Africans are no strangers to the world of international pop culture, so they have seen the European and American male rock stars, some with dubious personal lives, performing in regalia that includes large gold crosses. It makes a certain sense. Didn’t Christianity come from Europe? So when they hear that a British Airways employee was suspended from work for wearing a Christian cross around her neck while on duty , they are bewildered. Why would that be an offence? Doesn’t the Christian message encourage moral goodness, which is something to be openly proud of?
As if to prove the point, many African Catholic men wear a rosary around their neck at all times, except when telling their beads. Many car drivers and minibus drivers hang a rosary or set of Muslim prayer-beads from the driver’s mirror as a reminder of Who is in charge. And they are not considered sissies or holy Joes, but very normal people.
A preacher arraigned in a British court for making a personal comment in the street about homosexual behaviour equally baffles people in countries where what is deemed immoral is spoken about, and spoken against, spiritedly and openly.
A health-care worker taken to court for giving spiritual encouragement and speaking about God to a patient makes little sense to a population where the main topic in a hospital visit conversation is God -- more precisely, about accepting illness as His will, leaving recovery in His hands, and so on. In Africa, then, "God-speak" is not only permitted but fostered; He is not a topic to whisper about in secret or about whom one should lower one’s head in shame.
No African nation, except for Ethiopia -- which also has a substantial Moslem population -- has ever had an established church, like England, Russia and Greece, Scotland and the Scandinavian countries, Spain or Italy, and much of Latin America. The African history of evangelization is very different from that of the West; for much of Africa, Christianity arrived at the end of the 19th century. Africa never experienced the cynicism and doubt cast by the Enlightenment and rationalism.
It has also been spared the consequences of church-state battles and, by and large, of anti-clericalism. Christianity's critics will say that the missionary came with the trader and the gun, that it came from Europe and is the white man’s religion. This, however, is paradoxical. Christianity has Semitic roots, and many Semitic customs, such as polygamy, circumcision, the importance of family and blood ties, respect for elders and their decisions still play an important role in traditional Africa.
Furthermore, the Christian missionaries arrived after the explorers and the colonizers, not on the same boat. Their motives were non-political and human-rights based: to set up schools and medical dispensaries and to evangelize the people.
In sub-Saharan Africa, which excludes the sandy, rocky wastes of the north and north-east, religious freedom is non-negotiable. In fact, one wonders sometimes if there’s too much of it. Residents can be kept awake the whole weekend by a non-stop revivalist crusade taking place in their neighbourhood, with music booming and people screaming "alleluia" for 60 hours on end.
Kenya, with a population of 40 million people, tops the world religious free market with 4,000 registered Christian denominations and many unofficial ones. The latter may consist of a man and his wife who open up a splinter worship group, so that the spouses themselves and their younger children may be the only faithful. Their place of worship is a zinc-sheeted or mud-and-wattle shack, which can be dismantled and removed at a moment’s notice.
Uganda has an estimated population of 30 million, of whom some 40 per cent are Catholics. In the towns, a recent surge in Pentecostalism and Revival Christianity advertises its particular brand of the Christian Gospel in the names of its widely scattered chapels and meeting-places: Lolwe Trumpet Church; Miracle Centre; Apostle-Winning Church; Reconciliation Mission International; Open Door Revival church. On offer: the end of the world, miracles here and now, and, with the last three on the list, everyone is welcome to attend.
What about young people? Are they believers? Do they practice? They are, in fact, the ones filling the mainstream Pentecostal and Evangelical places of worship. The trendy preachers, their dynamic showmanship, the noise and the rhythmic beat of the music, the chance of a “miracle” at a “sold-out” crusade, and dramatic personal testimonies provide an irresistible attraction.
Young people, meanwhile, are growing tired of the pornographic, blasphemous lyrics of some of the African-American rappers and rock-artists and have turned to Gospel rap, a new genre, short on orthodox doctrine but offering a moral boost to kick off the working week.
The attacks on Christians in Iraq and Egypt, which seems to be one and the same campaign -- to rid the Middle East of Christians -- has no counterpart in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sudan and northern Nigeria are on the religious, ethnic, geopolitical Arab-African fault-line cutting. The religious persecutions in Sudan are mostly ethnic, exemplified by Arab Moslem killing African Moslem in Darfur over cattle-grazing space. This week's referendum in southern Sudan heralds its independence from the north and, hopefully, an end to such long drawn out, deadly conflicts.
Religious wars as such between Catholics and Protestants are unknown in black Africa. There have been misunderstandings, “bad blood”, human intransigence and competing for converts, but no Thirty Years War, no Battle of the Boyne, no Wars of the Vendee. Family and blood ties come before religious differences. This is not to say that people change religious affiliations like changing their socks, but that there is mutual respect.
The fact that Wayne Rooney goes to the physio’s room after warm-up to pray, or a Brazilian soccer-player makes the sign of the Cross before kick-off in front of millions of TV spectators doesn’t cause a ripple here. If anything, it endears them more to their fans.
Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda