Religion and emotion in African cities

Analyzing affective trajectories

Hansjörg Dilger, Astrid Bochow, Marian Burchardt, Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon

29 Jul 2015

Apostolic groups sing and pray in front of the iconic skyline of Johannesburg’s Hillbrow suburb. Photo credit: Marisa Maza


The conference ‘Spirit and Sentiment: Affective Trajectories of Religious Being in Urban Africa’ was held at Freie Universität Berlin on 28–30 May 2015.

During two and a half days, a group of forty anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, and historians discussed how affect, emotion, and sentiment shape experiences of life in urban African settings. In particular, we focused on how the highly diverse affective and emotional landscapes of African cities have become intertwined with the presence of an equally overwhelming number of religious actors, voices, and practices over the last decades. Affective and emotional states and processes, the organizers proposed, are crucial for understanding what drives and motivates people’s religious practices in urban Africa, how various human and nonhuman actors relate (spiritually) to one other, and how individuals and religious organizations and institutions structure the material environments of African cities.

The conference was organized on behalf of the research network ‘Religion, AIDS, and Social Transformation in Africa’ (RASTA), which was established in 2007 and initially focused on the relationship between religion and HIV/AIDS. More recently, the network has started to explore wider processes of religious transformation in global Africa, with HIV/AIDS remaining a core theme of interest among others. The conference was cosponsored by the research project ‘Salvaged Lives: A Study of Urban Migration, Ontological Insecurity, and Healing in Johannesburg’, conducted at the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (in collaboration with Freie Universität Berlin since 2011).

Panel debates: Religion, affect, and emotion in context

Filip de Boeck (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) opened the conference with a keynote address that drew on the concept of ‘limit-experience’ to explore how the inchoate and fluid nature of urban space in Kinshasa shapes the lives of its inhabitants. He also showed that it is through experiences of affect that people are enfolded into the city’s spatial dynamics. In the second keynote, Rijk van Dijk (African Studies Centre Leiden and University of Amsterdam) explored the emotional registers of African Pentecostalism. He argued that urbanization affects people’s emotional experiences by ‘amplifying’ them, which is key to understanding why religion is so vibrant in urban Africa today.

The first panel, ‘Urban Subjectivities: Ideals, Transformations, and Symbolic Resources’, examined how, in religious contexts, subjectivity reflects gendered notions of moral behavior and hierarchies of value. Nadine Beckmann suggested that romance and sexuality are important terrains to investigate urban subjectivity on Zanzibar. Concurring with this, Eileen Moyer showed that urban masculinities are caught between diverse religious influences and contemporary global health projects.

Panel two, entitled ‘Healing Bodies: Anxieties, Hopes, and Affective Transformations’, explored how spiritual and religious healing practices become embodied in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Hopes and anxieties in the context of HIV/AIDS are connected not only to shifting notions of life and death in the era of treatment (Derrell Cox), but also to the provision of medical assistance and healing prayers for HIV-positive people in faith-based hospitals  (Eric Anchimbe, Chikas Danfulani). Isabelle Lange highlighted how ‘mercy ships’ in Benin have become part and parcel of a transnational affective infrastructure while Lorena Nuñez explored how Pentecostal churches navigate experiences of loss and distress among migrant populations in Johannesburg.

Panel three, ‘Transnational Spiritualities: Religion, Sentiment, and Migration’, traced the ways in which forms of spiritual knowledge and emotional learning follow the paths of transnational migration. With an emphasis on migrant and displaced communities, particularly Congolese, the panel traced the transmission and the transmutability of religious and affective forms in South Africa (Peter Kankonde Bukasa, Rafael Cazarin), Spain (Rafael Cazarin), Uganda (Alessandro Gusman), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Peter Lambertz), and the ways these are reconfigured in transnational urban spaces.

The fourth panel, ‘Materiality, Performance, and Aesthetics in Urban Religious Life’, discussed the interconnections between performative aspects of religious life and materiality. Religious performances and aesthetics not only create distinctly urban affects and sentiments, but may also shape the ways the city is experienced by those who seek comfort, financial stability, and entertainment. This was shown in contributions on Islamic charity (Stephen A. Pierce), the material engagements of Christian and Islamic revivalist organizations (Murtala Ibrahim), and a cult of African migrants in Harare called Gule Wamkulu (Zoe Groves).

In a similar vein, panel five, ‘Embodying Emotional Belonging in the City’, showed how healing practices, prayers, and conversion rituals may fulfil people’s quest for belonging, wholeness, and healing, and how these practices serve as sources of identification and emotional fulfilment in ethnically and religiously diverse contexts. In addition, they may forge affective transformations enabling alternative approaches to gender, including in precarious contexts (Hanspeter Reihling). Speakers discussed these issues in relation to notions of citizenship (Amy Patterson), and interreligious conviviality and appropriation of Islamic ritual (Hanna Nieber) and prayer (Benedikt Pontzen).

The final panel, ‘Affective Infrastructures – Religious and Socio-Political Spaces of the City’, explored the affective dimensions of Apostolic rituals in contaminated landscapes in Harare (Isabel Mukonyora), experiences of haunting and public cleansing ceremonies in Johannesburg (Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon), and the ways in which religious belonging and being is inscribed on the urban form (Bettina Malcomess). In addition, Astrid Bochow highlighted how educational infrastructure cultivates forms of affective attachment in Botswana. The panel showed how an analysis of affect encompasses natural, infrastructural, and institutional forms. 


Religion is inscribed in African urban landscapes in numerous ways. It plays out in material urban space by casting urban dwellers’ religious practices and forms of belonging within distinctly spatial regimes and logics. However, religious beliefs and practices also underpin the construction of immaterial urban imaginaries and aspirations. People in African cities traverse and inhabit urban space often on the basis of particular religious understandings of these spaces.

The conference showed that emotion and affect mediate the ways people are tied to certain spaces and religious communities, with the former (emotion) indicating a culturally inscribed individual experience and the latter (affect) a nondiscursive interrelationality. Through emotion and affect people experience and configure religious groups and places as home, as sacred, or as dangerous. But emotion and affect can also be encapsulated in religious rituals and their sacred objects as material mediations of the social.

If links between emotion and materiality organize ritual micro-spaces, we also found that such links shape the macro-spaces of the city, for example in the workings of spirits that connect particular urban terrains to far-flung networks of ancestral homes and migratory passages. These links are relevant for medical anthropology, as they open new perspectives on the body and therapeutic trajectories in rapidly transforming cityscapes. The challenge ahead lies in refining our methodologies to study these phenomena ethnographically and to analyze them in the light of recent social theories on affect, emotion, and the city in and beyond Africa.

About the authors

Hansjörg Dilger teaches medical anthropology and anthropology of religion at the Freie Universität Berlin. Astrid Bochow is a lecturer of social anthropology at the Georg-August Universität Göttingen. Marian Burchardt is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen. Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a researcher at the African Center for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand.