Monday, May 12, 2014
The journey of inculturation is an ongoing challenge for the Church in Africa. The inculturation of the Gospel, as John Paul II states in Redemptoris Missio, is today “particularly urgent”, but it is a lengthy process. It does not require a “purely external adaptation”. It consist in “a profound, all-embracing”, and “a difficult process, for it must in no way compromise the distinctiveness and integrity of Christian faith”… (Fr. Guido Oliana, MCCJ).


Fr. Guido Oliana,
in South Sudan.


African language,
drum and dance:
powerful symbols
of God’s saving mystery

The Church transmits to the various cultures Christian values, “at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them and renewing them from within” (principle of incarnation). In this way, “the universal Church herself is enriched with forms of expression and values in the various sectors of Christian life, such as evangelization, worship, theology and charitable works. She comes to know and express better the mystery of Christ. [...] Inculturation is a slow journey, which accompanies the whole of missionary life.”[1] (principle of catholicity). Inculturation is “an urgent priority in the life of the particular Churches, for a firm rooting of the Gospel in Africa”. It is defined as “a requirement for evangelization”, “a path towards full evangelization”, and “one of the greatest challenges for the Church” in Africa.[2]

In the present essay I would like to express impressions and reflections that I have gathered in my 25 years of missionary service in Uganda, Kenya and now South Sudan. During these years I have been touched in particular by three vital expressions of African culture: 1) the communicating power of African languages; 2) the rhythmic musicality of African drums; 3) the corporative engagement of African dances.

As a general premise, I like to state a fundamental theological principle: the transcendent God, who is the creator of all that exists, becomes mysteriously present or “paradoxically immanent”[3] in human history through his own creation. Taking into account the transcendent nature of God, by “paradoxical immanence” I refer to the fact that no material or personal symbol can capture, control or manipulate the unfathomable power of God through forms that would then become idolatric or superstitious. Hence all these forms must be subjected to a serious critical assessment.

Applying this general principle to our three topics, we can say that African languages (not only Hebrew, Greek or Latin), drumming (not only the sound of organ or piano), and dancing (not only composed postures) can become poignant expressions of this “paradoxical immanence” of God’s mystery in the life of African people.

No cultural system is foreign to the Holy Spirit. Nor is there any reason to believe that the Spirit speaks more efficaciously in Judaic, Greco-Roman or Teutonic cultural terms, than in African, Indian, Chinese or any other people’s terms. The cultural patterns of the people being evangelized are all under the same universal redeemer and lord of history, hence, they are all inundated by the same recreating and superabounding grace of God; all cultures are, therefore, presumed, to be compatible with Christianity. This compatibility needs not to be proven beforehand, because the local ways of being human enjoy the privilege of melior conditio possidentis (the better condition of the owner).[4]

This calls for a more daring appreciation of the symbolic import of African language, drumming and dancing in the process of evangelizing African culture.

The African language

I had the joy to learn and speak Luganda, the language of the Baganda, the population living in Southern Uganda in the regions surrounding the capital Kampala, where I lived for twelve years. I enjoyed the powerful feeling of communicating with people through their own rich and expressive language. The experience of this African language moves me to deal with the issue of African language according to two perspectives: a) African liturgical preaching as an inculturated way of communicating a Christian interpretation of life; c) African ritual language as an inculturated way of participating in Christ’s saving events.

a) African liturgical preaching

When I began to preach in Luganda, I immediately realized that it is not enough to know well the language as far as vocabulary, grammar and syntax are concerned. One needs to perceive and assimilate also the way people view and judge the world around them. Homilies can be literarily correct, but may still carry a foreign way of thinking and judging.

I give an example of foreign preaching. This experience took place in Karamoja (North-Eastern part of Uganda) among pastoralist people. On the occasion of an important celebration, I was shocked by the awkward situation created by a homily of an elderly colleague of mine. This person had spent almost fifty years among the Karimojong. He was an expert in the language that he was teaching to the incoming missionaries. He was very friendly with the people. In his preaching he could raise his voice enthusiastically about what he felt important. However, people did not seem concerned or existentially engaged in his talk. They seemed rather absent-minded. The preacher was talking very passionately about some religious devotions, but people could not care less. On that occasion, I understood that in order to create an “impression” or to have an impact on people as Jesus did (cf. Mk 1:22), one needs to touch people’s life and show practically how the Gospel is addressing their concrete existential problems.

If the idea of God that a missionary tries to convey does not reflect people’s world-view, it sounds foreign, ideological and therefore dangerous, because it may create a dichotomy between what they feel existentially according to their traditional way and the new contents that the missionary tries to convey. This kind of dichotomy created by the presentation of a foreign world-view can be fostered also by a native minister, who just repeats traditional Church doctrines without attempting to actualize and reinterpret them in the light of people’s life experiences.

