Africa and Religion- Religious Diversity…Not!

First, while I was browsing for pictures for my first post I came across this post, The Mikey Times: Nigerian Child Witches: Hate and Hope. I encourage folks to read it, I had heard about this issue before (I watched a video on Youtube) but I’m too lazy to search for the video right now.

Onto the main topic at hand, remember the girl from Botswana I saw Watchmen with? I had gone up to Glasgow for a few days and I was staying with my friend’s parents. My friend’s parents wanted me to meet the Batswana girl because they thought we’d get along (plus according to them her hair was like mine, she actually had it in coils). My friend, her parents and the Batswana girl are all Baha’i and it wasn’t till after I had spent the day with her and returned to my town that I realised that she was actually the first African I met that wasn’t a Christian or a Muslim. I pondered about atheists in the first post, now I’m curious about religious diversity.

During the few months in my teenage years in which I was an atheist, I rationalized that both religions Christianity and Islam were un-African. At that time, I knew nothing about African traditional religions except from the same old juju and rituals story. Now, I do realise that both Christianity and Islam have a long history in Africa. And both are connected to Ethiopia, first with the Queen of Sheba (artist’s impression left :P)and Solomon and the early Muslims that were allowed to seek refuge in Ethiopia when they were persecuted in Mecca.

Recently, I have been reading a lot on African history (researching for my book) and the things I have learnt are amazing, I’ll have to share them on this blog little by little. First, I discovered arguments on the African origins of both Christianity and Islam. It was just a little paragraph in the book I was reading (called When We Ruled) but I got a reference to a book titled, ‘African Origins of the Major Western Religions‘ by Yosef A.A. ben Jochanna (I know I have to find that book somewhere). Anyway in When We Ruled, the author was trying to refute arguments that Arab influence is to thank for the gold kingdoms (e.g. Mali) of West Africa in the Middle Ages (you know because the rulers were Muslim and they wrote in Arabic).

The author quoted this Kurdish biographer Ibn Khallikan who claimed that Abul Aswan (an African) invented the Arabic script then she (or he I’m not sure) went on to mention Bilal ibn Ribah who was an Ethiopian slave (later freed) that played a big role in the early days of Islam (he was the first person to call to prayer i.e. muezzin). Bilal is also the face for diversity (and supposed anti-racist nature) of Muslims though we know better. To make things clear, I do think Bilal is important I just feel that (the racist) Muslims have forgotten his importance, each time they hear the call to prayer they should remember it was invented by a black African man. Then the author mentioned saints I had never heard of such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine who were of African origin. Interesting nay?

Even more interesting is the story of Kimpa Vita. Kimpa was a Kongolese (from the Kingdom of Kongo now in modern day Angola) aristocrat born in 1682 who led an interpretation of Christian doctrine called Antonianism and is also the first African woman to fight against European dominance according to this site. Kimpa preached that;

  1. Kongo was the Holy Land described in the Bible
  2. The Kongolese capital, Mbanza Kongo is the real site of Bethlehem
  3. Christ and all the other saints were Black
  4. Heaven was for Africans only

Kimpa called on Africans not to listen to white missionaries and was subsequently captured and executed by the Portuguese in 1706. I find her so interesting because this is an example of Africans attempting to ‘own’ religions that were not really ours to begin with. I know I’m still saying that Western (are they really Western though?) religions are not African while I gave the Ethiopian example above. It is necessary to know that people were worshipping something before the advent of Christianity and Islam even in the Middle East and it is these religions that I refer to as theirs (and ours). Similarly, I feel Ethiopians must have been following another religion before Christianity was introduced to them though I don’t know much about this. I do know for sure that the Yoruba were definitely following ‘our’ own religion before Islam and Christianity came to us.

I like Kimpa Vita because I believe she made an attempt to make a religion that was not originally hers to become hers. She attempted to ‘Africanize’ a non-traditional religion. Am I making sense? I remember watching a documentary on Timbuktu once and the old Malian imam was saying that his ancestors owned Islam, they knew Islam came from another place but they made it theirs, they made it African. And thanks to Alice for informing me of the Coptic Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia, those have in my opinion owned religion.

Today however, I must express discontent because I don’t believe Africans are owning these religions that were not ours in the first place. For example, a few months ago I was watching a Nigerian movie on Youtube with my friend (she forced me to watch it I tell you), it is a pity that I don’t remember the name of that movie if not I would have embedded the video in this post. Anyway the film was typical Nollywood, you know demons and angels battling over a woman who was carrying a demon child. My problem with the movie is this, all the demons were dark-skinned, the angel was light-skinned (possibly biracial) and God was either white or Lebanese. I was so incensed watching the movie that I said (really I said this); ‘Nigerian movies stereotype demons!’

I was not happy with the demons being depicted as dark and the worse sin to me was the portrayal of God by a white (or possibly Arab he had dark hair though I know they would have preferred a blond) man in a Nigerian movie. This shows me that some have not owned their religion as they still insist on viewing God as a non-African man. Similarly, from the Muslim perspective, I have heard people say that we will be speaking Arabic in heaven. I wanted to ask these questions but I didn’t; ‘Why should we speak Arabic in heaven? What if I want to speak Yoruba or Japanese? I don’t want to speak only Arabic!’ I was not happy at all with that. I feel that it is in this way that religion has come to undermine the African.

A few years ago when I was back in Nigeria, the marriage question came up and in my attempt to cause people worry I said that I was going to marry a Japanese man. I remember my uncle had a look of disgust on his face ‘Why not an Arab?’ he asked. Again I could have said several things but I kept quiet. Needless to say from then on, my estimation of him dropped greatly, I don’t respect him at all.Another thing that upsets me is when people give a quota for the amount of non-black people that will be going to heaven while we (the Africans) lag behind.

