Work and Spirituality in an African Context
The inclusivity of the traditional African world view stands
in contrast to the devastating brokenness of many parts
of the world. This brokenness may be addressed with components
of faith such as centers of value (social justice and empowerment);
images of power (compassion, peace, and interconnectedness);
and master stories. The development of a social work practice
embued with such faith may help social work to face the
challenges of brokenness and remain in touch with the commitment
to alleviate suffering.
I will share my
journey and emerging understanding of social work and spirituality
in an African context and my nascent ideas for a social work
imbued with faith. The style and content of my teaching continues
to be challenged as the admission of black African students
to our School of Social Work increases. Black African students
bring an understanding of, and relationship with, their worlds
that are distinctive and different from students entering
with Western world views and upbringing. I have had to open
myself to seeing and developing alternative perspectives which
can tap and help encourage the richness that the students
bring into their learning. Students come with experiences
of oppression, hardship, and suffering as well as a passion
to create a different society for themselves, their families,
and their communities (Sacco, 1996a). They also bring distinctive
connections, expectations and orientations regarding relationships
to their worlds, their learning and their teachers.
I have been invited
to see life as an integrated whole. I have had to question
the oppositions in Western thinking (Shutte, 1993) between
both materialism (that reality is both observable and measurable)
and dualism (that humans exist with two distinct elements:
soul and body or mind and matter); between individualism (that
humans are separate, autonomous and independent) and collectivism
(that humans exist in the social where humanity is acquired
through occupying a place within the system of social institutions).
I have been challenged to develop an understanding of human
beings and personal development that incorporates traditional
African conceptions of humanity (Sacco, 1996b). These conceptions
call for inclusivity of thinking and being, of the sacred
and profane, of task and process, of individuality and collectivity,
and of knowledge coming from many different sources.
OF A TRADITIONAL AFRICAN WORLD VIEW
The notions of both inclusivity and unity when exploring traditional
African world views become increasingly apparent. These arise
both from ideas about the universe and traditional African
values of spirituality and community.
Ideas about the
universe highlight the connectedness of all elements of that
universe (Schiele, 1994). Within Africa there has traditionally
been no division between the
sacred and profane nor between
the spiritual and the material areas of living (Parrinder,
1953; Mbiti, 1971; Schiele, 1994). All elements, whether animate
or inanimate, are believed to be dependent on each other (Baldwin,
1985) and all life is considered one (Mbiti, 1975; Sengor,
1966). Africans perceive all of life as constituting a single
undifferentiated whole (Bujo, 1992). Sengor (1966, p.4) perceives
the universe as a network of life forces which emanate from
God and end in God, who is the source of all life forces.
It is God who vitalizes and devitalizes all other beings,
all other life forces.
values of spirituality and community arise from and rest on
these notions of the universe. The African world view recognizes
the centrality of the spiritual feature of all elements of
life. Spirituality in an African context is taken to mean
the transcendent or invisible substance which connects all
of the universe. All of life is filled with a Vital Life Force
in dynamic participation (Setiloane, 1986). Sengors
work indicates that Africans have a certain emotive sensitivity,
...an affective rapport with the forces and forms of the universe,
a direct and immediate contact with the Other.
(Ba, 1973). This Vital Force is the source of all life and
acts in a living way; it creates, gives life, strength and
growth (Bujo, 1992). The emphasis on spirituality supports
and encourages interdependency (Schiele, 1994) as there is
a continuous exchange occurring between the visible and invisible
worlds, between the living and the dead. This orientation
to the universe and spirituality has implications for what
it means to be human in an African context.
attained through belonging in community. The single,
most important value in traditional Africa is that of belonging
in community (Mbiti, 1971; Baldwin, 1981; Akbar, 1984; Setiloane,
1986; Schiele, 1994). The most cherished principle in life-together
is to include rather than separate (Setiloane, 1986, p.10).
This is based on the very existence of being human, on ones
humanness. The root of being human is to belong in community
(Sacco, 1996a). In the African view it is the community which
defines the person, as person, not some isolated static quality
of rationality, will or memory (Menkiti, cited in Shutte,
1993,p.43). To develop as people, people need to be empowered
by others. According to Shutte (1993), human capacity for
free self-realization requires a certain kind of influence
of other persons if it is to develop towards fulfillment.
The process of finding fulfillment is made possible by virtue
of complex interpersonal transactions with others. The interpersonal
transactions which bring about individual growth reveal a
kind of personal energy or power that is not physical, but
which is embodied and expressed in physical reality (Shutte,
1993; Sacco, 1996b).
Every member of
the community shares the responsibility for strengthening
the life force of others in the community (Bujo, 1992). The
morality of any act is determined by its life-giving potential;
good acts contribute to the life force of the community and
bad acts, however seemingly insignificant, diminish life.
