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Interfaith dialogue


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This paper makes a case for further studies on the contribution of peace museums to interfaith dialogue debate. We argue that there is a lacuna in the study on the contribution of peace museums to the interfaith dialogue debate. The development of community peace museums in Kenya, in predominantly Christian communities, and the use of traditional religio-cultural artefacts in peace education and peace building is a case of
interfaith dialogue worth documenting. With religious conflict threatening to tear the fabric of society apart, the question of interfaith dialogue is now paramount in the search for sustainable peace and development.

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Interfaith dialogue

  1. 1. Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Download by: [Tangaza College The Catholic University of Eastern Africa] Date: 20 November 2015, At: 22:25 Journal of Peace Education ISSN: 1740-0201 (Print) 1740-021X (Online) Journal homepage: Interfaith dialogue at peace museums in Kenya Timothy Gachanga & Munuve Mutisya To cite this article: Timothy Gachanga & Munuve Mutisya (2015): Interfaith dialogue at peace museums in Kenya, Journal of Peace Education, DOI: 10.1080/17400201.2015.1103395 To link to this article: Published online: 30 Oct 2015. Submit your article to this journal Article views: 6 View related articles View Crossmark data
  2. 2. Interfaith dialogue at peace museums in Kenya Timothy Gachanga* and Munuve Mutisya Community Peace Museums Heritage Foundation (CPMHF), Nairobi, Kenya This paper makes a case for further studies on the contribution of peace museums to interfaith dialogue debate. Based on our experiences as museum curators, teachers and peace researchers and a review of published materials, we argue that there is a lacuna in the study on the contribution of peace museums to the interfaith dialogue debate. The development of community peace museums in Kenya,, in predominantly Christian communities, and the use of traditional religio-cultural artefacts in peace education and peace building is a case of interfaith dialogue worth documenting. With religious conflict threatening to tear the fabric of society apart, the question of interfaith dialogue is now paramount in the search for sustainable peace and development. Keywords: peace; peace education; interfaith dialogue; religio-cultural artefacts; community peace museums Introduction At times, it seems that religions all over the world are on a war path. The dominant are constantly trying to maintain their position (even threatening or using violence to do so). This has led to each claiming to be the ‘container’ or ‘deposit’ for prede- termined truth. This has resulted in religious intolerance with some people claiming to be the ‘defenders’ of their religious truths (Magesa 2010). The end result is unprecedented conflict as is now being witnessed, e.g. in Central African Republic and in Northern Nigeria. As a consequence, the question of interfaith dialogue is now paramount in the search for sustainable peace and development. Regrettably, adequate learning materials are lacking on how peace museums deal with the question of interfaith dialogue. This became evident in researching this paper. We searched for books and wandered through web pages. We were looking for distinctive literature focusing on interfaith dialogue in museums. Instead, we gained the impression that very little research has been done in this field. To our knowledge, no one has conducted comprehensive research on how to foster interfaith dialogue through peace museums. A review of the literature on museums and religio-cultural objects displayed at museums reveals mixed perceptions. Many scholars (for instance, Catalani 2007; Tarsitani 2009) consider museums as repositories of people’s tangible and intangible heritage. They argue that through museum collections, people keep and exhibit their past and present histories and memories. In contemporary society, museums and their collections are used to build bridges between the items displayed and commu- nities, and also between different local communities. Pearce, as quoted by Catalani *Corresponding author. Email: © 2015 Taylor & Francis Journal of Peace Education, 2015 Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
  3. 3. (2007), considers museums as cultural forums where people’s histories can be dis- cussed in informal and public ways, and where personal memories are materialised and shared through collections. This is particularly true when museum exhibitions are concerned with local communities and their history. Such museums and their collections can become a remarkable resource for interfaith dialogue and may strengthen a sense of place, shared history and identity. They can also visually cement peoples’ religious beliefs and values. According to Somjee (2011), objects tell us something precious about our life, our family, the community, its culture, social norms and the past. ‘If you have an object you have kept from wartime, it will tell the story of where you were during the war, where your family was and what the war was about,’ he observes. Ejizu (1987) and Hiebert (1997) observe that in the absence of developed literary culture, traditional Africans store their knowledge in material cultures which are