Historical and Political Perspectives on African Culture

John C. Yoder

Mennonite background and introduction to Africa

In my Iowa community, volunteering with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was an honored rite of passage. While the neighboring Irish Catholics joined the military, Mennonites, including several of my aunts and uncles, served with MCC. My respect for MCC was reinforced at Goshen College, where I did my undergraduate work, and at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary), where I studied after college. Many professors in both institutions had spent time in Europe as MCC workers after World War II.

Beyond the general influence of our Mennonite environment, there were specific reasons why my wife Janet and I accepted a three-year assignment with MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program (TAP). None had much to do with Africa. Certainly, when we sailed from New York in August of 1966, we had no idea that so much of the next 50 years would revolve around a continent just emerging from colonialism. We signed up with MCC mainly because, as pacifists, we wanted to participate in a constructive alternative to the Vietnam War. Also, by choosing Congo over another African country, I saw myself taking the first step in a career teaching European history. That was because a posting in the Congo involved spending a year in Brussels learning French in preparation for our teaching duties. As a newly married couple, Janet and I also saw our Brussels sojourn as a prolonged honeymoon that would provide an extended experience outside a predominately Mennonite community. Finally, I considered the financial benefits of not needing to pay rent, buy food, or purchase a car for the next three years, and the fact that a TAP assignment would give us a welcome break from our graduate studies in the United States.

When Janet and I first considered TAP, my knowledge of African history and politics was just a bit more detailed than the maps of Africa I loved to create in the one-room country grade school I had attended. Those colonial-era maps featured now outdated names such as French-Equatorial Africa, Bechuanaland, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, Rhodesia, and Belgium Congo. My first impressions of Africa came from summer Bible school where each day we read a missionary story. These tales focused on the dramatic differences between the idols of ignorant primitives and the true God worshiped by enlightened Christians. The message was that “pagan” religion, based on superstition, was inferior to our own “true” faith. These ideas were reinforced by stories from Jungle Doctor, a series of children’s books written by Paul White, an Australian missionary doctor in pre-World War II Tanganyika. Each book’s plot featured a desperately sick individual, often a child, who had received agonizing and unsuccessful “black magic” treatment from a “witchdoctor.” Taken to the mission hospital, the nearly lifeless person was rescued from death’s door by a kind missionary doctor. Other accounts condemned non-western economic practices. Instead of setting or accepting transparent and “honest” prices, buyers and sellers in the marketplace sought an “unfair” advantage through the “unchristian” practice of bargaining.

By the time we left for Europe in 1966, I knew a bit more about Africa. At Mennonite Seminary I had taken a class on the church in Africa. I especially remember a guest lecture by Elmer Neufeld the former MCC director in the Congo. I was intrigued by Neufeld’s sympathetic description of Kimban-guism, an African Initiated Church regarded as heretical by most missionaries. I was also stuck by Neufeld’s principled response to racism. Neufeld recounted an experience with a Mennonite missionary in Kasai. Along with a driver, they traveled to a remote rural church. At noon, the driver stopped the vehicle and discretely walked away, leaving the two Americans to enjoy their packed lunches. When he asked the missionary about food for the driver, Elmer was told that Africans do not get hungry in the middle of the day. Appalled, Elmer shared his meal with the driver whose appetite was quite hearty.

The year in Brussels did little to deepen my understanding of Africans, in part because our primary goal was mastering a new language. Another reason was that I was eager to explore Europe. Strongly shaped by my Eurocentric education at Goshen College and Mennonite Seminary, I visited every museum, monument, and Anabaptist site I could find. In Belgium, I did spend time at the Musée royale de l’Afrique centrale at Tervuren. Although providing an introduction to Congo’s ethnie diversity, the variety of subsistence patterns, and the richness of Congolese art, the museum suggested that “tribes” were static entities whose essence could be contained in carefully labeled display cases, and that Congo was more connected to Belgium than to its African neighbors. The museum provided no hint that Congo’s people had moved beyond village life. “Authentic” Africans hunted, fished, farmed, and produced handmade utilitarian objects. The museum, like many of the buildings and monuments in Belgium, also was a testimony to Congo’s colonial heritage. Sharing the pervasive anti-government sentiments held by young people both in Europe and North America, I recognized these structures as evidence of racism and exploitation. My antipathy to Belgian colonialism was reinforced at the Foreign Ministry’s Ecole d’Administration, where we studied French and were instructed on how to conduct ourselves in Africa. One of the courses was taught by a former colonial functionary we nicknamed “Pith Helmet” because he admonished us to wear a red cloth under our pith helmets to protect our brains from tropical sun’s harsh rays.

