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Acceptability Politics: Christianity vs ubungoma

We need to be careful not to eliminate essential African rites of passage due to another religion

Zipho Dolamo says she holds the stance that ubungoma and Christianity are non-oppositional.
Zipho Dolamo says she holds the stance that ubungoma and Christianity are non-oppositional.
Image: Supplied

I try my best not to draw obvious and overt similarities or parallels between African spiritual practices with those of other ingenious or spiritual groups.

This is often a conscious attempt in conversation and in thought because I never want to risk conflating all indigenous or spiritual practices into one. More profoundly, I do not want to adopt the strategy of likening practices within African spiritualties with those in "more acceptable" schools of thought as to qualify the validity of African spirituality. Walk with me...  

Some years ago, when I started my spiritual journey and began wearing visible regalia (white beads at the time), I found myself engaged in an abnormal quantity of conversations about ubungoma versus Christianity. Suddenly I found myself on the opposing side of Christianity as my regalia so proclaimed. I do not find this to be true as I hold the stance that ubungoma and Christianity are non-oppositional.  

Overtime I noticed that the conversations that I would have, mostly followed the trajectory of seeking to either qualify or disqualify ubungoma – mostly through a Christian lens. I do not fault anyone because many, me included, enjoyed a Christian upbringing. I have also heard African spiritualists make arguments for their spirituality by faulting specific Christian practices. This has often been at an attempt to discredit Christianity while strengthening the validity of African spiritual practices.  

For example, I had a conversation once with an older sangoma in a village emaMpondweni in the Eastern Cape. I cannot for the life of me, remember her name – she was a local and I was there attending intlombe (seance) for a few days. She proclaimed that she will never forgive for convincing her that ancestral "worship" is wrong all the while they have been making them say "God of Abraham, God of Jacob".  

Ngobani oJakobe no Abraham, ukuba abazonzinyanya zamaKrestu” (who are Jacob and Abraham if not the ancestors of Christians?). She continued: "that’s why I have denounced Christianity to focus on my spirituality."

Another time, while I was also still an initiate, another sangoma said to me that she believes ubungoma is real because of the existence of "Christian ancestors" (like Jacob and Abraham). For her, all elements of ubungoma fit neatly with corresponding Christian rites and that is what makes it right. She proclaimed, “As long as Christianity is inherent all is well”.  

“What about other indigenous spiritualties where they observe their rites but hold another faith that is not Christian?".  She looked at me, slightly stunned and she said “if you look closely, those other faiths are Christian-like".  

Again, I fault no one in the ways that they justify or make sense of their beliefs to themselves. My greater aversion is about "acceptability politics" in this context the idea that ubungoma is only acceptable as it fits or makes sense through a Christian lens. My aversion is more towards the consequence of interweaving ubuNgoma and Christianity, in attempts to create meaning, resulting in the creation a Christian washed version of ubungoma and vice versa.  

This would only be a repetition of what many African families have had to endure in terms of negotiating their spirito-cultural rites of passage along the axis of Christianity. For example, in the Xhosa culture – traditional ceremonies will often include the making and consumption of umqombothi. The making and consumption include the delicate observation of our ancestors and requires specific dress and personal conduct. Umqombothi has gradually been eliminated by Christian families from pivotal ceremonies as alcohol is prohibited or discouraged by churches, with the teachings of the bible as a justification. Ceremonies like imigidi (homecoming) to commemorate young men journeying into manhood – where umqombothi is essential – have been robbed of that. 

If you’re Xhosa and are reading this, imagine umgidi without umqombothi?  

Negotiating based off acceptability politics robs us of thorough appreciation and understanding of essence of either school of both ubungoma and Christianity. Equally, it systematically contributes to the erasure of symbolic rites and connection to cultural and ancestral identity. Again, try and imagine umgidi without umqombothi! 

Please do not get me wrong, I am not saying that Christianity is bad. I am saying that if we are not careful in how we make sense African spiritualty, we will eliminate essential rites of passage and Christianity will be our justification.  

Ubungoma does not have to be likened to Christianity to be valid. It does not have to have rites that are acceptable by Christian standards to be valid. This is why I am aversive towards making parallels and unnecessary similarities – I do not qualify ubungoma using any other lens but eyobungoma.  

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