Honor-Shame in Africa

Africa religion honor shameThere seems to be a lack of literature about honor-shame in Africa. Compared with Asian and Arab culture, I have discovered only a few anthropological and theological resources on the topic.

Here is what I have found to date. If you know of more works, please share them below as a comment. Thanks!

I find this the minimal amount of research and publication in this area quite surprising considering Africa’s long and rich Christian history. For example, the Africa Journal of Evangelical Theology has zero mentions of “honor” or “shame” (and “purity” and “patron*”) in any title (1982-2011). I suspect one reason is because missiologists categorize Africa as “fear-power” due to the animistic tendencies of African traditional religions, thus minimalizing the social “honor-shame” dynamics of African culture. This is just an initial hunch; if you have another plausible explanation, please comment below. 

resources for Majority World ministry

12 Comments on “Honor-Shame in Africa

  1. You observation of the lack of Honor and Shame literature in Africa is not surprising, as the basis for most African cultures is fear and power. When surveying one African culture for a seminary in Africa they estimated that Fear-Power made up 70% of the culture, Honor and Shame 20& and Guilt and Innocence about 10%. Most of their textbooks and courses addressed issues from a guilt/innocence perspective. Perhaps this explains why Christianity in Africa is said to be very wide spread but only addresses surface issues.

    • Very Interesting observation and quite right in many ways. The larger difference is that though “fear & power” do dominate in more remote villages, honor & Same is still quite strong. This is not just true in the predominately Islamic communities. My Language helper (I live and serve in Senegal, WA) grew up in an animistic village where fear & power was prevalent, yet hearing all his stories and seeing how he interacts relationally, honor & shame is quite strong as well for him. From my experience, within my community peace is spoken of and hospitality at supreme virtues. This is true for them in the spiritual realm in the need to maintain peace with spiritual forces, but living the last two years in a city the language has change a ton to that of honor & shame on the interpersonal relational level of maintaining peace and hospitality – so much that I rarely hear it in reference to the spiritual. To not do what is culturally minimally required of you could cause massive amounts of shame. In this, my neighbors often remind us of our social community obligations to uphold honor in our area and to not be shamed (mostly done indirectly), because now that we are apart of their community our shame is their shame! Lastly, the Christianity in Africa is an interesting subject too. Primarily, because Missions, often, lacks the appropriate understanding of the cultural framing to the degree that a lot are rendered incapable of succeeding because, normally, a shameful or multiple shameful things done because of a lack of knowledge. I could say more on this, but as a resident of a WA country I see often deep levels of honor & shame, but sadly in my experience little has actually been written on its impact.

  2. You are right in that missiologists have generally categorized Africa under fear-power simply because of the animistic worldview predominance. We need to keep in mind that Asian cultures are also very animistic. Hence there seems to be an underlying connection between fear-power and shame-honor.

    In addition I would also attribute the lack of HS literature in Africa to the European missionary history. European’s guilt-innocence framework continues to blind many African Biblical scholars from reading what is plain in the Biblical text, namely HS. Hence the inability to see Africa’s HS social structure. Talking of Kenya in particular (my home country) — you only need to watch the news and interact with the people to see how competition for honor in public places shapes the politics of the land. Islamic and tribal militant groups are also on top of the news, killing enemies/opponents to restore honor and revenge for shame incurred.

    Lastly, I would also say that, literature about HS is lacking in Africa because generally speaking, its is too humiliating to talk about shame in Africa’s social and religious spheres. Even when competition for honor and fear of shame is the software that we run on everyday, a few will admit to recognize it as our social dynamic.

  3. Here are two more relevant resources brought to my attention:

    1-“Shame and Guilt: A Key To Cross-Cultural Ministry” by Hannes Wiher (lived in W. Africa 18 years). A comprehensive dissertation contrasting shame and guilt consciences in culture and theology. The free PDF version is available here: http://www.worldevangelicals.org/resources/rfiles/res3_234_link_1292694440.pdf

    2-Gerry Snyman, “The Rhetoric of Shame in Religious and Political Discourses: Constructing the Perpetrator in South African Academic Discourse,” Old Testament Essays 19/1 (2006): 183-204.

    Thanks to Sandra, Martin, and others for mentioning these!

    Also, Martin Munyao of Kenya is researching honor-shame for his US-based PhD dissertation. This will be a significant contribution in this area as well.

  4. Hi, I recently came across a book authored and published in Kenya addressing Honor-Shame. “Reconciliation in African Context: Paul’s Theology of Reconciliation Engaging Honor and Shame Cultural Elements Among the Gusii, Lughya and Luo People of Western Kenya” by Joseph Ochola Omolo.

    Not only does he refer HS as being central to the reconciling tribal groups that have been in honor competition for many years, but he also defines sin in cultural terms as dishonor.

  5. This link here has all the publications (that I know about at least) about honor & shame in Africa, and is continually updated–https://www.zotero.org/groups/honorshame/items/tag/Africa


  6. I have just finished reading ‘Honour in African History’ by John Iliffe. As a person who has worked (on and off) as a mission Partner in Tanzania for over 30 years, I found the book to be very helpful addition in my ongoing appreciation of Tanzanian culture. Well worth reading the 369 pages.

  7. I strongly agree with your remarks on the lack of literature on the enormous continent of Africa pertaining to honour and shame within cultures. It is a shame there are few resources that hinder missionaries’ ministry and involvement with Africans. I have even encountered missionaries who admit not knowing much about the topic, only on the surface level. Sometimes I have experienced a relationship between a missionary and African that has been hindered because the missionary has unknowingly shamed the African. There is almost no recognition of the great role of honour and shame within social relationships and structures in African society.

    Dr. Tracy discusses ascribed honour that refers to lineage and tribe, which I believe is incredibly prominent within many African cultures. Identifying with one’s tribe is a significant form of honour within society. As well, Dr. Tracy describes a second type of honour- attributed meaning one’s accomplishments. In my experience African’s are incredibly respectful and recognized greatly for their accomplishments, bringing someone great honour, along with their family. This constitutes as a greatly honour-shame based culture, and greater investigation is needed for further understating within the African context. Sadly, I personally do not have any additional rescues to contribute.

    There maybe a misrepresentation and lack of understanding of ascribing a fear-power culture to Africa. Also, it would be helpful to divide the continent into regions, as specific areas may indeed exhibit a greater fear-power construct than other areas that are shame-honour based cultures. Could the spread of Islam within Africa may influence the greater display of shame and honour within culture? It would be interesting to learn the role of women within society and how women bring honour or shame to their family or (e.g., issues of modesty, and having children), and people with disabilities.

    Also, there should be literature available on African Muslim converts to Christianity, and the incredible shame and persecution one experiences from their family and community. This seems like a very critical topic that would be so helpful to learn more about within African culture. While serving in central Nigeria I have been applying as many resources and articles that I can find to understand honour and shame within relationships, which are all written from a Middle Eastern or Asian context. The existing literature is helpful, but there is certainly greater need for resources relating to the beautiful cultures of Africa. Personally, I have a great desire to explore more on the topic of honour and shame in African cultures and I am so thankful it was brought to attention.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.