With Gods on Their Side

Basil Davidson

  • The Church in Africa, 1450-1950 by Adrian Hastings
    Oxford, 706 pp, £65.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 19 826921 8
  • A History of Christianity in Africa from Antiquity to the Present by Elizabeth Isichei
    SPCK, 420 pp, £25.00, February 1995, ISBN 0 281 04764 2
  • Religion in Africa: Experience and Expression edited by Thomas Blakely, Walter van Beek and Dennis Thomson
    Currey, 512 pp, £45.00, November 1994, ISBN 0 85255 206 8

Long-term ‘endings of an era’ tend nowadays to be announced with remarkable confidence. This may even be the case with an issue as controversial as the ending of territorial imperialism, truly a large affair. Yet there is much to suggest that it is ending, and the appearance of two large histories of Christianity in Africa, the first of their kind on any such scale, can be seen as another signal of this: a summing-up has evidently come to seem possible as well as desirable. Christianity will of course continue, and today in Africa there are immensely more Christians than ever before; but its assumptions will no longer be the same. The unconverted heathen, on a missionary perspective, are now resident in Britain, not in Borrioboola Gha.

Adrian Hastings seems right to tell us that in 1960, the misnamed ‘Year of Africa’, ‘a new era of the African Church was about to begin’; and Elizabeth Isichei has clearly felt the same Christian impulse from a somewhat more African-centred approach. Both writers are using a scale of reference wider than that of a mere transition from colonial to para-colonial institutions of African self-government, such as occurred around 1960. They are not thinking, that is, of the ending of the era of imperialism tout court, for they are too deeply versed in their subject to suppose that financial and trading imperialism can be anywhere near its ending: yet something has ended, and this something certainly projects the ending of territorial conquest and dispossession. Where this leaves Christianity in Africa is not a matter on which prophecies are likely to be useful, but this ‘new era’ will cetainly be one of contestation, and probably of abrasive violence, between and among the various religions of origin external to the continent.

Retrospectives are possible in the meantime, and each of these conscientious, impressive volumes has its virtues; Hastings is stronger on Church history, whether Catholic, Protestant or Byzantine, while Isichei is closer to the religion of ‘tradition’, to which most Africans have given and in some large sense still give their loyalty. But with Christianity in Africa, as largely with Islam, the missionary endeavour is central, and this is where the question of a ‘new era’ comes in. Before the most dismal times of territorial imperialism – above all the years between about 1885 and the First World War – the record of Christianity in Africa was thought to be concerned with great issues of social purpose. A century ago, it would have been in no way controversial to assume that a lack of Christian belief meant a lack of any religious belief (if with an occasional ceremonial doffing of the hat to Islam), and that this, in turn, confirmed the absence of civilisation (however defined) which colonial invasion and dispossession were there to make good. The contentious Bishop Tozer of Central Africa, in the 1870s, was one rare Christian who turned awkward about this. ‘What do we mean,’ he asked, ‘when we say that the greater part of Africa is uncivilised? Surely the mere enjoyment of such things as railways and telegraphs and the like do not necessarily prove their possessors to be in the front rank of civilised nations.’

The question was fruitless at the time, and has largely remained so. Railways and telegraphs went together with Christianity, and the one without the other was barely imaginable. Questioning such certainties was what got postwar social anthropologists into trouble after they had emerged from the thorns and thickets of ‘function’ and ‘structure’ only to find – here in Evans-Pritchard of 1959 – that for ‘the leading anthropologists of my own generation, religious faith is total illusion, a curious phenomenon soon to become extinct’, or a handy psychological gimmick which encouraged civic obedience and whatever might pass as such. Yet the curious phenomenon has still not become extinct.

