Black Africa

The absence of scriptures has been one of the fundamental distinguishing features of indigenous religions south of the Sahara. Before the arrival of Christianity and Islam, there were no documentary records of prophetic insights, liturgies or prohibitions. Beliefs were transmitted orally from generation to generation; they were also communicated to neighbouring societies. But with no written controls, beliefs and ritual practices could be changed and adapted imperceptibly, without people becoming, or remaining, fully conscious of the alteration. Even radical changes could rapidly become imperceptible. Within one generation of the Ndebele arrival in western Zimbabwe, a highly elaborate, local cult of the High God, Mwari, was becoming so thoroughly assimilated that alien, missionary observers assumed that the worship of Mwari had always been a prominent feature of Ndebele religion.

The emphasis in indigenous religions was on direct, immediate experiences. Religious insights were obtained and shared in dreams, dance, divination, symbols, prayer, sacrifice and ecstasy. In the absence of literacy, speculation and reflection concerning the nature and interaction of spiritual forces did not have to coalesce into a coherent set of doctrines. There were few ways in which the religion of a much earlier generation could challenge subsequent ideas and practices. Neither priests nor reformers could confront contemporary behaviour with ideals enshrined in distant prophetic statements or eschatological hopes. There was little desire to ensure that religion assumed a universal, identical form throughout a region. There was no overwhelming impetus to construct a dogmatic orthodoxy. Pre-literate indigenous religions tended therefore to be tied to specific experiences and problems; but they combined these local, particular concerns with an ethos that, in the absence of documentary controls, was often experimental and open to new ideas and practices.

These pragmatic characteristics were of supreme importance in the encounter between the indigenous religious traditions and the literate, monotheistic religions. Often some aspects of the world religions were initially welcomed with enthusiasm. Their rituals were seen as potential reinforcements in terms of previous needs and experiences. And it is here, in this long history of religious change, that the role of sacred writings became of great significance.

For well over a thousand years Christianity and Islam have been present in Black Africa. But for most of this time, Christianity was restricted to the Ethiopian highlands and Islam was confined to the savanna belt south of the Sahara and to the coastal fringe of East Africa. Within these relatively narrow areas, the world religions brought with them their scriptures and other writings. But literacy remained restricted to a minute number of individuals, and before the nineteenth century most sub-Saharan Africans who adopted a Muslim or a Christian identity remained in practice illiterate. Partly because of this restriction, and partly because of the open, pragmatic, welcoming nature of indigenous religions, over the centuries, Islam and Christianity south of the Sahara became deeply influenced by, and at times assimilated with, indigenous beliefs and practices. This mixing process was accentuated by the relative isolation of Black Christians and Muslims. Christian Ethiopia, increasingly surrounded by Muslim states, had but slender contacts with Christians in Egypt, the Sudan, Syria and Jerusalem. Her contacts with Roman Catholicism were more intense in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but they were soured by Portuguese cultural and ethnic intransigence. Yet even in Ethiopia the scriptures and a literate Christian tradition gave an essential continuity and resilience to the culture of the beleaguered Amharic inhabitants of the highlands.

Black Muslims, though also isolated, retained closer and far more fruitful contacts with their co-religionists. A few rich and powerful rulers, like some emperors of Mali and Songhay from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries or some rulers of Bornu, made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, as did a small yet steady trickle of scholars, mystics, traders and humble people. Holy men, lawyers and theologians from North Africa and the Islamic heartlands crossed the Sahara and, to a lesser extent, the Indian Ocean to settle in Black Africa and establish schools and centres of learning there, like the celebrated city of Timbuktu. A tiny, but immensely influential number of Black Muslim scholars founded a tradition of Islamic reform which challenged their compatriots by comparing their syncretistic behaviour and beliefs with those enshrined in Islamic law and sacred writings. From the seventeenth century onwards, these Muslim reformers in Black Africa were to lead a series of holy wars, or jihads, which in the nineteenth century established a series of powerful Black Muslim states from the Senegal right across to Chad.

In sharp contrast to the gradual, cumulative experience of Islam, Christianity burst into much of Black Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries equipped with programmes of mass literacy and rapid modernisation. Large numbers of African Christians entered the churches via mission schools, and at times it seemed that Christianity in Black Africa was destined to be an affair of the emergent elite, of the educated and aspiring middle classes. That Christianity in Black Africa has not become merely a bourgeois ideology is largely due to two contrasted responses to the demands of literacy. For most Africans the long, drawn-out process of acquiring effective literacy, demanded by many Protestant missions as a prerequisite to baptism, raised considerable difficulties. It also cut across the whole thrust of previous spiritual experiences, when direct contact with divinities and spiritual forces was demonstrated by visions, dreams and possession. These spiritual hallmarks still tend to distinguish African Christian prophets, and these features continue to attract large numbers of Africans to follow the prophets and to respond to their messages.

Yet although the acquisition of literacy has not been the principal channel of religious change for most Africans, the other response to the literacy brought by missionaries has powerfiilly shaped the mass movements both within and outside the mission churches. Most of the prophets, like the humble catechists and prayer-leaders, are literate, and these African Christians have often been profoundly influenced by their reading of sacred scriptures. William Wade Harris, the prophet from Liberia, who during the first World War swept thousands of West Africans into accepting a Christian identity, was first and foremost a man of the Bible.

Hundreds of church leaders have, like him, been responsible for a massive appropriation of Biblical messages with which to confront the traditional spiritual concerns and needs of their fellow Africans. In the accounts of healing in the New Testament, for instance, they found a formidable reinforcement, largely ignored by western missionaries, in the age-old African conflict with disease and evil.

One of the fascinating questions in Africa today is, therefore, whether the sacred writings and rituals of Islam and Christianity will summon Africans, perhaps in a gradual and cumulative fashion, to new and deeper understandings of these faiths, and whether, at the same time, in an increasingly secular environment, Africans will enrich these religions by retaining the sponaneity, intensity and immediacy which characterised their previous encounters with the supernatural.

Recent indications of these processes in a Christian context can be found in John Parratt (ed.) A Reader in African Christian Theology, S.P.C.K. London, 1987; E. Milingo The World in Between: Christian healing and the struggle for spiritual Survival, Hurst London, 1984; F. Eboussi Boulaga Christianity without Fetishes: an African critique and recapture of Christianity, Eng. tr. Orbis, New York, 1984.

Further Reading

  • E.M. Zuesse, Ritual Cosmos: The Sanctification of Life in African Religions, Ohio Univ. Press, 1979.
  • I.M. Lewis (ed.), Islam in Tropical Africa, 2nd ed. Hutchinson, London, 1980.
  • L.Sanneh, West African Christianity, Hurst, London, 1983.
  • I.Daneel, Quest for Belonging: Introduction to a study of African Independent Churches, Mambo Press, Gweru, Zimbabwe, 1987.
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