Being a religious studies professor means that Robert Baum is frequently asked about his own religion, to which he responds cheerfully, “I’m an Evangelical Africanist,” a remark that reveals his “deep commitment to make sure Africa is included whenever we talk about the world.” Running through all of Baum’s work—whether teaching, research, or outreach—is a value on religious literacy, the desire to promote a better understanding of the world’s major religions.
Baum’s first book, Shrines of the Slave Trade: Diola Religion and Society in Precolonial Senegambia (1999), examines the history of Diola religion during the pre-colonial era, with particular attention to the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and family spirit cults. This work received a prize from the American Academy of Religion for the best first book in the history of religions.
Baum has been studying Diola religion in Africa. Centered around belief in a supreme being, Emitai, literally “of the sky,”the Diola see Emitai as “the creator of all life and the bestower of rain.” Emitai elal is the Diola word for rain, “part of the essence of God that is seen as giving life during the rainy season and sustains the Diola.” Lesser spirits deal with specific kinds of problems, including family cults (hupila), as well as cults for women’s fertility, men’s initiation, blacksmithing, fishing, and hunting. Like other religions, the Diola have a concept of judgment after death. On the one hand, Baum explains, “those people who had life-enhancing lives (who helped other people, were good members of the community and good parents) become ancestors. They appear to their living descendants in dreams and visions and are seen as living right in the village. It is said that they are so close you can feel the warmth of their cooking fires at night.” On the other hand, those people who led a destructive life, “are condemned to the bush, forced to live outside the village.”
Baum’s current research examines the history of an indigenous African religion, especially the Diola prophets who claim direct revelation from Emitai, the supreme being. In the late-nineteenth century, prior to the French occupation, there were eleven prophets, all of them men. Since French colonization, Baum discovered, there have been 42 prophets, most of them women. Baum is examining the intensification of this prophetic tradition as it transformed from an exclusively male phenomenon to a predominantly female one.
Asked why the Diola prophet shifted from a male-centered system to female-centered one, Baum was willing to offer his preliminary thoughts. “I think it has a lot to do with the discrediting of male authority [during] the colonial conquest,” he says, as well as a series of failures, including the failure of male military victory, the failure of men to resist forced labor, and the failure of male spirit shrines and priests to repel the French, Portuguese, and British colonizers. The female spirit shrines were seen as being extremely powerful in protecting women and, moreover, women tended to stay at home with the children, becoming a source of cultural continuity. “The erosion of respect for male leadership,” concludes Baum, “had a lot to do with the coming forward of a generation of women prophets, and the lack of opportunity in the new religions of Islam and Christianity.”