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July 2018


 "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"

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PostSubject: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Sat 13 Dec - 22:52

Critic: Patrick J. Ebewo
Source: Journal of Religion and Theatre 5, no. 2 (fall 2006): 115-23.
Year of Source Publication: 2006

Critical Essay Title: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"

Critic Name: Patrick J. Ebewo

Source Publication Title: Journal of Religion and Theatre

[(essay date fall 2006) In the following essay, Ebewo illustrates the disparaging of the church as a politically entrenched and influential entity in the plays of Ngugi and Zakes Mda.]

It is a widely held view that some advanced nations of the world have employed several and varied tactics to institutionalize their ideological concepts in poverty-stricken Africa. While political and economic strategies are more often used in this regard, many are unaware of the misappropriation of religion to serve as a "mind-forg'd manacle" which aids in the imprisonment of the reasoning faculties of many Africans who unwittingly surge forward to embrace the gospel. Much more than any other thing, Chinua Achebe has center-staged religion as a rallying point in the disintegration of Umuofia community as presented in his celebrated fiction, Things Fall Apart (1958). Despite its undeniable advantages, in contemporary times, many African writers have come to view religion as an ideological weapon in Africa. This essay takes a look at how two African playwrights--Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya and Zakes Mda of South Africa, have used theater to depict the savory relationship between religion and contesting ideologies. In our attempt to analyze the presentation of religion in the works of the two playwrights, it is important to determine how the key term "religion", is to be used. More often, definitions of religion stress the relationship between humankind and God while leaving out man's relationship with his neighbors. For the purpose of this presentation, we shall rely greatly on Nabofa's definition of religion which includes specifically man-to-man relationship as well as man's connection with his God, the Ground of his being or existence.1 In this essay, the religious duty of man to his neighbor is very crucial; for it is in the performance or non-performance of such desired duties, which constitutes the core of our discourse.

While a dramatist like Wole Soyinka concentrates his efforts on the abuse of religion by selfish individuals and gullible followers in post-colonial West Africa, Ngugi deals with religious infringements in the neo-colonial East African country of Kenya. With ideological abuse of religion by the colonial and neo-colonial exploiters, Ngugi, like Engels believes that the first word of religion is a lie.2 Though Ngugi was originally born into a Christian family, he later abandoned his Christian faith because of the series of contradictions he saw in the church. Christianity, whose basic doctrine hinges on love and equality between people, was an integral part of that social force--colonialism--which in Kenya was built on the equality and hatred between men and the consequent subjugation of the black race by the white race.3 Ngugi has often noted with disgust how Christianity has aligned itself with the ruling class and given the lie to its own protestations of support for a humanistic vision of life. Killam further traces how the church, in the views of Ngugi "has always been in alliance with the ruling class and adjusted its precepts to suit the need of that class, thus guaranteeing its own safety and security"4. Ngugi sees the church as facing hydra-headed challenges in the face of neo-colonialism:

But, ultimately the African church's greatest danger is in its area of social involvement. After independence, African middle-class was born: this class is busy, grabbing and amassing land and business concerns at the expense of the peasants and working masses ... Will the church as happened in Europe and Latin America, form an alliance with this bureaucratic, commercial middle-class elite, the members of which, in any case, act as agents of foreign capitalism? Can the church as body reject the exploitation of the masses by a few who, because of the benefits of education and control of social institutions, are in a position to amass so much wealth? Will the church reject capitalism, which is being found wasteful and inhuman?5
Ngugi's dramas are shaped by the presence of Christianity. He is particularly incensed with the hypocrisy of religious leaders and with the ineffectuality and sheer apathy of the intellectuals.6 Let us consider his play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi,7 co-authored with Micere Githae Mugo. In the main, this play is a chronicle play which is aimed at creating a drama which espouses the "grandeur of the heroic resistance of Kenyan people fighting foreign forces of exploitation and domination." The hero of the play, Dedan Kimathi, is arrested by the colonizers for allegedly leading the Mau-Mau fighters against the white men. He is in a detention cell and the white men's strategy is to make him denounce the war and urge the Kenyan fighters to put an end to their struggle against foreign domination. Kimathi goes through many trials--use of diplomacy by Shaw Henderson, the white judge, persuasions by Politician, Business Executive, Banker and a naive Indian. When all strategies have failed, the colonizers resort to having Kimathi tempted by the Priest who acts as agent of betrayal. He emerges with "My calling is a little different ... My kingdom is not of this world" (47-48). He mocks Kimathi for overdependence on just a section of the Bible that is relevant to the struggle--Lamentations, Chapter 5: 1-9. Kimathi ignores his game and adds on a quotation from Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4, verse 1, to decry oppression in all its manifestations.

