The Continent of Africa is a spectrum of cultures, religions, castes and colours. At a time when the world faces economic meltdown and the world superpowers have been meeting to agree measures to protect their own economies, the welfare of the world’s poorest is sliding further down the priorities list. But there is also a perception that Africa is a backward place compared to the developed world. This article explores how religion evolved in the Continent, and whether Africa is really backward, or just a different culture.
Is Africa lagging behind because of a lack of resources? By the speed with which nations from America, Europe and Asia have been rushing to Africa to execute deals before the locals realise what they have under their feet, it appears not. Africa is slowly waking up to the value of the resources that have been plundered from its shores for many centuries. Sierra Leone is only just recovering from the havoc reeked in the pursuit of its diamonds. Botswana on the other hand has taken control of its own reserves of diamonds to bring revenue to the population.
This applies not just to minerals and energy reserves under-ground, but even to coffee and cocoa, taken from Africa in raw form for a pittance, and then processed and sold at huge profit with the original farmers getting very little return for their year-round labour. Initiatives such as Fair Trade are starting to redress the balance, slightly, but even then, Africans are gaining scant reward and return for their resources, and nobody seems interested in providing know-ledge to the locals to help them climb up the wealth ladder and out of poverty.
What Africa is less well-placed to deal with is the impact of global warming. Climatic shifts have already resulted in severe flooding and coastal erosion in equatorial Africa, while new research in Ghana suggests that even more severe and lengthy droughts may soon afflict the Continent. People in Africa need help to plan for such disasters and to find a way to respond to such crises.
So whilst Africa has a wealth of resources, it has not been able to benefit from them because it lacks the skills to process the raw materials into a more value-addded product. However, there are values in Africa which money cannot buy; values which seem to be diminishing alongside our advancements in the developed world. So what are these values? We can talk about respect for parents, teachers and elders, honesty and speaking the truth.
Across Africa, there is a noticeable difference in approach to the developed world. Whereas in the developed world, the focus is on the individual and their needs, in Africa there is still an emphasis on family and community. In Europe, housing is in short-supply, not because the population has spiralled out of control, but because increasingly people are living on their own, and families tend to split up much earlier. The culture supports a ‘me first’ attitude and this selfishness is partly to blame for the state of the world’s economies today.
In Africa, you will still see a focus on the family, and family units living together and providing for each other. Even beyond families, there is still much more of a collective community responsibility. So perhaps we are losing something of the essence of mankind in our rapid ‘development’.
Respect is another major issue. In the developed world, children expect more from an early age. They are aware of fashion and brands at a shocking age through exposure to relentless adverti-sing. These are the seeds for their selfish attitude which manifests itself in a lack of respect for family and elders. Knowing that there is a social support blanket available, these children sometimes do not value education and training, and are often rude to teachers. These are attitudes that you will rarely find in Africa, where education and training are seen as an essential opportunity to progress, and teachers are respected and heralded for providing that hope and opportunity to the next generation.
African Traditional Religions
Whilst most of Africa now professes Christianity or Islam, before these faiths came to the Continent, there were a multitude of traditional religions already in existence. These traditional religions demonstrate a respect for nature and for elders, and also guide people in all activities of daily life and have survived through oral tradition rather than sacred texts. There is generally a concept of a creator God, a supreme deity that comprehends everything and is all powerful. Across Africa, this concept reappears.
The Yoruba people of Nigeria have kept an oral tradition of Olodumare (Jordan, p.60-61), a supreme deity who created the Earth and a story of the stages of the evolution of life on the planet. According to the legend, mankind is created from clay centred on Ife-Ife. There are other lesser gods such as Aje (wealth), Obatala (son), Oduduwa (daughter) and Orunmila (justice). It is quite likely that over time the attributes of the supreme deity were personified just as in Greece and India. The Dogon tribe of Mali have a similar story where the creator is called Amma, whilst in Burundi they would talk of Imana, the Kikuyu and Masai of Kenya call their creator Ngai. Across Africa, the perception of this single creator is that He sits in a different realm above the earth and can see everything including both inside and outside of man. One difference in African concept of a supreme deity, however, is that in the African concept people cannot have a direct communion with their creator, but must do so via medicine men who communicate via trances and dreams (Gordon, p.17).