Our two years in Congo reinforced my mildly progressive notions about Africa and the world. I regarded government in general—Belgian, American, and Congolese under Mobutu—as duplicitous, overly reliant on the military, unresponsive to ordinary citizens, and indifferent to the suffering of the weak. I believed that freed from colonialism and imperialism, a resource rich African continent had a bright future. I saw education as an essential key to unlocking Africa’s untapped potential. I also assumed that foreign aid along the lines of the Marshall Plan would build needed capacity and compensate for the theft Africa had suffered at the hands of the West. These notions were consistent with prevailing paradigms of decolonization and development.

In 1967—1968, I taught at two secondary school in Kinshasa, the Presbyterian Ecole Sécondaire de Lemba and the government’s École Technique Ndijili. The next year, Janet and I were assigned to the École Sécondaire de Mulungwishi, an elite Methodist school in Katanga province. Both in Kinshasa and Katanga, we were continually reminded of the colonial past and the neo-imperial present. When we needed medical care, we were seen by Dr. William Close, Mobutu’s personal physician and a man generally regarded as a CIA operative.1 A frequent sight in Kinshasa were the WIGMO mercenaries, members of a CIA front organization that provided planes, pilots and mechanics for Mobutu’s air force." In Katanga, the giant conglomerate Gécamines, with its network of mines, refineries, chemical plants, schools, hospitals, restaurants, and guest houses, dominated both the landscape and the economy. Lumumba’s assassination, Dag Hammarskjold’s plane crash, and Moise Tshombe’s failed secession movement were all common topics of discussion in Katanga. Because the Tshombe family, including the Lunda supreme chief, were Methodists and because Tshombe’s nephew Gaston was one of my students, I was keenly aware that my presence at Mulungwishi was never apolitical. In addition, the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther Kingjr. and Robert Kennedy forced me to answer uncomfortable questions from my Congolese students regarding America.

Living first in Kinshasa and then on a self-contained mission station in industrialized Katanga provided little exposure to what I regarded as “authentic” traditional life. Except for a one-day visit to Kimbanguism’s holy city Nkamba in Lower Congo, I never set foot in a village. I never ate a traditional meal, learned an indigenous language, or met an African chief. I observed traditional Africa from a distance, often through the viewfinder of a camera. My pictures were of sunsets, palm trees, goats, thatched huts, and women carrying water. I could easily screen out evidence of modern intrusions such as electric lines, automobiles, and Western garb. From my perspective, “authentic” Africa was morally, socially, and culturally superior. Like my missionary colleagues, I could not understand why rural Africans would migrate to crowded and crime-filled cities. Why did urban dwellers not return to their villages where they could grow food instead of purchasing provisions in the market, and where they could build comfortable mud and thatch houses instead of renting small rooms in the cité? I did not understand the challenges urban Africans faced as they navigated the intersection between traditional values and the complications of urban life. I asked Jacques, our housekeeper, why he needed to borrow so much money to buy beer as part of the bride price process. Couldn’t he purchase cheaper soft drinks? Did he need to buy both cloth and cookware for his future mother-in-law? And, why was the dowry a never-ending (in my view, exploitative) process rather than a clearly defined, limited transaction? Why would he expect me, his employer who was not his relative, to fund his wedding?

Although I did not fully appreciate much of what I saw or experienced, I encountered many things that would shape my career as an Africanist. Living in Congo forced me to recognize that the tentacles of racism, social privilege, and disparities of wealth persisted in newly independent countries. For example, with some MCC friends, Janet and I took a river boat from Matadi to Bonn. When I entered the crowded room of people jostling to reach the ticket window, a Congolese worker insisted on escorting me, a white person, to the front of the line. Dealing with the inequalities of wealth was especially troubling. As idealistic young people, Janet and I determined not relate to our housekeeper in the usual paternalistic manner. Therefore, we invited Jacques to sit with us and share our meals. When news of this reached the MCC director we were told the arrangement was inappropriate, largely because it must be uncomfortable and confusing for Jacques. We were also admonished to limit the amount of sugar Jacques used to sweeten his tea. I always wondered what Elmer Neufeld would have done.