In this regard, I would like to share an interesting episode. It happened during my first years of priestly ministry in Uganda. A lady came to me for the sacrament of penance. She started saying that Satan had tempted her. Sympathetically, I asked her whether she had any child sick and went to the local doctor in search of a cure. Feeling understood in her problem, presumably, she started re-telling her story again, but in a positive way. At a certain moment of our conversation I said: “Do you still believe in those things”? (Okyakkiriza mu bintu ebyo?). Immediately, this lady started re-telling me the story in a negative way as she had started, speaking about her having fallen into Satan’s temptation. This experience shocked me, because I could perceive in her a profound dichotomy. This makes me question our way of evangelizing, at times insensitive to, or unaware of, African Traditional Religions, and their enduring existential symbolic impact in the concrete life of African people.[5]

The exercise of preaching has made me sensitive to the way we correlate the “existential questions” of African people to the “theological answers” implied in the Word of God.[6]

In this regard once I had a moving experience. It took place among the Acholi population (Northern part of Uganda), who were harassed and terrorized by the rebels of the so-called Lord Resistance Army (LRA). I was asked to preach during a Eucharistic celebration. I was worried about what to say and how to become relevant to the people’s painful situation. The church was crowded. I thought to bring the experience of Christ, who on the cross shouted:  “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mk 15:34). I told the people:  “Let us identify ourselves with Christ on the cross. Let us shout to God the Father the same words of Jesus. Certainly he will hear us through the words of his Son.” I asked the congregation to repeat with me Jesus’ words three times raising their voice each time. It was a tremendous experience! People were truly involved and personally touched. I felt that Christ was shouting through us to the Father and God could listen to our cry. I had a clear impression that that liturgical celebration was very meaningful to the people and gave them great hope. This event convinced me that the language we use in preaching has to bridge between the existential situation of people and the transforming truth of the Word of God, which continually finds its way to become flesh among the people also through our preaching. As Jesus said: “The truth will make you free” (Jn 8:32).

The “odd language” of rituals

Another important question pertains to ritual language. I feel always impressed when Africans sing traditional songs accompanied by drums. The engaging power of their linguistic style, tunes and rhythms, tough apparently repetitive, is amazing. When people sing at particular events (marriage or funeral), they show the engaging power of the responsorial interaction between the solo and the assembly. One singer passionately narrates the story and all present promptly answer with a simple and short refrain. I admire the vivid participation of people in this form of singing.

Yet, when we celebrate the Eucharist, I often perceive in the congregation passivity and lack of vitality and personal engagement. The Eucharistic prayer, objectively speaking, is the highest and most significant moment of the celebration. We can see that the text in question in general is conceptually well translated in the local language, but the event, which the text intends to “represent”, is not effectively represented or communicated. I feel that here we have a linguistic problem. Our official Catholic Eucharistic Prayers are optimal doctrinal texts, yet the language used is not able to communicate the richness of the saving event that the texts intend to proclaim.

One perceives a certain distance of the people, who become more spectators of something that they are told about than participants in, or makers of, the memorial by feeling and being essential part of it, as they are when they sing their traditional songs. I think that we have not yet found a totally adequate African-Christian ritual style that would awake the religious receptive faculties of people.[7] Faith needs a way of being enacted which is correlative to the symbolic way of perceiving and expressing authentic cultural values. Hence the ritual dimension of a faith which generates, enhances and expresses itself has to be fully incarnational and corporeal, culturally inherent to the way of feeling and expressing of people, of course enlightened, transformed and empowered by the Gospel of Christ.

We need to verify whether the ritual language adopted by the liturgy in Africa is a mere translation of a Western Christian world-view in an African “ordinary language”, which exerts poor impact in people’s life, or whether it is a creative adoption of an African “odd” or “extraordinary language” or “metaphorical language”, which leads the participants into a vivid experience of the transcendent that becomes transformative.[8] This is possible thanks to the intrinsic power of a ritual language that is: a) descriptive (interprets and communicates to the participants the meaning of the ritual action while they perform it); b) heuristic (arouses existential interests and evokes the discovery of transforming meanings in the process of the celebration); c) prescriptive (motivates a praxis coherent with the meanings discovered and experienced); d) promissory (guarantees the stability of the community by celebrating its identity); e) performative (motivates a concrete existential commitment to live what is celebrated).[9] In this way, the traditional correlation between lex orandi (prayer), lex credendi (faith) and lex vivendi (life) is vitally guaranteed, in the sense that the experience of God in prayer motivates and enhances faith by transforming and energizing life in the community context of liturgical prayer.[10]

The liturgical texts that the Church has received from her long tradition must be adapted to the mentality of the African people. The Philippino Benedictine theologian of liturgical inculturation Anscar J. Chupungco discusses the issue of the threefold stage translation- adaptation-creation of liturgical texts. He states:

The message of the original text will have to be expressed according to the thought and language patterns of the liturgical assembly. Anything less than this may lead to a misunderstanding of the message, since a message is communicated to a person normally through expression of his or her own culture. Faithful translation is the communication of the message in the linguistic expressions of the people for whom the text is prepared.[11]

Translation and adaptation are not enough. The process has to go further. New texts must be created which correspond to the particular sensitivity of the people. In the words of Chupungco, “composition of new liturgical texts, assumption and assimilation of the best elements a language can offer, development of a liturgical language that suits perfectly the culture of the people and bears faithfully the message of the liturgy: all this is called for by the liturgy of Vatican II.”[12]

I have a dream: to be able, one day, to experience a Eucharistic Prayer constructed in a true African linguistic style, where, in a dynamic responsorial manner, the main celebrant passionately and imaginatively narrates the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ and people intervene with vibrant acclamations, accompanied by thunderous drums and captivating dances, creating a compelling desire to live existentially what they celebrate.

2. T
he African drum

The drum can be considered the most emblematic symbol of African culture. I have experienced the beautiful and efficacious power of African drums especially among the Baganda.

During their liturgical celebrations I have always been intrigued by the great effectiveness of drums in creating an atmosphere of sacredness, joy, sadness, meditation or contemplation according to the different styles of drumbeat. When the full set of drums are used (corresponding to the pitch of the bass, the baritone, the alto and soprano) and when competent people beat them, one has the feeling of a full symphonic orchestra. All the range of harmonics is perceived in a dramatic marvellous and moving way.

a) Symbol of divine power

The African drum has a strong symbolic meaning connected with all dimensions of life including religion. People have handed over from one generation to the next information and knowledge on the drum usually in connection with some myths in reference to the origin and identity of the tribe or the clan and their vital relationship with the supreme creator, the spirits and ancestors.[13]

The Baganda have about 52 clans. Every single clan has its own name and its own geographical location where the clan headquarter is. Each clan identifies itself with a particular drumbeat, which has its own unique drum rhythm. Clan rhythms vary. Drum rhythms ask the members of a particular clan to safeguard cultural values, such as working, conserving nature, giving mutual respect, keeping moral standards, saving the environment, getting married, caring of the family and begetting children.

The drum is also used as an instrument for calling the community to participate in ritual ceremonies, healings and dances. The drum communicates information within a society in the case of insecurity, crimes, death, accidents, loots, etc. Drumbeats even send messages from far. In the past the drum took the place of our modern telegraphic services or mobile phones.

The drum is an important instrument in the ancestor worship of the Baganda. There is no celebration of a shrine ritual without drum accompaniment. The drum serves a medium between the visible and the invisible world in the course of invocations and prayers. In worshipping ceremonies all drum rhythms are played in order to call ancestors, deities and spirits identified with a particular drumbeat.

Drums are also used for therapeutic purposes. People having emotional, psychological and mental disorders enter the healing process at the beat of the drum. Spirits and ancestors are invoked to participate in the healing process. The patient often goes into a trance. This helps to heal people that have psychological disorders or are suffering from stress or have problems of infertility. “For this reason, the drum is considered a mediator of these persons, trying to bring them back into life, into a daily routine, to free them of their problems and their aches and pains, and to bring them back into community life.”[14]

The African theologian Laurence Magesa states that “the use of the drum as symbolic of (thunderous) divine power and its effects on the African psyche and emotions have as a whole not been superseded. In fact, in the African context, the drum reveals divine power.”[15]

b) Memorial of the foundational event of Jesus Christ

Elochukwu E. Uzukwu, relying on the research of G. Niangoran-bouah[16], writes that the drum is “comparable to the Bible or the Koran. It both carries the primordial word and is identified with the primordial word.”[17] Magesa comments: “More than in the Bible and Koran, playing the ritual drum in Africa elicited bodily movements and gestures as well as mental states that made the cosmic unity immediately palpable to the hearts and minds of worshippers. It connects people to the earth and to the spiritual beings.”[18]

In the past the missionaries in general did not understand the great importance of African drums. Being drums used in indigenous music and dances, which were considered pagan and satanic practices, the use of drums was forbidden in church services by almost all Christian denominations. “The drum was regarded as an instrument of the devil [...]. African dances and songs were condemned, as being too sexy. Institutions, like puberty and funeral rites, enstoolment of chiefs, and such-like were forbidden, as being idolatrous. This was the situation until quite recently.”[19]

The African drum has a strong memorial power. According to Magesa, particularly in rural African contexts, the drum remains the best instrument for recalling the foundational story of the Christ-event – the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. It must also be given a prominent place in the celebration of the sacraments, especially of the Eucharist, as the central sign of the remembrance (memoria) of the creation and ongoing recreation of the Christian community. Hence dance, which the paying of the drum oftentimes urges, comes into play.[20]

The consideration of the African drum as the best “instrument for recalling the foundational story of the Christ-event” is quite intriguing. In sum, this statement is based on five liturgical potentials of African drums: 1) The African drum is symbolic of divine power. 2) The African drum can convey an emotional and intellectual mode of participation in the history of salvation that continues in the present liturgical “representation” of God’s saving mystery. 3) The African drum can bridge the time of preparation and expectation (African Traditional Religion) with the time of Christian fulfillment (Christian faith). 4) The African drum can unify creation (cultural values) with the new creation fulfilled in the paschal mystery (Christian values). 5) The efficacious musicality and rhythmic properties of the African drum can efficaciously serve people’s conscious, active and full participation in the cosmic memorial of salvation history in a way that other musical instruments do not have in the African context.