Similarly there is a strong respect for and worship of ancestors, but in an interesting twist, just as the ancient Egyptians have a concept of life after death recorded in their Book of the Dead, so in Angola, the Kimbundu people record the story of Kitamba and the death of his wife Muhongo. The gist is that Kitamba tries to bring his wife back from the dead but realises that she is now in a different realm never to return, and from this, that all people eventually die and leave this world behind them. However, ancestors are believed to linger near their graves after death, providing a positive influence and guidance to those that remember them and make sacrifices in their honour. This is why Africans continue to honour their dead just as North American Indians build totems to commemorate their ancestors.
There is a lot of wisdom locked away in these traditional faiths and passed down as oral tradi-tion, and a few examples are:
‘We are on a market trip on earth: whether we fill our baskets or not, once the time is up, we go home.’ (Igbo song, Nigeria)
‘You can climb up the mountain and down again; you can stroll around the valley and return; but you cannot go to God and return.’ (Nupe proverb, Nigeria)
‘You are on high with the spirits of the great. You raise the grass-covered hills above the earth, and create the rivers. Gracious One.’ (Shona prayer, Zimbabwe)
It is against this backdrop of traditional beliefs that Christianity and Islam found themselves as new monotheistic faiths trying to find roots across the continent.
Advent of Christianity
Christianity came into Africa through the north coast, particularly Egypt, where Alexandria became one of the early centres of Christian learning. Even today, the Coptic Church has a presence in Cairo. From Egypt, by the 5th century CE, Christianity had spread to neighbouring Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, and also across North Africa to Libya and Tunisia. At that time there was no single consistent text of the teachings of Christianity, only several collections of oral traditions centred around Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome and Antioch.
As Christianity spread into Africa, it merged with local ideas to form flavours of Christianity such as Gnosticism, the Copts and the Monophysites. There were different views on whether Jesus(as) was a man, a God or a man-God. There were different views of the status of Mary, the mother of Jesus(as). There were variations on the extent to which the new faith should adhere to the practices of Judaism from which it had emerged. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church became a bed-rock of that country which adopted the religion throughout the fabric of its society.
Sub-Saharan Africa only really adopted Christianity in the last 300 years as a result of the missionary zeal of European colonial powers such as France, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands. West Africa gradually stopped exporting slaves and started to import this new religion in the 19th century. East Africa was seen as a valuable resource by the British Empire in the 19th century and gradually Christianity entered Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda.
Portuguese sailors who explored new sea routes to Asia for spices via Africa in the 16th century also took Roman Catholicism with them to Congo, Angola and Mozambique. Through a parallel approach of capital spent in establishing schools and sending in hundreds of missionaries, Christianity spread rapidly in these areas and was well-established within 50 years.
British, Belgian and Dutch colonialism also saw Christianity reach many countries in West and South Africa. However, one of the saddest chapters was the role of slavery through which millions of Africans found themselves subjugated and transported to the Americas under the watchful eye of the Church. Sometimes, the Church would encourage the new African Christians to plunder neighbouring pagan tribes for slaves, and whilst the Church did not administer the slave trade, it did play an active role and failed to prevent these abuses. Ironically it was the religious convictions of William Wilberforce and other Christians in Europe and North America that eventually led to the abolition of slavery as well just over 200 years ago.
Many African Christians follow the Catholic or Church of England denominations of Christianity, however a trend over the last 100 years has been the establishment of African Independent Churches (AIC), which has resulted in a spectrum of new Church beliefs. Part of the motivation for the establishment of AICs was to get away from colonial churches increasingly seen as prejudiced against African culture. There are two main strands of AICs, Zionist Independent Churches which emphasise spiritual healing and are more inclined to follow Old Testament teachings, and Ethiopian Independent Churches which take comfort from the mentions of Ethiopia in the Bible to justify an African flavour of Christianity. There are estimated to be around 700 AICs across Africa.
Advent of Islam
As with Christianity, Islam entered the Continent via the north when the Arabs first established themselves in Egypt, then they sent trade delegations to Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and eventually Morocco. Very soon, Kairouan in Tunisia became a centre of Islam in North Africa, as did Moulay Idris in Morocco. In both cases, the locals are keen to point out that it was Sahaba (companions) of the Holy Prophet(saw) who came and established the roots of Islam in North Africa by the mid 8th century.
From there, unlike Christianity, Islam was soon established in Central Africa via the trade routes (many scholars suggest that the Sahara Desert was not as severe as it is now, and that trade routes through the Sahara were well established at that time).
