Religious Innovation and Imagination in Africa

Religious Innovation and Imagination in Africa

African cultures and societies, both in the past and in the present, cannot be understood without in-depth attention being paid to religious thought and practice. This stream conceives of religion as a distinct site of creative innovation and critical imagination, embedded in and contributing to broader processes of cultural, economic, social and political change. We solicit proposals for panels and papers that explore the dynamics of religious affiliation and organisation; the innovations within and borrowing between African religious traditions; the adaptions of religious belief and ritual in changing and challenging contexts; and the incorporation of religious texts and symbols in new forms of cultural production and socio-political imagination. We specifically welcome proposals that address and advance the methodological and conceptual challenges relating to studying religion in Africa and the African Diaspora.


1. An Unexplored Way of Working: Religion and Humanitarianism

Convenor: Ellen Goodwin, SOAS, University of London

It is increasingly acknowledged by the formal humanitarian sphere, and within the social sciences and humanities, that the roots and development of humanitarianism are inextricably intertwined with religion. However, the current modes of engagement of humanitarian studies and practice with religion remains narrow and instrumental; focusing predominantly on the role of international Faith-Based Organisations and how local faith communities can link them with affected people. This narrow and instrumental engagement means that local religious actors, expressions and forms remain sources of untapped potential and innovation, as well as undetected challenges, for realising the new vision of humanitarianism needed to keep pace with the changing nature of humanitarian crises.

This panel will help further a more nuanced and interdisciplinary approach to the study of Religion and Humanitarianism, contributing to broader discussions and negotiations about the nature, aims and actors of humanitarian action. By bringing together panellists from different academic disciplines, with experience in humanitarian practice, this panel will explore why it is important that the field of Religion and Humanitarianism incorporate a focus on religious ritual, inner-beliefs, imaginations and lived, embodied experiences. This panel will then discuss some of the accompanying methodological, conceptual and practical challenges of this approach.By shifting the focus to African contexts, this panel will bring new perspectives to the relatively fledgling discussions about the variety of ways that religion interacts with humanitarian processes.


2. Contemporary Divine Healing among Pentecostal Africans: Production, Reception, Mediation and Contestations

Convenor: Abel Ugba (University of Leeds) 

Divine healing is integral to the doctrine of salvation that most Pentecostals espouse. Worship sessions of African Pentecostals in Africa and the diaspora frequently include actual healing sessions. In recent decades, divine healing has become more dramatic as church officials employ new media technologies, brute force and a variety of material objects such as anointing oil, healing water, handkerchiefs, prodding rods to produce or mediate healing. Some of these techniques have resulted in fatal injuries and provoked outrage and the intervention of the law in some countries in Africa and Europe. The practice has also resulted in a negative public and media image for these churches. In the UK, church leaders have been jailed for healing practices that have harmed or killed others. But proponents have argued that divine healing provides solutions, hope and meaning-making to adherents. It also offers African-led Pentecostalism an innovative means to compete and asserts its relevance in a competitive global spiritual marketplace. Given these complexities, this panel seeks to explore the production, mediation and reception of divine healing among Pentecostal Africans in Africa and the diaspora. It invites papers from various disciplines (including sociology, media, journalism, law, politics, religion, anthropology, health sciences, etc.) that focus on any aspects of the divine healing practices of Pentecostal Africans, but especially on these themes:

  • Divine healing as innovation and/or competition
  • Media/new media mediation of divine healing
  • Divine healing practices in the secular West (diaspora Africans)
  • Divine healing and the law
  • Divine healing and orthodox medicine
  • Divine healing and the State


3. The lives and landscapes of religious infrastructure in Africa

Convenors: Benjamin Kirby (University of Leeds) and Yanti Hölzchen (University of Frankfurt)

A number of African countries have featured in several recent landmark studies on infrastructure. While this emerging literature touches on religious phenomena in these settings, the interface of religion and infrastructure has yet to be explicitly addressed. This is striking given that religious organisations have become powerful development actors in African settings, whether through the construction of spectacular “prayer camps”, gated residential estates, and university campuses, or the small scale proliferation of churches, mosques, and sacred sites in rural villages and urban neighbourhoods. The notion of “religious infrastructure” is highly suggestive because it disturbs the conceptual binaries that have long structured how these two elements are conventionally understood (e.g. spiritual/material, agent/object, micro/macro, private/public).

This panel invites empirically-grounded contributions highlighting the intersections of religion and infrastructure in African settings, whether urban, suburban, or rural. What are the infrastructural lives of things ordinary designated “religious”? How can we better understand operations of churches, mosques, and other religious sites as more than generic “places of worship” isolated from wider built and infrastructural landscapes? How do religious schools, festivals, dress practices, foodways, and religiously-administered utilities enable things to gather and circulate across space, facilitating and foreclosing forms of “togetherness”? Correspondingly, how are conventionally designated “infrastructures” (e.g. electric grids, public transport, waste management) made to carry aspirations andanxieties of religious publics? How do religious groups abandon, reclaim, and refurbish landscapes of infrastructural breakdown, absence, and disrepair? How do infrastructural projects—whether they are initiated by governments, private developers, religious organisations, or a combination of these—transform ordinary experiences of spirituality and sociality?

Organisers: Adriaan van Klinken ( ); Abel Ugba (; Emma Wild-Wood ( and Sara Fretheim (

Image credit: Fearless Boys by Greg Neate Copyright Notice – © Greg Neate 2010