3. The African dance

In my long staying in Africa I have been fascinated by some forms of African dances. I like to mention at least four. Two are Acholi dances (Northern Uganda): the royal dance (bwola) and the dingding dance, the “jumping dances” of the Karimojong (North Eastern Uganda) and the gentle dance of the Banyankole (South-Western Uganda).

The bwola dance is a circular dance composed of men putting on their heads crowns of erected white feathers and wearing leopard skins. They move forward with a beautiful and dynamic synchronic pace while beating their drums. They show a majestic sense of order and control of the environment and people. The dingding dance is performed by young girls colourfully dressed. Their movements try to imitate birds. They radiate a charming feeling of joy and beauty. In Karimojong “jumping dances” men make solemn high jumps. Their synchronic movements seem to show a desire to bridge heaven and earth. I admired the Banyankole dance in a liturgical adaptation being performed during a Eucharistic celebration after Holy Communion. It touched me for its gentle and graceful movements radiating an affective and intimate sense of joy and gratitude to the Lord.

a) Symbol of a holistic interpretation of life

The African dance has an essential cultural role in the life of the African tribes. “Much more than entertainment, dances communicate emotions, celebrate rites of passage, and help strengthen the bonds between members of the tribe as a whole.”[21] According to Wanjiru Gichigi, “dance is almost without doubt the most ancient art form known to man.”[22] Gichigi reports the statement of the danceologist Alphonse Tierou from Ivory Cost on the essential meaning of dancing as a “complete and self-sufficient language” that expresses the deepest human experiences with the whole range of emotions.

Because it has more power than gesture, more eloquence than word, more richness than writing and because it expresses the most profound experiences of human beings, dance is a complete and self-sufficient language.  It is the expression of life and of its permanent emotions joy, love, sadness, hope and without emotion there is no African Dance.[23]

Various characteristic can be attributed to the African dance. Richard Djiropo gives four basic functions.[24] First, African dance is a cultural vector. It expresses African uniqueness. It plays “an imperceptible role as Africa’s spokesman.” It has become “Africa’s best ambassador,” mainly “because it permits both the dialogue between peoples and the purest expression of the African being.” Second, African dance represents the source of meeting between peoples by favouring cultural dialogue and expressing “at once the ‘same’ and the ‘different’, the self and the other, particularities and commonalities, better than other forms?” Third, African dance is an expression of African genius. This is so especially for its  “capacity to reveal the unity of the body and the spirit, and to suggest a vision of the world that escapes the temptations of monism and dualism which characterize, respectively, Eastern and Western thought.”

Finally and in sum, African dance is defined as a “somalogie” (in English we could say “somalogy”), namely, a discourse (logos) of the body (soma), or better a discourse by the body. Dance is the liberation of the spirit, a spirit in movement. African dance is a form of language. It expresses not only emotions but also ideas. It is not only a way of feeling but also a way of thinking. It expresses the unity of being by overcoming the distance between the body and the spirit. African dance is the clearest corporeal-spiritual language that communicates people’s interpretation of their life, history, culture and society in relation with the environment and other people. The movements of the dance, however bizarre they might appear, are poignant signs or symbols of such a profound interpretation and communication of life.

b) Effective memorial of the paschal mystery

An official document of the Catholic Church, considered as “an authoritative point of reference for every discussion on the matter”, was issued by the Vatican Congregation of Divine Worship in 1975.[25] The document discusses the meaning of dance. Dance is defined as an art, “a synthesis of the measured arts (music and poetry) and the spatial arts (architecture, sculpture, painting).” It can become a form of prayer which “expresses itself with a movement which engages the whole being, soul and body.”

The document recognizes that a long tradition since the time of the Old Testament has always considered dance as a meaningful symbol of spiritual life. Spiritual authors and some liturgies (Byzantine, Ethiopian and Syriac) have accepted dance as “an expression of the fullness of their love of God.” St. Thomas Aquinas describes heaven in terms of dancing angels and saints.

The document recalls the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council n. 47, which seems to allow the theoretical possibility of liturgical dances by adopting cultural forms that are not contrary to the faith.[26] Two conditions for this possibility are underlined at least in non-western cultures: 1) The dance should express “sentiments of faith and adoration in order to become a prayer”. 2) The liturgical dance should be “regulated by the competent ecclesiastical authority.”

Analysing the understanding of dance in the western culture, the document states that religious criteria do not apply to it because “here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure.” The conclusion is clear:

For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations.