The community is a mystical body encompassing both the dead
and living members, in which every member has an obligation
to every other. This obligation includes honoring the Ancestors
people seek to empower the Life Force which flows through
the mystical body to which both they and the Ancestors belong
(Bujo, 1992; Alt & Munro, 1997). The Ancestors are honored
in each and every good deed a person offers in his or her
Yet, looking at the world, at Africa and specifically at South
Africa, these notions of spirituality, interdependency, and
interconnectedness seem to be very fragile, if not non-existent.
are facing increasing challenges related to poverty, unemployment,
dislocation, war and violence, racial and ethnic conflict,
oppression and abuse of power, wealth and greed, environmental
destruction and all the results of the dark side of human
nature. In Africa, most countries are struggling with post-colonial
liberation from dictatorship, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.
Examples of the severity of the problem can be understood
when considering refugees in Africa and genocide in Rwanda.
Approximately 10 million refugees are residing in Africa alone
and 45% of the United Nations High Commission for Refugeess
budget is spent on helping these refugees (Thiart, 1997).
Over a million people in recent years have been massacred
The new democracy
in South Africa has heralded an era of policy formulation,
of developing human dignity in people who have been oppressed
for decades, and of desire for truth and reconciliation of
which most South Africans are proud. However South Africa
faces an unemployment rate of around 40%; seven million people
live in informal settlements; four out of five households
are unable to afford a mortgage; 63% of South African homes
have no electricity; and one million South Africans
with HIV (Editors Inc, 1996). Two and a half million children
are undernourished; 87% of whom are black (Reconstruction
and Development Program, 1996). Homelessness and street-living
is on the rise. The country is wracked by civil violence.
A lawlessness exists which permeates the whole society from
petty thieving to corruption to child and women abuse to car-jacking
to reckless driving to murder. The residents of all communities
live in fear of their lives some of the time.
Given the extent
of human darkness, and the knowledge we have of life-affirming
notions of traditional African spirituality, it is imperative
to search for unconventional, internal resources and to kindle
in ourselves and our students the dying embers of interconnectedness
and interdependency. There is a strong belief that social
workers need to develop a social work practice imbued with
faith if they are going to face these challenges and remain
in touch with their commitment to the alleviation of suffering
A FAITH FOR SOCIAL WORK
Faith, according to Fowler (1981), helps one get in touch
with the dynamic, patterned process by which people find life
meaningful. The system of images and meanings operates primarily
at the imaginative level (Shorter 1996). Faith helps people
reflect on the centers of value and the power that sustain
their lives. "The persons, causes, and institutions we
really love and trust, the images of good and evil, of possibility
and probability to which we are committed--these form the
pattern of our faith" (Fowler, 1981, p.4). Faith gives
the passion, the commitment, and engagement for moving into
the force field of life. It is a way of finding coherence
and giving meaning to the multiple forces and relations that
make up peoples lives. Faith is a way of seeing ourselves
in relation to others against a background of shared meaning
and purpose. Human beings require meaning, purpose, and priorities.
"We must have some grasp of the big picture" (Fowler,
the contents of faith. First, there are centers of
value, that claim us "...the causes, the concerns, or
persons that consciously or unconsciously have the greatest
worth for us (Fowler, 1981, p.276). These centers of value
provide motivation and inflame passionate engagement. Second,
are the images of power with which we align ourselves for
sustenance in the face of hopelessness and despair. We try
to align ourselves with sufficient power to sustain us and
the persons and things we love (Fowler, 1981, p.277). Finally,
our faith orientations are shaped by the master stories that
we tell ourselves and by which we interpret and respond to
the experiences that impact on our lives. Master stories are
the symbols which clarify for us what we believe to be "fundamental
What could be
included in a faith for social work? What could be the centers
of value, images of power, and master stories? On what kind
of faith could social workers depend and draw to motivate,
encourage and sustain them in their quest for social justice
and to bring relief to suffering? Historically, the causes
and concerns that have the greatest consideration for social
workers are the fight against injustice and the improvement
of the lives of the poor, dispossessed, oppressed, powerless
and vulnerable. The values which emerge from these centers
of concern are social justice and empowerment.
The fight for
social justice continues to be one of the cardinal values
of the social work profession (Konopka, 1972; Pincus &
Minahan, 1973; Constable, 1983; Hepworth & Larsen, 1986;
Reeser & Leighninger, 1990; Drower, 1991). There are,
however, numerous definitions of social justice because social
workers live in different contexts with different life experiences,
cultures, and interpretations of their worlds. Saleebys
(1990) understanding makes sense for the yearnings for social
justice within the South African context. According to him
social justice requires that need guides the distribution
of social resources (Max-Neef, 1991) in order to facilitate
the development of personal resources; that development is
open to all, but those who have been unfairly hindered must
be recompensed; that policies and agendas favoring human development
and enriching human experiences must take precedence over
all other agendas and policies; that the dictatorial use of
power is abandoned; and that oppression and discrimination
as the basis for deciding on priorities is repudiated.
