and agriculture without neglecting or minimizing any of the elements. By trying to look at agrarian communities from several points of views and looking for unusual interconnections, we are following the ethno-agronomical research of other specialists of the Upper Guinea Coast and of West Africa, and especially that of P. Richards and his collaborators (e.g. Richards 2007; Chaveau and Richards 2008), a school with which we work in very close collaboration.</p>
Parceria: 
Unintegrated
Marina P. Temudo
Coordenador 
Start Date: 
05/04/2011
End Date: 
05/04/2014
Duração: 
36 meses
Closed