If at all some forms of dance are to be allowed in the western world, it should be in “a place found outside of the liturgy, in assembly areas which are not strictly liturgical.”

The main worry of the document is that dances performed in a liturgical context may degenerate in folkloristic shows that lose the sense of sacred, whereby people are not helped to enter into spiritual communion with God. Thus the liturgy may degenerate into a situation where the saving mystery of God in the Spirit through Christ is suffocated by a self-centred immanent expression of human emotions. Consequently, the liturgy would lose its meaning as participation in the saving paschal mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was in the same vein when he wrote severe critical remarks about the possibility of liturgical dances.

The cultic dances of the different religions have different purposes - incantation, imitative magic, mystical ecstasy - none of which are compatible with the essential purpose of the liturgy of the “reasonable sacrifice”. It is totally absurd to try to make the liturgy “attractive” by introducing dancing pantomimes (wherever possible performed by professional dance troupes), which frequently (and rightly, from the professionals’ point of view) end with applause. Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attractiveness fades quickly - it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation. I myself have experienced the replacing of the penitential rite by a dance performance, which, needless to say, received a round of applause. Could there be anything farther removed from true penitence? Liturgy can only attract people when it looks, not at itself, but at God, when it allows him to enter and act. Then something truly unique happens, beyond competition, and people have a sense that more has taken place than a recreational activity. None of the Christian rites includes dancing.[27]

The African theologian Laurence Magesa is critical of this negative approach. He says that to consider dancing just a way of making liturgy “attractive” to elicit applause is not to understand properly the meaning of African dance. He acknowledges that “few African worshippers would feel themselves fairly described in the cardinal’s remarks.” Then Magesa argues for the deep meaning that African culture find in dancing.

Dancing in the context of authentic African worship is not a spectacle, a display, a show, an act of entertainment; it is an integral part of worship in which all worshippers participate. There is no “applause” after dancing has run its course because it is harmonious and consistent with the whole act of worship.

According to the Congolese theologian Bénézet Bujo, “dance is more than talent and folklore”, but it has a deeper symbolic and sacramental sense as memoria.[28] He states:

Within the framework of the idea of memoria, dance is no mere choreography in which human beings reveal their ability and talent. Rather, it is a language that intends to communicate the deeper dimension of the total reality of life. To see a kind of a folkloristic beauty in African dance is to fail to grasp the depth of the transcendental experience which is expressed by the person dancing. This is because the human being in Africa dances his own life. In fact, all the existential events are danced: birth, marriage, and death, but also the new moon, political events, and so on. The various genres of dance express various hidden religious dimensions. For example, the dance can tell about pain and suffering, about joy and sadness, about love and thankfulness. It is always a cantatory, narrative poiesis, which makes the message from beyond the grave a present reality in solidarity with the entire fellowship.[29]

In the quoted text, Bujo describes African dance as “a language that intends to communicate the deeper dimension of the total reality of life.” African dance expresses “various hidden religious dimensions.” It is defined as “narrative poiesis, which makes the message from beyond the grave a present reality in solidarity with the entire fellowship.”

Poiesis indicates an action that transforms and continues the world; it reconciles thought with matter and time; it reunites the person with the world; it brings forth a new reality [30]  In the Bible poiesis refers both to the creative action of God both in creation and salvation history and to the human answer in faith and obedience through concrete actions (praxis). Our human answer to God’s initiative is made possible only through the action of the Spirit. Without Christ the believers can do nothing (Jn 15:3). 1 Jn 2:29 highlights the imperative of right action (orthopraxis).[31] In one word, poiesis is the process that “pro-duces or leads (a thing) into being.”[32]

In the liturgical context poiesis could be considered the efficacious action of the Triune God that continues his creative and redeeming action through Christ in the Spirit through the celebration. It could also refer to the participation in faith, hope and love of the community, thus becoming consciously, actively and fully engaged in the celebration.[33] Hence the liturgical poiesis is made possible by the anamnesis (memorial of God’s salvific deeds in Christ through the Spirit),[34] the epiclesis (invocation and intervention of the Spirit making possible the representation of Christ’s saving deeds) and the methexis (participation of the assembly that enacts the celebration).[35]

These features of the liturgical celebration could be very well applied to the potentials of African dance. Bujo says that “when one dances death, the dead person is ‘danced through’ or danced into life. This means that the dead person is formed anew and fetched back into the fellowship.”[36] This could be said of the liturgical memorial of Christ’s death. When the African dances the death of Christ, Christ is “danced through” and danced into life creating a newly felt living presence of his saving death, thus experienced as transforming resurrection for the participants.

The liturgical memorial, according to Bujo, becomes a poiesis resulting in praxis. “In the case of the dance of death, this means new relationship with the dead, who are once again among us.”[37] The crucified Jesus through the liturgical African dance is memorialized, “danced through” into life, thus becoming present and active here and now as the risen Lord in the midst of his followers. This has practical consequences in the life of the participants. The Eucharist memorial through the African dance becomes an impacting prophetic challenge of the “dancing Christ into life” that move the participants to actualize his own message of love of God and neighbour in the concrete situations of the worshipping community.