Becoming an Africanist

My transition from seeing my future as a European historian came when I taught religion in Kinshasa and history at Mulungwishi. Because the state syllabi followed those used in Belgium, the curriculum placed far greater emphasis on Europe, Asia, and the United States than on Africa. I taught my students more about the Middle Ages, Louis XIV, and the American Civil War than about colonialism in Africa or the movement toward African independence. I gave no attention to the West African empires of Ghana, Mali, or Songhay nor to the Luba and Lunda polities of the Congo. Those states were not in the syllabus nor were they mentioned in any of the books we used. In my religion courses, I described the pioneer missionaries and the competition between Catholics and Protestants. While the first Congolese convert was named, he did not feature as prominently as white missionaries. Although I knew very little about the great African states or about significant African Christians, I recognized I was not teaching my students what they truly needed to know. Therefore, after returning to the United States, I applied to graduate programs specializing in Africa.

In my application to Northwestern University, I wrote that I intended to focus on the history of African Christianity. Although in a first-year seminar, I outlined an ambitious plan to carry out such a project, none of my professors would have been eager to supervise the work, and funding for research on the Christian church likely would not have been available. Consequently, I followed the path taken by other history students pursuing African studies at Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, UCLA, and Berkeley. That meant my dissertation topic would be a pre-colonial polity that had not yet been studied, a state with well-defined borders and an established political system. (We historians thought of stateless societies as the domain of anthropologists.) Ideally, this group would be uncontaminated by modernization. Using Jan Vansina’s tools for collecting oral history, I would bring to light the past of “my people” and repair the damage of colonial denigration.

William Pruit, a fellow student who grew up in the Congo, suggested that I study the Kanyok people of Kasai Oriental. Pruit’s own dissertation dealt with the Sala Mpasu located in the area where his parents were Presbyterian missionaries. In spite of the fact that the Kanyok had a state that would have maintained oral records, they had they never been the subject of serious investigation. I could be the one to record their history before the traditional elders died and before modernization erased their traditional way of life. Perhaps the Africa museum at Tervuren would devote a display case to them. With support from the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), Janet, our toddler daughter Rebecca, and I headed off the Belgium to begin the archival stage of my work on the Kanyok. This was followed by a year’s fieldwork in Congo.

In Congo, I learned the basics of Ciin Kanyok, the local language. Ciam Digaman, my teacher, also became my research assistant. Very knowledgeable about Kanyok culture, he was well respected throughout the entire area, a fact that greatly facilitated my work. In visiting the villages of every important Kanyok regional chief, field research immersed me in my ideal of traditional Africa. In many ways, the Kanyok people were untouched by the modern economy, the modern state, modern education, and Western religion. Mobutu’s government did collect tax, people did sell produce in the towns of Luputa and Mwena Ditu, a major road and a rail line cut through Kanyok territory, and the Catholic and Protestant churches brought Christianity and primary education to some parts of the region. However, I still encountered a largely intact traditional state and society.

My 1977 dissertation, “A Kingdom on the Edge of Empires,” chronicled the history of the Kanyok people wedged between the much larger Luba and Lunda (Ruund) polities. Because I ended the account in 1895 when the first written descriptions of the Kanyok appeared, the study rested on the foundation of oral tales and anthropological observations. Typical for PhD dissertations, my study was narrowly focused. To correct that, I spent the next decade engaged in a comparative analysis of the political structures and ideological statements— often contained in myths of origin—of the Kanyok people’s savanna neighbors. The result of that effort was my book, The Kanyok ojZaire: An Institutional and Ideological History to 1895 (1992). My most recent work on Congo was a bibliographical review of books and articles on polities, both state and stateless, in the much larger Congo basin (Yoder & Hoover, 2017). This review highlighted the connectivity, not the separateness, of Congo’s precolonial peoples.

