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The Case of Miracles in Africa Today

Keywords: miracles; affliction; Africa; healing


What understanding do the African tradition and Christianity have of miracles? When most people think of miracles, the images that come to mind are of Lourdes, Fatima, and Marian sanctuaries like Nsimalen, etc. where the miracles are taking place. In this context, miracles become “facts which no longer necessarily present a religious framework, arise from the ordinary and are remarkable, and evoke questions for those who are their beneficiaries, or who observe them.”[1] For the believer, events which they call miracles are messages, events in which they discover a Word of God for him- or herself. The miracle is considered to be a surprising fact, an inexplicable event. So, most often, it is a sign of faith. But what is at stake in the practice of miracles in our contemporary African context?

 1.     Miracles in the light of African tradition

In general, Africans perceive affliction as “a rupture of equilibrium, simultaneously on the individual plane and on the social plane of which this individual is a member.”[2] Affliction is not only an organic dysfunction, but also points to the triple terminology of disease, illness and sickness. As disease, it is a biological dysfunction. As illness, it is a subjective experience of the person with the affliction. In a more global manner, it is sickness, because it encompasses objective and subjective realities within a sociocultural setting which ascribe meaning to it.[3] Thus affliction is considered to be “an anomaly, an exterior aggression which ruptures the equilibrium between the person, the cosmos and society. It is an event, a fracture in the normal order of things, and in order to understand it we need a frame of reference that incorporates the social and the religious in the same reality.”[4] Benjamin Sarr says that it is an aggression, a threat to life whose causes have to be unmasked.[5]

From another point of view, the perception of affliction is dependent on the vision of nature and of humans in their surroundings: forest, river, animals, etc., which are inhabited by energies. That is, everything carries vital energy and strength. That’s why the elements of nature can transmit energy to a person, which detain him until various rituals have been performed that are defined by ancestral wisdom. The traditional healer plays the role of mediator between the suffering individual and this world of energies. People thus show that they are double entities: an individual body and a social body. In the case of affliction, there is a double perception of the possible causes of its various manifestations. We distinguish between “natural” and “mystical” afflictions. The first are generally less serious, and easy to treat. The second are directly connected to the life of the clan with its beliefs, and can have much more dramatic consequences. For these two visions of affliction, there are two types of medicine: common medicine, and secret medicine, each dealing with affliction in its respective domain. We should note that traditional medical practice doesn’t act immediately on the afflicted person. It must first discover the origin of the affliction before considering the treatment. Thus for an African, healing means “re-establishing the lost equilibrium.”[6] That is why African tradition places so much emphasis on the positive role of the social context, the involvement of the patient and his family in the process of healing, human presence, the positive role of touch, of artistic expression, magico-religious representations, physical forces, relations which maintain spirit and matter, etc.

2.  Miracles in African Christianity 

Traditional imaginary about affliction is still at work in modern Africa. This is evidenced by the survival of the traditional system of medicine and belief in the world of sorcerers and their curses. The African crisis is an anthropological crisis. People’s afflictions cause structures and cultures to be afflicted. The traditional structures of health persist side by side with the so-called modern structures. When many Christians have chronic afflictions, they hope that Jesus will give them and equally effective intervention as the god of the traditional healers. Seeing the African reality, we might ask whether there isn’t some misunderstanding: The healing Christ announced in the Gospels is really different to the Christ received in African Christian communities.

However, it is important to realise that African healing practices can be a mediating space for resolving existential questions. The same happens in the communities of the Charismatic Renewal which have become the privileged spaces where popular expectations are created regarding social and religious affairs, but which have also become contested spaces because of the high expectations placed on them. Preaching about Christ the healer has assumed an important dimension in the African religious universe, particularly in countries like Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast. These countries have itinerant preachers who come into the public space and propose Christ as the solution to all existential problems. Are these miraculous expectations always met?

[1] Charles Perrot, Jean-Louis Souletie and Xavier Thevenot, Les Miracles. Paris: Atelier, 1995, p.7.

[2] Lolke Van der Veen (ed.), Maladies, remèdes et langues en Afrique Centrale: Rapport final de recherche effectué dans le cadre du programme pluriannuel en sciences humaines. Paris: Cerf, 1995, p.132.

[3] cf. François Laplante, Anthropologie de la maladie. Paris: Payout, 1986, pp.19f.

[4] Marc Auge, “Ordre biologique, ordre social: La maladie comme forme élémentaire de l’événement” in Le sens du mal: Anthropologie, histoire, sociologie de la maladie. Paris: Archives Contemporaines, 1983, pp.35f.

[5] cf. Benjamin Sombel Sarr, La guérison divine en Afrique: Questions théologiques et pastorales. Abidjan: Harmattan, 2009, p.12.

[6] Lolke Van den Veen (ed.) Op. cit. p.140.