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By Betty Wamalwa Muragori

Betty Wamalwa Muragori has a degree in Botany and zoology from the University of Nairobi and a Masters degree in Environmental Studies from Clark University in Massachusetts, USA. Betty lives and works in Nairobi. She is married and has three children.

The introduction and spread of Christianity is probably colonialism’s most successful project in Africa. It is in this institution on the continent that one finds all the enviable hallmarks of success. There is widespread adoption with millions of people professing the faith. Innovation has followed as Africans have literally Africanized the religion turning it into versions that work for them. Africans practice Christianity with devotion that leaves little scope for questioning of their faith. If other aspects of life such as the economics, the arts, politics or scientific discovery grew at the same rate as religion and specifically Christianity, Africa would be one of the most developed continents in the world. Yet this is not the case. As the continent grows ever poorer and unstable its love affair with Christianity grows deeper and more widespread. The continent turns its eyes more and more to heaven and away from earth and their lives. Questions abound. I am interested in pursuing the question of the role that religion has played in attuning our minds to recreating poverty, ignorance and despair on the continent. I am going to narrate five stories that speak volumes about Africa’s relationship with religion and its link to poverty, ignorance and despair.

I have several questions for consideration. Do we use religion to cede responsibility for our lives and so open ourselves up to all sorts of confidence tricksters, both small time and big time? Do our Christian beliefs build our confidence and our ability to stand up for ourselves rather than making us certain that even God is doubtful of our humanity because of all those negative people and events we are associated with in the Christian Bible? This particular question is intriguing. I have always found it curious the times when someone does something bad in the Christian Bible and a race related miracle happens! He stops being a Jew of Semitic descent and he suddenly turns Negro black! So Ham the son of a Jew is “marked” because of something he does. In these parts at least, the “mark” is interpreted as a pseudonym for Negro black even though in the Bible’s Semitic-centric world, it is not yet clear that black people have been created by God. Go figure. In my age of innocence, I was fixed in the headlights of this logic, as my Christian teachers in school and church calmly made these leaps of logic, certain they would not be questioned.

Now this is just further idle speculation. I wonder, is this approach to Christianity the same in other parts of the world? Are the people in those parts who maybe designated as the “other”, the ones who do all the bad stuff? In those parts does Ham become Chinese, or Indian or Native American or is this particular miracle special just for Negro black people?

Fostering Spiritual Poverty in Africa
The five stories I am going to narrate have been selected to explore various facets of Africa’s relationship with Christianity. There are four Africa specific stories and one from Europe in the Dark Ages. This last one I use to illustrate the parallels in religious terms between Europe in the Dark or Middle Ages and Africa today. In a nutshell the common denominator between Dark Europe and today’s Africa is that people’s minds were controlled in a pincer formation that brought together religion and politics working in tandem, to keep people yoked to poverty, ignorance and despair. I aim to use these similarities to suggest that maybe Africa is simply going through an age of darkness in which poverty, ignorance and despair are appropriate after all.

But all is not lost. The other lesson I am suggesting is that judging from the history of Europe, Africa’s nemesis, a renaissance in Africa is totally possible. One of the things that is critical though is a shift in the mind. What would such an alteration look like? It would be a shift in self-perception from the current one that is calibrated to ongoingly re-create poverty to a brand new one in which the rainbow that we so seek becomes possible. It is my ardent belief that what will make this possible is a paradigm shift in our religious discourse. We need to adopt a religion that allows for spiritual growth rather than one that perpetrates and perpetuates spiritual poverty, degeneration and terror.

Biko on Spiritual Poverty
I found a lovely quote from Steve Biko that for me reveals why he developed the concept of Black Consciousness and I use it here to understand Africa’s Christianity. Apartheid had created what Biko called “No-hope People” filled with self-loathing and what he calls “spiritual poverty”. Yet for Biko it was precisely these no-hope people who could end Apartheid and as a leader he did not stand above them nor did he dismiss them, instead he embraced them just as they were. He knew that something as monumental as Apartheid could not be overcome by the motions of just one great leader. The important thing is that being a leader who “has seen far” he set about developing ideas that would enable him to bring these people along with him. He first went after their minds the exact same zone of struggle that the institution of Apartheid had first captured and continued to jealously guard.

Yet in their existing state of self-hate the average black South African was not capable of freeing himself or herself from a flimsy paper bag—so closely had they modeled themselves on the bad anti-black publicity of the Apartheid machine. They first had to have a shift of mind that would allow them to recognize their own humanity and inform their self-confidence. Biko set to work through an instrument he called “The Black Consciousness Movement”, a movement which achieved its seemingly wild ambitions.

The Paradox of Christianity in Africa
The power of the Christian church in Africa is without doubt. What has been the impact? Undoubtedly there is a positive side. Christianity brought with it modern education and health systems, allowed African people to step out of cultural traditions and practices that oppressed and sometimes compromised the quality of their lives.

The dark face of Christianity is its paradox, even as it opened up the continent to new ideas, it narrowed the minds of Africans, expunged the past and confined the African mind’s existence to a small sliver. In the process it has made Africans incapable of recognizing themselves and harnessing the progress they had made before Christianity was introduced. I will only give the example of Africa’s relationship to its fabulous material culture. Its art and artifacts are highly prized outside the continent and many are connoisseur collectors’ items in the West. Outside of a few mostly poorly kept museums here on the continent, much of it goes unrecognized. Indeed Africans sell their past, sending it to the West without a thought. Most Africans would never willingly spend money on an old mask or chair, chests, woven fabrics, crafted by their ancestors 100 years ago. To them these are dirty things that will mess up their modern living rooms. Even worse they are to be actively shunned because they remind Africans of their “primitive” past and are seen as probably a tribute to Africa’s religious past, which was really devil worshiping in disguise. Yet the artistic genius of these works continues to inspire some of Europe’s greatest artists.

For me, Christianity is implicated in the loathing that we Africans have for our past. These five stories depict some of the complex facets of Africa’s relationship with Christianity. Ultimately we have to develop the courage to step out of the narrow orthodoxy that has come to define our religious ideas. Happy reading!



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