In his book entitled Ethiopia Unbound, published in 1911, the eclectic Gold Coast (now Ghana) journalist, scholar, and lawyer Joseph E. Casely Hayford describes an encounter between two young men in London: Kwamankra (from Gold Coast) and Whitely (from England) vigorously engage in a conversation that gets at the root of the word “God.” Kwamankra asks Whitely: “Whence, then, one may ask, come your ideas, as associated with the fountain of all good, of omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence? Of course, they are borrowed from the Romans, who were pagans like ourselves, and who, indeed, had much to learn from the Ethiopians through the Greeks.”
I open this essay with Kwamankra’s exchange with Whitely for two reasons. First, it highlights how the tenth-century crusades, described as “the first plundering expedition of Europe” by Ben Kies, the South African thinker, might be the provenance of the white supremacist conception of God.1 And, second, the exchange amplifies how the dominant understanding of God as indomitably male scarred conceptions of God in colonized polities. By this I mean that the colonial project, which was imagined as a divine calling, much like “manifest destiny,” was the logical corollary of the conception that the universe is the creation of a white, patriarchal God with powers superseding all other entities, be they divine or non-divine. The exchange between Kwamankra and Whitely, while exposing the inadequacies of the Westernized concept of God, nevertheless reveals Kwamankra’s own complicity, which is that he reinforces God as male, a rendering that is colonial.
By neglecting “indigenous” conceptions of the divine before the arrival of the European, and in the ways his own elaboration of the divine is tinted by colonialism, Kwamankra qua Casely Hayford’s understanding of God epitomizes a crucial postcolonial paradox—how colonial blood runs through arteries and veins of postcolonial subjects in unwitting ways. If at the time of writing Ethiopia Unbound Casely Hayford knew of the existence of genderless deities among the Ewe people of Ghana, about whom I write, would he have approached the concept of God differently?
A reprieve from those Western epistemological formulations of spirituality, this essay unpacks how the Ewe, an ethnic constituency in Ghana, do not easily capitulate to the inflexible Christian assumption that God is male. The Ewe show us the violence of paternal colonialism and missionary Christianity in Africa, and the debris they have left behind. Furthermore, Ewe cosmology shows how Christianity inherently displaces androgynous and female divine figures in the name of a monolithic, universal God, a figure which is now integral to Ghanaian Christianity. The Ewe people of Ghana share avuncular relations to the Fon/Dahomey group mostly found in Benin and Togo. At the zenith of the Ewe pantheon is the Supreme Being called Nana Buluku, famously recognized as an androgynous deity. Nana Buluku is above all else and perhaps closest to the idea of God as constructed in Western and Judeo-Christian theology.
Nana Buluku is the foundation of the supernatural and natural worlds, and those worlds in-between. Manifesting gender-defying attributes, Nana Buluku conceived Mawu-Lisa, the creators of the world and all that exists within and without it. Mawu is associated with moon, and Lisa with the sun.2 The entanglement of these supernatural entities and their connection to Nana Buluku are the enabling conditions that lead to the creation, sustenance, and preservation of the universe of spirits and humans. Like their provenance Nana Buluku, Mawu-Lisa are a gender-defying deity, harnessing energies of day and night, the moon and sun, and male and female, among other things, to mediate the balances and the imbalances between the world of the supernatural and the natural realm.
To be clear, Ewe cosmology does not center divine fatherhood and we can see in vodoun and candomblé, both Afro-diasporic cosmologies, reverberations of Ewe spirituality.3 The existence of these androgynous divinities on the margins of hegemonic Christianity shows that missionary Christianity is a square peg of “inflexible epistemology” inserted in the round hole of “flexible ontology.” By this, I mean that the realms of the divine and non-divine in non-Western contexts refuse categories that are unchanging. Arguably, the suffocation of androgynous deities such as Nana Buluku and Mawu-Lisa by the idea of the “divine father,” which is a tyrannical European understanding of God circulating widely in Africa, constitutes a category-mistake.
In his essay “Understanding Primitive Society,” the British philosopher Peter Winch introduces the term “category-mistake” in his interrogation of the anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s classical study of witchcraft among the Azande of Sudan. Winch suggests that the context of scientific culture does not operate on the same level as the context in which Azande notions of witchcraft thrive. He goes on to argue that:
Zande notions of witchcraft do not constitute a theoretical system in terms of which the Azande try to gain a quasi-scientific understanding of the world. This in its turn suggests that it is the European, obsessed with pressing Zande thought where it will not naturally go—to a contradiction—who is guilty of misunderstanding, not the Zande. The European is, in fact, committing a category-mistake.
The term category-mistake was first introduced by the philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his interrogation of Cartesian dualism of the mind and body in The Concept of Mind. For Ryle, Descartes’s mind/body binary was a category-mistake that failed to recognize that these realms were entangled in rather convoluted ways, among other things.
In sum, Kwamankra’s conversation with Whitely on the roots of the concept of God demonstrates the tyranny of such a formulation in non-European contexts. It also exemplifies the degree to which the idea of God is a category-mistake. However, if Casely Hayford, in Ethiopia Unbound, attempts to provide an African understanding of God, he paradoxically reproduces the Eurocentric idea that God is male. As we learn from the Ewes in this postcolonial terrain, Nana Buluku and Mawu-Lisa possess gender-defying attributes, and these traits are irreducible. I conclude my essay drawing on these historical and ethnographic vignettes to show a “Godlike” project like colonialism was inevitably violent. Moreover, the God/male figure—always cast as divine—nourishes and justifies such violence in postcolonial landscapes. An example of this violence is the pathologization of deities such as Nana Buluku or Mawu-Lisa in the Ghanaian Christian imaginary, an attitude that privileges the white/Western Christian God as dominant, ubiquitous, and all-powerful. It is these very readings of God that reproduce the supremacy of whiteness in postcolonial domains.
Kies, Ben. “The Contribution of the Non-European Peoples to Western Civilisation.” Published Lecture, Cape Town, 1953.↩
See Washington, Teresa. N. Our Mothers, Our Powers, Our Texts: Manifestations of Àjé in Africana Literature. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.↩
See Alexander, M Jacqui. Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.↩