The Importance of African Prophets: Revealing Prophets by David Anderson and Douglas Johnson

Revealing Prophets, edited by David Anderson and Douglas Johnson

Religion is one of those subjects that invariably engenders discussion and debate, sometimes quite bitter debate. The very nature of our reactions to it indicate how important it is as a historical subject, how much it shapes our daily lives (even if we are irreligious or non-religious), and how as citizens of nations where religion(s) is present, we must somehow respond to the questions posed by religion.

In the West, we have long separated the sacred from the secular. When and how that process occurred is the subject of a different article. In Africa, that divide is more recent. Thus, when scholars look at religion in African history (whether Christianity, Islam, or indigenous expressions of faith), they are often able to look at the very center of daily life.

To me, the most compelling part of religion is these odd, sometimes broken, very passionate people who rise up as leaders and prophets. These men and women can bring disaster and destruction as well as life and riches. (See my recent article on the Cattle Killings in South Africa for a discussion on one disasterous prophet/prophecy.)

Recently, I read a book entitled Revealing Prophets, edited by David Anderson and Douglas Johnson. (For full citation, see below.) I noticed a number of thematic similarities among the essays that discussed different prophets in East Africa. First of all, many of these prophets were critical to the survival and persistance of resistance movements. Second, prophecy was one way for women to gain power. Third, prophecy turns out to be an important tool in society that shaped and explained identity–individual, social, and political.

Iris Berger, for example, writes about the kubandwa spirit mediumship of interlacustrine East Africa, arguing that it connected states and lineages with women’s personal experiences because its central concern was female fertility. This power gained by women through religious concerns over fertility may have changed and taken on different implications through the historical changes of several centuries but it remained a central concern and a continuing way for women to access power.

I wondered while reading this what the actual religion was like, how spirit mediums behaved and what their relationship to society was, how people perceived them, or what in fact this emphasis on fertility actually meant in the daily lives of people. Details varied from region to region, I’m sure; thus, Berger can only give a very general idea of how rites were enacted. Nevertheless, her point is clear: kubanda gave women power and a voice. Further, male power as lineage heads, family heads, or kings must be understood as occurring on terrain that emphasized sexuality and reproduction—similar to the point that Helen Bradford made in her article, “Women, gender and colonialism: rethinking the history of the British Cape Colony and its frontier zones, c. 1806-70.” As other religions formed and shaped in the region, kubanda continued to provide a “language…of power that was accessible to women as well as to men” (80).

That women were able to access power through prophecy is one important element of religion in East Africa. That Africans in general were able to access power for resisting colonialism is another important feature of prophecy, explored by Marcia Wright in her examination of the Maji-Maji Rebellion in Tanzania in 1905. In this uprising, a young prophet named Kinjikitile led his people to believe that if they drank certain magic water (Maji), they would be able to withstand bullets, disease, and hunger.

Wright demonstrates the fallacies of positing one prophet (Kinjikitile) as the main source of an ideology that fuels an uprising, yet also suggests that historians have neglected the emergence of both belief and action as a result of prophecy in their treatment of Maji-Maji. She suggests there were a multiplicity of causes behind the uprising, but the words of prophets should be seen not in isolation from those causes or as a cause in and of themselves but “as galvanizing disparate sources of mass sentiment into a focused movement” (128).

Although Wright argues that Kinjikitile must “yield” the place he currently holds as the main motivator and ideological creator of Maji-Maji (130), she admits that because he will live on in the popular mythology of Tanzania, he must “continue to claim attention as a key commissioning agent” (139). She further points out that Maji-Maji needs to be viewed from a gendered perspective, that the female presence was a “substantial, integrated element” among the uprisers. Her argument regarding gender indicates a potentially fertile (pun intended) topic of study.

Charles Ambler writes about both the mutability of prophetic meanings and messages, but also of the importance and centrality of prophets and prophetic idioms in explaining historical events and creating identities and heroes. His piece looks specifically at prophecies relating to the arrival of European invaders, to predictions of Europeans’ power in the form of such things as “iron snakes” and “sticks that spit fire,” and to ideas about how central Kenyans should respond to the invaders—-ideas that were not followed by all people living in central Kenya. These prophecies were a way for central Kenyans to accept, reject, and explain colonialism. Thus, Ambler suggests that there is room for seers and their predictions in historical analyses, in part because seers and prophets are leaders (and leaders can be made prophets, as we see with Kenyatta) but also because prophecies are “expressions of an indigenous world view and theory of history” (223).

I wondered when reading Ambler’s piece whether all prophets predicting the arrival of the Europeans—-or all leaders who were then “canonized” as prophets—-were men, and if so, how that influenced their prophecies. Who interpreted these prophecies and how did that differ by gender? As Christianity subsumed or merged with indigenous traditions, did women become more prominent prophetic voices, given their relative importance in mission history in East Africa?

John Lonsdale, like Chuck Ambler, also explores how the layered meanings of stories and prophecies not only create and wreck identities but can mask and illuminate the internal tensions of a society such as Kenya, whose contested stories are meant to discover just who among the Kikuyu were to blame for colonialism. Lonsdale’s explorations tell the varied stories of the prophets Waiyaki and Mugo. The story of Waiyaki was changed over time to help create then to reinterpret Kikuyu identity, to explain how and when the British gained land and power (though to the British, Waiyaki’s story “proved their right to rule” [244]), and how to justify both peaceful and military responses to colonial rule. Mugo’s words, on the other hand, remained constant. Mugo’s prophecies foretold the coming of the Europeans and, in a reinvention by Kenyatta, encouraged peace between black and white (271). The tales of these two men negotiated differences in Kikuyu understandings and power structures—-between “dynastic and regenerative pasts, Kikuyu time and Biblical history, and the hopes of the literate and the unschooled” (277). The stories helped create a shared understanding in audiences and helped build a Kikuyu identity (though variable and fragmented). Lonsdale points out that Waiyaki’s story allowed Kenyan civil rights activists demonstrate that deliberate nation-building can be oppressive (282). This reminded me of my own research on Zimbabwe’s liberation war and the use of propaganda and myth to create a national identity and a new national history; shared ideology and shared history are critical for establishing a peaceful, working government.

As I pointed out earlier, the historical circumstances explored by these four scholars differed, but all of them emphasized the theme of prophets’ relationship to power/politics and how their words were used to construct identities and ideologies and to engender resistance of some form. Thus, they are an important way to illuminate African history.


Anderson, David M. & Douglas H. Johnson, eds. Revealing Prophets: Prophecy in East African History. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.