Professor Ebenezer Obadare’s article provides a welcome addition to social science discussions on materiality, mobility, and religiosity. These discussions come in many forms, move in different directions, and weave their way through many recent concerns and theoretical turns. His proposal—vehicular religiosities—promises much, and usefully highlights one arena of material-religiosity-on-the-move that has received surprisingly little attention in Africa. Surprisingly, I say, because “vehicular religiosities” are some of the most striking features of African urbanity today. Obadare is clearly onto something, and not just in West Africa.
In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I have worked for many years, one cannot but be struck—seduced, actually—by the constant swarm of brightly-painted, smoke-billowing, decibel-generating minibuses called daladala. These vehicles are often adorned with religious icons inside and out; bear banners like “In God we Trust”; and are heavily-loaded not just with passengers and goods, but also with manifold spiritual rules and prayers that (hopefully) keep them on the road and turning a tidy profit. All the more so for long-haul buses, which move people and their stuff at breathtaking speeds between Tanzania’s urban centres and far-flung villages across the nation. These buses are marvelous, baroque creations, vested with hyper-excesses of air horns and flashing lights, blaring music and shimmering logos—”God Bless Us,” “Over the Top,” “Praise the Lord,” “Voice of Allah”—all exquisitely-painted, top to bottom, with everything from ocean scenery to Tanzanian shillings to Jesus.
Unsurprisingly, given the rest, each bus comes complete with personality and spiritual entailments, which fuel much public and less-public discussion. One (in)famous long-haul bus, I once heard, is infested with spirits that ensure monetary profits for its owner, but only in return for human blood acquired through periodic spirit-induced crashes. Others (or sometimes the same) are said to be powered by Jesus, or Allah, and are able to overcome such diabolical forms and forces. But whatever the case or place, Obadare’s “vehicular religiosities” usefully draws attention to one arresting aspect of Africa’s contemporary landscapes: those inextricable tangles of human, spiritual and material life that are forever on the move.
Pointing up these ubiquitous yet underappreciated forms of life is worthwhile. Yet, in such a brief article, it is hard to do much more. Obadare serves up “vehicular religiosities” by cross-fertilizing, in broad brushstroke, estranged literatures on automobility and Pentecostal religiosity. An excellent start. But this concept, with its straightforward beginnings, may prove more useful than he lets on, not only in its ability to unsettle the literatures from which it springs, but also in its potential to speak beyond them.
One place “vehicular religiosities” might be profitably put to work is in the burgeoning scholarship on materiality, of which Obadare’s piece is a fine example. These discussions express themselves in different and sometimes overlapping ways—ontologies and affect, multinaturalism, cyborgs, hybrids, actants, multispecies, distributed agency, etc.—and play out in the pages the Journal of Material Culture and Material Religion and further afield. Differences aside (and there are plenty) much of this scholarship aims to interrogate and theorize how people and things profoundly participate in and produce one another. African life-worlds that consistently serve up machines powered by Gods, spirits, and human blood, and people powered by the Holy Ghost and other spectralities, powerfully invite such scholarly reflection. While “vehicular religiosities” runs the risk of reinscribing the very dualisms the concept seeks to unsettle—human vs. nonhuman, material vs. ethereal—it also provides an opportunity to rethink and reformat those dualisms in theoretically productive ways.
Another possible entry point: the broader discussions and theorizations of movement, flows, place, space and time that undergird and animate automobility scholarship and much else. Everything these days, it seems, is on-the-move, and significant portions of the social sciences have preoccupied themselves with analytically taming this supposed world in flux. Then there is the vast literature on religiosity, witchcraft and the occult in Africa. Obadare is concerned with Pentecostalism, prayer and God, and for this “religiosities” serves his purpose well. But why stop there? Why not expand “religiosities” to encompass the more capacious spiritual economies commonly found across the continent, wherein devils, ancestral spirits, witchcraft, Christian, Islamic and other deities move and connect? Such spiritual panoplies, after all, are the rule not the exception, and “vehicular religiosities” could potentially provide additional purchase over such issues.
None of these points, I suspect, will be news to Professor Obadare, whose paper hints at all of them. “Vehicular religiosities” is a promising start; and there is great interest in these issues across the social sciences just now. I look forward to future installments.