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Evangelical Africanist

A visit with Robert Baum, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: religion religious studies indigenous religion fieldwork Africa
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Being a religious studies professor means that Robert Baum is frequently asked about his own religion, to which he responds cheerfully, “I’m an Evangelical Africanist,” a remark that reveals his “deep commitment to make sure Africa is included whenever we talk about the world.” Besides his duties as Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies, Baum is also affiliated with the Women and Gender Studies Department, the Black Studies Program, the Afro-Romance Institute, the Folklore, Oral Tradition, and Culture Program, and the Difficult Dialogues Program (just to mention a few). Running through all of Baum’s work—whether teaching, research, or outreach—is a value on religious literacy, the desire to promote a better understanding of the world’s major religions.

“It’s no accident,” Baum admits, that his teaching and research address “societies that have successfully resisted western hegemony and foreign domination,” whether from the spread of Christianity or the spread of Islam. He seeks to bring that appreciation for the complexity and resilience of African societies to his teaching.

Many people think of traditional societies “as static and brittle,” says Baum, yet his research and lived experience reveals these societies as both elastic and adaptable. “I try to stretch people,” he explains, “to get students to see the world in as many different ways as possible, as a kind of intellectual limbering and flexibility exercise, so that they get a broader sense of what the possibilities of being human are [and] come away with more questions—about Africa, indigenous religions, or about religions in general.”

Focusing in depth on one religious system, Baum lived among and conducted historical and ethnographic research with the Diola in Senegal, the people to whom he has returned “off and on since 1974.” Doing ethnographic fieldwork isn’t just about interviewing people, Baum clarifies: “It is building on personal contacts, participating in community life, allowing people to get to know you before you start doing interviews about serious subjects, and participating in the rituals frequently before you ask about them.” Only after participating in the community for one year, did Baum begin doing interviews: “I learned the language, learned how to wrestle, how to work in the rice paddies, how to climb palm trees, how to harvest palm wine, [and do] some of the dances.”

Eventually, Baum was “adopted” by a family, given a Diola name (Diabune Diedhiou), and was invited to publicly dance some of their sacred dances. Moreover, he adds with a tremendous degree of humility, “I wrestled and was thrown to the ground, which is certainly a way of winning acceptance in a community and defying certain stereotypes of what it means to be white in an African culture.” Eventually, his fieldwork rippled out to neighboring villages until it spanned an area of roughly 15,000 people. “I would do interviews in the morning, take notes, and write them up at the midday siesta,” he recalls, “and then go out again after the heat broke in the late afternoon.” Beyond interviews, Baum says he did a lot of participant observation. “You never knew when casual conversation would turn into a serious interview,” he notes. “My first interview on reincarnation occurred during a casual conversation over some palm wine, when someone said, ‘It’s not so bad that people die, because they’re going to be reborn.’”

Diola religion is centered around belief in a supreme being, Emitai (literally “of the sky”), “the creator of all life and the bestower of rain.” As the Diola word for rain, Emitai elal is “part of the essence of God that is seen as giving life during the rainy season and sustaining the Diola.” Emitai is said to have created a number of lesser spirits to focus on different areas of life, and so there are a number of family cults (hupila), as well as cultures for women’s fertility, men’s initiation, blacksmithing, fishing, and hunting. Like many other religions, the Diola have a concept of judgment after death. On the one hand, Baum explains, “those people who had life-enhancing lives (who helped other people, were good members of the community, and were good parents) become ancestors. They appear to their living descendants in dreams and visions and are seen as living right in the village. It is said that they are so close you can feel the warmth of their cooking fires at night.” On the other hand, people who led a destructive life “are condemned to the bush, forced to live outside the village.” Understanding the complexity of Diola culture, therefore, reveals much about the human spirit.

Baum’s first book, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (1999), examines the history of Diola religion during the pre-colonial era, with particular attention to the impact of the Atlantic slave trade on family spirit cults. While it does acknowledge explorer and missionary accounts, the book relies primarily upon oral tradition to explain how a stateless society, one “without any specialized political institutions,” managed to organize initially to protect themselves against slave raiding, then later became involved in the slave trade. “By involving religious authorities and shrines in the slave trade,” Baum says. “The whole religious system itself was affected.” Shrines of the Slave Trade addresses the process by which religion “interpreted and regulated Diola participation in the slave trade, as well as the desire to protect against slave raiding.”

Baum’s current project looks at the Diola prophets who claim direct revelation from Emitai. In the late nineteenth century, prior to French conquest and occupation, there were eleven prophets, all of them men. Since French colonization, however, there have been forty-two prophets, most of whom are women. Baum is tracing the process by which this prophetic tradition transformed from an exclusively male phenomenon to a predominantly female one.

In addition to religious history, Baum has also been looking at contemporary female prophets, who claim direct relations to the supreme being. For example, during World War II, one prophet—Alinesitoue Diatta—actively challenged French colonial rule, especially agricultural development schemes that encouraged men to abandon rice agriculture in favor of growing peanuts as a cash crop. The result of this system was that “the incredibly labor intensive rice farming [was dumped] onto women, doubling their work and leading to a food dependency on the French commercial market.” She also protested the idea of replacing indigenous forms of rice with “high yield” rice seed. Because of her activism, the prophet was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually starved to death. “But she inspired other women to come forward,” Baum adds, some who are still active today.

Given that half of Africa is Muslim, Baum’s research also involves Islam. It is not surprising, since the events of 9/11, that this research has been in particularly high demand. Living in Iowa at the time of the terrorist attacks, he was asked to appear on public television and soon found himself giving lectures about Islam all around the state. To help meet this demand, he eventually produced a DVD Abraham’s Children: The Shared Religious Heritage of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

There is nothing intrinsic about Christianity and Islam that makes tensions between Islam and the west inevitable, insists Baum. There isn’t a clash of civilizations but, rather, distinct historical moments leading to the tension, including “the expansion of Europe into the non-western world.” Baum plans to continue this trajectory of peaceful advocacy through the combination of his research, his teaching, and his work with such groups as MU’s Difficult Dialogues program. Helping people gain an appreciation for how much is shared between these world religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—has become an important focus of Baum’s research and outreach. “A lot of the tension among the three,” says Baum, “is precisely because of what they share more than the issues where they differ.”