I’m curious to know how exactly Christianity and Islam became the most widespread religions in Africa. Was it really that Africans were eager to practice the religions? Or was it something that came over time? Right now there are only a few Africans who still practice their own traditional religions. I’m also worried as to the form of religion spreading throughout Africa that portrays God and those destined for heaven as foreigners when Africans were crucial to the development of these religions in the first place.

This links to my first post on atheism except now the topic at hand is religious diversity. Does anyone have any theories as to why Africa is not as religiously diverse as it can be? Because in the days of our ancestors, religion was based on ethnic grouping. How come I had to spend 20 years on Earth before I met an African that was neither Muslim nor Christian. Could it be that those who don’t practice either of the faiths are scared of being excommunicated or discriminated against? I have read of practitioners of African traditional religions been demonized and this amazes me again because to me it is similar to me being discriminated against in Nigeria. I know issues are more complicated than that and I’ll discuss those in my final post.


  1. I do still maintain that Christianity and Islam have their origins outside Africa and these religions were brought to Africa. The reason why Christianity is widespread goes back to colonialism and missionaries. In Kenya for example, in colonial times it was necessary to be Christian, baptised and have a Christian name (or English name). It was necessary for people to give up their spiritual beliefs because they were convinced that their beliefs had no founding. Equally the coast of Kenya has many Muslims. The Islamic agenda was less aggressive than the Christian one. Generally people became Muslims as they would be regarded with favour by the Arabs (better trade, able to marry etc).I think the reason why Islam and Christianity are so dominant is because of indoctrination. Many Africans were given one key message, fail to believe and you will go to hell. There are many many people who still preach this and who still believe this. I think in about 20-50 years time, this will not be the case and there will be more balance with people more able to explore religion as they see fit including African traditional beliefs.However, religion is regional. For example Thailand is dominated by buddhists while India has a host of religions with Hinduism prevalent. Christianity and Islam tend to fill voids.

  2. Jc took the words right out of my mouth. Colonialism, y'all. From the Nigerian perspective (having recently read Things Fall Apart) becoming a Christian meant getting the opportunity to learn English and become a modern individual, "friends" with the white man. If you didn't, you'd end up disenfranchised, labeled a heathen and shunned by society. Don't forget they burned all the shrines and statues and artwork that they didn't like, and stole the rest.Islam established itself pretty easily in new countries because the Arab kingdom was so powerful, Islam was always the religion of the ruling class wherever you went. Also, back then the Arabs were great scholars, so Arabic became the language of the educated class. Sometimes Islam nudged out other religions, making people swear fealty to Allah or they were considered (again) uneducated, heathen and lower class (I also think they may have killed any non-converts? No info to back this up but I think I might have heard that somewhere…) Other times it coexisted peacefully with other religions. A great book to read about this is Ornament of the World. It describes the cultural melting pot that was the south of Spain (Andalusia) in 8th and 9th Centuries AD. Fascinating stuff – Africans, Arabs, Jews, native Hispanics all living together peacefully. AND if you go to Cordoba, the Great Mosque of Cordoba still stands which was built in that time – it's absolutely gorgeous (from pictures – haven't visited yet, but plan to đŸ™‚ ). Interestingly enough, it was converted to Roman Catholic Cathedral after the Spanish took back their land from the Muslims during the Reconquista. Imagine, a Roman Catholic mass in a mosque! I like that idea, though I know it doesn't mean that religious tolerance abounds in our world.

  3. Jc, thanks for bringing up colonialism, it is just that this didn't happen everywhere. for example, India was colonised as well but the majority are still Hindus. and i agree with you on indoctrination. it is just sad to me that people were so willing to abandon their faith for another and view that as superior. i like your optimism! i hope that day comes some and we leave this age of religious fundamentalism and what not.

  4. mellowyel, my friend from Hong Kong told me that people became Christian in HK because they wanted to get powdered milk. i thought she was kidding but she said it was only the missionaries that had it. in the case of Islam, i think it happened because of trade and what not. and with the forced conversions…yeah that tends to be brought up in any conversation as to how Islam spread. i'm not sure about it though. because from my readings the Arabs were hesistant to convert Africans to Islam because they wanted slaves and in Islamic law it is forbiddent to enslave a Muslim. whatever though, they still enslave Muslims, see Sudan and Mauritania. and it is possible that the forced conversions were carried out by Africans themselves. and i've heard of the mosque in Cordoba. i've seen pictures online and i think the idea that it is a church now is great! even in Turkey, the Hagia Sofia must have been a church before if i remember correctly.

  5. Casa jambo hili siifahamu! (Meaning Casa I don't understand the relevance)I have used trusty old google to find out 'Negema wangu binti' is the first line to a poem which was dictated in swahili and written in arabic. The Swahili used in this poem defeats me. It is coastal Swahili which is more intricate sometimes mixed with local languages. If you wish to let us know the relevance of this poem to the topic, tafadhali andika (please write).

  6. The Pew-Templeton Religious Futures of USA did survey in Africa South of Sahara and revealed that population here is very religious. They either subscribe to Islam or Christianity. However, most of them are said to be commited to their traditional beliefs on things like traditional healing, keeping of object beleaved to protect them, practise witchcraft etc. In most cases this is done secretly. To me this means africans are still bound by their traditional beliefs, they follow up islam and christianity as fashion and they seek to benefit from what material gains foreign religions have brought.

    1. Working with my extended family and friends, I can tell you that I don’t know anyone who actually believes in and/or practices traditional beliefs. They think it is ‘Satanic’ and ‘evil’, even when they do in under the guise of their adopted faiths, they’d never actually admit it. I only hear about these things when I read Western reports.

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