In the classroom and from the pulpit, professor Obiri Addo takes the long view on African history.
By Bruce Wallace
Photography by Peter Murphy
Any Drew student who has taken a class with Ebenezer Obiri Addo G’88,’94 knows about his favorite West African proverbs. On a Tuesday evening last spring semester, he reminded the students in his “Modern Sub-Saharan Africa” class about one of them. The students had been discussing the impact of colonization and the shaping of an African consciousness. “What was that proverb I used on the first day of class?” Addo asked. They pieced it together: “Until lions have their own historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.”
Addo skipped nimbly from a point about early religion in Ethiopia to corollaries in the writing of W.E.B. DuBois to postcolonial Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah’s exploration of black consciousness. Then he settled on a main theme of that day’s class: Islam’s impact on different eras of African history. Here, as elsewhere, he skillfully coaxed students. “Where do we see Islam’s influence in Africa today?” Mali, one student offered. “Very good!” Nigeria, another said. “Nigeria!” Addo responded. “Say more.” He was connecting past to present, showing how complex and interconnected African cultures were long before Europeans got there. You got the sense he was gradually teasing out what history might look like from the lion’s perspective.
A few weeks earlier and about 12 miles away, at the Presbyterian church in Irvington, N.J., Addo was doing similar work with his congregation. Walking slowly up the center aisle with a wireless microphone and the mildly conspiratorial smile that rarely leaves his face, he asked the 70-odd worshippers if they knew where the word Africa came from. “From Africa!” one suggested, to laughter.
For the next 10 minutes, Addo led the congregation through a lively and wide-ranging consideration of the origins and effects of African slavery and colonization. The discussion was laced with plenty of question-and-answer and intended, among other things, to start a conversation about Black History Month. One lesson here was something he’d remind his Drew students a few weeks later: Africa was never a void. It has always existed in the context of world developments. Winding up the conversation at First Presbyterian, Addo encouraged the congregation: “Let us begin to think and teach young people the story of the past.”
In the classroom, from the pulpit and in his writing, including his book about the role of religion in Nkrumah’s leadership, Addo pushes people to look at his native Ghana—and, more broadly, Africa—as a place with deep history and complex connections to the rest of the world. With the Global South—sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Asia—having evolved into a center of power of Christianity, new kinds of Christian expression are reinvigorating Christianity’s traditional homelands, such as in Addo’s church in Irvington.
The minister at First Presbyterian since 1989 and a Drew professor of Pan-African studies since 1995, Addo works a lot of teaching into his sermons. He points out that the Presbyterian church places a particular premium on pastors also being teachers and scholars. For Addo, ministry and scholarship have been intertwined pursuits since he was growing up in a village in eastern Ghana. From as far back as he can remember, he wanted to be a minister. He later learned that it had also been a dream of his mother, who died in childbirth when Addo was five.
He was raised by his father, Yaw Addo Mensah, a cocoa farmer and a co-founder of their local Presbyterian church, who also wanted him to be a scholar. “So throughout my growing-up process, these two: I loved the church but I also loved books,” Addo says. He would follow these loves through Trinity Theological Seminary in Accra, Ghana, missionary work in Germany, a master’s degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and, beginning in 1984, doctoral studies at Drew.
One story he tells again and again, blending the religious with the scholarly, is about how colonized Africans appropriated and remade the Christianity that missionaries brought them. Addo says early Christian missionaries in colonial Africa began by assuming that to become Christian, people first had to shed their African identity. “To be Christian was to negate the whole African being—the culture, the dress code,” Addo says. “You couldn’t be African and Christian at the same time.”
But, Addo suggests with some glee, instead of Christianity remaking Africa, Africans remade Christianity. They translated it into local languages and blended it with indigenous religion and local culture. In places like Nigeria and the countries known today as Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo, healing and spirit possession entered local Christian practice, hymns started to take on indigenous flavors and an Africanized Christianity began to spread.
The growth of Christianity in Africa is part of a much broader shift the religion is undergoing worldwide, with numbers and influence moving from its traditional centers in what researchers call the Global North—Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand—to the Global South.