Anyone who has much sojourned in Africa, including a lapsed Protestant such as myself, is likely to welcome a re-evaluation. These new histories can help to show why it should be that ‘understanding Africa’ has to mean coming to terms with the fact and force of African belief. And this is a far longer history than we are accustomed to recognise. Isichei begins with the North African Christianity of early saints and martyrs, and the strivings of an African Church so thoroughly erased by the onset of Islam after about AD 700. Hastings starts with the mountain-shielded Christianity of Abyssinia – a country he prefers to call by its 20th-century name of Ethiopia, which has stubbornly remained alive, and with a pleasing fluency he continues to give us Abyssinian chapters down to recent times. He can do this because literacy in Greek was partly relayed, in medieval times, by literacy in the strongly surviving monastic language of Ge’ez, while Christianity in Nubia, after a luminous start, vanished beneath a Muslim suffocation provoked in part by the European Crusades.

It is difficult to share the optimism as to the new era on the brink of which Hastings thinks we stand. There is now an enormously contentious challenge by renewed Muslim militancy, but what is often misleadingly called Muslim fundamentalism is not the only reversionary response to Africa’s acute crisis of social and economic impoverishment. There is also a lesser but still distracting challenge by its Christian counterpart. In Nigeria alone, as Professor Don Ohadike wrote in 1992, ‘there are now over one thousand independent Christian sects, many of them exhibiting certain fundamentalist traits’; there are many others elsewhere, while the established Churches continue to lose believers to various ‘fundamentalist Christian movements’, some of them attracting ‘born-again Christians, campus crusaders, and Jesus people’, whose particular inspiration has its origins ‘not in Nigeria, but in the United States and Britain’. If these and their abrasive simulacra find good pasture in the ‘new era’, as they did in Texas, the outlook for peace among the Christians cannot be encouraging.

How tough a process this is likely to be is already apparent. It was played out with startling violence in what is now a familiar scene of sectarian aggression, on the campus of Ahmado Bello University in Nigeria’s Kaduna state in 1980. Between four and six thousand people lost their lives, yet this was an intra-Muslim quarrel. Earlier riots, also in Kaduna state, were unleashed when members of a Muslim students’ association went on the rampage after a local Christian preacher, recently converted from Islam, had ‘without authority’ presumed to translate verses from the Koran into English at meetings of Christians. They set about the poor man with sticks and stones until Christian students came to his rescue, but that was only an opening round. Days later, according to Professor John Hunwick, Kaduna ‘was gripped with fear and panic as armed Muslims roamed the streets, killing, looting and burning’. Only 24 persons were reported killed, but many churches, schools and other properties were wrecked, while the counter-attacking Christians, who were vastly outnumbered, managed to ruin only six mosques. In another Nigerian location, 102 churches were razed to the ground. Altogether, in the years from 1980 to 1987, between eight and ten thousand Nigerians are thought to have been killed by other Nigerians in local religious violence, chiefly Muslim.

The aggressions of a Muslim orthodoxy based on an unreformed medieval concept and practice of law – this is the practical meaning of fundamentalism – have been spreading and becoming more outrageous in their impact on non-Muslims, whether Christian or otherwise. Funding from Saudi Arabian potentates is usually thought, but rarely proven, to have helped to spread this deplorable infection. Meanwhile the powers that be seem unable to contain it, and generally take the money when it comes to hand. The situation in Algeria has a clear parallel in Sudan, where fundamentalist claims to administrative dictatorship over Christians, but also over Africans adhering to indigenous religions, have long degraded into a vicious civil war. To see this decay as the mere product of ‘Muslim fanaticism’ is worse than irresponsible, however, for this puts the respective military dictatorships in the clear whereas, in truth, they have goaded vast numbers of people into irrepressible anger by militarist greed, incompetence or brutality. Sudan reached its existing chaos of self-destruction after its military dictatorship decided, in 1983, to impose an unreformed Sharia legal and customary system.