So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun:
and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.


The Priest tries to convince Kimathi that the struggle referred to in the Bible is spiritual and not an earthly one and enjoins Kimathi to surrender his life to Christ. "Let Jesus speak to you today." To Kimathi, this is absolute--

Betrayal. Betrayal. Prophets. Seers. Strange. I have always been suspicious of those who would preach cold peace in the face of violence. Turn the other cheek. Don't struggle against those that clothe themselves as butterflies. Collaborators.


This short scene displays the cant and hypocrisy of the Priest as he seeks to divert the people from contemplating their impoverished condition with spiritual abstractions. According to Killam, he is the spiritual ally of the exploitation foisted on the masses by colonialism and capitalism over the historical span. Kimathi outwits him at his own dialectical game.8

Another play by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, I Will Marry When I Want (Ngaahika ndeenda)9 dramatizes a call on the masses to fight against imperialism, neo-colonialism and the bourgeois class in Africa. It is a direct call for a revolution. The play exposes the social conditions of black workers in multi-national factories and plantations in Kenya. According to Ngugi, the play depicts the proletarisation of the peasantry in a neo-colonial society. Concretely it shows the way the Kiguunda family, a poor peasant family that have to supplement their subsistence on their one and a half acres with the sale of their labour, is finally deprived of even the one-and-half acres by a multi-national consortium of Japanese and Euro-American industrialists and bankers aided by the native comprador landlords and businessmen.10 One of the tactics employed by the exploiters is religion. Though the Kiguundas are already very poor, they are further pressurized into more poverty by being urged by the so-called "sect of the poor" to contribute towards the building of a church. To Kiguunda, building a church in honor of poverty is a misnomer.

Religions in this village will drive us all crazy!

Night and day!

You are invited to a haraambe fund-raising for the church.

Of the White Padre and Virgin Mary. ...

Of the Anglicans.

Of the Greek Orthodox.

Of Kikuyu Independent.

Of Salvation Army.

Of the Sect of Deep Waters.

Are we the rubbish heap of religions?


Religion is viewed as the bane of the people's suffering. Gicaamba has rightly observed that religion is not the same thing as God.

Religion is the alcohol of the soul!

Religion is the poison of the mind

It's not God who has brought about our poverty.


Ngugi attacks religion as an instrument of exploitation and impoverishment of the poor. The Christianizing mission came with colonization. The missionaries are accused of holding the Bible in the left hand and the gun in the right.

The white man wanted us

To be drunk with religion

While he,

Was mapping and grabbing our land,

And starting factories and businesses

On our sweat.

He drove us from our best lands,

Forcing us to eke a living from plots on road sides

Like beggars on our own land ...


Africanization of European churches is a scheme to further blindfold the black man because the focus of the preaching has not gone beyond "Blessed are they that go thirsty and hungry / And endure tribulations in their hearts / For they shall inherit the Kingdom of God" (61). Kio and his wife, Helen, and Ndugire and his wife, Jezebel, are typical African religious stooges. They are far from being religious people as they are merely fronts used by the white man to achieve his economic purpose. Consider Helen's prayer before the meal in Kiguunda's house: "Show the wicked that everybody's share comes from Heaven, / Be it poverty or riches. / Let us all be contented with our lot" (45). Is this a sincere prayer from God's people? The final blow which religion has dealt the family of Kiguunda is the extortion of their one and a half acres of the land. Kio and company have informed the Kiguundas that they must convert to Christianity and the first step to take is to marry properly in the church. Though Kiguunda resisted at first, he yielded later. Church wedding involves expenses. To please Kio, his boss and employer, Kiguunda is forced to mortgage his only piece of land to a bank to get the means to finance their marriage in church as their African wedding is regarded by the Kios as sinful and therefore, not valid.

