A people’s norms and values are contained in their cultural expectations. Religion has a regulatory effect on society as it moulds the national consciousness. However, culture and religion seem to be oppressive to the individual as his/her aspirations may be thwarted due to societal expectations.
Women especially find themselves at the receiving end of such expectations as embraced in culture and religion. Although men may also be at the brunt of societal expectations, they are not always victims as they take advantage of cultural norms and values outlined in culture and religion to oppress women.
But really what constitutes a people’s culture or religion?
Religion, as posited by Durkheim (1988), as cited in Kirby et al (2000:186) is: “A united system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things that set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community”.
The central ingredient in religion is belief and therefore comparisons and differences should be allowed to exist. Religion does not consider or question the truthfulness of beliefs. The existence of a supernatural being is beyond question to the religious.
Because of the existence of a supernatural being that is a manifestation of cultural beliefs, it is folly to consider a particular religion to be holistic or superior. In as much as there are different cultures, there will always be different religious beliefs.
However, the problem is that: “The religions sometimes have the audacity to think that everyone must see the world as they see it themselves. Anybody who does not share their beliefs is considered heathen … In an attempt to make the world uniform, mono cultural and mono everything else” (Hove, 2002:11).
Such is the destructive nature of religion which causes a lot of suffering to those who think or feel otherwise.
Though religion may be “the opium of the people” as said by Karl Mark as it helps people cope with their problems, it hides the true nature of society and the causes of suffering.
Over reliance on religion is sometimes detrimental to progress as solutions to the problems affecting the family unit and the nation are not sought. Religion should not also be imposed on the individual. There should be accommodation, tolerance and compromise in religious circles.
Culture is a people’s way of life; and though it is dynamic, it should not be prone to manipulation from other cultures as this is tantamount not only to physical colonization but psychological as well.
Colonisation of the mind is the worst weapon of mass destruction used on the African mindset by imperialists and their machinations-like western education.
Chinua Achebe implores writers to be responsible citizens in upholding the cultural beliefs obtaining in their societies.
A novelist should “indicate to his readers, (and) put it crudely that we in Africa did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans”.
Europeans did not bring God to Africa, He was already there and they worshipped Him in their own way as embraced in their respective cultures. As observed by Mbiti (1969), “Africans have their own way of worshipping the creative activity of God”, because “in their traditional life, African peoples are deeply religious in a religious universe. That is the philosophical understanding behind African myths, customs, traditions, beliefs, morals, actions and social relationships … Traditional religions must yield more and more their hold in shaping people’s values, identities and meaning in life” (Ibid,1969:256).
Because of the influence of Western education, African societies are divided into two dominant religions-Christianity and Traditional African Religion.
Science may also be considered a religion, though to a lesser extent, because the modern “mind” is based on the ideologies of science and not magic, (Wilson, 1966).
Shimmer Chinodya, like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, espouses the rational of religious co-existence and tolerance in “Chairman of Fools” (2005) through Farai, Sekuru Tumai, Veronica and Garai.
Although Farai is not religious, he is not an atheist. He believes in the existence of God, but what he distastes are the Pentecostal churches to which most of the middle class belong, as he says it himself; “I believe there is a God. Maybe I lost faith in churches”.
Twice he seeks divine intervention into his problems and twice he feels the soothing effect of prayer. Sekuru Tumai is a traditionalist and Garai believes in science.
There is so much hypocrisy in religious circles. These hypocritical tendencies are fostered by individualism and materialism.
Finite resources are squandered as “tithe” paid into church coffers and used by hypocrites like Pastor Wiseman Philip Matambo (“Chairman of Fools”), to buy luxury cars while the majority writhe in poverty.
Society is awash with such hypocrites who con people and rape gullible and passive women through indoctrination. Women usually find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place as they grapple with poverty and matrimonial woes on the one hand, and religion on the other.
The Bible tells (1 Timothy 2v11-12) that: “Let a woman learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man but to be in silence.” The Koran also places a burden on the woman as she is expected to be submissive and cover her head in public.
In Traditional African Religion women are also expected to submit to their husbands.
Religion places a burden on the woman as she is expected to suffer in silence and men take advantage of this. Marriage as enshrined in the Bible is a good thing whose sanctity should be respected, and in most cultures a woman who is not married or is divorced is usually frowned upon and if the marriage does not bear fruits, the burden is exacerbated.
Women suffer in silence as they usually have to rely on men for their upkeep.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the oppressive nature of religion on the individual psyche, the need for tolerance and compromise as well as hypocritical tendencies inherent in religious circles in “Purple Hibiscus” (2004), in the same way that Mongo Beti does, though satirically, in “Mission to Kala” (1957).
It is the story of Eugene, a learned philanthropic businessman told through his 15-year-old daughter, Kambili. Eugene is intolerant of failure and “heathens” as he is a Christian-catholic to be precise.
He hardly speaks his mother tongue, Igbo, and the narrator tells us: “We had to sound civilised in public … We had to speak English.”
His sister Aunty Ifeoma thinks “he is too much of a colonial product”.
Adichie examines how Christianity creates individuals who shun their own traditional beliefs, yet at the same time oppress those close to them, which is averse to the teachings of the Bible which emphasises the essence of love and forgiveness.
By drawing analogies between Catholicism and Traditional African Religion, the writer pokes at the hypocrisy inhering in man. She effectively does this by pitting a son against his father.
Eugene is at loggerheads with his father Papa- Nnukwu whom he calls a “heathen” because of his beliefs. It is because of this hard-handedness that he is reminded by his sister that he “has to stop doing God’s job. God is big enough to do his own job. If God will charge our father for choosing to follow the way of our ancestors, then let God do the judging”.
But Eugene remains adamant to the extent of barring his children from being close to their grandfather.
When Kambili and her brother Jaja visit their aunt knowing that their grandfather would be there they were punished by having their feet scalded with hot water for “sleeping in the same house as a heathen”. He does this because “that is what you do to yourself when you walk into sin. You burn your feet”.
When his father dies Eugene declares that he “cannot participate in a pagan funeral” unless they “can discuss with the parish priest and arrange a Catholic Funeral”, to which his sister responds, “Was our father a Catholic?”
At the end he buys seven cows for the funeral and all else but his family and himself attend.
As an extremist Eugene does not condone weaknesses in others and believes in meting out punishment on offenders without remorse.
His wife and children are always at the brunt of his beliefs. Mama, his wife suffers silently as she is always caught in the crossfire.
She suffers a miscarriage as a result of her husband’s blind brutality and Kambili suffers injuries for minor demeanors like eating 10 minutes before mass.
She also has to write her examinations in hospital after getting a thorough hiding from her father for trying to save her grandfather’s painting.
Eugene does not only oppress others using religion but he also suffers as a result of it. He never smiles after prayers and he always cries each time he punishes his wife and children for disobeying the will of God.
In the end he also dies at the hands of his wife who poisons his tea because she has had enough of suffering in silence.
Jaja, her son, offers himself up for incarceration by lying that he is the one responsible.
Kambili’s observation that Papa Nnukwu smiles after prayers in his traditional way and that he forgives his son and prays for his prosperity probably puts religion in perspective: “Chineke! Bless my son, Eugene. Let the sun not set on his prosperity. Lift the curse they have put on him…Chineke! Bless the children of my children. Let your eyes follow away from evil and towards good.”