General Essay on the Religions of Sub-Saharan Africa

Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa has changed and evolved over the last two to three thousand years in many different ways. While the traditions depicted in this chart provide examples of those that exist today, and that were affected by the expansion of European colonialism in the 19th century, peoples living in the vast area south of the Sahara desert had already sustained rich systems of belief and practice long before the arrival of Christianity and colonialism, and certainly in some cases befroe the Muslim expansion from the Arabian peninsula. Islam entered Sub-Saharan Africa in the eighth century, and within six hundred years of the prophet's death had penetrated from the Sahara to the Sudanic belt, and from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, making its presence felt among the indigenous peoples who inhabited this expanse.

Other transplanted religions have had virtually no impact upon Sub-Saharan traditions. With the exception of Judaism, these did not make any permanent incursion into the region until the 19th or 20th centuries.

The chart suggests three wide areas of religious beliefs and practices: (I) Indigenous African religions; (II) World Religions (Baha'i, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism and Zorastrianism); (III) New Religious Traditions (African Independent Churches).

Each ethnic group located in a particular territory developed its own religion, usually associated with places of origin, with particular myths, with different ways of understanding God's role in its localized societies, and with the role of the spiritual world in its communal and social life. In that sense the indigenous religious traditions in the chart date back to ancient societies and ancient land associations as, for example, the Nuer of the Sudan whose ancestors already inhabited their present areas of residence by the year 3372 BCE. However, the dates in brackets refer to the first organized period of communal life of a particular group in the area where they reside today.

Over the centuries, groups moved to other areas looking for natural resources needed for their subsistence. Consequently, African indigenous traditions became linked with places of origin, and narratives of migration and cultural and religious adaptation came to be related to communally perceived sacred places. Ethnic groups were sometimes absorbed by other groups or, as in the case of the Chamba, individuals within groups were assimilated into other groups. All this suggests not only the presence of religion in pre-colonial Africa but also the syncretic and evolutionary character of indigenous African religion as religious practices changed, were adopted by others, and provided cultural ways of explaining origins and human life in the present and in the future.

All those groups had varieties of accounts concerning their origin, as well as ritual specialists who knew how to communicate with the world of the divine, and with the spriits, and who also had access to places associated with their religion. The world of the spirits, be they ancestral or nature spirits, exercised a constant intervention in the world of humans, especially in the life of their descendants, and therefore needed to be controlled and predicted.

While Islam expanded through the trade caravans, making a particular impact in West Africa and the Sudan before the arrival of Europeans, Christianity was already present in Ethiopia in the early centuries of the Christian Era. While Portuguese missionaries visited East and Central Africa in the 16th Century, it was only with the arrival of explorers and missionaries in the 19th Century that African religions were challenged by outsiders who reordered their territories and accelerated the process of social and religious change through conversion.

Although the number of practitioners of indigenous traditions in Africa has certainly decreased with the expansion of Islam and Christianity, African religions have continued to maintain their importance. In some cases such as the Oromo of East Africa, reconversion from the world religion to the indigenous traditions has taken place in the last twenty years, while Oromo religion, as a form of cultural expression has been re-emphasized as a marker of communal and national identity.

Most of those indigenous African traditions have also been directly influenced by Islam and Christianity, whereby syncretic processes have managed to rereate ways of being Muslim or being Christian, that speak of the influence of African cultures on the practice of Islam and Christianity, and the influence of Islamic beliefs on cultural appreciations of cosmologies and mythical charts. On the one hand it is possible to speak of the presence of 'popular Islam' in Africa, on the other hand, it is also possible to see the adaptation of the Christian message in Africa through processes of inculturation or acculturation, as manifestations of cultural or religious syncretism.