After three years at North Park College in Chicago, I taught history and political science at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, from 1980 until 2014. In retrospect, I believe my scholarly work benefited because I spent my career in teaching institutions. The fact that I was not under constant pressure to publish gave more time for my ideas to mature. Also, I have been less tempted to conform to intellectual fads. Following the example of my graduate advisor John Rowe, a guiding principle for my writing has been to tell a good story. Unlike theory that is often fleeting, stories last. A more important goal has been to write in a way that Africans would say my narrative represents them fairly and accurately. Although I occasionally considered applying for positions at major research institutions, I am grateful I remained at a liberal arts school that emphasized teaching. Over the years I have introduced hundreds of students—a good number of them Africans—to Africa. Among my American students, many joined the Peace Corps, Mennonite Central Committee, Jesuit Volunteers, or other volunteer agencies. Others have won Fulbright fellowships to study in Africa and nearly half a dozen are now university professors teaching African studies. A number of my American and African students are working in Africa as teachers, pastors, businesspeople, human rights advocates, or humanitarian workers. One former African student is a UN official, another a high-profile governor with credible aspirations of running for president in one of Africa’s most powerful nations.

In reviewing my career, I think of myself as somewhat of a slash-and-burn scholar. Trained as an historian, I have given equal attention to political science, religion, and anthropology. My courses on Africa dealt with every time-period and every part of the African continent. I have led study trips to Liberia, Kenya, South Africa, and Tanzania. As a Fulbright scholar, I taught at universities in Liberia and Kenya. In 2019, as a Fulbright Specialist, I worked with Cuttington University’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Resolution in reviewing and updating the curriculum. In terms of practical activities, I have served as an election observer with the Carter Center and the National Democratic Institute in Liberia and Sierra Leone (Yoder 2013). I have also worked with Emory University, evaluating rule of law and gender-based-violence projects in Liberia. In addition, I organized a peace conference in the aftermath of severe election violence in Kenya’s Rift Valley and led an MCC sponsored peacebuilding workshop for Mennonite church leaders in Tanzania. In retirement, I have worked with the Arusha Regional Education Office in leading training sessions for secondary school history teachers. While the wide-ranging nature of my work did not easily lend itself to major scholarly contributions, it gave me a broad exposure to Africa that has been ideal for teaching undergraduates both in the United States and Africa.

Contributions to African studies from a Mennonite perspective

Although eclectic, my scholarship has been characterized by several relatively consistent themes. All have been shaped by my Mennonite culture and

Historical and political perspectives 153 beliefs. These themes touch on ideology, the nature of social relationships, and patron-client politics. Running like a pedal tone has been the importance of non-violent strategies in the lives of individuals, communities, and states.


My study of the Kanyok covered the usual themes of trade, warfare, and state building. However, the central focus of my analysis was the ideology contained in myths and legends of origin. In looking at those stories, I first had to deal with the challenge of defending their worth as historical artifacts. Influenced by historian Joseph C. Miller (1980), I came to recognize that the “farfetched” elements of legends and myths are more reliable echoes from the past than the seemingly more plausible sounding materials which may simply be narrative filler supplied by much later storytellers. As statements of value—social, political, and religious—farfetched clichés contained in legends and myths are important windows into opinions from the past. In America, the phrase “He threw his hat into the ring” is of no interest to a haberdasher and the expression “drummed out of office” has nothing to do with percussionists. Nevertheless, both point to actual events. Equally important, they may be offering partisan commentary. Likewise, the common Kanyok refrain “the chief left office because of drunkenness” is not referring to inebriation nor “he lost power because of his failure to offer a feast” to an eating event. The sayings explain that a chief fell from power because he was incompetent (drunk) and unable or unwilling to redistribute the fruits of tribute to his supporters (offer a feast). While Central African tales of giant serpents forming bridges for heroic warriors, of investiture ceremonies involving the compulsory consumption of huge quantities of palm oil, of female rulers being forced to abdicate because they had menstruated, and of candidates for office dancing on mats covering pits containing upright spears cannot be literally true, they are accurate reflections of how people evaluated what had actually happened. Comparing contradictory tales opens portals into long-ago debates about political systems, ethnic identity, and regional relationships.