closely linked to ideas, feelings and values that lie within its people. This ensures that these religio-cultural values and narratives are well preserved and successfully transmitted to successive generations. The Golden Stool among the Ashanti of Nigeria is a good example. It preserves a vital narrative regarding the Asantehene (traditional king) and the kingdom itself, its culture and religion (Ejizu 1987; Onwubiko 1991). The Ofo, a ritual object in traditional Igbo life and culture, expresses an important narra- tive concerning their religious, social and political life. It also reinforces the narra- tive about their basic structure of leadership and endorses important traditional values. Bartlett and Halbwachs, as noted in Beckstead et al. (2011), make a similar observation. They consider artefacts as stores of memory. ‘Memory is not only “stored in brains” but rather distributed through social artefacts and cultural tools’, they observe. They also play an important role in social organisation and in interper- sonal relations and conflicts (Eisenhofer 2008). According to Hiebert (1997), certain objects are means of communication not only between the living but between the not-yet born and the no-longer living members of a society. They are points of contact between the human and superhuman world. Onwu- biko (1991) notes that sacred objects in African thought and culture are at times political emblems or religious elements concretising a people’s belief systems in which case they embody transcendental concepts. Graburn (1976) and Catalani (2009) consider material objects as symbols of identity within a social category. For instance, Graburn observes that when identities of small communities are threatened by external political and eco- nomic forces, they tend to revive their archaic traditions so as to bolster their sense of identity and to link the people to a past perhaps more glorious than the present. A good example is Mungiki1 in Kenya which advocates a reversion to indigenous ways of life as one way to fight against the yoke of mental slavery, which they claim was introduced by Christianity and colonisation (Wamue 2001). Negative perceptions about religio-cultural objects Despite the important role traditional artefacts play in preserving religio-cultural val- ues and narratives, they continue to suffer from lack of acceptance and inadequate understanding of their role and essence. This is mainly due to the judgemental atti- tude that many colonialists and missionaries displayed towards African religion and culture. According to Kirwen (1987), most missionaries and indigenous Christian leaders are yet to understand, in a systematic way, how traditional religions function in people’s lives. As he points out, this is because their theologies were constructed 2 T. Gachanga and M. Mutisya Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
  4. 4. within the cultural framework of Western societies. ‘The cultural roots of these theologies are elsewhere and are intelligible only to those who share a western cultural perspective’, he observes. As such, they do not adequately address African values, issues and problems. This attitude has contributed to suppression, erasing and loss of religio-cultural heritage. It has also hindered an open conversation about the role of peace museums in interfaith dialogue, in promoting community cohesion, and preserving religio-cul- tural values and narratives. In addition, it has an impact on how culture is presented in schools and society. As to the suppression, erasing and loss of religio-cultural her- itage, Olupona (1991) recounts an incident where two murals painted on the walls of a Presbyterian-sponsored school in Ghana were to be removed. One mural showed a drummer on the talking drums (ntumpan), with the drumming phrase ‘Ghana muntie’ (Ghana, listen) below it and the other depicted the famous moment when the Golden Stool was brought down from the skies, thereby inaugurating the Asante Empire and giving it its spiritual power. According to Olupona, the murals were to be removed because they were perceived to be inhabited by evil spirits whose presence in the school allegedly contributed to its poor performance. This suggests that the attitude of members of the Presbyterian school towards the murals was hostile, and unsympathetic to the vital narrative symbolised by the two murals. As to the role of religio-cultural museums in promoting interfaith dialogue and community cohesion, similar apathy is expressed. According to Arinze (1999), muse- ums in many developing nations are seen as places where unwanted objects or materi- als are deposited. They are also regarded as places where objects associated with idolatry and fetish religions are kept. This negative view of museums has continued to inhibit their development in most countries. In her research on ‘Yoruba identity and Western museums’, Catalani (2009) demonstrates how this attitude impedes open conversation about the role of religio-cultural objects in museums. In her research which included discussion of some pictures of traditional, religious and ceremonial Yoruba objects with members of the Yoruba diaspora in Britain, participants were reluctant to speak about such artefacts because of their new faith and looked upon tra- ditional religious objects only as part of their past. They also considered these objects as meaningless for they have been exposed to