Is Religion to Blame for Africa’s Underdevelopment?

True decolonisation of the mind cannot and should not be regressive. People must embrace scientific thinking – not because it is native but because it is necessary.
Charles Makakala21 June 20226 min

Most Africans are aware of how important the right mindset is to development. Many have been raised on ‘decolonisation of the mind’ fodder as popularised by African scholars. The challenge though is in understanding what a transformed mindset looks like and how to bring it about.

I have attended a number of discussions lately exploring the role of foreign religions in Africa’s underdevelopment. The premise is that Christianity and Islam are ‘foreign’ and that decolonisation requires the abandonment of the two religions and the return to traditional religions.

Africans are very religious. A 2010 survey revealed that more than three-quarters of Africans say that religion is ‘very important’ to them. Even the country with the lowest percentage in Sub-Saharan Africa, Botswana, still reported a much higher percentage than that of the most religious of developed nations, the United States.

Christianity and Islam dominate the religious landscape in Africa. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage of Christians and Muslims increased from nine per cent and 14 per cent in 1900 to 57 per cent and 29 per cent in 2010, respectively. The percentage of adherents of traditional beliefs decreased from 76 per cent to only 13 per cent.

This implies that the people are morally conservative and religiously devout. However, they still blame their embrace of ‘foreign religions’ for Africa’s underdevelopment. This points to a serious discordance in the way people conceive religion. Is it possible that people are quite comfortable adopting religious labels without being persuaded of their spiritual and cultural utilities?

Living in a religious netherworld will not solve Africa’s problems. We need a firm intellectual ground to stand on, by learning to reconcile our deeply held beliefs with our intellectual positions.

Are Christianity and Islam alien to Africa?

In understanding how ‘foreign’ are Christianity and Islam to Africa, we must ask ourselves which Africa are we talking about. While as a continent Africa is one, its history has been very diverse, with North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa taking very different developmental paths.

This is the argument that Samuel Huntington made in his book The Clash of Civilizations. I also tend to think along the same lines – nonetheless, for simplicity’s sake, let’s consider Africa as one.

In Acts 8, the Bible provides a reference to the first African conversion to Christianity – that of an Ethiopian eunuch. Within a little more than a century, Christians had made Alexandria, which had replaced Athens as the intellectual capital of the Roman empire, their stronghold.

North Africa then gave birth to church fathers such as Tertullian of Carthage, Origen of Alexandria, and later St. Augustine of Hippo. Christianity spread further south, with Ethiopia declaring itself Christian in 331 AD.

The first Muslims in Africa arrived in 614 AD when persecution forced them to take refuge in the Kingdom of Aksum. Within a century, they had taken over Morocco and later crossed over to West Africa. They reached as far south as Pemba and Kilwa on the Swahili coast by the late 900s through trade, with their advance only halted by the southern limits of the Monsoon Winds, in modern-day Cabo Delgado.

History shows that Christianity and Islam are by no means alien to Africa, the fact that Central and Southern Africa remained untouched before the 1800s notwithstanding. Moreover, what would become of that idea of being ‘foreign’ if applied across our cultures?

For example, what would become of say our chapattis (Indian), vitenges (wax prints) (Dutch), and the famous Maasai shukas (Scottish), which we consider part of ‘our’ culture but are in fact very new to Africa?

Did religion lead to Africa’s underdevelopment?

The second issue is – did Christianity and Islam lead to Africa’s underdevelopment? It is difficult to do justice to such a question here, so we may have to make do with broad strokes for now.

In March 1329, a Moroccan lawyer called Abu Abdallah Ibn Battuta arrived in Kilwa on his Indian Ocean peregrinations. Kilwa had already surpassed Mogadishu as the most influential city on the Swahili coast. It was then under the rule of a Yemeni family which was controlling trade routes as far inland as the Zambezi River. Some of Ibn Battuta’s records give us glimpses of what life was like in Kilwa.

The well-to-do families lived in stone houses up to three storeys high, with indoor plumbing. They wore expensive clothes with plenty of jewellery. They had trade links with India and China.

Kilwa had its own coins and some have been found as far away as the Australian coast. For meetings, people met at a great palace called Husuni Kubwa, the largest single building in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. But on Fridays, they met in an impressive domed mosque for prayers, now sadly laying in ruins.

What needs to be noted though is that this Kilwa was Islamic. A Persian founded it in the 10th century and it evolved as an Islamic community. Its ruling family, the Mahdalis, were devout Muslims whom Ibn Battuta described as having ‘great respect for men of religion’.

Similarly, its culture – religion, organisation, architecture, etc. – were also Islamic. This is the reason the author of Kilwa: An Islamic Trading City on the East African Coast chose that title to emphasise that particular trait.

Many examples can be given, ancient and modern but, in short, the living standards in Kilwa were far ahead of anything else in East, Central, and Southern Africa and that highlights the transformative power of religion.

But, someone may ask, how about Ethiopia – why isn’t it a model for development despite being ‘Christian’ for ages?

Progressive and regressive values

Firstly, by virtue of their doctrines, all religions have values which provide worldviews for their respective communities. Those values can be either progressive or regressive. Max Weber, for example, identified ‘Protestant Ethic’ as a manifestation of progressive religious values (spirit of Capitalism). Similarly, sometimes such values can be regressive – limiting individual freedoms, women’s welfare, scientific thinking, etc. and, in effect, under-developing communities.

Secondly, it is not uncommon for one religion to play a progressive role in one place and do quite the opposite in another place. Different flavours of one faith tend to manifest and be emphasised in different times and places. Therefore, the Islamic flavour that promoted learning, inclusivity and progress in the Iberian peninsula is not similar to the regressive flavour in Afghanistan today.

In trying to understand Ethiopia, it is important to understand the flavour of Christianity embraced there. Very early in its history, the Ethiopian Orthodox evolved as a separate institution which became frozen in time quite early: mystical, inward-looking and mostly theologically disconnected. These affected the religion’s vitality in my opinion. (There are other reasons – beyond the scope of this discussion.)

Thirdly, if Christianity and Islam were truly foreign, can African traditional religions match them theologically in how they address the big questions of origin, the meaning of life, morality, and destiny? I think the two Abrahamic religions are quite superior in that regard, giving them potency as forces of civilisation, making a move to traditional faiths regressive.

Thus, though it is possible to cite many positive and negative examples that accompanied the introduction of Christianity and Islam in Africa when examined holistically, I think those faiths have brought Africans forward in civilisation terms.

To conclude, true decolonisation of the mind cannot and should not be regressive. People must embrace scientific thinking – not because it is native but because it is necessary. Similarly, people must acquire the best ideas from other societies and use them to develop themselves. And what are religions but a collection of ideas that provide answers to life’s most pertinent questions?

Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available at makakalajr@yahoo.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further inquiries.

Charles Makakala

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