Conceptualising religious infrastructures in Africa
Yanti Hölzchen, Frobenius-Institute for Research in Cultural Anthropology, Uni. Frankfurt
Benjamin Kirby, Centre for African Studies (LUCAS), Uni. Leeds
This panel explores “religious infrastructures” in African settings. It asks how religious forms of sociality and spirituality are configuring (and being configured by) infrastructural networks, spotlighting how their operations relate to wider dynamics unfolding in African countries and beyond.
African countries are vital laboratories for rethinking infrastructure. Infrastructure is widely conceived as an inert supporting “scaffold” for social and economic activity. Recent studies have used African settings—from Cairo to Kano, and Dakar to Dar es Salaam—to instead conceptualise infrastructure as relational “ecology” or “socio-technical process. Infrastructural networks are populated by the very things—objects, people, and resources—that they gather, redirect, circulate across space. An expanded definition of infrastructure not only transforms how we understand systems that are conventionally bracketed under this category (e.g. electric grids, public transport, and waste management), but also incorporates more unexpected formations (e.g. languages, corporeal physicality, governmental technologies, and established cultural styles).As such, we take infrastructures to be emergent, “world-shaping” formations which constitute and reconfigure relational arrangements of objects, people, regulations, etc.
This panel welcomes empirically-grounded contributions from participants interested in “thinking infrastructurally” about religion in African settings—urban, suburban, or rural. Papers may address questions such as: How do religious infrastructures evolve in relation to wider dynamics (e.g. political, economic, historical) unfolding in African settings? How do they (re-)produce and transform mundane experiences of sociality and spirituality? How do religious groups insert themselves into infrastructural networks in meaningful ways (e.g. capitalising on the affordances generated by fibre optic networks, applying religious imagery to minibus taxis and roadside billboards)? What are the infrastructural operations of things ordinarily designated “religious” within shared ecologies (e.g. religious buildings, religiously-administered social services and legal institutions, distinctively religious styles and forms of sociality)? If weakened regulatory and governance landscapes have allowed religious organisations to become powerful development actors, how are the infrastructures that they configure variously distributed, contested, and shared among different groups?
01 Murtala Ibrahim: Islam in the Digital Infrastructure: The Rise of Cyber Islamic Practices in Northern Nigeria
This paper explores the emerging intersection between Islam and new media technology particularly among the Salafi group in northern Nigeria. The paper explores how the new media precipitates unprecedented changes in how Islamic knowledge and ideas are produced and disseminated as well as the transformation of religious discourse and social relationship that generate new form of sociality in the region. New media platforms such as Islamic Facebook forums and WhatsApp groups provide spaces for religious discourse, theological arguments, sharing news and information about Islam, circulating Islamic audiovisuals, as well as the evolution of Islamic digital media culture. The new media also facilitates the emergence of new cyber imams who acquired online followers and build their authority online, which result in shifting the nature of traditional religious authority and interpretive rights. Of particular interest is the appearance of alternative discursive entities in the cyberspace such as the former Muslim atheists who now freely speak their minds, spread their ideas, and challenge the notions of orthodoxy and blasphemy. These dissenting voices could not have the freedom to express their views in the offline conservative society of northern Nigerian. It is arguable that the new media is transformed into religious infrastructure that afforded the rise of new online cyber Islamic public that impacted the offline public; while at the same time generate an online counter-public that challenges the dominant religious order. The paper further examines how engaging in the new technology mediated practices such as the use of the digital Islamic audio files, texts, images, and various apps become part of the emergent paraphernalia of Islamic orthopraxy.
Murtala Ibrahim is a Post-Doc Researcher in the ERC Consolidator Project "Sacralizing Security: Religion, Violence and Authority in Mega-Cities of the Global South" at the University of Utrecht,Netherlands.
02 Patrick Desplat: Occult Infrastructures and the (In)visibilities of Religion, Magic, and Sociality in Urban Mahajanga/Madagascar
This paper takes rumors of organ trafficking, theft of ancestors’ bones and child molesting in urban Mahajanga (Madagascar) as starting point to critically explore the diverse, often interlocked (in)visible layers of religious infrastructures. The urban agglomerate of Mahajanga is a cosmopolitan migrant city and characterized by its broad religious diversity: Malagasy practices related to ancestors and spirit possession as well as various expressions of Christianity, Islam or Hinduism are often practiced in a mutual tolerant and harmonious way. Although churches and tombs are valued in different ways, they compose dominant and much visible religious infrastructure(s) of materiality that channel and facilitate the circulation of objects, ideas, work and people.
Rumors and other vivid stories of ‘people stealer’, on the other hand, are inherent of new ‘occult economies’. They explain how people make sense of abstract social and economic forces, including their experiences of humiliation, injustice or feelings of being disconnected from global processes. The investigated rumors entangle magical with material means and work as local metaphors for rapid political and economic transformations. As religious infrastructures they are invisible and barely traceable. They are, moreover, a prime example of how infrastructures not only act as connecting constructions but also resonate social schisms. Within these narratives, existing spatialities become fraught with uncertainty, ambivalence and even danger. Although these rumors exist as infrastructural undercurrents, they engage with central aspects of social life and Malagasy values. They work around and between the inadequacies and inequities of more formal religious systems, whether public, private or—more usually—some improvisation on these themes. Therefore, both the visible, dominant as well as invisible, marginalized infrastructures are not mere conceptual juxtapositions but are mutually constitutive.