public viewing, yet such objects were not meant for display but for private and initiated worshipping. She concludes that the adoption of new faiths and resettlement into a new context has changed the Yoru- ba’s perception of and attitude towards traditional, religious and cultural objects. It has also created a new, unsympathetic view of their cultural heritage. With regard to how culture is presented in schools, studies reveal that among teachers there is a struggle to reconcile educational directives about religio-cultural heritage with personal religious beliefs. In Kenya, one of the goals of education is to promote respect for and development of the country’s rich and varied cultures. According to Bogonko (2000), this is to be achieved through the teaching of African culture, history, languages, literature and other aspects of African life, which ought to form the core of all learning. However, there is no guidance on what aspects of culture are to be integrated into the school curricula. The syllabus only informs teachers as to what they ‘must’ do, and ‘should’ do but does not explain how such a task could be carried out. Thus, to employ aspects of religio-cultural heritage would depend entirely on the teachers’ perceptions of the same. Gachanga (2014) describes an experience where indigenous peace education classes were shunned by teachers because of their negative perceptions about indigenous peace traditions. Journal of Peace Education 3 Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
  5. 5. Coe (2005) observes that in Ghana, primary and junior secondary school teachers are supposed to teach the three main religions in Ghana – Christianity (the religion of 63% of Ghanaians), Islam (16%) and traditional religion (21%). The syllabus makes the three religions both equal and comparable; each is presented as having divine power, a mode of prayer, specific beliefs and a prophet or a messen- ger. However, teachers do not see the three religions as equal and often turn these lessons into a lecture on the superiority of Christianity. Whenever they discuss the three religions, they belittle traditional religion, describing it as the worship of natu- ral objects like streams or trees or of divinities less powerful than the Christian God. Islam has often been ignored, possibly an indication that it was not seen as being in competition with Christianity. Reasons for unsympathetic attitude to religio-cultural heritage One of the reasons as to why this has come about is the tendency by missionaries and the colonial administration to stereotype African objects. According to Mkangi (2004), the Scramble for Africa and subsequent colonisation which continues to manifest itself in the form of ‘modernisation’ dealt a heavy blow to expressions of traditions, customs, narratives and mores that determine Africa’s cultural identity. He observes that when colonialists came to Africa in the closing years of the nine- teenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, they found a highly religious and spiritual society. However, many colonialists regarded all variant forms of African religion as paganism. Besides teaching their language and culture in schools, they tended to degrade the African cultural identity by upholding their culture as the highest level of human attainment. For instance, in Portuguese colonies Africans would only be considered civilised if they could speak Portuguese and had rejected all tribal cus- toms. They were therefore required to forsake their familial and cultural connections in order to join the ‘civilised’ community. With the growing political consciousness among African Christians in many African communities, and the use of ethnic ritu- als, material culture, songs and dances in defiance of Europeans’ display of cultural authority, alarmed colonial administrators and missionaries for it was interpreted as going back to primitivity. The authorities then began to systematically suppress it. In 1930, for example, they banned Muthirigu oral literature and dances in Kenya. According to Somjee (1996), the colonialists’ approach towards African material cultures depicted this stereotypical attitude. Some crafts such as pottery and basketry were viewed as pure art forms and products of labour. Wood carving was discour- aged in favour of carpentry. Wood carving was indigenous and hence it related to African belief systems while carpentry has a long tradition in European Christian beliefs and stories. Carpentry was thus viewed as labour work that inculcated disci- pline while wood carvings reflected primitive intellect. Other expressions of native culture such as bead ornaments and body paintings were associated with sensuality and heathen rites. Thus, missionaries viewed material culture from this point of view. It also influenced the content of what was to be taught in schools. Okpewho (1977) argues that the perception of African objects as idols stems from fifteenth and sixteenth century Europeans. He observes that Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were also foreign and pagan, but as religious forces, they were dead, having been vanquished by victorious Christianity. However, African statues, at the time they were encountered, represented living forces which Europeans 4 T. Gachanga and M. Mutisya Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