Drumming and dancing become one act of poiesis (anamnesis-epiclesis-methexis) in order to “dance through” the crucified Lord into the risen Lord that brings transforming effects in the participants. In this way, African drumming and dancing as poiesis unify the threefold function of anamnesis-epiclesis-methexis, that is, the perpetuation of the life of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ in the life of his followers here and now. In sum, poiesis would promote a mimesis, an imitation, or better an existential actualization of Christ’s crucified and risen love.

In my Presentation of a book written by an African student of mine, I summarized the cultural-anthropological and theological meaning of African dance as follows.

For African people, dance is an efficacious way of expressing this holistic participation in a significant event. Cultural anthropology, expressed also in some iconography, considers dancing as the most complete way of influencing time and space, thus crossing time and space to reach and transmit the import of foundational events of the present community. While singing expresses and embodies time and painting or sculpture space, dancing expresses and embodies the two dimensions together in a supreme vital synthesis. Hence liturgical dancing, if properly studied, pastorally prepared and theologically, spiritually and aesthetically monitored, could really become an eminent way of making meaningful sense and effective experience of the mystery of Christ in an African context, where the corporal and corporative dimensions are essential for life. These have a powerful therapeutic dimension.[38]

African liturgical dancing has to be “properly studied, pastorally prepared and theologically, spiritually and aesthetically monitored.” The concerns of those who are afraid that African dance may degenerate in a show searching for applause rather than being a deep religious experience of prayer are real. At times superficial and shallow adaptations attract criticisms that do a bad service to the powerful meaning and potentials of African dance.

In synthesis, we could apply to the liturgical African dance what Carla De Sola says about liturgical dance in general:

Liturgical dance has a healing and prophetic role to play in the church and for the world. It is not ‘“icing on the cake.” It epitomizes our relation to our bodies and by extension our relation to the earth. Redeeming the body and redeeming the earth are connected. In today’s world, our earth is in trouble. The earth is dancing a passion. The vibrations of the earth’s dance resound in every one of our cells. Liturgical dance calls us to respond to the anguish around us with a reaffirmation of the spirit. The dance and the dancer may shake us from our lethargy to a positive re-engagement to help restore the earth’s harmony.[39]

Pointers for a more daring liturgical inculturation

The appreciation of the deep cultural-religious meaning of the African language, drum and dance should lead efforts to fully integrate their potential power of ritual “representation” of the saving mystery of Jesus Christ in “making present and operative” the events of his death and resurrection with an actualizing power of existential transformation. This is in the light of the axiom of Leo the Great: “What was visible [conspicuous, as corporeally perceivable] in the Redeemer now [after his Ascension] is transferred to the sacraments [liturgical celebrations].”[40]

The traditional liturgical trilogy anamnesis-epiclesis-methexis is somehow one-dimensional (intellectual-spiritual participation through the mediation of a text). In an African setting, it would become more corporeal (conspicuous). It would be a three-dimensional expression of poetry, music and dance (text-music-movement or language-drum-dance). The African dance would become a vital synthesis of painting-sculpture-architecture at the service of the ritual memorial. It would respect a holistic incarnational perspective, more in line with the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, thus less “gnostic”, as the western doctrinal and abstract texts and their spiritual assimilation risk to become.

This more daring process of liturgical inculturation demands some conditions that somehow meet the concerns of those who are critical of liturgical dances, like the then cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for fear that they degenerate into merely aesthetic shows. There is need of a deep study and appreciation of our three elements of African culture. In his recent Exhortation Commitment of Africa (19 November 2011), the pope emeritus deals with the topic of inculturation underlining three basic dimensions, which could serve as methodological guidelines to creatively inspire a true process of inculturation.[41] I try to reinterpret the three pointers in the light of our topic.

First, a deep study of African language, drum and dance would revealed their great potentials to evoke, make present and effective in the life of the liturgical participants the foundational events of Jesus Christ (life, death and resurrection), as the fulfilment of African cultural and religious longings and expectations. There is need of a rigorous discernment of the linguistic expressions and the drumming and dancing styles that would facilitate this liturgical representation-actualization of the event of Christ in view of an incarnation of the Christian value of unconditional love. Discernment always implies clarification, distinction, purification and selection.

Second, there is need to highlight the fact that the Holy Spirit is the true agent of inculturation. This helps to understand that inculturation is not an artificial construct. Through trial and error, in the context of living Christian communities and in communion with their pastors, who should empower courageous experimentations, the Holy Spirit will lead to the assumption of cultural forms that will be both African and Christian in the true spirit of incarnation. This would lead to a creative pluralism of liturgical forms that overcomes preconceived formats of fixed and stifling uniformity and open to a variety of options according to the creativity of the Spirit, who both enriches the Church and deepens the Christian roots of evangelized cultures. It is matter of conjugating properly the principle of incarnation with the principle of catholicity or universality.

