V.Y.Mudimbe’s theories on missionary discourse: How our idea of Africa was invented by the West

V.Y. Mudimbe is a contemporary African philosopher and a significant figure in the debate on the restauration of identity and pride of post-colonial Africa. He argues forcefully that Africa, as we know it through its Western representations, is  an invention, based on the power of the Western discourse of anthropologists and missionaries. This discourse constructs “Africa” as the oppositional “Other” to the European “Self”. An African “Other”, which is irrational, superstitious and primitive, as opposed to a Western “Self”, which claims scientific rationality and objectivity. This Western discourse on Africa was and still is so powerful, that many of the African élite themselves were compelled or even seduced into adopting it, in order not to be judged “primitive”.

Being a Missionary of Africa myself, let us now turn to the role of missionaries in the discourse on Africa. Missionaries have played an important role in the transformation of Africa. Their activity consisted not only in transmitting the Christian faith. It also implied the necessity of converting so-called backward cultures and inserting them into human history, which was at the time believed to be identical with the history of the so-called civilized West[1].  The philosophy, methodology and attitudes of the missionaries, based divine authority, were often the answer to the needs of the colonial administration. Mudimbe comes from the Congo, a former Belgian colony, where missionary and colonial activity were particularly intertwined. Missionaries and colonial agents helped and protected one another as natural allies. Both were deeply convinced of the “savage mentality” of the Congolese. The Belgian Government saw in the Catholic Church a reliable agent of social control, because the Church assisted the Government in inculcating discipline into Congolese minds, which made it possible to govern this vast country with minimum effort.

The transformation of Africa by the West happened on three levels:

  1. The conversion of minds. Mudimbe understands conversion as a process of alienation, that implies a lack of respect for non-Western values. It is seen as an imposition, an intrusion. Africans had to accept conversion as a gateway to escape from being looked upon as pagan and primitive. The conversion of minds was seen as a gateway to modernity. Africans converted to Western values in order to survive as human beings[2]. Mudimbe’s assertions are indeed supported by a wide evidence of missionary statements, which present the Church as the gateway to modernity and raison. African religious practices were seen as primitive and the new faith – Christianity – as reasonable and intelligent. A similar binary opposition existed between traditional African and modern European medicine. Despite all recent attempts of “inculturation” in order to Africanize the Christian faith, I feel that missionaries still ought to acknowledge this error of judgment.
  2. Conversion of Space. Missionaries not only converted human minds, but also physical spaces, mainly by the building of mission stations and churches. The centre of life shifted from the chief’s palace to the church and mission hospital. Whereas the building of the church is instrumental in the physical conversion of space, the colorful celebrations of Christian feasts are responsible for the spiritual change.
  3. Conversion of Names. The changing of names, e.g. the Congolese capital Léopoldville replaced Kinshasa, intended to extinguish an old memory and to create a new reality.

In Mudimbe’s novel Entre les eaux[3], the young African priest Pierre Landu resents the fact that Christian names, which are synonymous with European names, have replaced the African names, which often expressed a link with the ancestors, or an event at the time of birth. He says: “The new custom robbed us of our personality. The real name was kept hidden like a shameful sickness… One cannot be a good African and a good Christian at the same time[4] ”.

The Language of Conversion

Mudimbe argues that missionaries, and of course not only missionaries, were blinded by the alleged superiority of  Western culture and Western Christianity. He says, when different cultures meet, there always seems to be an irresistible temptation of domination of one culture over the other. From where does this attitude of superiority come? Mudimbe identifies several discourses that are at the root of this attitude of superiority[5]. I mention here only two discourses:

  1. a. The logo-centric philosophy of the German philosopher G.F. Hegel (1770-1831)[6], in which he argues that culture was a manifestation of reason and the supposed absence of culture in Africa was therefore a proof of the non-existence of reason. The same discourse was further developed by the French sociologist L. Lévi-Bruhl[7], who divided human societies into two groups, the civilized and the primitive.
  2. The discourse based on theories of the inequality of races, as proposed by the French orientalist J.A. de Gobineau (1816-1882)[8]. This discourse was based on a form of class-thinking theories, which constructed a dichotomy between the “aristocracy” of European nations and the “barbarism” of all non-Western societies.

In his main work The Invention of Africa[9], Mudimbe shows how Africa is seen by Western science as the exotic, irrational and primitive “Other”, which was regarded as a mere object in the African discourse. He demonstrates the epistemological conditions, which have reduced Africa to an object of Western gaze and domination. His aim is to deconstruct the African discourse, so that Africa is no longer the object, but the subject of the discourse. He does not advocate to separate African thinking from Western thinking, but to liberate it from Western dependence.

Dr. Friedrich Stenger, M. Afr.

[1] V.Y. Mudimbe, Tales of Faith. Religion as Political Performance in Central Africa, London, 1997, p. 41

[2] V.Y. Mudimbe, Parables and Fables, Madison, 1991, p. 48.

[3] V.Y. Mudimbe, Entre les eaux. Dieu, un prêtre, la révolution, Paris 1973, p. 89

[4] Entre les eaux, p.94.

[5] F.W. Stenger, White Fathers in Colonial Central Africa. A Critical Examination of V.Y. Mudimbe’s Theories on Missionary Discourse in Africa. Muenster, 2001.

[6] G.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Cambridge 1975.

[7] L. Lévi-Bruhl, Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures. Paris 1911.

[8] Cf. C. Miller, Black Darkness: Africanist Discourse in French, Chicago 1985.

[9] V.Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa. London 1988

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