A century ago the Global North contained more than four times as many Christians as did the Global South. Today, according to a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly two-thirds of the world’s 2.1 billion Christians live in the Global South. Three of the 10 countries with the highest number of Christians are in Africa—Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Sub-Saharan Africa has seen a nearly 60-fold increase in its Christian population in the past 100 years, the fastest growth of any region in the world.
In recent years the Christianity that moved to and grew up in the Global South has started making a return trip: immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia are bringing their own brands of the religion back to the Global North. In the United States, immigrants from Latin America are rejuvenating local congregations, particularly Roman Catholic ones. A similar thing happened with the congregation that Obiri Addo now leads at First Presbyterian Church.
In 1989, when he was five years into his doctoral studies at Drew, the local Presbyterian church administration told him about a church in Irvington that was on its last legs. The historically white and African-American congregation had dwindled, and there was talk of closing the church. Instead, Addo took the helm and started reaching out to different communities of African immigrants he knew in the area. He says that one key to rebuilding the church was not doing what the first-wave Christian missionaries did in Africa—he didn’t try to rebuild from scratch. Instead he took what was already in place in the church and started developing and tweaking—here and there adding what he calls “African flavors.”
Within a few years, the pews filled with immigrants from Liberia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi and Addo’s native Ghana. Echerobia Ezeala, a recently retired physical therapist, joined the growing church in the fall of 1992. In his native Nigeria, Ezeala, who is 69, had a friend named Obiri Addo. He went into First Presbyterian to see if it was the same person.
It was not. He stayed anyway, attracted in part by how it seemed “almost identical” to the Anglican church he attended while growing up—the order of worship, the hymns, the praise singing. “I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Ezeala says.
In 1991 Lorraine Cuffie had just moved to New Jersey with her parents and three children and was looking for a church (her family had moved from their native Guyana to Brooklyn in 1968, when Cuffie was in her early 20s). On her first visit to First Presbyterian, Addo learned that Cuffie’s mother was in the hospital. A few days later, he checked in on her mom to see how her recovery was going. Soon after that, he arranged for and delivered a Thanksgiving meal to the Cuffies. “There and then I decided I’m joining,” Lorraine Cuffie says.
In service every Sunday, Addo pauses from the readings and hymns and asks the congregation to share any issues or concerns they have. People give updates on family members in the hospital or relatives recently returned from trips abroad. On this day Addo asks a young man about the details of his father’s funeral, and sets in motion plans for church members to gather at the man’s home in a few weeks to honor the deceased. The congregation is arranged into eight smaller communities, each with a leader charged with keeping tabs on congregants’ needs. As Addo puts it, “We are a community of communities.”
As he says goodbye to the students in his “Modern Sub-Saharan Africa” class, Addo says, “See you next week. Stay warm. Stay out of trouble. If you get into trouble, call me.” And he means it. His cell phone number is on the syllabus. Students use it. “I have his number on my phone,” says Zainab Sulaiman, a senior who’s originally from Nigeria. The president of the Drew African Students Association, which Addo advises, Sulaiman traveled to South Africa with Addo for a Drew International Seminar (DIS). On campus, Addo is credited with spearheading the expansion of the DIS program on the African continent.
Guiding people to new places—and new perspectives— seems to be at the core of Addo’s work. In class and in church, his conversations take on a life of their own. At First Presbyterian , he wraps up the sermon-cum-lecture with a lesson about the early ties that Christianity and Islam both had to Africa. He starts walking back to the altar. “But where does the word Africa come from?” one congregant asks, reminding Addo of the question that started things off but has so far gone unanswered. Ah yes, he remembers with a smile, and quickly spins a great tale about Ifrikiya, the center of a medieval Arab kingdom that stretched across North Africa and onto the Iberian Peninsula. Africa was never a void.
Pan-African Studies at Drew
Courses in African and African-American studies have been offered at Drew since the 1950s, but the discipline, which encompasses the history, culture, politics and socioeconomic structures of Africa and the African diaspora, got fully under way 20 years ago, says Pan-African Studies Director Lillie Edwards. Here, a few of the program’s milestones:
African-American and African studies minor launched
Ellen and William M. Freeman ’74 establish fund to support courses by faculty from outside the program, such as the Ubuntu Pan-African Choir performance course
Program alumni create fund to help students study in Africa
Pan-African studies major introduced