Patrick Desplat is Assistant Professor at the Department of Social Anthropology at Georg August University Göttingen, Germany.
03 Nelly Babere: Religious Infrastructure, Public Health, And The Politics Of Urban Development: The Case Of Sinza Ward In Dar Es Salaam City
Religious infrastructures are dynamic elements in the rapidly urbanizing landscapes of cities in the Global South. In many of these settings, escalating population density is often accompanied by a growing aspiration among religious groups to remodel urban landscapes, often manifesting as a religious ‘construction boom’. Through the development of religious sites and their accompanying infrastructure, diverse religious groups are actively contributing to the transformation of urban space. In settings where regulatory planning mechanisms are unevenly implemented, the proliferation of religious infrastructures has created a number of public health challenges. In many cases, the politics of developing and managing the spaces used for religious activities has heightened the unlivability of urban neighborhoods. Speaking to a residential area in Dar es Salaam, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, this paper explores the public health challenges posed by infrastructures developed by Christian and Muslim groups.
This study employs a mixed method approach, allowing for the collection of rich and triangulated data to substantiate a rise of complaints about these developments. We focus on the Sinza ward, a planned settlement in Dar es Salaam city where we reached a total number of 100 respondents through interviews and focus group discussions to investigate this new phenomenon. We demonstrate that, despite the implementation of policies initiated by planning authorities to regulate the development of urban spaces, mushrooming religious infrastructures have proven difficult to contain. As noted by our respondents, religious sites (typically initiated by Christian and Muslim groups) often appear overnight, spatially inconveniencing other uses within the built up area. We focus on two ways that these ‘pop-up’ developments threaten the public health of the neighborhood and directly affect the quality of space that other residents wish to have. First, we consider the issue of noise pollution. Spatial analysis indicates that the distance between individual religious developments is extremely small, amplifying the possibility of antagonistic encounters between residents, particularly during busy hours of worship. Elderly people, school-aged children, and middle-aged adults alike report being greatly affected by the amount of noise that religious sites produce on a daily basis in ways that tangibly impair their wellbeing. Many find themselves unable to engage in other activities outside school or work. A second risk that religious infrastructures pose to the community relates to their built quality, most of which are constructed with weak materials and sometimes unfinished.
Speaking to these issues of noise pollution and structural integrity, we argue that religious infrastructures can subject neighborhoods like Sinza to a number of public health hazards which are typically overlooked by urban planners. If religious infrastructures are important ‘architectures of circulation’ (Larkin 2013) which help to sustain mixed habitats, we propose that more attention be directed to how they may also operate as ‘architectures of obstruction’ or ‘blockage’ which generate uneven geographies of urban wellbeing.
Nelly John Babere is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning at Ardhi University, Tanzania.
04 Peter Lambertz: Enchanted Infrastructures: Risk, Promise and Progress on Congo’s Inland Waterways
Congo’s baleinières (“whaleboats”) are artisanal means of transportation that, ever since the 1990s, assert a “return to the river” by offering a waterborne solution to the challenges of mobility and transportation to millions of Congolese. In socio-technical synergy with their Chinese Diesel engines, they have grown out of, and into, the specific infrastructural arrangements that have emerged in recent decades out of the DR Congo’s sole historical experience. The paper combines an inquiry into baleinières’ names and inscriptions with ethnographic insights gathered during participatory journeys aboard these wooden watercraft in Congo’s Tshopo province. The paper explores the conceptual dialectic between religion and infrastructure by investigating the interconnections between spirits, technology, and mobility: (1) The ritual coping with the risks of navigation is well-known to anthropologists. Local forms of occult maneuvering are fueled by sinister economic competition among rapidly rising new armateurs (boat owners) and seem to target especially the vessels’ engines. Moreover, the danger of accidents due to snags, rocky riverbeds and sudden rainstorm incites passengers to charge their journey with religious song and prayer. This lends the infrastructural everyday life of baleinières decidedly religious overtones. (2) Similar to the quest of visibility, which various religious movements pursue in urban public space, baleinières are also infrastructures that display and thus foster feelings of religious belonging and affiliation. Especially in parts of the country that inhabitants and traders experience as remote (often due to the breakdown of roads and bridges), mobility and the journey itself are lived as a form of salvation, offering exodus and economic resurrection, and making baleinières appear as a “chosen technology”. Inspired by existing work on the anthropology of infrastructure, this string of argumentation inquires into the “enchantments of infrastructure” (Harvey and Knox 2012) that locate baleinières on a wider temporal horizon between technological progress and despondency.
Peter Lambertz is Marie-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute für Anthropological Research in Africa (IARA) at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgiu.