Disability and Embodiment in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Theology and Religion


Venturing into under-researched areas (disability studies in Africa and the religio-cultural narratives of disability in Namibia) this project will develop a 'Diverse Bodies Namibia' network, collaboratively created by the Universities of Namibia and Exeter, the National Federation of People with Disabilities in Namibia and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia.

Religio-cultural attitudes can be co-opted into disabling narratives, whether around illness, or experiences of specific disabilities (physical/sensory/mental) and those associated with gender and sexuality. For example, illness may be associated with sin or spirit-affliction and people with disabilities may encounter perceptions of deficiency, pity or as requiring cure. Gender as disability means that women are exposed to the patriarchal religious or cultural attitudes that may undergird a scourge of gender-based violence. Contestation over where religious and cultural authority lies concerning issues of sexuality has precipitated a polarised debate on the ground, lacking in nuance. The stark inequalities caused by Namibia's colonial legacy are compounded by, and intersect with, divisions of race and ethnicity. These unchecked inequalities contribute to intensified experiences of poverty, exclusion and a lack of well-being.

The project will focus initially on a traditional understanding of disability. We will document lived experiences of physical and mental illness in Namibia alongside church responses and develop an educational package based on biblical and local cultural resources that tackles marginalising discourses. Given its use to address social injustices in Southern Africa, Contextual Bible Study has been chosen as an appropriate methodological approach to complement disability studies in a context where 90% of the population is Christian.

The network will gradually expand to collaborators in well-established, pioneering activist-advocacy groups in Namibia - those concerned with social justice, development, and disability/gender/LGBTQI+ rights. In this forum, academic and activist-advocacy groups can engage with church representatives in a collaborative effort to explore and interrogate dominant religious and cultural narratives surrounding diverse experiences of embodiment. It will consider the extent to which missionary-colonial narratives of 'normativity' have been co-opted and are being refigured and rehearsed as inviolable, Christian and/or indigenous narratives. It will then go on to consider ways in which those same religio-cultural resources might be employed in the promotion of equality, inclusivity and diversity, in line with the UN 2030 Agenda's drive to 'leave no one behind'.

The network will bring together expertise on the impoverishing effects that people with disabilities experience disproportionately: disempowerment, marginalisation, stigmatisation, inadequate access to health care and education, socio-economic struggle, and even violence. The network will exchange knowledge and collaborate further on four themes:
i. collating and foregrounding impoverishing experiences of disability
ii. understanding challenges and priorities from the perspective of the disabled and their advocates
iii. mapping and interrogating religious and cultural narratives of inclusion/exclusion
iv. addressing religious and cultural narratives of inclusion/exclusion in order to promote inclusivity, equality and diversity and, thereby, to maximise potential for development.

The network will convene participants at 3 workshops, with resources being trialled throughout the year. It draws upon substantial regional academic expertise in religion and social justice, thereby promoting 'South-South' collaboration alongside UK-LMIC collaboration. Members of the network will foster Namibian-centred approaches to the promotion of equality and diversity, avoiding the pitfalls of importing Western approaches to embodied diversities.

Planned Impact

Many activist-advocacy groups on the ground work towards disabled minority rights in Namibia. However, opportunities for cooperation and collaboration with the church and academia are limited, and with them opportunities to develop greater levels of well-being in marginalised communities. The central impact we seek is to consolidate efforts, thereby maximising possibilities of effecting change in attitudes to and treatment of persons of diverse embodiment. By offering opportunities to congregate, to establish shared expertise, goals and challenges, all through a common lens (disability), the voices of those campaigning for change will be amplified. The National Federation of People with Disabilities in Namibia reports that operations are limited to the capital and cooperation with the church is lacking. Our activities will extend NFPDN's reach into rural areas and provide opportunities to engage with church and political representatives.

Conducting contextual Bible studies will allow grassroots and church participants to voice religious and cultural perspectives on disability. Given the weight of influence that Christianity and African Traditional Religion(s) have in Namibia, this process allows participants to reflect on their context and empowers them to engage in the interpretation and interrogation of religious and cultural 'texts'. The work of the Ujamaa Centre in South Africa is testament to the impact and success of this approach. Socially-engaged biblical scholars there have interrogated prevalent but destructive social norms and tackled social injustices (such as gender-based violence and HIV stigma) through cooperation with church and community groups. Utilising this approach in Namibia, church and political representatives will have the opportunity to engage with a diversity of stakeholders in the promotion of social justice for the disabled, benefiting in particular from the expertise of invited speakers from South Africa. The potential for change in public discourse and social norms is limited without church representatives adding their voices to the growing chorus demanding social justice for all.