On a much smaller scale, Judaism has made some impact on Sub-Saharan African traditions through the Falashas of Ethiopia. The Falashas (which means 'exiles' in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia) are believed to be descendants of African groups exposed to Judaism through Jewish communities living in southern Arabia or Egypt. When this contact first took place is unknown. It is possible, although far from certain, that Jewish groups made their way to Ethiopia as a result of the dispersion of the Jews from Israel in 722 BCE or 586 BCE. The earliest known incursion of Judaism into Sub-Saharan Africa occurred in 525 when the Ethiopian emperor, Negus Caleb (c. 500-534), launched a campaign against the Jewish king of southern Arabia, Joseph Dhu Nuwas, and brought a number of Jews back to Ethiopia. Since then relations between the Falashas and their Christian rulers have largely been tarnished by conflict and periodic persecution. The establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 encouraged gradual emigration to the new Jewish state. This process was dramatically accelerated during the Ethiopian famine of 1984-1985 when some 13,000 Falashas were secretly airlifted to Israel. There are now less than 2000 Falashas left in Ethiopia.

Far more numerous is the ethnically European Jewish community of South Africa. European Jews had trade connections with Sub-Saharan Africa two centuries before any permanent settlement was established. During the 16th century, Jews resident in Holland traded with Africa through the Dutch colonies of Goree, Elmira, St. Thomas and Cape Town. In 1841 the first Jewish colony was established in Cape Town. Today there are some 100,000 Jews in South Africa.

The other religion of Middle Eastern origin to enter Sub-Saharan Africa is the Baha'i faith. Nothing is known of the circumstances under which it came to be transplanted into the continent. Prior to the 1950s only a handful of Baha'i communities existed south of the Sahara. However, since then extensive missionary work has hugely increased their numbers so that today Baha'i communities exist in thousands of localities throughout eastern and southern Africa.

All other major transplanted religions have their origins in the Indian subcontinent. In 1860 the first permanent settlers from India, of whom the majority were Hindus, arrived in Durban from Madras. These were followed by a continual flow of Indian immigrants into South Africa and, in the final decade of the 19th century, the beginning of large scale immigration into eastern and southern Africa, particularly Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia, Zanzibar and Mozambique.

In 1885 large numbers of Sikhs were brought by the British from India to Africa to work on the Kenya-Uganda railway. Many remained in Africa, their permanent presence confirmed by the construction of the first Gurdwara in Kilindini, near Mombasa. In the 1890s Jains began emigrating to East Africa, and the first Jain temple was built in Nairobi in 1926. Small numbers of Parsis, the descendants of the Zoroastrians of Persia, were also among the newcomers to Africa. They continue to exist in small communities in Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. Buddhists also entered the continent through South Africa. The 1911 population census of Natal claimed that there were 400 Buddhists in the province. Since then Buddhism has spread within and beyond South Africa into Zaire, Ghana, Zambia and Kenya.

Finally, the chart depicts two examples of localized adaptations of Christianity, the Aladura churches in Yorubaland (Nigeria), and the Legio Maria movement in western Kenya. Those movements constitute a third phase in the development of religion in Africa, assuming that the first phase was the development of localized and ethnic religions, while the second was the arrival of Islam, and the colonial pressure to 'civilize' Africa through the acceptance of Christianity in its different traditions and manifestations.

In the case of theAladura churches, a genuine search for a deeper spiritual experience led the founders to explore areas of Christianity that had been some how down played, such as healing and exorcism. However, there was also, as in the case of the Legio Maria movement, a reaction against the total European control of Christian churches, and a total identification with European ways of doing things, and ultimately with European ways of thinking.

With the exception of the recently transplanted religions from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, it is possible to say that the religious traditions depicted in the chart are present in the life of all African communities, and that their interaction and mutual challenge is stronger in the urban centres, where matters of government and national organization are discussed. The choice of indigenous traditions has been made on the basis of those that have been well documented by historians, anthropologists, and scholars of religion and that represent different regions within Sub-Saharan Africa. Given the fact that religion is fundamental to African life, it is inevitable that the chart will provide only a tiny example of the thousands of African religions and religious communal experiences present in today's Africa south of the Sahara.


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