Africa and the future of Christianity
The Catholic Church’s synod on synodality has been going on in the Vatican for more than a week now. Perhaps it would have made much more news had Hamas not breached Israel’s borders and committed its unspeakable atrocities there, grabbing the whole world’s attention in the process.
One of the emphases of the synod is on listening, especially to voices that have traditionally not received much attention in the Church. The synodal process began at the grassroots level around the world nearly two years ago, and every interested Catholic had the chance to contribute. What is happening in Rome now is the culmination of much wider consultations.
An important consequence of this is that Catholics outside the West – particularly those in Africa – are very strongly represented in this process. Their concerns, though not as flashy as their Western counterparts’ divisions about pastoral care for the LGBT community and the role of women, now have a place at the table.
What effect this will have on the outcome of the synod remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that it will be significant, and that it will grow increasingly more important in the future since, as many pundits – secular and religious alike – have pointed out, the centre of gravity of the Catholic Church, and of Christianity in general, is gradually but definitely shifting south and east, towards Africa.
Christianity has been present in Africa since its very beginning. As I pointed out in July, in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul, who would later bring the faith to Europe, was still persecuting Christians when Philip baptised the first African Christian. In the early days of the faith, there were thriving Christian communities across the continent’s north shore, then part of the Roman world.
Why these communities did not send missionaries past the southern boundaries of the Roman empire, while attempting to evangelise northwards, is a mystery few have tried to explain. The infrastructure was certainly there. Rome had commercial contact with both the west and east coasts of Africa, as far south as the island of Rhapta, off present-day Tanzania.
Centuries after Rome collapsed, at least in the West, Islamic forces made small work of the barriers to the south, so much so that, by the 9th century, nearly every Somali on the horn of Africa had converted to Islam. Over the following centuries, Arab and Swahili Muslims spread their faith down the eastern coast of the continent and across the Sahara into the northern reaches of tropical Africa, weaving Islam into the social fabric and history of some of Africa’s most illustrious medieval polities.
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It wasn’t until the European age of exploration that Portuguese sailors reintroduced the southern portions of the continent to Christianity. And yet, even then, it was merely circumstantial. Francis Xavier and his companions, though they made several calls along the coasts of Africa, had their eyes set on faraway Asia.
This continued at least until the late 1700s, a period in which Europe’s primary concern wasn’t so much to spread Christianity to Africans, as to plunder the continent’s resources, primarily the forced labour of its people, to bolster its colonial interests on the other side of the Atlantic.
Christian missionary activity in sub-Saharan Africa only began in earnest during the colonial era, which set off in the latter half of the 19th century, spurred on by Europe’s loss of colonial possessions in the new world and enabled by effective treatments for tropical diseases like malaria.
Most of sub-Saharan Africa’s present-day Christians are relatively new to the faith.
I am fairly young, and yet my great-grandfather was the first Christian in my family tree. I figure he was born sometime around the beginning of the 20th century, perhaps as Orville and Wilbur Wright were getting their rickety contraption off the ground for the first time in South Carolina.
Christianity in most of Africa is less than a century-and-a-half old. In the grand scheme of things, this is almost nothing. Yet, the faith has taken such root on the continent that its immediate future cannot be conceptualised accurately without accounting for the continent’s role.
It’s almost paradoxical, in context. Outside of specific pockets (and the Philippines, of course), Asia, the main target of exploration-era missionary activity, didn’t take up Christianity nearly to the same extent. Africa’s Christians vastly outnumber Asia’s, and are growing much faster on the back of the world’s fastest-growing populations.
As the traditional heartlands of Christianity shutter their churches, Africans are just now building theirs. As parishes are consolidated in the latter, Africans can’t create new ones fast enough. And as the West runs out of pastors, Africa is now sending over some of its own to pick up the slack.
It is therefore right and proper that this growing branch of the Church is heard, as the ongoing synod has emphasised. But African Christians should not content themselves with this. They should see it as just the beginning, which, for all intents and purposes, it is.
The coming decades will present them with the obligation to rejuvenate and rekindle the spirit of Christ in the most unlikely places of all: the lands from which, less than two centuries ago, missionaries set forth to bring them the faith.
Here’s to hoping we don’t shirk this duty.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
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