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The rise of religion in Africa

By Madeleine Bunting

The answers to Africa's problems increasingly lie with religion rather than politics.

A RECENT survey found that 31 per cent of British people thought Easter was sponsored by Cadbury's while 48 per cent had no idea what the religious festival was about. The 16-24 age group had the lowest level of knowledge. The Reader's Digest survey is more evidence of how Britain has been comprehensively de-Christianised in the past 50 years.

What is interesting is how peculiar this phenomenon is in a global context and how blind secular Europeans are to their peculiarity. As they have become increasingly wedded to their faithlessness, the world beyond western Europe has experienced an astonishing increase in religiosity. Secular Europe is losing an ability to speak a language — that of faith. It pretends that faith is simply a personal hobby. When the pretence does not work, it peers, fearfully, at a world all around it that has become profoundly foreign.

Nowhere is that more true than Africa. It is another part of the globe that urgently needs to be mapped in terms of its rapidly intensifying religiosity if we are to begin to understand what is happening there. Some argue that the intensification of religious identity and consciousness — evident from the Pakistani madrasas to the Baptist churches of the American south — finds its apogee in Africa. Christianity and Islam are expanding dramatically as they gather new converts, while African traditional religions are experiencing a renaissance.

While Africa may be struggling to integrate into the global economy, its integration into the global religions is gathering apace. The astonishing growth of Pentecostal churches throughout Africa is being driven by U.S. evangelical missionaries and their wallets. Meanwhile, the Saudis and Kuwaitis are pouring huge sums into Muslim communities across Africa. Known Saudi aid transfers to the continent amount to $1billion a year (the real figure could be much higher), which is not far from the British level of aid. Yet this is rarely acknowledged in the West.

Some of the most original and arresting sections of the report by Tony Blair's Commission for Africa deal with religion. It argues that nationalism in Africa is exhausted, and that politicians and state structures have lost almost all credibility or legitimacy. Into the vacuum left by the failure of the nation state has stepped religion. This analysis in the report is largely Bob Geldof's doing. Without understanding faith, he argues passionately, we cannot begin to find development strategies that are going to work.

Mr. Geldof's position draws heavily on the work of a couple of development thinkers, and his travels in Africa to make a BBC series due to be broadcast in June. "There's not a single part of Africa where the spiritual is not vitally present. For Africans it's as real and tangible as the phone you're holding," he told me. "The spiritual is to be negotiated on a daily basis."

Christianity and Islam have three great strengths over the nation state in Africa. The first is trust. Whereas politics and politicians are synonymous with corruption and lying, faith organisations are trusted; they can gather tithes and build up institutions, investing for the benefit of the community. Whether it is mosques in Sierra Leone or churches in Nigeria, they have succeeded where the state has failed.

The second strength is that faith organisations deliver the goods — they account for a staggering 50 per cent of all health and education in sub-Saharan Africa. They are far more effective than any state in reaching the most destitute, and their decentralised structures often prove far more resilient in conflict countries, such as in south Sudan.

In rapidly urbanising Africa, faith organisations are sometimes the only functioning form of institution and of social capital — which explains something of the appeal of the Pentecostalist churches mushrooming in shanty-towns. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Catholic Church even runs the only semblance of a national postal service.

Third, and crucially, Christianity and Islam offer what Ian Linden described in his paper for Mr. Geldof as "a language for change and redress." The issue in Africa often is how to mobilise people to demand and achieve change, and faiths provide the ideology and legitimisation for change in a way that politics no longer can — whether galvanising a community to set up a school or to run a health project.

The million-dollar question is whether the changes championed by faiths coincide with Western development priorities. Often they do. For example, faith groups have a track record of conflict resolution and peace-making across many troubled regions.

But Mr. Linden has serious concerns on one key issue — how to increase the autonomy of women, which is vital to the achievement of a wide range of development goals such as infant mortality. The faiths, which all promote male authority, are so much "part of the problem, they can't be part of the solution," he says.

Last, the aspect of religion in Africa that provokes most fear and ignorance to the secular European is traditional African religion. Mr. Geldof points out that talk of witchcraft, sorcerers and evil spirits is commonplace in Africa. To the rationalist secularist, such things as voodoo and evil spirits are deeply alienating. But Mr. Geldof pleads for greater understanding, arguing that we have to put aside the prejudices of imperialism.

There is a profoundly benign dimension to traditional animism. The emphasis on evil is a recent distortion, as a system of beliefs struggles to interpret a world that has delivered such devastating suffering as Aids and the uncontrollable violence of AK-47s. For us, evil is little more than a metaphor, he says; to many Africans it is terrifyingly real.

Mr. Geldof has astutely blown open a much-needed debate: economists and politicians have dominated the agenda of African development for half a century, and look where it has got us. Economic growth is not just about technical knowledge, but also about human behaviour — and that is rooted in beliefs such as what constitutes progress and development. Indeed, what is wealth?

These questions are spiritual as much as material in Africa; if we appreciated more of the African understandings of these concepts, we might learn as much from Africa as Africa is expected to learn from the West. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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