Evil in Africa: Encounters with the Everyday

Evil in Africa: Encounters with the Everyday

Evil in Africa: Encounters with the Everyday

Evil in Africa: Encounters with the Everyday

Synopsis

William C. Olsen, Walter E. A. van Beek, and the contributors to this volume seek to understand how Africans have confronted evil around them. Grouped around notions of evil as a cognitive or experiential problem, evil as malevolent process, and evil as an inversion of justice, these essays investigate what can be accepted and what must be condemned in order to evaluate being and morality in African cultural and social contexts. These studies of evil entanglements take local and national histories and identities into account, including state politics and civil war, religious practices, Islam, gender, and modernity.

Excerpt

David Parkin

The comparative study of moral systems is fundamental to anthropological thinking. This collection of nineteen chapters and the editors’ introduction present rich ethnographic cases from sub-Saharan Africa on a topic bearing on the definition of morality that has been at the forefront of anthropological findings drawn from research in the continent. Yet, as the editors point out, anthropologists have been hesitant to use a concept of “evil” to refer to acts and beliefs indigenously regarded as moral inversions or perversions of humanity. the term, evil, is indeed an ethnographic imposition drawn from the English and cognate languages and therefore part of so-called Western thinking and moral theology. Yet, notwithstanding this lexical ethnocentricity, people everywhere do treat with horror, utter contempt, or fury those acts, statements, and occurrences (whether human, derived from “nature” or even of “spiritual” provenance) that they see as extreme violations of standard expectations of what it is to be human. the particular cultural expressions of such violations vary considerably: regarded as evil in one society or group but sometimes necessary and even beneficial in another. Not that such cultural relativity is unbounded. the flourishing of human life and perpetuity is surely everywhere respected and cultivated, even at the cost of sacrificing individuals and parts of life itself in defense of that principle against violation. It is this possibility of common human understanding of and response to the violations we may call evil, however they are specifically identified and dealt with, that marks it out as a domain of general and critical enquiry. the book admirably balances a consideration of both general and ethnographically specific questions.

The introduction suggests that, despite its enormous sociocultural diversity and historically inextricable global involvement, perhaps even more so in late modernity, sub-Saharan Africa appears to have broadly distinctive ways of conceptualizing evil. the editors point to what they call the practicality of African religion that defines moral contours and is different from the “other worldliness” of the major Asian religions. Aside from but also intertwined with Islam and Christianity, it is religion less of subservience to a High God . . .

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