Are the gods of Africa asleep?

A worship session in progress. Observers say Africa has a lot of failings due to its theistic philosophies. God has cursed Africa, not literally, but because religions have created unbalanced structures that discriminate people against themselves and are the backbone of conflicts, from the Horn to the Cape.

What you need to know:

  • The continent is regarded as one of the most religious in the world, yet calamities and disasters stalk it without end. Or, as one man put it, is there too much God in Africa?
  • Matthew Parris, a UK-based journalist and former conservative politician, once wrote a controversial article in ‘The Times’ arguing: “As an atheist I truly believe Africa needs God.” But, in view of what happens in Africa, the man may have been wrong. Africa already has God. The statement should, perhaps, have read: Does Africa have too much God?

God will take care of us, He will see us through it all. This is the work of God. God will not forget us, He has grand plans for us — you must have heard these phrases, or even said them yourself.

These, and many others, are common in Africa. They never fail to come up, especially in times of difficulty.

But, could this deep belief be the reason Africa seems stuck in a time warp? Could our religious beliefs be playing a role in the tragedy that is most of sub-Saharan Africa?

There is poverty, sickness, and disease in every part of the world, including those lush cities such as Paris, Tokyo, Vienna, Madrid, and New York, but the paradoxical fact that these afflictions are more intense in the more religious Africa is upsetting.

The question lingers: Where are the gods of Africa? Shouldn’t the godliness in Africa translate to much blessedness, prosperity, and everything that the supreme being can bestow?

Early this month leaders from all sectors around Africa converged in Mombasa to talk about the unrelenting woes bedevilling the continent. As expected, fingers were pointed at the usual suspects: negative ethnicity, neo-colonialism, corruption, and, most of all, the dictatorial loonies who pass for African leaders.

But what about religion? Has religion not, as a long-standing culture in Africa, also somewhat failed to propel us to prosperity?

In sub-Saharan Africa, religion is practised enthusiastically — Allah for the Muslims, God for the Christians and, in the case of traditionalists, a supreme god going by various names and smaller gods living in mountains, trees, under water... everywhere.

Prof John Mbithi, a renowned expert of religion in Africa, says in his book, African Religions and Philosophy: “Africans are notoriously religious, and each society in Africa has its own religious system with a set of beliefs and practices. Religion permeates all aspects of life, so it is not easy or possible to isolate it from other aspects of African society and culture.”

According to Prof Mbithi, all African cultures and societies, traditional (pre-colonial) and contemporary (post-colonial), across the continent, and regardless of differences in national origin, language, or ethnicity, are deeply religious.

Does the uncompromising practice of these religions have inner and outer realities? Did supernatural beings mix Africa’s cup of problems or has religion made us complacent to our own detriment?

Consider the evidence: famine, abject poverty, disease, corruption, and political repression reign supreme, while HIV/Aids continues to kill Africans in record numbers.

When the HIV/Aids scourge landed on the continent, many believed it was either a curse from an angry god or from an evil witchdoctor’s pot of spells. In some rural areas, this is still the case.

Mid this month, nine people were reported dead after flash floods swept through Turkana West. The area had been hit by drought, causing widespread hunger. Why the disharmony of nature? Are the gods of Africa not pulling the strings for our own good? Are they asleep? Did they throw in the towel?

These and many other questions persist in the minds of many religious folk. But few ever pause to ask themselves whether the flash flood deaths, just like the ravaging hunger, were as a result of poor planning and lack of foresight.

Pastor Francis Bukachi says: “African traditional religion thrives on fate. We blame God or gods for everything, including our own wrongful personal choices. The result is that we resign ourselves to low standards in some areas of life.”

Picked by God

Take the issue of leadership. It is not uncommon to hear leaders say they were picked by God, and they know that this will work to ensure they stay in power. Why? Because in some religions, there is the belief that leaders are chosen by God, so it is only He who can take them out. The result: people accommodating murderous, thieving and retrogressive leaders in the name of respect for God.

When unusual things happen in many parts of Africa, people are quick to ascribe these to the hand of God or any of the many other gods, and all that is forgotten. No one, not university lecturers or researchers, will be pricked to dig deeper and find the underlying cause, which is often the route through which great inventions that benefit mankind are arrived at.