Like their neighbors, the Kanyok people’s foundational myth claimed the political elite owed their origins to wandering hunters of royal Luba lineage. However, unlike the stories of their neighbors, Kanyok mythology described the people’s greatest hero as a woman who had been abused and humiliated by a Luba monarch. Thus, Kanyok ideology honored a non-violent female victim rather than an aggressive male warrior-hunter. In this novel version, the Kanyok asserted their polity was built not on conquest, but on suffering. Thus, the unity of the Kanyok people and the persistence of their polity can be explained by the creation of a saga about affliction, not by the celebration of an autocratic leader or a fearsome army.

My perspective as a pacifist has encouraged me to look for other examples of non-violent ideologies in African society. In a University of Chicago seminar with anthropologist Victor Turner, I analyzed a neglected variant of Buganda’s Kintu myth. According to most conventional tales, Buganda’sfounding hero Kintu withdrew from the land and took with him the wonders of his primeval paradise because of disobedience on the part of his subordinates. That account, which served as a political template as well as a general commentary on the human condition, reinforced the claims of Buganda’s Kabakas (kings) to absolute authority. However, in 1875, during the reign of a notoriously harsh leader, important members of the court recounted a starkly different version of the Kintu story. That rendering depicted the mythological founder of the kingdom as a peace-loving figure who abandoned his African Garden of Eden because his offspring, the successor Kabakas, became violent. The story also argued that society would never flourish so long as violence prevailed (1988).

High-context cultures

People in high-context communities value close relationships that endure over time. As described by anthropologist E.T. Hall (1976), such societies rely on subtle, non-explicit rules and forms of communication to keep order. In high-context societies, people find their security more as members of the group and less in individual achievement. Loath to destabilize the group that protects them, people in such societies are reluctant to challenge others openly and directly. People are also careful not to flaunt themselves in a way that would set them apart.

Mennonite and African communities fall into the high-context category and my understanding of African culture is closely linked to the way I understand my own background. For a National Endowment for Humanities seminar on pre-industrial America, I researched Christopher Dock, a Mennonite schoolmaster in colonial Pennsylvania. Renowned for his progressive views of classroom management, Dock has been celebrated for his rejection of corporal punishment. But I discovered that he relied on other powerful and perhaps equally painful methods of keeping order. Dock assigned some students the role of “true watchers,” individuals who monitored and reported on the behavior of their classmates. At the end of each day, Dock wrote the names of students who had misbehaved on the chalkboard and asked everyone to give those names to their parents. Investigating the larger Mennonite community in Dock’s era, I learned that church leaders also functioned as true watchers who used strict social pressure to maintain conformity. Clearly, Dock’s schoolroom was the simulacrum of adult society. While seemingly peaceful, the pressure in the schoolhouse and in the adult world was not benign, in fact could be autocratic and cruel (1983).

The lessons I drew from studying Mennonites in colonial Pennsylvania challenged the way I thought about the Mennonite community of my youth. Although Iowa Mennonites did not practice shunning, never resorted to violence, and rarely openly expressed anger, they employed subtle but powerful techniques to enforce acceptable behavior. The réévaluation of my own cultural roots was intertwined with my evolving assessment of African

Historical and political perspectives 155 society. In 1986 and 1987, I taught African history in Liberia. I was struck by the fact that Liberian society, both rural and urban, both elite and subaltern, exhibited a profound sense of order and respect. Youth were deferential to elders. Social interactions exuded courtesy and decorum. Public events were marked by laudatory introductions and flowery speeches. Church services were conducted with carefully staged propriety. All of this seemed deeply engrained in long-standing cultural mores; none of it appeared to be contrived. Soon, however, I realized the protocols of politeness masked a deep well of social tension. Poor family members worked as pawns of their more privileged relatives, powerful men kept young women as dependent mistresses, distrust marked relations between different ethnic groups, “big people” regarded government offices as sinecures, and family names or titles bestowed great power. Also, supernatural sanctions were used by diviners, secret societies, or the Masonic Temple (defunct after 1980) to enforce community norms, control subordinates, or exact retribution. The most chilling tales described “body business” in which young and vigorous individuals were killed and their body parts harvested to make powerful medicines. Such medicines could be used to generate wealth, win political office, or seduce lovers.