  6. 6. considered to be hostile to Christ and resisting conquest. They were thus included in the religious segment of the Western reality as negative entities, belonging in the devil camp. They were thus seen as idols and fetishes, not statues. Nianoran-Bouah (1991) describes how missionaries and colonial administrators waged a merciless war against the traditional African drum. To colonial administra- tors, it was a symbol of political resistance in that it signalled over a long distance to the natives the Western military campaigns, the punitive expeditions, the time and itinerary of the repressive forces. Christian missionaries found in the drum an excuse for waging war against traditional African possession cults. They took away and destroyed thousands of drums, convinced that the drum was the diabolic instrument that liberated satanic manifest forces and energies. This concurs with Mveng’s (1975) observation regarding early missionaries’ interest in studying traditional African reli- gions. He points out that they were ‘not just looking for points of insertion … they were out to attack such traditions’. He gives examples from Benin, Congo, and Sierra Leone where, from the sixth century onwards, the major interest of missionaries was fetish hunting. Treasures of Negro Art of the ancient kingdom of Congo were burned by Catholic missionaries and all religious ceremonies, traditional medicine and crafts- men’s techniques were lumped together under the title of devilries. According to Olupona (1991), the two monotheistic traditions to which most Africans have converted over the centuries – Islam and Christianity – have devel- oped a hostile attitude to African traditions. For instance, he notes that Islam ‘rele- gates [them] to al-jahilliya, the time of barbarism, and Christianity views [them] as pure paganism.’ Coe (2005) makes a similar observation regarding Ghana’s charis- matic Christianity view of their traditions. He notes that it objectifies ‘tradition’ as a past wrapped up in ancestral and devil worship. It also believes that every Christian has a past that affects his or her present condition, because it exposes that person to demonic influence. It therefore does its best to avoid rituals like festivals and funer- als, which traditionally have served as occasions for individuals to re-affirm ties to their families and hometowns dependent on their income. He further notes that fears of personal contact with the devil extend to protecting valued institutions like schools from demonic intrusion. Another reason is the imposition of western dichotomous classification on African objects. Eisenhofer (2008) argues that many western art lovers apply the label art to African objects. This has consequences for understanding the religious dimension of African artefacts in that it has no equivalent in African societies. He observes that objects classified under ‘African Art’ were not primarily created to be looked at. They were made in order to be used whether in this world or in connec- tion with the next one. While western art lovers are fascinated by the forms of Afri- can artefacts, these artefacts had a pragmatic purpose in society in which they were made or originated. Art as an end in itself, art for art’s sake, was practically unknown in traditional Africa. ‘If the object did not fulfil their purposes adequately, they were useless’, he points out. According to Duerden (1968), most of the African artefacts were created for use in ceremonies performed to induce particular states of mind in the people. For their creators, their meaning lies in the part they play in these ceremonies, together with the kindred arts of music, dancing and poetry. They are brought out of hiding and used in danced masquerades or kept in shrines and only seen by people during special ceremonies conducted by priests. He further observes that some people keep images for use in family ceremonies, but these are never seen by the rest of the community. Journal of Peace Education 5 Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
  7. 7. The tendency to portray African objects from a functionalist perspective as being in the service of religion, namely harnessing and communication with divine forces, is another reason. This is according to Hackett (1996) who argues that over-interpre- tation of the religious aspects of African objects led earlier writers to claim that African art was predominantly religious or ‘ritualistic’. Other writers readily ascribed symbolic and ritual value to aspects or features of African art they did not under- stand or that appeared mysterious. Schildrout and Keim as noted in Hackett (1996) cite as an example the famous Mangbetu curved human figures from North-eastern Zaire which have been described as ancestral effigies and memorial figures for deceased rulers when there is virtually no evidence for such an interpretation. Like- wise, Nettleton (1988) claims that Zulu sculptures have often been called ‘ancestor figures’ in spite of the fact that the Zulus never used these objects in such a context at all. This type of reductionism fails to address why they take the form they do and how they convey meaning. Yet, another reason is that African objects are still regarded by some as ‘primitive’, or archaic. According to Hackett (1996), ‘traditional’ has become the more acceptable term to describe objects which are seen as characteristically African. According to Eisenhofer (2008) and Mkangi (2004), this echoes the