Zakes Mda is one of the major black South African playwrights who spent a greater part of his life in exile in Lesotho during the apartheid era. Most of his writings deal with politics, labour migrancy, urban prostitution, poverty, and unemployment. Religion is also a major and recurring theme in his plays. Mda, like Ngugi wa Thiong'o, censors the role of Christian religion and some of its ideologies in controlling the African mind. Religion, which is often regarded as the "essence of transcendental values," is in Mda's belief, like in Lenin's, "one of the aspects of spiritual oppression; that is, a tool by which people are suppressed or oppressed spiritually."11 In line with Karl Marx's remarks, religion is critically viewed by Mda to be "the sob of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless word, and the spirit of conditions utterly unspiritual. It is the opium of the people. It is the sigh of the oppressed."12 In The Hill (1990), a play which deals with the sordid plight of Basotho mine recruits in the South African mines, Mda portrays religion as a significant actor in destabilizing the hopes and aspirations of the frustrated mine workers. Since the late nineteenth century, many young men from Lesotho (Basotho migrants) have crossed into neighboring South Africa to render cheap labor to that country's gold/coal mines and agricultural farms. Labour migrancy to the South African mines is an entrenched way of life for many Basotho as the country is one of the poorest and largest foreign suppliers of cheap labor to South Africa. Often, the young Basotho pride themselves on being able to proceed to South Africa to work in the mines in order to acquire social status, comfort and material benefits. Their dreams are often shattered as they face bleak economic prospects because of South Africa's exploitative migrant labor system.

The Hill13 opens with a silhouette of a Nun in full habit ... a rosary dangling from her clasped hands and she is also holding a big flower, most likely a plastic rose. She is in meditation, reciting in monotone, "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" (71). One of the characters, Man, demands that the Nun bless and cleanse him. Oblivious of him, the Nun ignores and turns her back against him. These are symbolic portrayals of the church's uncaring attitude towards the poor and desperate people; they signal the prevalence of hypocrisy within the ranks and files in the church. The silhouette (shadow) of the Nun and the plastic flower, both symbolize the synthetic and deceitful nature of today's church. The Nun attempts to turn the miners' poverty and frustrations upon the miners themselves as she repeatedly makes allusion to the miners' faults, their most grievous faults ("mea maxima culpa"). Mda uses an amphigory here because the fault of the miners could also be the church's which has abandoned its role as the people's shepherd. Encouragement of people by the church to lean on the wall of faith for success is debunked by Mda when Man declares, "I would like to survive on faith ... but faith doesn't fill my empty stomach" (82). To the Veteran (another character in the play), dependence on church's blessings is "chasing an illusion" (92). Duggan posits:

Mda makes it very clear in the play that the church has been next to useless in the lives of migrant workers due to its irrelevance when approaching their problems or simply by going ahead with its own concerns, oblivious of the needs of its adherents.14
In the mines, a more horrifying picture of the church's role in ganging up with the oppressive system is laid bare before our very eyes. Mda presents the church as an accomplice to a system which strives to castrate the miners. Even the miners know that the so-called black pastors are mercenaries; they have been specially groomed by the whites to deceive the miners. They entreat the black miners not to fight for their rights, not to go on strike in demand for improved conditions of service; they entreat them to be grateful and to obey without questions, all the rules in the mine because "This mine is your father" (99), and also because "the white man feeds you well" (99). During the confession session in the mine church, it is revealed that these 'saints' are perpetrators of more evil than the devil itself as a female prostitute openly confesses, "I sinned, my good pastor. And my sin is well known to you for we did it together" (100). Finally, Mda condemns black preachers, who, bought with cheap positions of the mabalanes, indunas and masisas (overseers) act like the Judases and betray their brothers to the mine capitalists.

In The Nun's Romantic Story,15 Mda indicts the turbulent political atmosphere in Lesotho of the 1970s, which led to a state of emergency, abuse of democracy and eventual military coup in the nation. By the 1970s, there were three prominent political parties in Lesotho: the Basutoland Congress Party (BCP), The Basutoland National Party (BNP), and the Marematlou Freedom Party (BFP). The first democratic elections were conducted in 1965 and BNP emerged as the ruling party. In 1970, another election was conducted with BNP having the fullest belief that it would win. But the electorates who were not fully happy with the BNP voted against it and installed BCP in power. The then Prime Minister, Lebua Jonathan, refused to hand over power to BCP, but rather declared a state of emergency with many protesters being tortured and killed. He declared a five-year moratorium on politics, stating that the Westminster system of government in Lesotho was not in tune with the people's culture and, therefore, adapted and modified it to meet Lesotho's special requirement.16 The constitution was suspended and BCP sympathizers were ostracized.