Although it was no great surprise when the Doe regime fell in 1990, no one predicted the duration and depth of the ensuing civil war. Families were torn apart, children were turned into heartless killers, young people mocked and abused their elders, the bellies of pregnant women were slit open, and the properties of formerly respected individuals were vandalized. Like everyone else, I asked how could a society seeped in deference and civility descend into such a prolonged and barbaric war? People from tribal backgrounds blamed the Americo-Liberian settlers who had long dominated economic, social, and political life; the people of settler descent blamed the indigenous peoples they regarded as “uncivilized” and unprepared to govern. And almost everyone blamed Western governments and corporations that had supported a series of repressive Liberian governments. However, these explanations seemed inadequate. Certainly, they could not explain why Charles Taylor, the man responsible for pillaging the country, forcing millions of Liberians from their homes, and turning innocent children into wanton destroyers, won a landslide presidential election in 1997.

In seeking answers to the tragedy, I became convinced that the descent into chaos could not be ascribed solely to a rapacious elite, whether settler, indigenous, or foreign. Although these actors bore great culpability, a more basic cause of the shocking behavior was a reaction against values deeply embedded in Liberian culture. Even more than Mennonites, Liberians had maintained order by enforcing social norms through multiple controlling strategies. Paternal authority, strict child discipline, deference to elders, an honorific but subordinate status for women, and obsequious respect for people in positions of authority were taught in the home, practiced in school, reaffirmed by religion, and endorsed in public interactions. These principlesobtained both in indigenous society and in settler circles. The prolonged civil war rejected every one of them. In 1997, when Taylor campaigned, his youthful followers chanted, “He kill my ma, he kill my pa; I will vote for him.” The conventional interpretation of the chant is that because Taylor had the power to kill mother and father, people supported him out of fear. In my study of Liberian civic culture (2003), I concluded that a more accurate, and more sinister, interpretation was that the youth backed Taylor because he gave them permission to challenge the repressive authoritarianism of high-context Liberian culture.

Once the Liberian conflict ended, the habits of high-context culture shaped how people dealt with the wounds of the past. Instead of forgiving—the ideal in South Africa—or seeking justice or taking vengeance—as more frequently happens—Liberians chose a different path. That path was what they called “forgetting” and what psychologists would label “suppressing.” For Liberians, forgetting meant setting the past aside and continuing as though nothing had happened. As one example, elementary school teachers in an area repeatedly ravished during the civil war told me their students had adjusted very well to the trauma of the conflict. “They have forgotten,” the teachers reported. The results of a confidential written survey I conducted among Cuttington University students reveled the same thing. Asked first to recount the most horrendous thing they had experienced or witnessed, they were then asked to describe their response. By far, the most common answer was “I have forgotten.” The positive result of this reaction to trauma is an ability to go on with life. The negative outcome is that pent-up pain either eats away at one’s psyche or is held in emotional escrow until it can be turned into retribution.

Patron-client relationships

I am struck by the ubiquitous nature of patron-client relationships that shape African political systems from the village to the presidential mansion. I am also impressed by the fact that present day systems have deep roots in precolonial political habits (1998). Like high-context relationships, patron-client dealings have both positive and negative elements. In the village or small polity, patrons treat subordinates as family members so that people are respected and protected. Leaders in those structures see themselves as parental figures responsible for the general welfare. Patron-client systems work well in a small setting when the relationships between ruler and ruled are perceived as genuine bonds of caring kinship. However, when the patron is the head of a heterogeneous entity such as a modern state, the relationship can become exploitative. The patron receives revenue in the form of tax, plunder, the fruits of corruption, or foreign aid meant for the entire polity, but redistributes only to a narrow group of subordinates (members of his or her own ethnic group, people in his or her political party, elite cronies, or business associates). The negative aspects of patronage systems are intensified when a society is marked by strong class differences.