be seen as the means by which individuals, groups and communities
are enabled to gain control over their circumstances, reflect
on their needs, decide on their priorities, work out strategies,
choose processes, and transform their lives. Empowerment refers
to the reflective and active processes whereby people maximize
the qualities of their own lives (Adams, 1996). From Saleebys
(1992) strengths perspective, empowerment is not based on
returning power to people, but on discovering power within
people. To uncover that power, we must subvert and denounce
derogatory labels; provide opportunities for connection to
family, institution and community; transform the victim mindset;
renounce paternalism; and trust peoples intuitions,
accounts, perspectives and energies. According to Saleeby,
empowerment is not aimed at only reducing the sense of powerlessness
but also at helping people discover the considerable power
within. Borg (1994) considers empowerment from an unconventional
wisdom perspective; only through understanding, acknowledging,
facing, and descending into ones powerlessness can there
be any hope of reaching for empowerment. The paradox of transformative
empowerment is that powerlessness leads us to it.
The images of
power, the internal and shared unconventional resources which
kindle the fire of commitment, are compassion, peace and interconnectedness.
The beginning of humanity, according to Campbell (1988), happens
you awaken at the level of the heart to compassion,
compassion, shared suffering, which is experienced participation
in the suffering of another person"(p.174). When there
is an awakening of the heart to compassion there is a transformation
from passion to compassion, compassion for the wounded. Compassion
turns our thoughts from the concerns of raw life in the world
to the deeply human values of self-giving in shared suffering
(Campbell, 1988). Compassion is a way of seeing and being
engaged in the experience of being alive (Sacco, 1995). Compassion
challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with
those who are grieved and to weep with those in tears (Nouwen
et al., 1990). This is the awakening of the heart to love
and the opening of the way. The call of compassion is a call
for us to become healers with knowledge of our own woundedness;
to be genuine and open hearted and move beyond phoniness and
professionalism; to respect, understand, and value diversity
(Egan, 1994); and to strive for congruence of our personal,
political and professional lives (Sacco, 1995). Compassion
is the richest energy source in the world which must be expanded
and developed, if for no other reason than for survival itself
not merely an absence of war but the nurture of human life,
and that in time this nurture will do away with war as a natural
process" (Addams cited in Sullivan, 1993). There will
be peace when everyone is able to thrive without being hampered
by conflict, prejudice, hatred, and injustice (Bodine et al.,
1994). It is the process of responding to conflict with tolerance,
imagination and flexibility (Lyon cited in Bodine et al.,
1994). It needs to live, spread and be nurtured. Peacemakers
perceive peace as the practice of honoring oneself, others,
and the environment (Bodine et al., 1994). Efforts to deal
with conflict, violence, and developing non-violent life-styles
are inherent in the peace process. These start with the acknowledgment
that all humans are capable of violent acts and under certain
circumstances we are all potentially violent. Conflict is
a normal part of life; thus, there is a global imperative
for conflict management and the development of alternative
conflict resolution. Shannon (1996) points to the qualities
of a non-violent life-style. Non-violence is patient, kind,
not envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not irritable,
not resentful, does not insist on its own way, and does not
rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth (Shannon,
1996). Interconnectedness powerfully and profoundly catches
the imagination as one of the images of power.
The centers of
value and images of power can be brought into vibrant being
through development and reflection on master stories. Stories
play a vital role in our lives and are particularly compatible
with the ways in which meanings and history are conveyed in
an African context, which relies on an oral tradition. Stories
are of reality and can be expressed because stories are instances
of experience itself (Shorter 1996). Stories are the true
appearance of reality. They are communication. Conlon (1994)
explains that story introduces us to a unique human mystery;
our humanity is deepened, we are brought together and create
communion, we discover ourselves and share with others, where
our journeys and values are revealed, and we are healed and
united. The telling and the listening strengthen us. Through
story sharing we can return to the world with greater wisdom,
better able to face the challenges of human welfare.
language is expressed through imaginative features. The truths
of faith need to be in accordance with African forms of expression:
story, poetry, dance, music, and song (Shorter, 1996). The
richness of African traditional values can be honored, revealed,
and reclaimed by social work students in instances where educators
create open spaces, acknowledge the wealth of the faith buried
in their histories, and humble themselves to learn from their
It is vital that social workers develop a faith in social
work. A faith which forms the culture of the profession and
is given vital expression. A faith which encourages the struggle
to deepen democracy
and humanity. A faith which gives courage
to work for justice in the face of extensive inequality. A
faith which challenges ones own violence as there is
yearning for peace in the land. A faith which affirms gentleness
with ones own woundedness as there is reaching out in
compassion to others. A faith which motivates in times of
despair. A faith which sustains in the quest for liberation
from the shackles of the past, the present spiral of civil
violence, and the threat to the future. A faith which is crucial
for the survival of social workers in the face of the often
despairing reality of a beloved country.
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