Cover Image
close this bookThe Courier N 123 Sept - October 1990 - Dossier Higher Education - Country Reports: Barbados - (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
close this folderDeveloping world
View the documentHuman Rights - equal ones!
View the documentReligion in Africa
View the documentPopulation growth - can it be slowed down?
View the documentDevelopment report 1990: lifting 400 million people out of poverty

Religion in Africa

by Bernard Nkuissi

Periodically, African religion hits the headlines, usually because of the appearance (or disappearance) of personalities such as the “prophetess” Alice “Lakwena” in Uganda or sects such as Joseph Kony’s “Army of the Holy Spirit”, another Ugandan phenomenon, but with “guiding spirits” from elsewhere - two Sudanese, a Zaan, three Americans and two Chinese. Many of these sects tend to mix forms of belief.

Another side of African religion is its cultural appropriation from non-African faiths. The “ Zaan rite”, for example, long posed a problem to the Catholic authorities until, in 1988, a decree from the Curia of Rome recognised most of its liturgical practices - dancing (by priest and congregation alike) during the mass, the playing of instruments like gongs and tam tams (but a ban on ceremonial spears), the inclusion of “ righteous “ ancestors in the litany of saints, pagne cloths used as liturgical garments, and particular positions adopted (not standing up for the gospel, for example, as in Europe, but remaining seated, as if listening to the words of a traditional chief).

There are two barriers to the study of traditional religions - the absence of written sources and the close link between local faith and tribe. As J.S. Mbiti said, “There are about a thousand African peoples and they all have their own religion”. Faith and everyday life are indeed so closely linked that any investigation of religions must take in all the individual, family and social practices as well.

But it is worth the effort, apart from considerations of philosophy, theology or sociology, for religion affects the economic, social and even political life of the nation. As the geographer Daniel Dory said, religious factors “ help shape the land and carve the landscape... There is a correlation between religions and settlement (types of housing, the rural exodus and urban development), the overturning of the productive forces and changing socio-economic relationships (the introduction of a money economy, changing agricultural techniques, industrialisation)... It is interesting to see the effect Christianity has had on the process of modernisation in contemporary Africa. Although much has been made of its role in health and education, far less attention has been paid to the ultimate consequences of such things as the encouragement of smaller families (by abandoning polygamy) and the emergence of individualism that is at variance with traditional community behaviour “.

Lastly, the link between religion and politics is clear. It was apparent at the time of colonisation and at the time of independence and it is apparent again now, in such things as the action of the churches in South Africa.

This, then, is the scene in which the following article by Bernard Nkuissi is set.

The old idea that Africa, particularly Black Africa, is a continent steeped in religion and that the Blacks are incurably religious should be taken with a large pinch of salt. It would in fact imply something else, that Africa is (still) the last bastion of religion, with all the pejorative connotations that go with it - which is why it seems advisable to make a preliminary remark on the religious phenomenon in general, a better grasp of which can be obtained by dividing human life into the profane (which man masters through science and technology) and the sacred (which he neither understands nor controls but is influenced by), two concentric circles, with man in the middle. When the profane circle tightens around man, he comes into immediate and permanent contact with the sacred and when, thanks to progress in science and technology, the profane circle expands, the sacred withdraws and fades into an ever more distant horizon, although without disappearing altogether. And as it withdraws, the demarcation line (the circumference) between the sacred and the profane gets longer and the sacred is less present and less pressing, but vaster. Religion (from the Latin word “ religare”, to bind) has to manage relations between the sacred and profane, providing a response to man’s deep-seated aspirations as a complement to or replacement for the solutions put forward by science and technology.

It would be wrong to approach African religion as something to be eradicated. This would be failing to understand that the religious phenomenon is at the heart of the human phenomenon. All civilisations and all continents are marked by it, in different but very real ways. Religion is not a temptation, but a demand. Many an atheist is the Monsieur Jourdain (a posturing character in Moli’s play “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”) of religion. The problem is not knowing whether to be religious, but how.

This article sets out to give a picture of religion in Africa today and to highlight one or two strategic questions related to it. There is little choice but to give a brief outline of what is a highly complex matter. The subject of religion is complex, individual religions are complex and Africa is - or maybe the Africans are complex, and such things as messianism and sects are worth more than a few lines.

Traditional religions in Africa

The piecemeal nature of culture and religion in traditional Africa is too obvious to deny, but there is some degree of religious unity, as modern Africa specialists are increasingly willing to admit, and we have it as our basic principle. What is it based on? There are several valid expressions of and approaches to it, but we have taken life itself as the unifying factor of the traditional religions of Africa.

Religions in Africa

“Vitalism”, the basis of traditional religion

Religion is often said to permeate life in Africa to the point where it is difficult to separate sacred and profane, and the reason for it is that the quest of the African soul is focused on life, a life that has to be preserved, extended and transmitted. This is vitalism or even pan-vitalism and it can be elucidated by reference to a number of its basic tenets.

1. Everything is life. Life is being. Inanimate beings and the dead are also living but otherwise. The way, the quality and the intensity of their living is different, but the life is identical.

2. Life is shared among individuals. Life is not a formless mass. It is divided into parts which individuals take and these individuals have features which distinguish them from each other, so they can be split into different categories and classes (tribes, races, etc.)

3. Life is never still. It moves among individuals, regardless of what species they may belong to, creating permanent solidarity. There are rules governing this movement - of which the various human activities (culture, feeding, teaching, curing, dying etc) are aspects - and they must be known and respected if disaster is to be avoided.

4. The aim of both the individual and society is to preserve life as well and as long as possible. This means being in the centre of a favourable network of solidarity - with the physical world and the cosmos and with the ancestors and the descendants - and using the appropriate techniques to close any gaps in it.

5. Religion is needed for two reasons - to manage the vital flows between sacred and profane and to make up for the shortcomings and inadequacies of profane science and technology. Myths and beliefs supplement or replace science, just as liturgical rites and magic supplement or replace technology. And sometimes, because prevention is better than cure, religion alone is used to ensure certain knowledge and effective action.

Elements of African religion

This basic element which defines African religion can be used to derive others reflecting other aspects such as beliefs, practices and organisation.

1. Belief in a Supreme God (Using the word God, Supreme Being or any other word is not important). All communities have one or more terms for this Living Reality which is looked upon as a person who is ultimately responsible for life, the Life Supreme, let us say, both the Distant One, the Transcendent and the Invisible, as well as the Near One, who can hear a murmured request and change life flows.

Religions in Africa

2. Man, who has a special, privileged status. The universe, i.e. the cosmic geographical space that this community has appropriated, provides him with elements which can be used a profound humanism to which rites and practices have blinded some European observers. These elements (air, fire, minerals, plants, animals and so on) are vehicles for or receptacles of vital energy. They are useful, but they can be dangerous and harmful if they are manipulated clumsily or with ill intent.

Man goes through several conditions of life successively, and sometimes simultaneously. He has a life on earth and a life beyond, before birth or after death. He usually lives his earthly life in a human body, although he may also live it in an animal body (totem), a plant body or no body at all.

The unity of the individual is fundamental. In some mysterious way, everything which has ever belonged to him maintains its links, which is why it is possible to affect someone from a distance, through things (blood, sweat, hair or possessions) taken from him, harming the living by violation of ancestral remains and disturbing the dead by doing evil to their descendants.

Man’s profound aspiration is life, a life of quality devoid of all evil, a long life on earth which is prolonged by the ancestors on one hand and the descendants on the other.

3. Evil - everything which interferes with the quality or the length of life. Quality of life may be impeded by sickness, hunger, some physical or mental handicap, natural disasters or ignorance (about, say, what has caused something bad) and length by dying young, dying suddenly without the opportunity for last words for people to remember you by, or dying without offspring or not knowing one’s ancestors. There is always a religious explanation for evil, encompassing and transcending the purely rational (valid, of course, but too short) explanation. The main causes are: punishment by god, vengeance by ancestors or the dead, ill will on the part of people or spirits; and it is important to see exactly what each cause is so that it can be remedied and prevented in the future. Religious and moral behaviour hinges on a search for the cause of evil and salvation (being kept or saved from evil).

4. Moral and religious practices. The effectiveness of all human activity depends on both the rules of the particular activity and moral and cultural precepts being respected. He who, say, tills his land on a forbidden day will have bad harvests or harvest evil, and techniques and know-how will only work if they fit in properly with moral and religious behaviour.

God and ancestor worship

a) Worshipping God. This is based on the feeling that God is absolutely transcendental and that man is entirely dependent on Him, but confident in His goodness and justice. It is also based on the need for protection against the precarious nature of the human condition. Worship, first and foremost, is prayer, calling on God to witness, praising Him and asking for His intercession. Ritual sacrifice, the counterpart of what man has received or expects from God, completes and accompanies prayer.

b) Worshipping the ancestors. This popular cult polarised all religious practices in many tribes, to the point where it became one of the biggest obstacles to the spreading of the word of Christ. It expresses the profound, permanent solidarity which exists between the living and the dead. There are indeed reciprocal duties, the living having to maintain their dead (with sacrifices and offerings), keep their relics, respect their last wishes and give them dignified funeral celebrations, and the dead ensuring the prosperity of the living and communicating their power and wisdom in dreams or through seers, magicians and healers.

The two cults are so closely linked that, in some tribes, God is considered to be the First Ancestor.

5. Organisation and ritual. Traditional African religions tend not to have separate hierarchies empowered to speak on behalf of the whole faith. Political leaders and heads of families also have religious power, although some jobs will sometimes be done by specialists (seers, healers, witches, priests etc). Monuments for ritual purposes are rare and the ceremonies are held on the public square or at a sacred natural site.

There are many rituals to mark the main stages in the life of the individual and important events in the history of the community - birth, for example, weaning, initiation, marriage, widowhood, burial and enthroning - and everyday activities such as eating, welcoming visitors, working and so on.

Importance of traditional religion

1. Numbers. There are an estimated 200 million people, slightly more than 33% of the population of the continent, following traditional religious practices at the present time - although, as with other religions we shall be looking at, these are only rough figures (the population of Africa was 555 million in 1988).

2. Influence. The idea that traditional religion was disappearing under the combined effects of Islam and Christianity was premature and, although some myths and rites have gone once and for all, it has to be admitted that traditional practices still have considerable influence. Islam and the African beliefs have had to support each other to ensure success and the Christian policies of today mixing deeply with local cultures - are working along much the same lines. Many a politician has seen traditional religion as a source of arguments with which to shape his doctrine and rally his compatriots.



The penetration of Christianity in Africa can be divided into three periods.

· 1st period: Antiquity. Christianity was practised in Egypt from the 1st century AD onwards and Christian fervour was considerable because of the troubles caused by the marginal sects (the gnostics) and of the dynamic nature of orthodoxy. Monachism first emerged in Egypt and Alexandria (made famous by Origene. St Cyril and St Athanasius) became the rival of Antioch and Constantinople, the other Christian capitals of the Orient. This church, the Coptic church, looked to itself after refusing the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedonia (in the year 451). By the 2nd century AD, Christianity was well established in North Africa (present-day Tunisia). Its leading lights were St Donat, St Cyprian and St Augustine and its main centre was Carthage the primate city in Africa - which hosted 32 Councils in the 3rd and 4th centuries. In the 4th century, two Syrian laymen took Christianity to Ethiopia and later on the Ethiopian church joined the Alexandrian church. This was the only church later to resist the Moslem invasion.

· 2nd period: 15th and 16th centuries. At the end of the 15th century, with the blessing of the Holy See, Spain and Portugal shared the conquest and evangelisation of the world outside Europe - which, in Africa, meant the islands and the coastal areas. Missionary activity was short on coordination and continuity and its often rapid success was always ephemeral.

· 3rd period: 17th - 20th centuries. This is the era of sound organisation, intensive evangelisation and massive conversions. On the Catholic side, Rome set up the Sacred Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith in 1622 and many institutes and missions were founded. On the Protestant side, Dr Thomas Bray set up in England the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in 1701 and the more ecumenical Missionary Society of London was founded in 1795. A century later, the Conference of Berlin (1884-85) both gave a free hand to the imperialist proclivities of the European powers and provided a framework and a logistical basis for the expansion of missionary work a situation which gave rise to breakneck evangelisation in a climate of (not always healthy) rivalry. There was a race between Moslems and Christians, Catholics and Protestants, various branches of the same religion and missionaries of different nationalities and the result was Christianity spread thin rather than in depth. Today’s Christianity in Africa, other than in Ethiopia and Egypt, dates from this period.