Within 200 years, Islam had reached Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Sudan, Nigeria and the old Ghana empires. The logic and fairness of Islam had led to many pagans and worshippers of traditional African faiths adopting Islam and Islamic culture. Trade with the Arab world at that time included gold, salt and various foods and minerals. There was a mutual respect between the Arabs and Africans at that time and in cities such as Timbuktu, Kumbi Saleh, Agades, Taghaza and Kufra, the Arabs discovered confident African peoples with well-developed social, political and religious systems, but with a supreme king who held absolute power.
Whilst the socialist and democratic ideals of Islam soon prevailed in Western Africa, the king still held sway, and some features of traditional beliefs such as ancestor worship managed to co-exist with the simple teachings of Islam. Inter-tribal rivalries and conflict led to the decline of the old Ghana kingdom and the establishment of the new Mali kingdom under the leadership of the Malinke people. New trade routes were also opened with the Hausa, Yoruba, Dagomba, Ashanti and Ibo regions to access peoples in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Liberia and the Ivory Coast.
In East Africa also, maritime trade routes led the Arabs to come into contact with tribes and nations down the East African coast, and gradually over the next 300-400 years, Somalia, Kenya, Tanganyika, Zanzibar and Mozambique as well as the island of Madagascar all adopted Islam. As with West Africa, here too, the Arabs came across advanced cultures with access to raw materials, produce and advanced technology such as high carbon steel. Coastal towns such as Zanzibar, Pemba, Lamu and Malindi already had established trading links with Yemen and Egypt. In Kilwa (Tanzanian coast), a huge palace was built of stone with courtyards, terraces, ornamental pools, domes and vast pillars.
The Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa in 1331 and described it as one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world. Further south, Muslims reached Sofala on the Zambezi River and were able to reach the kingdom of Great Zimbabwe (known then as Monamatapa). Whilst the Arabs delighted in trade to access copper, tin, gold, iron and other minerals and resources, the Africans in return were fascinated by the import of ceramics, silks, weaponry and some luxury items which they had never come across before. By then, the Arabs had regular contact with India, China and even Mediterranean Europe. Relations between East Africans and the Arabs would continue to thrive until the Portuguese arrived at the dawn of the 16th century.
However, the interest of Muslims in Africa was not just trade, and vice versa. Islam bought with it for the first time a complete moral code and provided guidance for all aspects of life. Women were given rights and freedoms that they could not have envisaged before, and there were rights for orphans and the lowest rungs of society. Looking after the weakest members of society became a duty rather than a charitable act. The Muslims encountering Africa were fired by zeal to preach their faith just as the Christians would be many centuries later. Slave trade from East Africa left less scars on the Arab and Asiatic society than it did in America.
The Kingdom of Timbuktu conjures up images of a classical dynasty and trading hub just as Samarkand reminds us of the glory days of the Silk Route. Timbuktu was one of the most important hubs of the Saharan trading routes established by the Songhay kingdom, who established Islam as their imperial cult. They built charac-teristic mud brick mosques and universities with wooden poles sticking out (used as a primitive form of scaffolding to allow building repair). The Songhay were a powerful nation with a maritime navy able to traverse the rivers. When their king Mohammed Ture performed Hajj in Makkah in 1496, he was hailed as the ruler of a huge empire from western Sudan all the way to Senegal. The Songhay eventually lost power to the Moroccans, but Timbuktu was to remain a powerful city even when the Europeans arrived.
Religion Today in Africa
The modern religious map of Africa shows broadly that the North of Africa is predominantly Muslim, the South of Africa is predominantly Christian, and Central Africa possesses a mixture of the two. There are also pockets of Judaism and Hinduism, and traditional reli-gions persist throughout the Continent.
In many countries, there has been a fusing of traditional beliefs with Christianity and Islam to form hybrids, where some of the old traditions and thoughts still linger. Examples include beliefs in evil spirits inhabiting people, or the effects of the evil eye.
In general, the role of religion has been positive in Africa in encouraging education and learning, greater discipline, enhancing existing family and community values, and defining a progressive role for women in society. Moreover, religion has had the effect of creating ties between communities across Africa where previously the Continent had suffered from inter-tribal violence.
Impact of Technology
There are many technologies the developed world has loathed to make available to Africans such as the latest drugs to tackle diseases (which are now unheard of in the developed world), latest agricultural techniques and advances in transportation and utilities. However, the nations of the developed world seem very eager to export weapons and then create the environment in which those weapons can be battle-tested to improve sales and marketing. The lack of availability of drugs to tackle simple diseases such as Malaria and Hepatitis is both shocking and immoral. The lack of testing in hospitals means that a high proportion of surgery patients die on the operating theatre and a horrific percentage of expectant mothers die during child-birth. We would not tolerate this in the developed world.