Deformed newborn animals and strange diseases are just a few of these. We all know about ebola, which, were it not for the international interest it created, would have been dismissed as an act of God.

“From a biblical point of view wealth and prosperity does not represent holistic development. God judges sin in every culture starting with idolatry, immorality, shedding of innocent blood, and broken agreements (Exodus 20, Leviticus 18, Numbers 35:33-34 and Isaiah 24). His favoured judgment options are disease (pestilence), famine, war,” says Mr Bukachi.

No wonder then that religious people quickly ascribe these occurrences to God or gods.

Mr Amani Matano, a law student at the University of Nairobi, thinks that Africa’s religiosity is implicitly the root of Africa’s nemesis.

“I feel that we have a lot of failings in society due to our theistic philosophies. God has cursed Africa, not literally, but because religions have created unbalanced structures that discriminate people against themselves and are the backbone of conflicts from the Horn to the Cape.

Contributions to leaders

“In an instance where we have a poor class of people with limited expendable income who then proceed to transfer what little wealth they have to a few individuals, then the result will be a regression,” says Mr Matano, referring to the phenomenon where poor rural and urban folk contribute money to make the lives of their religious leaders comfortable.

He says: “If 50,000 Kenyans had Sh100 each, they would most likely spend it on food or clothes or a beer or something close to that, giving the money back to farmers, planters, hoteliers, thus promoting Kenya as a whole. If, however, they transfer this money to one pastor who proceeds to buy a BMW X6 or takes a trip to the Maldives, then this will be a net outflow of currency and wealth, not to mention the effects to the individuals with minimal income.”
Pastor Bukachi weighs in: “Developed nations made policies on giving. All giving to charity is tax deductible. Their foundation was church work, and I believe that is one reason they were blessed. Can you imagine what would happen if church giving was tax deductible? It would strengthen the civil society with homegrown resources and create a strong non-profit sector, just like in Western countries.”

Rev Mutinda Musyimi, a former senior pastor of AIC Jericho and ethics lecturer, says every continent has its challenges and that Africa is not cursed.

“Africa is not that bad, other people are experiencing same challenges, even worse. Some of the world’s poorest countries are in Asia,” he says.

“Africa is blessed with diamonds, gold, oil, natural resources, plenty of fresh water, beautiful mountains, valleys, and the eighth natural wonder of the world is here in Kenya,”

So, if Africa has the most natural wealth in the world, why is it so poor?

“God will not do for you what he has enabled you to do for yourself,” says Rev Musyimi, who believes that the problem with Africa is its complacency.

“What hinders development in Africa is mostly man-made: retrogressive traditions, human activities that cause climate change, poor governance, and insecurity,” he adds.

“There’s also the factor of brain drain. There are very many eminent people who moved away from their pastoralist communities once they became learned and successful. They come to Nairobi instead of going back to empower their own communities.”

Moderately religious

Many of the countries that have the highest standards of living, such as Scandinavian states, are populated by the non-religious and moderately religious.

But the question begs, is it because of their mild religiosity that they developed or did development make them moderately religious?

A study carried out by Phil Zuckerman, professor of sociology at Pitzer College, revealed that “levels of religiosity and creationism tend to decline as income levels rise.”

Pastor Bukachi concurs, saying, “France removed the Bible from schools at the beginning of the 20th Century, USA in the 1960s. But not without a price.There is clear evidence that these nations started to fall apart morally from that time. Because they do not have an objective moral standard, they are making laws that even nature refuses to adhere to. The reaping has begun.”

Is it, therefore, more acceptable to be well-off financially and healthwise and be morally bankrupt than to remain pious and moral while facing death in poverty?

It has been submitted that governance and leadership determine whether a people flourish or not.

And, according to Mancur Olson, a Norwegian economist, “boarder lines and political jurisdictions determine which country prospers. Institutions and how people are governed determine if they are rich or poor. Get institutions and policies right so as to eradicate poverty.”

Matthew Parris, a UK-based journalist and former conservative politician, once wrote a controversial article in The Times arguing: “As an atheist I truly believe Africa needs God.”

But Parris, in view of what happens in Africa, was wrong. Africa already has God. The statement should, perhaps, be: Does Africa have too much God?