On a First Visit to Africa

at a coconut standCambridge, MA. I was in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, January 7-12, a brief trip indeed, but also my very first visit to Africa. I’ve gone to India many times, and here and there in Asia over the decades, but never before to Africa. I was invited by Fr. Jean Messingue, SJ, Directeur du département de recherche, and professeur de counseling pastoral et psychologie clinique at the Institut de Théologie de la Compagnie de Jésus (in the Cocody Deux Plateaux area of Abidjan). This is a lovely and serene campus - though getting there is a feat, since it lies at the end of one of the bumpiest dirt roads I have ever traveled; the several kilometers of it form one remarkable speed bump, beginning to end.

I came to give some lectures on comparative theology and interreligious learning, with an eye to applications in today’s Africa. The lectures were the occasion, really, to participate in what turned out to be a series of lively conversations and q & a sessions that would somehow mix American, Indian, and African wisdom. It was a delightful, challenging, and all too short visit. The weather, though equatorial, was fine, no hotter than many a place I have been in India; and I am glad to say that there was not a mosquito in sight.

group photoOn Wednesday, January 8, I gave a lecture at the Université Catholique de l'Afrique de l'Ouest (on interreligious learning as possibility and challenge in the 21st century). On Friday, January 10, I spoke with the theology students and staff at the Jesuit school (on the centuries of Western Jesuit presence in India and what we learn from it), and on January 11, I participated in a day-long Journée Scientifique Inter-universitaire des Sciences des Religions, engaging the many theological institutions in Abidjan (on comparative theology in the broader context of the history of comparative studies in West Africa, and in light of other current modes of theology). Full confession: I am not fluent in French by any means, and so spoke in English, and was ably translated and explained en français by Fr. Norbert Litoing, a Cameroun Jesuit now writing his doctoral dissertation (on Christian and Muslim pilgrimage practices in Senegal); while many in the various audiences speak and understand English, many do not, and without Norbert’s help, I would not have been able to communicate well at all. The other limitation I had to mention, as I did in prefacing each lecture, is my near total unfamiliarity with the African context. I requested my listeners to hear what I have learned as an American Jesuit traveling many times to India over the decades, and as a professor teaching in American universities (Boston College, Harvard) — but then to figure out here and now in Abidjan what is relevant or not in the West African context and take it from there.

at the seminarMy message was fairly basic. Dialogue is an inevitable dimension of life today, is we see it not as formal exchanges among representatives of religions but, as the Vatican document Dialogue and Proclamation enunciated nearly 30 years ago, a dimension of life, of work, of spiritual exchange and on top of all of those, a matter of academic exchange and learning. I stressed the inevitability of dialogue broadly lived and understood, but also the importance of our making it an intentional and concerted part of life. Some of us at least must be active learners, seeking to know each other’s traditions more deeply, so as to move from being spectators nearby to other religions to being people changed by learning from those traditions. I noted, in answer to questions, that this learning is important even and perhaps especially when there is among religious communities — often due to the arrival of outside more extreme believers who see dialogue as a danger, something to be stopped. In the face of violence, we work for peace; amid poverty, we share what we have; among the closed-minded and fearful, we need to insist on learning more consistently and deeply. On Wednesday, I pleaded my case. On Saturday, after presenting my way of interreligious learning and my rationale for it, I then go to listen to African scholars considering comparative work pursued in other ways.

When I lectured on the Jesuits in India – not knowing well the tradition of Jesuits in Africa – I endeavored to point up their extraordinary dedication and zeal, their extraordinary inventiveness in continually rethinking Christian presence and mission and, inevitably, their short-comings and the inevitable time-conditioned nature of their experiments. That is, and particularly when Indian Jesuits took over from the Western, it has become all the more important to honor the Jesuit heritage even while critiquing it and reinventing it for our time and place.

with BienvenuIt was interesting to hear the many excellent and challenging questions at all three events. The ground is shifting under our feet. Even ideas I was somewhat familiar with – the “Africanization” of theology, the quest to link Christianity to the African traditional religions which must be treated with respect, and even relations with Africa’s ever-changing Islam – are shifting amid great political, economic, and cultural changes, and as more and more people, living their whole lives in big cities such as Abidjan, are more and more distant from traditional village life. (All of this is second-hand, from what my hosts were telling me.) Even “Catholic,” ever in tension between its Roman and the African dimensions, is in a period of change, as youth invent new ways of living their faith alongside the more common ways of practicing the faith. I visited for a very brief time a local communal celebration among young Catholics, as vibrant and alive as any Pentecostal meeting might be.

at basilicaOn the off days of this brief visit, we were able to visit various sites around Abidjan and beyond: in the city, the cathedral and Marian shrine; nearby, the old 19th century French capital in Grand Bassam (and on the way there, we stopped to say hello to the local Hare Krishna swami, Bhakti Carudesna Swami. Most remarkable was our trip out to Yamoussoukro, the actual (so far mainly in name only) capital of Côte d’Ivoire, to see the world’s largest church, the Basilica of our Lady of Peace, built at the behest of the country’s first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny. It is a magnificent structure, and in its own way beautiful and spiritually rich, with wonderful stained-glass windows and images and statues, including a wonderful Madonna carved in wood by a Muslim inmate in the local prison. Still, it was odd to see a church larger than St. Peter’s in Rome set in a vast, empty space.

with the swami in AbidjanAfter the Saturday conference, I was interviewed by the influential media site La Croix Africa, and you can watch and listen to the audio/video interview with La Croix Africa (in French). The subject matter was not so much academic interreligious learning as dialogue as a dimension of life today. Here too, the voice is that of Norbert Litoing.

I have been going to India on and off since 1973, and so have a certain familiarity with that vast land and its many religious currents. When I first visited China in 2011, I realized that this was a whole new world, such as I would be unable to enter in depth. All the more so in 2020, I see that Africa too is a world too-far for me, a vast political, cultural and religious arena that takes a lifetime to be understood even in part. If, as I am accustomed, I always refrain from seeking large theories that explain everything, I need now to be still more realistic about the limits of my knowledge and experience. The Christian faith is real and active and does not wane; I keep learning from my own experience and studies; and yet, very much of reality, now including Africa (Côte d’Ivoire, Abidjan…), is more acutely near, more palpably just beyond the limits of my experience. It is good to remember all that we do not know!