There are some positive technologies that are making a real difference to lives in Africa. The first is the provision of safe drinking water and sanitation. In Africa, often 50% of the population lacks local safe drinking water and 70% lacks proper sanitation, particularly in the rural areas. People often walk many miles with a container to fetch water for their families. The deployment of hand water-pumps and spring water protection technology is now making safe local water a reality, though maintenance of these systems is paramount, especially when a rural community becomes used to this new convenience. Water harvesting technology is being used to collect rainfall and utilise it for sanitation backed by education on the benefits of proper sanitation and how to prevent the spread of disease.
Another new technology that has made a huge impact is mobile telecoms. Even in rural parts of Africa, you will come across houses painted in bright colours affirming particular telecoms provider. The deal is that the telco pays to have your house painted, provided the front facing the road is painted in their livery and showing their logo. With limited resources, many villagers will have a mobile phone and are using this technology in surprising ways. Keeping in touch with friends and family in neighbouring villages is an obvious use, but now farmers are using mobiles to stay in contact with colleagues at local markets. When they harvest crops, they can quickly check the current prices at several markets, and decide which one to take their produce to.
Moreover, clever new techniques such as the Desert Fridge (one clay pot within another with wet sand between) are enabling them to eliminate crop wastage and store produce for over 2 weeks. This idea came out of Nigeria and has already spread to Sudan, The Gambia and other West African countries.
Wealth and Value
Whilst the developed world is locked into spiralling con-sumerism and advancement, we must ask the question whether we are advancing, or losing some of our old values? For example, whilst we can amass cars, televisions, fridges, clothes and computers, do we value what we have, and are we truly benefiting from these new gadgets? In Africa, people value items, which are in fact commodities out there, such as clean drinking water, books and education.
Whilst in Kenya and Uganda, I witnessed young children not much older than eight getting ready for school at 6am and then walking for 3 hours each way to get to school and back. Whilst in school, there might be one textbook per 50 or 100 students in rural schools treasured. In the developed world, we expect our children to go to a high performing school in our local area, and our children expect to be dropped off and picked up by car, sent with designer clothes and toys, and even then struggle to raise a smile at the thought of education. So whilst our education has greater facilities and better trained teachers and offers greater opportunities, it is not always valued by youngsters who often truant, abuse teachers and fellow students, and shy away from hard work.
Hence the attitude in Africa is refreshing and may surprise many people. Not only do the students prize education and learning, but also, the teachers and parents are not waiting with cupped hands for external NGOs to invest in their schools. Throughout Africa, there are active Parent Teacher Associations investing in extra teachers and new facilities for their children. This is one of the most encouraging signs and bodes well for the next generation.
There is no doubt that Africa is lagging far behind in technology, utilities and healthcare. The developed world carries a huge responsibility for not transferring knowledge and resources to help Africa improve in these areas. In particular, the fact that so many mothers are dying in child-birth, so many children are dying before they reach maturity, millions of Africans are unnecessarily suffering from pre-ventable diseases and blindness, and so many millions of Africans have no local access to safe water – this is immoral and a black mark against the developed world which has turned a blind eye to the fate of Africans.
But all is not doom and gloom. In many rural parts of Africa, life continues as it has done for many centuries. People live a traditional lifestyle oblivious to advances in technology else-where. Whilst their dress may seem primitive and their houses simple, and their menu does not reflect the global village, they are content with their lifestyle and have a community system that works for them.
In many cases, the adoption of Christianity and Islam, have accentuated these traditional African values. Africa is also starting to reclaim its history of great cultures such as the Songhay who excelled in trade, architecture and technology from Timbuktu.
Africa is different to the developed world. Perhaps there is nothing wrong in that, and it might be worse for us to try to change that status quo. After all, if they have kept some of our old values alive, and as our society degenerates in the name of development, maybe in years to come, we will have more to learn from them than they will have from us.
1. The Times Atlas of World History, Geoffrey Parker, 4th Ed, Times Books, London 1995.
2. Historical Atlas of the Islamic World, David Nicolle, Mercury Books, London 2003.
3. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, Fontana Press, London 1993.
4. Myths of the World, Michael Jordan, Kyle Cathie Limited, London 1993.
5. The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, Stuart Gordon, Headline Book Publishing, London 1994.
6. Patterns in Comparative Religion, Mircea Eliade, 6th impression, Sheed and Ward, London 1993.
7. The Preaching of Islam, T.W. Arnold, Aryan Books International, New Delhi 1998.