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"The harmony of the Universe refers to a fundamental point: the internal harmony of the Cosmos and one's relationship to that. From an ontological standpoint, without such a relationship the being within the Cosmos and the Cosmos itself would be in danger. Without this sensitivity to harmony, participation appears impossible"


 


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Home » Features » A Dialogue with Boubacar Traore

Religion and Spirituality in Africa
by Juan Carlos Benegas and Dolly Basch
Translated by Bill Poehner and Michael Danciger





At the beginning of our conversation, you said that we can consider spirituality as something that arises from our need to be whole, to go a bit beyond our ordinary experience and search for the meaning of life. From this perspective, how do you see spirituality expressed in Africa?

Spirituality, that is, the need to give meaning to one's life, is expressed in what we could call the "triple sensitivity"-three elements of participation. The first is sensitivity to the harmony of the Universe; the second, sensitivity to dynamism or the internal energy and interplay of forces; and the third, sensitivity to the symbolic nature of all beings. These three sensitivities combined allow one an effective and efficient participation in the Cosmos.

The harmony of the Universe refers to a fundamental point: the internal harmony of the Cosmos and one's relationship to that. From an ontological standpoint, without such a relationship the being within the Cosmos and the Cosmos itself would be in danger. Without this sensitivity to harmony, participation appears impossible.

With regard to dynamism we can say that although we frequently think that the human being is the fundamental element of the Cosmos, this is not so. Rather, all the elements in the human being's surroundings have life. Human beings are not the only beings with life. Trees, for example, have life.

According to this view humans are not the center of creation.

While human beings may be considered to be at the center, they are certainly subject to everything happening in their surroundings. If you wish, we can think of humans as in the center, but this does not mean that they are the only beings and that there aren't other elements in their surroundings.

And regarding the third element, symbolism?

Symbolism is something very interesting, especially when one relates it to art. When during rituals a priest dons a mask and through it conjures the devil, for example, the mask itself does not have its own strength. Rather, what is being shown through this act is that something positive can be rescued and received for a specific purpose. In this case the mask may be converted into a receptacle of strength, a certain energy that will transmit something necessary for solving a problem or for re-energizing something.

At the same time the mask implies mystery. A person wearing a mask distances him/herself from those participating in the act.

The pretense that the masks are magic or religious objects always exists. But according to the concept of the traditional religions this is not true since a mask is always referred to with a person behind it giving it a particular movement, a particular energy. Therefore, as I stressed earlier, the mask is a receptacle, but only momentarily, because it ceases to be so once its function is fulfilled. This is the reason why it cannot be considered a magic object or a divinity or a fetish. The mask is only symbolic, but I believe that the symbolism itself is very rich. The modern branches of anthropology point out the symbolic nature of words, supporting my belief. This understanding of symbolism allows one to see to what extent one can participate in forming one's environment. All those elements we have already spoken of that are in this environment, as well as human beings, participate in its formation. However, for participation to be effective and efficient, it is necessary to have the three sensitivities that I just developed: sensitivity to the harmony of the Universe, to the dynamism of things, and to symbolism. These are the three fundamental aspects of participation.

You were saying that traditional religions arise as a practical answer to difficult situations in life. What are the problems that a person living in this context deals with through religion?

The problems that these religions try to resolve are everyday situations. They are not, for example, problems having to do with death or with the promise of a better world. Instead, they are concrete problems that are found in life itself because traditional religions are those that are relevant to life, not to what will happen after death. This is a very important aspect of traditional religions.

What would be an example of problems of this type?

They could be health problems. Let's say a person finds him/herself in a situation in which his/her body does not respond. The first interpretation might be that the person has a physical disequilibrium or an organic dysfunction. However, the problem is seen not merely as an organic one, but rather as a break in a whole chain. The symptoms and organic dysfunction are simply the most visible manifestation of this broken chain. What tends to emerge first is the fact that there is an area of life that the person does not have under control, and therefore he/she turns to a "healer," one with relationship with the divinities, who tries to figure out what is happening. The healer tries to see, for example, if this illness is the consequence of the failure of the ill person to carry out a responsibility. Once the probable cause has been determined, a therapy specific for the person will be implemented.

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