Our networking activities (and legacy project) serve the UN Sustainable Development Goals in pursuit of a reduction in poverty (1), the promotion of health and well-being (3), the promotion of gender equality (5), the reduction of inequalities (10), and the promotion of inclusivity (16). Alignment with UN's country report on Namibia is clear: the report suggests that 'a more targeted approach to addressing discriminatory social norms' is apposite, as is a focus on 'sexuality education' and 'the most vulnerable groups including persons with a disability' (UNFPA 2018: I.10; II.A.16-17; II.B.18). It seeks impact by engaging a range of non-academic and activist partners (UNFPA 2018: II.B.18) and promoting 'South-South cooperation' (UNFPA 2018 II.15). Convening experts in religio-cultural discourses surrounding disability/exclusion will generate knew knowledge about potential underpinnings of exclusionary discourse in Namibian public life, such as hate-speech against LGBTQI+ communities and a lack of protection against discrimination. The generation of such knowledge is a vital means by which the abuse suffered by LGBTQI+ communities can be tackled. Here, the project aligns with Victor Madrigal-Borloz's mandate as UN 'Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity'.

Research into the underpinnings of 'discriminatory social norms' and the development of resources to tackle them will have considerable impact on inequality and marginalisation. The general public will benefit from resources that consider a broader understanding of disability and promote equality and inclusivity. Public discourse will be nuanced and enriched via a focus on the as yet unexamined significance of religious and cultural narratives of disability.


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Description Whilst we have had an extension to this grant (due to Covid) so have not completed all the activities - what has emerged thus far includes:
(a) An emerging awareness that 'compulsory cure' of disability is often assumed within preaching/church around healing narratives in the Bible.
(b) An important strategy therefore is to give more information to clergy leaders (churches as 'active instruments') on how to engage disability identities, and empower entire communities through more inclusive readings of biblical traditions.
(c) Local African sayings, and proverbs have both potential for exclusionary dynamics with regard to disability, but also more collective/equitable visions of communities in all their diversity.
(d) Community-based sensitisation campaigns around religion, culture, and the body are central.

2023 Addition
We have across 2021-present been developing arts based interventions (monologues, directed and assisted by drama specialists) as a pilot for impact across Namibian Radio, also some sensitisation posters on accessibility, ableism/stigma for use in churches. This has been internally funded by institution. It is moving towards the amplification of our findings from the GCRF grant around community-based/arts campaigns around religion, culture, and body being most important in interventions of this sort.
Exploitation Route Community engagement and sensitisation campaigns based on religion and culture (including African Traditional Religion, and Christianity) is important for addressing injustice on a number of fronts. These traditions have at times perpetuated stigma/marginalisation, but also within them have important resources for challenging such perspectives, and identifying more liberating visions.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/
Description (a) Development of Community Bible Study Resources for use in Churches/local communities (b) Videos (in Namibian Sign Language) available on the project on our blog (https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/) There will be more to come, but the project is still in process. 2023 entry During 2021-2022 we have been co-producing sensitisation poster campaigns for use of churches to overcome stigma and ableism. We have also co-produced a series of pilot monologues of lived experience of disability, which we hope to be able to ground test, and modify. This has been funded internally by the University of Exeter.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other
Impact Types Cultural,Societal,Policy & public services

Description Network Member from National Federation of People with Disabilities in Namibia added to UN advisory panel via Project Investigator contact
Geographic Reach Africa 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a guidance/advisory committee
Description Collaboration with Deputy Minister for Disability Affairs, Government of the Republic of Namibia 
Organisation Government of the Republic of Namibia
Department Ministry of Gender Equality, Poverty Eradication and Social Welfare
Country Namibia 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Dr Helen John cultivated a relationship with the Disability Affairs offices within the Government of the Republic of Namibia and held a meeting with the Deputy Minister.
Collaborator Contribution The Deputy Minister for Disability Affairs agreed to be the keynote speaker at our online, 2-day workshop in December 2020, the recording and text of which is available on our blog: https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/ The Deputy Minister will be involved in the network moving forward and with our anticipated follow-on, full-scale research project.
Impact The Deputy Minister was the keynote speaker at our December 2020 inter-/multi- and trans-disciplinary online workshop.
Start Year 2020
Description Collaboration with University of KwaZulu-Natal on Disability in Namibia Networking Project 
Organisation University of KwaZulu-Natal
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Prof Louise Lawrence developed a relationship with the Ujamaa Centre at the University of KwaZulu-Natal through shared expertise (Contextual Bible Study) and conferencing. This has led to their involvement both in our networking project and our proposed follow-on, full-scale research project. Prof Lawrence has invited her counterpart to Exeter as a visiting international academic speaker and research partner. Their shared expertise directly informs our work on the current project and envisioned endeavours in the folllow-on project, which will draw on both parties/institutions expertise, capacities and development needs.
Collaborator Contribution The Ujamaa Centre will be offering expertise on Contextual Bible Study for both the current and future projects. They have done and will offer time and expertise to contribute to workshops and co-authored writing. Two staff members presented at the December 2020 workshop.
Impact Participation in a delivery of online December 2020 workshop on Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives (see blog)
Start Year 2020
Description Collaboration with University of Namibia on Disability in Namibia Network Project 
Organisation University of Namibia
Country Namibia 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution As a part of the current networking project, we (Project Team, University of Exeter) have set up a network, 'Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives Network', to involve academics at the University of Namibia, members of the disability community in Namibia, disability activists in Namibia, academics across Southern Africa, the Government of the Republic of Namibia, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia and related seminaries in engaging with our project. As part of the network's operations, we have organised 3 workshops to bring network members together.
Collaborator Contribution Our project funds the contribution of 3 University of Namibia (UNAM) academics to co-writing outputs and co-organising and participating in networking events. The University of Namibia was due to host the 3rd of our workshops (contribution-in-kind: conference space) but COVID-19 precluded this contribution. UNAM academics have therefore participated in co-writing our article output and co-organising and hosting virtual and in-person events over the course of our project.
Impact Our co-written article is currently submitted and under review. We held an online workshop on 3rd and 4th December 2020, details of which are on the blog: https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/ Two further workshops are organised for 15th March 2021 and 21st-23rd April 2021. All events are international and multi-disciplinary, involving academics from Theology & Religion, Inclusive Education, Health Sciences, Economics & Development Studies, Management Studies. They are also trans-disciplinary, involving (variously) participants from the church, seminaries, government, activist groups and community groups.
Start Year 2019
Description University of Exeter Drama Dept 
Organisation University of Exeter
Department Drama Department
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Providing monologue coaches/directors to work with participants in our project in Namibia to produce 'talking head' recordings of lived experience of disability.
Collaborator Contribution Providing monologue coaches/directors to work with participants in our project in Namibia to produce 'talking head' recordings of lived experience of disability.
Impact We are hopeful that enhancing performative/dramatic elements of our resources will be expanded in future impact activity. We are also looking to grow further networks with community drama groups in Namibia.
Start Year 2022
Description Piloting of Resources - Sensechecking workshop in Namibia in community group (Spring 2022) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact A workshop in which co-production of sensitising poster campaigns and monologue recordings were discussed with research partners, disability charities, and seminarians in Windhoek.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022
Description Project Blog 
Form Of Engagement Activity Engagement focused website, blog or social media channel
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact We run a blog to document project activities, disseminate findings, disseminate content from project events, and to disseminate news about network members and their activities. This enables participants to revisit information disseminated at workshops, and view proceedings if unable to attend. It also offers an outline of the project for other researchers or would-be participants. It also enables us to further our inclusivity agenda in offering sign-language interpreted videos and multi-media content to cater for individual needs.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020,2021
URL https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/
Description Workshop 1 (December 2020): Disability in Namibia: Religious and Cultural Perspectives 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Third sector organisations
Results and Impact We organised and ran 2-day online workshop for people with disabilities in Namibia, disability activists and advocates, interdisciplinary scholars involved in disability fields, government representatives, seminarians, clergy, UN agencies, charitable organisations. Presentations and discussions were offered by activists, academics, 3 UN agencies, and (as keynote) the Deputy Minister for Disability Affairs in the Government of the Republic of Namibia.
The presentations and selected discussions were recorded and disseminated on our blog: https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/
The workshop was designed to bring participants together in a face-to-face (virtual) space, in order to cement our network and hear from various academic perspectives, geographical locations (UK, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe), and fields of expertise. The discussions were very fruitful and allowed us as academics to get a good grasp of the situation on the ground from the perspective of people with disabilities and those engaged in trying to improve the lives of people with disabilities in Namibia.
Through this workshop, a COVID-postponed event (Workshop 3, April 2021) has now been re-organised to cater for a seminarian audience (prompted by a participant who vocalised the need for engagement with seminaries), which will complement our work with the church in Namibia (Workshop 3, March 2021). We have also cemented our ties with the Government of the Republic of Namibia. We have reached and engaged with 3 different UN agencies in Namibia (UNICEF, UNFPA, UNDP) and thus have a broad network establish on the ground to facilitate our research moving forward.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
URL https://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/disabilitynamibia/