Features of African Christianity

The way it expanded has given Christianity some specific features.

1. It is rich and varied. Africa has inherited a multitude of ecclesiastic and spiritual traditions from its various evangelists and this diversity can conscience and the future Catholic be both an asset and a handicap, Synod in 1993 could well be an event depending on how it is perceived and to reckon with. managed.

2. It is fragile. This is because, on the one hand, the gospel is not properly rooted and, on the other hand, the churches of Africa are overdependent in terms of staff, resources and even, pastoral initiative on the outside world. Many of them are far from considering themselves, or indeed being considered, as adult. They are peripheral, they need to reassure and to feel reassured, they often refer to external models, and they have not managed to do away with the obstacles along their path to greater maturity.

3. It is living and expanding, in spite of its fragility. The various pointers to this (number of baptisms, people espousing a religious vocation, ordinations and religious practices) are fairly encouraging to the people in charge and no changes to the trend are expected in the near future.

Importance of African Christianity

1. Numbers. There are an estimated 168 million Christians (80 million Protestant, 74 million Catholic and 14 million Orthodox) in Africa, representing 30% of the population of the continent as a whole and more than 90 % in some places (Cape Verde, Za, Gabon, Congo, etc.). One of every 10 Christians in the world today is African.

2. Influence. This is far from related to numbers, either in Africa or in Christianity. It is often missing from important discussions (on such things as under-development, independence, democracy and racism) and has no influence over major decisions. However, there are signs that things are moving in the right direction - the South African churches (and particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu) are making a stand against apartheid, the Church of Za is reacting to President Mobutu’s policy, the bishops of Africa and Madagascar are concerting and cooperating in their Symposium and African theologians are getting together in the Ecumenical Association of African Theologians. The visits which Paul VI and Jean-Paul II made to the continent stirred many a



Here, too, there are three periods.

· 1st period: 7th and 8th centuries. This was the time of the Islamisation of Mediterranean Africa from Egypt to Morocco with the holy war (Jihad), which was a success thanks to the favourable circumstances of the collapse of the Roman empire, division amongst Christians and enthusiasm on the part of the Moslem believers.

· 2nd period: 11th - 18th centuries. Islam penetrated Sahelian Africa at this period, via Mediterranean Africa, either through the Sahara or the Indian Ocean, in the most varied of ways, with the influence of traders and local preachers on top of warfare. And the fear of being enslaved also provoked conversion, as Moslems could not be reduced to slavery.

· 3rd period: 19th and 20th centuries, Islam has become more warlike over this period, a factor in the constitution of great empires down to the edge of the tropical forest. These empires and their chiefs (Mahomet Ali, Ousman Dan Fodio, El Hadj Omar Samory, etc) formed bastions of resistance to European imperialism.


1. An impression of unity. Paradoxically, in spite of schisms, the many families, brotherhoods, schools and tribes and the fact that there is no centralising authority, African Islam gives an impression of unity. Statements of faith and religious practices are reduced to the strict minimum, but imposed and rigorously respected. You can tell a Moslem more or less by looking at him.

2. Adaptation. So, with the essentials safe and sound, Islam has been able to adapt to different outlooks.

3. Social immobility. By espousing the traditional framework, Islam has helped strengthen and fix it. Authoritarianism has increased in both society and the family, to the detriment of the weaker members (women and children), and there is greater resistance to everything new and “modern” - schooling, say, as the school attendance rates of 20% in northern (Moslem) Cameroon and 90 % in southern (Christian) Cameroon show. And this is only one example.

Importance of African Islam

1. Numbers. There are about 160 million Moslems in Africa, representing 29 % of the total population. One out of every five Moslems in the world is African.