Thirdly, one needs to underline that the courageous and creative imagination of various forms of liturgical language, drumming and dancing would help detect and appreciate the deep-rooted human longings of African culture in the dynamic perspective of their true and final fulfilment in Jesus Christ. In this way, the African participants in the process of liturgical poiesis through selected linguistic, drumming and dancing styles will become truly more human, truly more African, and truly more Christian.

In conclusion, we can ask the question: Which picture of God do these three cultural African expressions “represent”? The threefold answer is simple but poignant: 1) the picture of a passionate God, who is in love with his people of whatever culture they belong;  2) the picture of a concerned God, who has been looking to meet personally people through their own cultural values and expressions; 3) the picture of an affective and compassionate God, who eventually assumes a human face in Jesus of Nazareth, who mixes and dines with sinners, who is crucified with criminals, who forgives his executioners and surrenders unconditionally to God his Father drawing humanity in one hug of love. This hugging movement of surrender can be vitally interpreted by the various African languages, existentially experienced through the polyrhythmic musicality of African drums and beautifully expressed by the variegated engaging movements of African dances.
Fr. Guido Oliana, MCCJ

[1] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter The Mission of the Church (Redemptoris Missio) (7 December 1990), Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa 1995, n. 52.

[2] John Paul II, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation The Church in Africa (Ecclesia in Africa) (4 September 1995), Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa 1995, n. 59.

[3] Cf. P. Tillich, What is Religion? ed. James Luther Adams (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 15: “Tillich speaks of the relation between the Unconditional and the conditioned as the ‘paradoxical immanence  of the transcendent’ ”.

[4]  E. Hillman, “Missionary Approach to African cultures,”  in T. Okure, P. Van Thiel et al., Inculturation of Christianity in Africa (Eldoret, Kenya: AMECEA Gaba Publications, 1990, Spearhead Numbers 112-114), 155 (italics in original text).

[5] I reported this experience in the following article: G. Oliana, “The Theological Challenges of Religious Pluralism. Towards a Christian Theology of Other Faiths. ‘To be Religious is to be Interreligious’”, in Tangaza Journal of Theology and Mission 1 (Nairobi) 2010, 13-14.

[6] This relationship between questions and answers is systematically discussed in the method of correlation by Paul Tillich; cf. P. Tillich, Systematic Theology, Three volumes in one (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967), vol. I, 8.30-31.34.59-60.6.64-66; vol. II, 13-16; G. Oliana, Gesù, la domanda, e Cristo, la risposta. Il metodo della correlazione nella teologia cristomorfica di Paul Tillich (Tione,TN: Antolini Editore, 2011); Il progetto teologico di Paul Tillich. La sfida del coraggio di essere e del realismo credente (Tione,TN: Antolini Editore, 2012).

[7] There have been several attempts to inculturate the liturgy in Africa, but still a lot is to be done. For a general survey of “emergent creative liturgies in Africa”, cf. E.E. Uzukwu, Worship as Body Language. Introduction to Christian Worship: An African Orientation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press 1997), 265-321.

[8] Cf. G.S. Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor. A Validation of the Christian Sacraments (New York/Ramsey: Paulist Press, 1980), 73-74. The idea of “odd language” is derived from Iam Ramsey, Religious Language: An Empirical Placing of Theological Phrases (New York: Macmillan, 1967); Models and Mystery (London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

[9] Cf. G.S. Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor, 75-77, where the author reports the insights of B.R. Brinkman, “On Sacramental Man: I Language Patterning.” Heythrop Journal 13 (1972), 383-401.

[10]  The additional lex vivendi is also called lex agendi or lex faciendi. For the classical formulation Lex orandi - lex credendi, cf. Paul de Clerck, “ ‘Lex orandi, lex credendi’: The Original Sense and Historical Avatars of an Equivocal Adage,”  Studia Liturgica 24 (1994), 178–200. For the expression lex faciendi, cf. G.S. Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor, 77.

[11] A.J. Chupunco, “The Translation, Adaptation and Creation of  Liturgical texts,”  in Congregazione per il Culto Divino (ed.), Costituzione liturgica “Sacrosanctum Concilium” (Roma: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1986), 236.

[12] A.J. Chupunco, “The Translation, Adaptation and Creation of Liturgical Texts,” 236.

[13] In the following discussion on African drums, with particular reference to Baganda culture, I summarize or quote from the following informative article: “The drum of the Black Africans.”


[15] L. Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation. Transforming the Church in Africa (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2004), 227.

[16] Cf. G. Niangoran-bouha, “La Drummologie et la Vision négro-africaine du sacré,” in Médiations Africaines du Sacré, Actes du 3e Colloque International du CERA, 16-22 Feb. 1986 (Kinshasa: Faculté de Théologie Catholique, 1987), 281-193.