The mutilated democracy in Lesotho of 1970 is publicly linked with the church and Mda reveals that the Roman Catholic Church in Lesotho supports the BNP against the opposition BCP to undermine Communism which the church feels is anti-Christ. The Reverend gentleman in the play, Father Villa, publicly admits: "We preached in our churches throughout this country against the opposition" (85). Is this what is expected from the house of the Lord? As if these were not enough, the play to our greatest dismay reveals that the church, contrary to the teachings of Christ, sanctioned Sister Anne-Maria's plan for the murder of the military General in the Cathedral. The heinous election which changed Anne-Maria's life saw Father Hamel in the centre of the mess. The church is presented as an institution which does not hold forgiveness as a virtue; rather it promotes hatred and revenge. The ruling party is very much at home with the Catholic Church and the politicians pitch camp with it to benefit from their number at the polls because a vast majority of people in Lesotho are Roman Catholic members. The obnoxious entrenchment of politics in the church is further demonstrated by the playwright in a case involving a layman, Lawrence Pampiri and Reverend Father Hamel. Pampiri, a high school student and a Catholic was ordered to leave the church when the Holy Mass was in progress because he attended a Protestant high school known to have Communist's leanings. The anathema had a bitter consequence demonstrated in Pampiri's decision to throw away his faith and become an atheist. Here Father Hamel, instead of winning souls for the Lord, is losing them to Satan.

Ngugi and Mda are not painting this bleak picture of the church and religion simply because they dislike them. They acknowledge, when there is need to do so, the positive contributions of religion to the development of mankind and society in Africa. In South Africa, for example, Mda recognizes the outstanding contributions of the clergy such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mkhatsha, Trevor Huddeston, and Sister Ncube, and the roles they have all played in the liberation struggle against apartheid. The two playwrights see nothing wrong in the church's participation in politics; they only express disgust, and are disillusioned with the church's negative involvement in national politics.

1. M. Y. Nabofa, General Introduction to the Study of Religion (Ibadan: Heinemann, 1989) 6.

2. Roger Garaudy, Marxism in the Twentieth Century (New York: Scribner, 1966) 106-121.

3. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Homecoming (London: Heinemann, 1972) 31.

4. G. D. Killam, An Introduction to the Writings of Ngugi (London: Heinemann, 1980) 8.

5. Killam 35-36.

6. Cosmo Pieterse and Donald Munroe, Protest and Conflict in African Literature (London: Heinemann, 1979) 62.

7. Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (London: Heinemann, 1976). All references to this play are to this text.

8. Killam 93.

9. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, I Will Marry When I Want (London: Heinemann, 1982). All references to this play are to this text.

10. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (London: James Currey) 44.

11. Garaudy 106.

12. Garaudy 106.

13. Zakes Mda, The Hill, in The Plays of Zakes Mda (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1990). All references to this play are to this text.

14. Carolyn Richards Duggan, "Gabbling Like a Thing Most Brutish: The Post-Colonial Writer and Language, with Reference to the Earlier Plays of Zakes Mda," South African Theatre Journal, Vol. II, Nos. 1-2 (May/September), 1997: 124.

15. Zakes Mda, The Nun's Romantic Story, in Four Plays (Florida Hills: Vivlia Publishers, 1996). All references to this play are to this text.

16. Stephen J. Gill, A Short History of Lesotho (Morija: Morija Museum and Archives, 1993) 221.

Source: Patrick J. Ebewo, "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage."Journal of Religion and Theatre 5, no. 2 (fall 2006): 115-23.

Source Database: Contemporary Literary Criticism

PEN (Permanent Entry Number): 1100092178

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PostSubject: Re: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Sun 14 Dec - 13:22

A fantastic view! Thank you Mr. Masry for the beneficial post.

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Thank you dear "Guest" for visiting this thread

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PostSubject: Re: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Sun 14 Dec - 18:08

Wonderful !

Thank you our active and generous Mr. Masry

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A good teacher must be able to put himself in the place of those who find learning hard
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PostSubject: Re: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Sun 14 Dec - 22:21

That's a widespread concept among most religions if not all.

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PostSubject: Re: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Thu 18 Dec - 16:24

An interesting game. Thank you Mr. TGHamza
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PostSubject: Re: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Thu 18 Dec - 17:17

Thank you , Mr. Masry , for this passage.

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PostSubject: Re: "Religion as an Ideological Weapon in Africa: A View from the Stage"   Thu 18 Dec - 21:36

Thank you all

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