2. Influence. In Africa, Islam is progressing faster than, and sometimes to the detriment of, Christianity. There are many illustrations of the effect it has had in the past and is still having today:

- The Moslem countries made a major contribution to resisting colonial influence and fighting for decolonialisation (the Arab League in Cairo).

- Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 and Ghadafy’s resistance to American threats are impressive and put down to their Moslem faith.

- So it is easy to understand why the Head of a State that is more than 90 % Christian converted to Islam (although profounder motivations are of course not ruled out).

What is at stake? Today’s answer

The problem. The religious map of Africa may be cause for concern. There are two blocs of more or less equal strength face to face - Islam in the north and Christianity in the south - and they are expanding. And beneath them, like glowing coals hidden under the ash, is traditional religion. What is at stake? Showing and demonstrating that one has the best, if not the only, solution to the fundamental problem of African man. It is the same problem, the age-old problem of how to live well and live long, but the context has changed. Social structures have exploded, territories have expanded and cultural intimacy has disappeared. What answers can religion provide today? They all seem to end with a question mark...

Challenged answers.

1. Islam sometimes puts itself forward as the ideal way to salvation for the whole of Africa. Its record is a fairly good reference here, but it has been a denouncer above all. It has not managed to remedy Africa’s ills in its political sallies - nor indeed could it do so without shaking off its immobility and striking out on the path to modernism?

2. Christianity is hampered by an original sin. It is seen as the Trojan Horse in which colonial imperialism rode into Africa. Yet elsewhere its message has opened the way to liberation, development and salvation. Has Christianity been disqualified from Africa once and for all? Of course not, but it will have to do something about the problem which makes it look like an outsider and an unweaned child. Can it? And does it want to?

3. Is traditional religion the last resort? Should Africa come back to it? If it is a question of restoration pure and simple, then illusion could well be added to ineffectiveness. But if it is a question of finding the soul of this religion - the importance of and respect for life, the transcendental nature of God, the central position of man, ethics in all things again - then it is vital. It would put Africa back on its mettle, give it a second wind. Is it still possible?

4. Should we look elsewhere? The inadequacy of religions leads the individual to look for alternatives, and the belief in a Messiah is one refuge. It has cropped up all over Africa (but in the Christian regions especially), as the examples of Matwanism (200 000 followers in Congo) and above all Kimbanguism (3 500000) in Za show. Such departures, marriages of a kind between Christianity and tradition, are a protest against the breakdown of traditional structures caused by colonisation and evangelisation. They were one of the first forms of anti-colonial struggle. But now they are prisoners of their past and seem unable to provide any solutions for the future.

Sects - which, disquietingly, are mushrooming, particularly in the towns and amongst young people - offer the individual an alternative to isolation and insecurity but it is an expensive alternative, for it is no solution for the community.

Capitalism and Marxism, announcing miracle answers, were received like religions. But the miracles never happened. Capitalism, offering goods that were either inaccessible or insipid once acquired, proved hallucinatory, and the enchanted dawn of Marxism was late to rise after an all-too lengthy night.

All in all, religion may, unless we are careful, be an added source of complication rather than a dynamic contribution to an answer to the problems facing Africa today.

In search of a new religious deal

If religion is to go on playing a positive part in Africa today, it has to agree to be used in another way, while keeping its essential values, in the light of the new situation. This means it has to:

- take account of the irreversible upheavals in the traditional world and the impossibility of recreating this world as it was. The most important thing is to accept the fact that the geographical reference area is multiethnic, which means trans-ethnic solidarity;

- accept modernism, a term to be treated with care. Above all, this means recognising the density and autonomy of the “ profane “ and calls for rationality and a scientific and technical spirit to be applied in the geographical reference area;

- affirm the preponderance and transcendental nature of an ethnic order and a scale of values, and do so all the more strongly for the scientific and technical field having been respected;

- fit in with the culture - i.e. agree to belong to an African world of today rather than to something which has been imported or belongs in a museum;

- lastly, accept a new climate and new relations, based on freedom of conscience and a spirit of dialogue and collaboration in the quest for truth and respect for life, between religions.

Africa cannot afford the luxury of a religious war, even a cold one, in the already bitter fight it is waging for development.