This code allows non-Muslims to remain subjects of the state, but they cannot be or become citizens, and may never expect equal rights with Muslims. As dhimmis who are non-Muslim ahl al-kitab (believers whose faith has a scripture, chiefly Christians and Jews), they may enjoy security of their persons and property. But they have no right to participate in state government, and remain subject to numerous legal and administrative handicaps. Sharia courts may punish them for offences ranging widely from public rebellion to private fornication; the punishments prescribed, which derive from the Middle Ages when the Sharia code was conceived, include lashing, stoning to death and amputation of limbs. It is sometimes claimed by ayatollahs and their like that devout Muslims are glad to suffer such afflictions in the belief that they will be absolved in the after-life; but no one can advance the same argument in favour of non-Muslims. Sharia, in brief, practically guarantees violent application, sooner or later, as well as violent resistance. While reasonable persons, including many Muslims, may discreetly bewail the outcome, as they do in Algeria and Sudan, all this has its origins in the poverty and despair induced by misgovernment. But this can be no excuse for claiming that this or that outrageous fatwa, proclaimed against persons in countries like our own, in no way part of Da al-Islam, can be anything but a monstrous insult to decency and civilisation.

Hastings and Isichei could have helpfully done more to discuss the happier relationship of present-day African Christianity with Africa’s third major source of religious culture, long known to Christians (and Muslims) as Heathenism but now, more tactfully, as traditionalism. That, of course, is the kind of statement which gets one accused of ‘pre-colonial’ nostalgia or ‘silly idealism’ by those who agree with Evans-Pritchard’s colleagues that religion is a load of old rope; but the score of authors collected in Religion in Africa agree, more or less, that indigenous beliefs require to be taken seriously. While there is and has been no such thing as an African religion, or any single unified system of faith with origin in Africa, there is nonetheless a widespread pattern of indigenous beliefs to which the word religion must be applied.

Medieval Islam, carried into Africa without benefit of amputations, was soon obliged to reach its own compromises with indigenous faiths. This has meant that much of the Islam now spreading in Africa has long developed beyond the ‘purity’ so unconvincingly ascribed to its founding fathers. The same fortunate process of compromise has at various times enveloped African Christianity: above all, around a century ago, when its congregations began to find the costly link between Christianity and colonial dispossession a lot too close for comfort, and, rebelling against brash young parsons from Oxbridge, opened the saga of ‘independency’ which continues to flourish from indigenous roots. That is why Terence Ranger, writing in Religion in Africa with his unfailingly original way of measuring African religious matters, can say that anyone who may now aspire ‘to think in black’ – the people he has in mind are those of eastern Zimbabwe, but the point can be generalised across the whole Christian community – has ‘to learn also to think Methodist’. A modern body of African knowledge, already capaciously different from the knowledge evolved in and from colonial times, begins to stand on its own ground.

The anthropological missionary (another contradiction in terms?) Father Jon Kirby, sees African Christianity as being ‘gradually rejuvenated’ while ‘an African cultural revolution’ discovers its African origins: accepts, in other words, that the continent before the colonial era possessed a developmental dynamic which remains alive and valid. Here again is a statement calculated to offend remote commentators, above all those library readers who have identified a ‘traditional Marxism’, or ‘non-Marxism’, in the proposals of Africa’s rebellious thinkers during the past forty years, very much as though these often remarkable men and women had been incapable of thinking for themselves. Other useful things in the Blakeley collection include Abimbola on ifa, a Yoruba system of divination; Wyatt McGaffey on the Kimbanguist independency in what was once the Belgian Congo and is now Zaire, with its capacity to reveal what he loyally calls ‘the austere dignities of the Protestant faith’ (my Ayrshire great-aunts would have nodded their approval, which they seldom did). All this, moreover, may indicate that African studies are on their way to recovering from the slings and arrows of a political science not wholly free of ‘Western’ condescension. Will this wisdom be enough to weather the storms ahead? God knows: yes indeed, although sceptics will add the Yoruba reminder, Oloun paapaa ko gbon to. Not even God is wise enough.