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.
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.”