[17] E. E. Uzukwu, Worship as Body Language, 12; cf. L. Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation, 227.

[18] L. Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation, 227.

[19] P. K. Sarpong, “Emphasis on Africanizing Christianity,” in T. Okure, P. Van Thiel et al., Inculturation of Christianity in Africa, 107.

[20] L. Magesa, Anatomy of Inculturation, 227.

[21] Gray Miller, “African Dance,”

[22] Wanjiru Gichigi, “African Dance - Ancient to the Future.”

=22794. Cf. A. Tierou, Dooplé. The Eternal Law of African Dance (Choreography & Dance Studies) (New York-London: Routledge, 1992).

[23] Wanjiru Gichigi, “African Dance - Ancient to the Future.”


[24] I summarize and quote from R. Djiropo, “African Dance: a pathway and a voice for Africa?”, in AFIAVI  (Magazine des cultures d’Afrique,  des Caraïbes,  de l’Océan Indien, du Pacifique et de la Diaspora africaine).

[25] Notitiae 11 (1975), 202-205.

[26] Cf. A. Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II. The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Costello Publ. Com., 1975; Bandra, Mumbai: St. Paulus, 2004), 32: “Even in the liturgy the Church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather does she respect and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations. Anything in these people’s way of life which is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error she studies with sympathy, and, if possible, preserves intact. She sometimes even admits such things into the liturgy itself, provided they harmonize with its true and authentic spirit.”

[27] J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 198-199.

[28] Cf. M. Alir Otii, The Transforming Presence of the Mystery of Christ. Odo Casel’s Mystery Theology and the Possibility of an African Liturgical Theology (Tione, TN: Antolini Editore, 2012), 184.

[29] B. Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic. Beyond the Universal Claims of Western Morality (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2003), 61-62 (italics are mine).

[30] The terms “poiesis” is etymologically derived from the term “poieo” meaning “to make”. “This word, the root of our modern ‘poetry’, was first a verb, an action that transforms and continues the world. Neither technical production nor creation in the romantic sense, poietic work reconciles thought with matter and time, and person with the world. [...]. Martin Heidegger refers to it as a ‘bringing-forth’, using this term in its widest sense. He explained poiesis as the blooming of the blossom, the coming-out of a butterfly from a cocoon, the plummeting of a waterfall when the snow begins to melt.”

[31] “Poieo”, in V.D. Verbrugge, New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Abridged Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 479-480.

[32] Derek H. Whitehead, “Poiesis and Art-Making: A Way of Letting-Be.” http://www.contempaesthetics.


[33] The traditional abstract scholastic terminology speaks of ex opere operato (performance of the ritual) and ex opere operantis (participation of people).  We could explain these expressions as follows. Ex opere operato refers to the Trinitarian dimension of the liturgy. The efficacy of the rite depends on the fact that God the Father, Christ and the Spirit are at work in the performance of the ritual. Ex opere operantis refers to the quality of people’s  participation: conscious, active and full in vital correlation with their faith, hope and love. The intrinsic correlation between ex opere operato and ex opere operantis makes of the liturgical celebration an efficacious and effective spiritual experience.

[34] Anamnesis (Greek: “remembrance) can be defined “the bringing to mind [to the body as synthesis of heart, mind and will] of God’s saving interventions in history especially in Christ’s passion, death, resurrection, and glorification. In the Eucharist the Lord’s command ‘do this in memory of me’ (1 Cor 11:24-25; Lk 22:19) invites the assembly to appropriate the salvation he has effected once and for all.” G. O’Collins - E.G. Farrugia (eds.), Concised Dictionary of Theology, Revised and Expanded Edition (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2000), 9.

[35] For the interaction between anamnesis, epiclesis and methexis, cf. A.M. Triacca, “Spirito Santo. Linee metodologiche per un approfondimento,” in J. Békés - G. Farnedi (eds.), Lex orandi - Lex credendi. Miscellanea in onore di P. Cipriano Vaggagini, OSB (Studia Anselmiana 79) (Roma, 1980), 142, note 35; G. Oliana, “Liturgia: ‘fonte e culmine’ della teologia e della spiritualità presbiterale,” Ephemerides Liturgicae 102 (1988), 459, note 8.

[36] B. Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, 62.

[37] B. Bujo, Foundations of an African Ethic, 62.

[38] G. Oliana, “Presentation”, in M. Alir Otii, The Transforming Presence of the Mystery of Christ, 8.

[39] Carla De Sola, “Liturgical Dance,” in P.E. Fink (ed.), The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1990), 318.

[40] Leo the Great, Sermo 61 [74] De Ascensione Domini II, 2, in Patrologia Latina 54:398; Sources Chrétiennes 74 bis, 277 (my translation).

[41] Benedict XVI, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Africa’s Commitment (Africae Munus) (Nairobi: Paulines Publications Africa, 2011), nn. 36-38.