colo- nial propaganda which postulated Africa as a static, timeless continent urgently in need of the leading and developing hand of European colonial powers. And since Africa and its inhabitants were denied a history, the continent’s sculptural traditions were also seen as being without growth. Interfaith dialogue at community peace museums in Kenya Community peace museums are a new phenomenon in Kenya. Founded in 1997 by Kenyan ethnographer Dr Sultan Somjee, the museums aim to celebrate and conserve the religio-cultural heritage of particular communities. They also use peace traditions and artefacts associated with peace to unite different communities (Hughes 2011). The community peace museums have two main objectives: to give exposure to African peace heritage, and to facilitate the community’s access to resources and management of traditional peace materials. To achieve these objectives, the muse- ums’ curators research, collect, document and display material culture, environmen- tal symbols and oral history that are closely connected with peace building. Hundreds of artefacts derived from local communities have been collected and dis- played at the peace museums. Environmental symbols such as peace trees are also found in nurseries of the peace museums or in the environment of the museums. The museums have worked extensively with outreach approaches to education and dialogue between different religious and ethnic groups within Kenya. Their peace program is aimed at young people (both primary schools and young adults) and involves work with volunteers. In 2008, they coordinated a ‘beaded peace tree project’ that reached over 30,000 people in 22 communities. In 2013–2014, they coordinated a travelling exhibition on Kenyan peace cultures which was a great suc- cess. Over 3000 people across Kenya participated in the project and contributed to dialogue and building connections. The power of cultural heritage as a peace build- ing tool and for engaging in interfaith dialogue was clearly demonstrated. What is unusual about the development of these museums is that it is contrary to Arinze’s (1999) observation regarding development of museums in many developing countries. He observes that museums in many developing nations are seen as places 6 T. Gachanga and M. Mutisya Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
  8. 8. where unwanted objects or materials are deposited. They are regarded as places where objects associated with idolatry and fetish religions are kept. More intriguing are observations by Catalani (2007) and da Silva (2010) regarding the shift of mean- ing once religious objects are removed from their original place. They argue when such objects are moved to a new place – such as a museum – there can be a shift in meaning and those objects can lose their traditional values, reinforce prejudice, cause controversy or aggravate sections of society. It is also interesting to note that such museums have been established in predominantly Christian communities. The personnel managing these museums are staunch Christians some of whom hold lead- ership positions in churches. These people seem to have no difficulty in making sense of their traditional religio-cultural objects exhibited in these museums. Reli- gious narratives have also played a significant role in the development of these museums. In fact, one can observe how biblical narratives and traditional wisdom have influenced the establishment of these community peace museums. This is a case of interfaith dialogue materialising into tangible peace museums. It is a remarkable example of an attempt by peace museums to promote interfaith dia- logue. It shows an openness of mind as opposed to prejudice, narrow-mindedness and intolerance. It would therefore be interesting to investigate how this dialogue is transacted. Peace museums, traditional artefacts, peace-making traditions: How are these integrated in Christian communities? What inspiration do Christians draw from peace museums and African religion? What is edited out of museum displays and narratives? Who decides what should be excluded? Does the rest of the Christian community exhibit a similar willingness to remember their religio-cultural tradi- tions? Do these artefacts still retain their religious values and meaning once they are exhibited at museums? Disclosure statement No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors. Note 1. Mungiki is a fundamentalist movement in Kenya with a religious, political and cultural agenda. Its followers have denounced the Christian faith and advocate for re-conversion from foreign worship to indigenous belief (Wamue 2001). Notes on contributors Timothy Gachanga teaches peace studies at Tangaza University College, Catholic University of Eastern Africa. He is also the coordinator of the Community Peace Museums Heritage Foundation and an advisory board member of the International Network of Museums for Peace. Munuve Mutisya is a graduate of Catholic University of Eastern Africa. He is also a board member of the Community Peace Museums Heritage Foundation and curator of the Akamba peace museums. References Arinze, E. 1999. “The Role of the Museum in Society.” Paper presented at National Museum, Georgetown, Guyana, May 17, 1999. Journal of Peace Education 7 Downloadedby[TangazaCollegeTheCatholicUniversityofEasternAfrica]at22:2520November2015
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