The Christian population
of sub-Saharan Africa went through an explosion during the twentieth century, from an estimated nine million in 1900 to almost 400 million today. At present Christians
constitute 63% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, and 25% of the world's Christian population.
Nigeria alone has over 80 million Christians, more Protestants than in Germany
where the Reformation began. The implication that Westerners may find difficult to absorb is that Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, is predominantly Christian continent.
In Nigeria, the explosion of Christian churches is evident. Digital Journal reporter
sampled his neighborhood in Ibadan and confirmed the Nigerian anecdote that a church building is always within sight no matter where you are in the city.
All the church buildings photographed below are within a few minutes walk of the same neighborhood in Ibadan. The saying that a church building is always within sight no matter where you are in a Nigerian city is not exaggerated.
The suggestion from the raw data on the growth of Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa is expressed by Africapedia
, "...traditional African religion, which is heavily associated with superstition and witchcraft, would soon die out."
Yet sociologists note what seems a paradox for most foreign observers, that given the rise of "...ritual killing of children in Nigeria and Uganda; of albinos in Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi...muti or sangomas (witchdoctors)...in South Africa," it seems that "belief in the traditional could be on the rise. Indeed, the number of adverts of miracle healers who will cure anything from impotence, blindness, stuttering, infertility, and poverty posted on trees and lampposts in most African cities grows by the day."
How do we explain this apparent contradiction?
The explanation lies in the fact that most of the growth in Africa is powered by mushrooming of indigenous Christian churches. A sample of church buildings in the reporter's neighborhood in Ibadan showed that an overwhelming number of the church buildings belong to indigenous churches. The apparent contradiction in the increase in Christian population and simultaneous increase in traditional religious beliefs and practices in Africa, can be explained by the fact that indigenous African churches are mostly expressions of the traditional religious African world-view with a veneer of the imported Christian forms.
When the first European missionaries arrived on the West African coast with the message of a new "medicine man" they called Jesus Christ, Africans were not so impressed. Oh! yes, Jesus can heal the sick, he opens blind eyes, makes the lame walk, opens deaf ears and even raised the dead back to life. But these were not claims of power outside the cultural experience of Africans. African witchdoctors and medicine men claim similar powers and even more. The story of a dead man who died and rose back to life wasn't impressive either. Africans have a myriad of gods and folk heroes that died and rose back to life.There was something missing in the gospel of Jesus the missionaries preached, and the indigenous churches would soon rise in post-colonial times to fill the void.
The men who pioneered missionary work along the West African coast in precolonial times labored for meager fruits because Christianity added nothing genuinely innovative to the native religious "superstitions." Precolonial communities that hosted missionaries, such as the Hinderers in Ibadan, merely offered them traditional African hospitality and hardly anything else. The few converts the Hinderers won in Ibadan after decades of hard toil were generally society's outcasts. Men who abandoned their ancestral hearths to become Christians and went to the mission houses to "learn book" and sing songs on Sundays were generally held in derision.
The imposition of colonial rule by military conquest was the singular act in the interaction of the European powers with African states that forced Africans to pay attention to the fact of the vast superiority of Western technology, especially in its application to warfare. Before the wars of conquest, Africans had certainly not failed to take note of the white man's technological wizardry. But it took a demonstration of its power on the battlefield to convince Africans that technology could be applied to more than just production of mechanical curios and exotic gadgetry that Africans looked upon mostly as sophisticated toys.
Jesus went into ascendancy as black Africa's favorite witchdoctor cum
medicine man only after the white man signaled "Jesus power" with booming cannons and chattering maxim guns. Only after conquest by European armies did Africans begin reasoning that the white man's witchdoctor Jesus, must be powerful indeed! He teaches the white man to build ships, make guns. He inspires them to create an array of miraculous products: clothes, shoes, jewelry, electricity, telegraph, automobiles, even airplanes!
Africans wanted Jesus because he embodied in their thinking the technological superiority of the West. As the Ibo of southern eastern Nigerian would say: Dis Jesus na helele!
(This Jesus is Wonderful!)
The romance of black Africa with Jesus began soon after the canons and maxim guns went silent, soon after the ethnic African nations of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century accepted the fact of a new world order as dictated from Europe. And the Jesus vogue caught on very quickly. After the guns went silent, everybody wanted access to the secret of the white man's power that the missionaries preached.
The rise of indigenous churches and the indigenization of Christianity
From the educational Christian missions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, sprung a new class of Africans educated in European universities and other other higher institutions. These were men who were as educated as they were ardently committed to the Christian religious upbringing they received in the missionary schools in their early years.
These men were role models for the uneducated African masses. They were white men in blacks skins, men who had the secret of the Jesus magic. But while these "Europeanized Africans" were largely content to remain in the European churches that raised them up, the uneducated masses who followed the example of "Europeanized Africans" and converted en mass to Christianity found the European churches too restrictive in their mode of worship and expression of spirituality. Africans wanted to apply Jesus magic to solving problems not only in the physical realm but also in the spiritual realms in which they, like all other traditional peoples worldwide, are constantly embroiled in interminable battles against witches, demons, spirits, principalities and powers.
Indigenous African churches began springing up in competition with the old established European churches during the colonial times very often actively suppressed by the government-backed "mainstream" European churches who considered their indigenized form of Christianity heretical. In Nigeria, the old European churches such as the Anglican Church, Methodist Church and the Catholic Church soon found themselves competing for souls with new indigenous church. The indigenous churches, being better adapted to the spiritual terrain flourished like weed.
In Nigeria, The Church of Cherubim and Seraphim
, The Celestial Church of Christ
and the Christ Apostolic Church
are examples of African Christian Churches that have successfully taken and modified European Christianity to serving uniquely African spiritual needs. Indigenous African churches are mostly expressions of the traditional African world-view with a veneer of the new Christian forms.
The indigenization of European Christianity brings about the prominence of the Church pastor or prophet who functions as spiritual consultant in the office vacated by pre-Christian era medicine men and witchdoctors. His spiritual consultancy service is highly sought after by the poor and rich, politicians, high ranking government officials and presidents, for the same reasons medicine men were consulted in pre-colonial times: for spiritual fortification against evil spiritual influences. He dispenses to his client a bewildering array of spiritual power charged "fetish" objects: prayer-soaps, prayer-oils, prayer-handkerchief, prayer-water; and ritual baths in sacred streams.
Even among the second generation of indigenous African churches influenced by fundamentalist evangelical ministries from the United States, the strong dose of the African perspective is retained. The battles we fight in the physical realm are only a cover for the real ongoing struggle in the spiritual realm. The Devil and his infernal cohorts are not a proposition but fact, and the name of JESUS is the special incantational formula for overcoming life's spiritual battles.