Has Christianity been bad for Africa?

“When the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. They taught us how to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened them, they had the land and we had the Bible.” So goes a famous quote often attributed to either Jomo Kenyatta, the founding president of Kenya or Bishop Desmond Tutu, the late South African anti-Apartheid campaigner.

Annoying and tired as it may be, this idea, that Christianity was little more than the Trojan horse through which colonialism was smuggled into the continent, retains enthusiastic merchants even today.

It found loud expression in a recent viral video, in which Dr Arikana Chihombori-Quao, former African Union (AU) permanent representative to the United States, contends that, in order to set the stage for slavery and colonisation, the white man first sent Christian missionaries to subdue the African mind, teaching Africans that, for instance, “when you get slapped, turn the other cheek, and that your riches are in heaven.”

Now, I could go ad hominem right here and point out that Dr Chihombori was not only educated in the United States after high school, but made herself rich practising medicine there for 29 years, while Africa’s sick were tended by the same Christian missionaries she was excoriating. But I won’t, because Wikipedia already did this.

Muddled-up history

I could go even lower and let my reader in on the secret that not only did Dr Chihombori do precious little, during her time as ambassador, to obtain any real benefit for the continent, but was also sacked in 2019 on misconduct grounds; and that, when the AU, clearly trying spare her the embarrassment, kept those reasons private, she fomented such a backlash that the AU was forced to air the dirty linen. But I won’t, because the news media already reported it.

I will not even allow myself the pleasure of pointing out the dissonance that oozes from the pores of everyone who makes similar arguments. Instead, I defer here to the fellow (hitherto unknown to me) by whose hand the video landed onto my Twitter timeline: “All day Africans will just wax lyrical about colonised minds and other catchy social media sound bites but do nothing to build a trash collection service or improve road infrastructure. White liberal guilt has truly been a master stroke into turning everyone into useless mfs.” Amen to that.

I will, instead, limit myself to mellower fare. I regret that I have to say it, but the idea that Christianity has been bad for Africa is so patently wrong, so dolt-headed, so ungrateful, so unnecessary, and so blatantly ridiculous, it borders on the absurd. It has no grounding in history, in the present, in thought or in deed. If Europe only brought one good thing to Africa, Christianity was it; and yet, not even here are the critics right; for Europe didn’t bring Christianity to Africa.


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Christianity isn’t foreign to Africa at all. The religion has been here since its very beginning. And it wasn’t just in North Africa, which many often conveniently dismiss as “not the real Africa.” The Acts of the Apostles has Philip baptise an Ethiopian eunuch long before Paul is converted and takes Christianity to Europe. This same Ethiopia – which our enlightened Africanists often think of as the centre of African identity – has one of the oldest Christian traditions of any region in the world.

Selfless sacrifices

But even if it is true that European Christian missionaries were the most active at spreading Christianity in the rest of Africa, the colonial connection is much harder to draw, since European missionaries were rarely allied with their governments. Though there were exceptions (the main one being the Anglicans, whose leader was the monarch of the British Empire), most missionaries conducted their activities separate from, and often at odds with, colonial governments.

Where the latter dawdled about educating Africans, brave missionaries stepped into the breach and started world-class schools for them; when the government tended to the healthcare of the white man and left the African to his own devices, missionaries, once again, weren’t afraid to treat them. Missionaries lived and died with their newly-adopted African communities, and their bodies are buried alongside them.

To wit, both Jomo Kenyatta and Bishop Tutu were educated by Christian missionaries; without that education, there is absolutely no chance they would ever have had the intellectual tools to agitate for the dignity of their fellow Africans.

Not even Dedan Kimathi, leader of the Mau Mau and Kenya’s most famous freedom fighter, and a great inspiration to our sophisticated anti-Christian crusaders, despised Christianity; his last requests, before his British captors executed him, were that he receive the last sacraments from a Catholic priest, that his wife be kept close to the church and comforted by nuns, and that the missionaries should educate his son.

As if that were not enough, the quote with which I opened is just wrong. Christian missionaries rarely appropriated land by trickery or force from the communities they served. On the contrary, quite often, at least in the case of Catholic missionaries, the communities initially assigned them unwanted land. This phenomenon is alluded to in Chinua Achebe’s book Things Fall Apart, where a pesky group of missionaries is gifted land that is thought to be haunted, as a way to get rid of them.

But this is not a mere fiction. There is a school about 30 kilometres from my home. Founded in 1927 by Catholic missionaries, it was built on land that was considered cursed, since it was where all of society’s outcasts – lepers and people with terminal illnesses, for instance – used to be sent to die. But St Mary’s, as the school is known, not only ended up producing a steady stream of African intellectuals and professionals for Kenya, but also created a growing town around it.

Leftist lies

But this is not even the main reason that quote is mistaken. As it happens, neither Jomo Kenyatta nor Desmond Tutu originated it. Its real source was a leftist white man, German author and playwright Rolf Hochhuth, whose rabidly negative portrayals of Christianity have been debunked, including by institutional authorities like Encyclopaedia Britannica, which panned his portrayal of Pope Pius Pius XII – whom he accused of being indifferent to Nazi war crimes – as unhistorical.

This fact betrays a very important truth. The idea that Christianity has been negative to Africa is not original to, nor mainstream on, the continent. It seems, instead, to be primarily the preoccupation of a certain class of rich white liberal, aided by radical elements of the African diaspora, who entertain a childish nostalgia for an Africa that never existed and are ever grasping for grievances to bemoan. They babble on and on, but have never proffered a single realistic solution to Africa’s problems.

And all the while, as they sanctimoniously fulminate and spit from their pulpits, Christian schools continue to educate Africans, regardless of tribe or creed; Christian hospitals continue to treat Africans, both in the cities and in far-off places that even governments dare not reach; Christian charities tend to Africans displaced by war and other calamities; and Christian Africans continue to build up their own countries into the paradises they will eventually be.

If Africa had only one true problem, it is people who think (or fail to) like this.


Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and 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.

Image credit: Pexels, Photo by nappy.

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Jürgen Siemer
    commented 2023-07-20 03:19:17 +1000
    I hope that we will get more cardinals from sub-Sahara Africa!
  • mrscracker
    Things are shifting once more. We have a number of priests from Africa coming to the States to fill in the void created by shrinking Western vocations. One poor Nigerian Father was recently attacked with a machete at the US parish where he’s been serving. Imagine coming all the way from strife torn Nigeria to be macheted in Louisiana. Very sad.
  • Fabio Paolo
    commented 2023-07-18 20:46:36 +1000
    I don’t think Rolf Hochhuth was a left-winger, except perhaps in the modern American right-winger meaning of the term. He was certainly in the pay of Communists such as the East German theatre company set up by Berthold Brecht and managed by his successor Erwin Piscator, who allowed him the facilities to make his plays known. Mihail Pacepa claims that the KGB was behind it. But I think he was a covert Nazi. The main target of his propaganda, apart from Pius XII, was Winston Churchill, whom he tried to defame, as he had done with Pius, with a mendacious play called “Soldiers”. If you sum up his various resentments and hatreds, you have a case, at least, for someone who carried on bitter hatred from the destruction of Nazi Germany, the country he was born in.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2023-07-17 17:25:25 +1000