Flowers in the Garden: The Role of Women in African Religion, by John S. Mbiti Review, by Glendon Gross

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Flowers in the Garden: The Role of Women in African Religion, by John S. Mbiti

Review, by Glendon Gross

John S. Mbiti’s book, AFRICAN RELIGION: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life tries to correct inaccuracies in popular discourse regarding African Religion. In this essay, Flowers in the Garden, which appears in African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, by Jacob K. Olupona, Mbiti analyzes the role of women in African Religion. Mbiti refers to a variety of African myths in order to determine the role of women, which he considers to be “a language depicting truths or realities for which history does not provide a full explanation.” (Mbiti, in Olupona, p. 59.) For Mbiti, as for Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, myth offers a wider view of truth than one can obtain by quoting mere facts. It is fitting that Mbiti should use myth as a source, because many errors regarding African religion are propagated by scholars who are locked into an Aristotelian, analytical mindset. Mbiti proposes to give us a broader understanding.

The role of women in African myth is closely tied to her role as a creator of life. Because man is born through the woman, all African religions closely associate the woman with life. Mbiti quotes a German author, Hermann Baumann, a former professor in African Studies in Vienna and Munich, regarding several African creation myths. One told in Eastern Africa is about a virgin woman, Ekao, who fell from the sky and bore a son, who became the progenitor of the human race. Another example is the myth of the Tusi of Rwanda, who tell of the original couple of human beings living in paradise, but they were sterile, so they begged God to help them. God mixed clay with saliva and formed a small human figure, who the woman put in a pot for 9 months, until the figure had grown limbs. God made the other human beings according to this method, until the Earth was populated. (

Although some would criticize Mbiti for relying on European sources, and in particular on Baumann, who was a Nazi collector of artifacts for Hitler’s Germany, there is sufficient evidence to support Mbiti’s claim that the woman was associated with life. There are those who feel that any book about African Religion should only refer to African sources. According to this point of view, Mbiti should have been out in the field, talking to Africans about their religion. Yet in almost every other field, we allow ourselves to rely on observers from any continent, which would seem to be a prerequisite for any kind of international consensus. Therefore I have chosen to accept Mbiti’s conclusions without challenging his sources extensively, because he also quotes many African sources.

Mbiti also draws on the prayers of African women in this essay. It is in the language of prayer that women express their deepest thoughts and their most passionate concerts to the divinity and to the living dead. Mbiti is also the author of a book entitled The Prayers of African Religion, which he cites in this essay. (Mbiti, in Olupona, p. 68.)

In summary, Mbiti seems well qualified to associate women with Life, in African
Religion. And due to the importance of Life, to call them Flowers seems poetic and

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