Theorizing Modernities article

Katongole’s Quest for the African Christian Identity

Mass for the Installation of the Archbishop of Kigali, Rwanda, 2019. Image via Flickr user Paul Kagame. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Emmanuel Katongole’s interest in Who are My People?: Love, Violence, and Christianity and Sub-Saharan Africa is in the relationship between identity, Christianity, and violence in Africa. He asks: What does it mean to belong to a group of people called Africans? What does it mean to be an African Christian? How central is the question of identity to the Christian theological enterprise?

According to Katongole, Christian identity is not a static essence, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, it is an invitation to a journey with a definite direction and telos. The goal of this journey is the creation of an alternative African modernity from the one that has made Africa almost synonymous with violence, poverty, and underdevelopment. The stories that Katongole tells are of individuals and communities who were able to resist violence and thus testify to a different nonviolent way of living within modern Africa. 

In the last two decades, Katongole has cemented his status as an African theologian. More recently, he has cemented his status as an unusual African theologian— “the storytelling theologian.” Many have praised Katongole for pioneering a new methodology for doing theology in Africa. This new methodology, which he calls theological portraiture, is an adaptation of the portraiture methodology of Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Jessica Hoffman Davis. In a comment on the back cover of Who Are My People, Stan Chu Ilo praises Katongole for “quietly but beautifully introducing a new methodology for doing theology in Africa.” Ilo is right. Katongole has taught us the importance of being attentive to the dynamics between foundational stories that have shaped contemporary sub-Saharan Africa and the ongoing performance of these stories.

Katongole’s storytelling methodology is not an aberration from the “real” theologizing that is required of a theologian. On the contrary, I will argue that, as far as theology in Africa is concerned, it makes him a “master of discursivity.” This special title is drawn from Michel Foucault’s 1969 article “What is an Author? By “master of discursivity,” Foucault means authors who, through their works, have made possible not only a certain number of analogies but also a certain number of differences. In other words, they create the possibility for something other than their discourse that nonetheless belongs to the discourse out of which what they were formed. They raise important questions, introduce new methodologies, and point us to new frontiers.

While acknowledging that the question of identity lies at the heart of the African theological enterprise, Katongole invites us to a new way of understanding African Christian identity. According to him, “Christian identity is not a “static” essence, spiritual or otherwise, but an invitation to a journey, with a definite direction and telos” (63). The Christian activists whose stories Katongole carefully narrates are on this journey. It is important to observe that all of Katongole’s characters are alive—or at least were alive at the time that Katongole first published stories about them. Most of them are not just still alive but still actively doing the work that brought Katongole’s attention to them in the first place. 

Christian identity is not a static essence, spiritual or otherwise. Rather, it is an invitation to a journey with a definite direction and telos.

Across his published books and articles, we often see Katongole updating stories he has already told, bringing fresh facts or perspectives to the life and work of these Christian activists. For instance, Katongole first told the story of Maggy Barankitse in his 2011 book, The Sacrifice of Africa: A Political Theology for Africa. Maggy lived in Burundi then. In Who Are My People? there is a significant update in the life of Maggy. Forced into exile for criticizing the then president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, Maggy, Katongole informs us, now lives in Rwanda “on a hilltop overlooking the city of Kigali” (88). Nkurunziza died in 2020, but Maggy continues to live in Rwanda. The Oasis of Peace Community she founded in 2018 takes care of Burundian refugees and vulnerable children. She now loves to refer to herself as “a citizen of the world.

Katongole is aware of Samuel Wells’ distinction between heroes and saints in his 2004 book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (42–44). Yet, Katongole’s characters are neither saints nor heroes. Instead, they are ministers and witnesses. They embody the African Christian identity as witnesses to God’s reconciling love. Fr. Jean Baptiste and Fr. Anthony minister to God’s mercy. Maggy ministers to God’s sacrificial/redemptive love. The Church in the Central Africa Republic and Father Bernard Kinvi minister to hope. Katongole also calls them inventors. This is how he notes Maggy prefers to describe herself and her work: “Love has made me an inventor” (90). In Maggy’s Oasis of Peace, Katongole invites us to see the invention of “a “new we” that transcends the boundaries of race, nation, and ethnicity” (97).  

Thus, in their respective stories, Katongole is “listening for” the story of God’s new creation and work of reconciliation. Their stories give shape to his theological image of Africa. Because they patterned their lives after the logic of the Christian message, these activists are, in essence, helping Katongole tell the one foundational Christian story, the story of God’s active involvement in human history. Christian faith, theology, mission, and identity must be at the service of this foundational story. In Imitating Christ in Magwi: An Anthropological Theology, Todd Whitmore says that theology must always “seek to reenact and instigate others to reenact Jesus the Nazarene the Christ” (2). Katongole’s Who Are My People does this masterfully. Apart from raising new questions and contributing to broadening the horizon of African theology, he has announced both the possibility and the ongoing reality of a differing kind of modernity in Africa—one embodied in the life of numerous Christian activists.

William Orbih
William I. Orbih is a Ph.D. fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Theology (World Religion, World Church). In 2021, he completed a minor in peace studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Prior to coming for Notre Dame for doctoral studies, William earned a master’s in theology from the St. John School of Theology, Collegeville MN, a postgraduate diploma in Peace Studies from the Nile University of Nigeria, and bachelor’s degrees in Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies from Universities in Nigeria and Italy. His scholarly interest lies at the intersection between theology, African Literature (especially protest literatures) and politics, and deconstruction and decolonial hermeneutics. He also has a lively interest in comparative theology, interreligious dialogue, patristics (Augustine), and the concept of divine transcendence. He is presently working on a dissertation titled “African Literature as Political Theology of Hope.”

One thought on “Katongole’s Quest for the African Christian Identity

  1. If there is a problem with ‘the African problem’, it is the meaning of ‘African meaning’ Until now we are looking at the African problem from a European perspective of what a problem is, rather than from an African perspective of what a problem is!

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