More recently, my interests in patron-client politics as well as ideology and high-context societies have led me in a new comparative direction. I have long been intrigued by the ties between Africa and ancient Israel. Not only are the two worlds close geographically; some of their people share a common linguistic family (Afro-Asiatic), and they display similar religious and cultural traits. Not enough has been done to explore these connections. While my perspective as a Mennonite and my interest in theology have influenced my work as an Africanist, my experiences in Africa helped me to better understand the Hebrew Bible’s book ofjudges. Drawing on my studies of African myths and legends, my previous investigations of patron-client systems in traditional Africa, my experience in East Africa, and my interest in African Religion, I wrote Power and Politics in the Book of Judges (2015). The book makes numerous comparisons between Africa and ancient Israel. Patronclient politics, big men, the importance of honor and respect, political leaders’ use of supernatural sanctions and rewards, the search for governance tools that do not require the costly use of military force or an unstainable distribution of wealth, and the conception of politics as an extension of the family are all common features in Africa and in Early Iron Age Syria-Palestine. At the start of my career, scholars of Africa were defensive, committed to demonstrating that African studies merited an equal place in the academic pantheon. I am now certain that the rest of the scholarly world can learn from an understanding of Africa. I know had I not spent decades thinking about Africa, I would have never been able to understand pre-monarchic Israel.


My career has been shaped by my perspective as a Mennonite and person of faith. Ibrahim Sundiata, who critiqued the manuscript version of my book on Liberia, urged me to describe that perspective. In response, I wrote:

My moral compass is influenced by Christianity, by the ideals of tolerance, and by optimism. As a pacifist, I hope to find ways to reduce violence and suffering. In my view, the Gospel calls all of us to be good neighbors and to seek the ultimate welfare of all people created by God. I am deeply troubled when people of faith—especially people with demonstrable historical and cultural ties such as Christians, Jews, Muslims, and followers of African Traditional Religion—focus on their differences instead of their commonalties. I am especially saddened when such people turn against each other, sometimes using religion as a justification, in violence. How can we all, I ask myself, be faithful to the deepest teachings of faiths that honor life, not death? What can we do to discover ways to end oppression and destruction? How can we use the values of faith for building and reconciliation? While my belief in the importance of tolerance is based in part on my conviction that we are all the children of one creator, I also try to practice tolerance because I believe all humanendeavors and thoughts are clouded by self-interest and self-delusion.

I hope this belief tempers my own assertions and conclusions. I hope too that this belief makes it easier for me to accept what I regard as the failures of others.

(2003, 8-9)

I trust that my respect for faith, non-violence, tolerance, and optimism does not bias the results of my work. I do not, however, assume that materialistic rationalism, the raw exercise of power, zero-sum political strategies, and cynicism are always the dominant features of society. In my work, I want to give attention to peoples’ understanding of the supernatural, their willingness to seek the common good, their readiness to forgive, and their ability to maintain a sense of hope.


  • 1 Father of actress Glenn Close.
  • 2 Western International Ground Maintenance Organization.


Hall, E.T. (1976). Beyond Culture. Doubleday: New York.

Miller, J.C. (1980). The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History. Folkestone, UK: Dawson Press.

Yoder, J.C. (1983). True Watchers: A Study of Social Order Among the Mennonites in Eighteen-Century Pennsylvania. Mennonite Quarterly Review LVII, 339—53.

Yoder, J.C. (1988). The Quest for Kintu and the Search for Peace: Mythology and Morality in Nineteenth-Century Buganda. History in Africa 15, 363—376.

Yoder, J.C. (1992). The Kanyok of Zaire: An Institutional and Ideological History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Yoder, J.C. (1998). Good Government, Democratization and Traditional African political Philosophy: The Example of the Kanyok of the Congo. The Journal of Modern African Studies 36(3), 483—507.

Yoder J.C. (2003). Popular Political Culture, Civil Society, and State Crisis in Liberia. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellon Press (Reprinted for distribution in Liberia, 2015).

Yoder, J.C. (2013). Elections as a Stress Test for Democratization: A Comparison of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In R.V. Cassandra & D. Sampson (Eds.). African Democracy and Development: Challenges for Post-Conflict African States. Lanham, MD: Lexington: 109—136.

Yoder, J.C. (2015). Power and Politics in the Book of Judges: Men and Women of Valor. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Yoder, J.C. & Hoover, J.J. (2017). Congo River Basin States. In T. Spear (Ed.). On-Line Oxford Bibliographies in African Studies. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/

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