Africa’s Cultural Void and the Curse of Alien Religions and Cultures
Author: Dr. Daniel M. Mengara Montclair,
New Jersey, USA (ANN, June 28, 2000)
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The ongoing Sharia crises in Nigeria, which so far have claimed more than 1000 lives in the northern states (Zamfara, Kaduna, Kano, among others) since Olusegun Obasanjo took office democratically in May 1999, are some of the most abject and repulsive aberrations that have come from the African continent since the continent was overtaken and colonized by enslaving alien cultures several centuries ago.

Clearly, there is something wrong and highly peculiar in the image that is broadcast into one’s mind when one dares to take a cold look at the whole circus of religious antagonisms that is tearing Nigeria apart:


This image, to me, is a very shocking one. And raises a number of questions. How come Africans, who once had their own religions, are seeing themselves nowadays only through the eyes of cultural identities that were once imposed upon them? How come they are now fighting for the right—or what appears to me as the misery—to be defined only according to such imported identities? Last but not least, how come two Nigerians speaking the same language and sharing the same substrate culture have come to see themselves as different and enemies, simply because of the alien religions that they are practicing?

The questions are many, but the answers few and uneasy. And, to tell the truth, I am totally unable to figure out why we are doing this to ourselves. Perhaps a look back into history will help. But I warn the reader who will dare to continue that the tone of this opinion piece is deliberately angry. I am angered and appalled by our willingness, as Africans, to destroy ourselves in the name of imported gods and cultures whose record of inhumanity and hypocrisy should make us think twice before embracing them.

Religion as tradition

In all times and periods, religion has always been considered the quintessential essence of a people. In fact, the word “tradition” is just another term for “religion” because it is religion that informs the very way in which a people behaves in both culture and tradition. Even in the so-called developed countries that claim to have separated state from religion, religious beliefs, in fact, are often the foundation upon which moral and legal laws are built. Thus, when considering traditional, pre-colonial Africa, it would be impossible to separate religion from culture/tradition, because both are the one and same thing.
According to Mohamadou Kane, for instance, Religion—and particularly animism—[…] in most cases does not simply limit itself to informing tradition; it does not limit itself to conferring its specificity to tradition: it is tradition. When religion dies, tradition can no longer find the energy that would enable it to resist the various assaults of the innovative and contestatory forces that brew from within itself (Kane, 1982: 420-21).

In other words, taking a people’s religion away is almost equal to a cultural genocide that would signal the end of the assertive forces that used to regulate and affirm that people’s identity. If this proposition should be true, then it is possible to say that the cultural genocide of Africa began in the 7th-8th century AD with the first Arab incursions. Islam made quick inroads into the continent, riding on the back of the commodity and slave trading activities that the Arabs developed in Africa back then. Later in the fifteenth century, the Europeans came and introduced Christianity, thus tearing the continent apart along religious lines that had nothing to do with indigenous cultural practices.

Few people know that Africa’s indigenous religions, unlike their Christian and Islamic counterparts, were not proselytizing religions. In other words, no indigenous religion in Africa is historically known to have led its advocates or practitioners to wage war or undertake cultural incursions whose aim was to convert or impose their beliefs upon others. According to African scholar Ali Mazrui, Of the three principal religious legacies of Africa (indigenous, Islamic, and Christian), the most tolerant on record must be the indigenous tradition. One might even argue that Africa did not have religious wars before Christianity and Islam arrived, for indigenous religions [therefore cultures] were neither universalistic (seeking to conquer the whole of the human race) nor competitive (in bitter rivalry against other [universalistic] creeds). Because they are not proselytizing religions, indigenous African creeds have not fought with each other (Mazrui 1995: 77).

Indeed, the grand designs of Christianity and Islam, the two most universalistic religions in the world, have always been to convert the entire world according to their image. The crusades and jihads that teared Europe and other areas of the world apart for centuries testify to the incredible thirst for conquest and domination that has characterized both the Christian and Islamic creeds. Does the Bible’s Old Testament not carry the following lines? When the Lord your God brings you into the land which you are entering to occupy and drives out many nations before you (…), when the Lord delivers them into your power and you defeat them, you must put them to death (…). (…) you must not intermarry with them, neither giving your daughters to their sons nor taking their daughters for your sons. (Old Testament, Deuteronomy, 7: 1-3) In cultural and philosophical terms, the West seems to have always valued the conquest, control and domination of the weakest among nature’s—or God’s—creation. It is not therefore surprising to see that Aristotle, one of the greatest and most ancient informers of Western philosophy, had already said the following more than 2000 years ago:

For that some should rule and others be ruled is a thing not only necessary, but expedient; from the hour of their birth, some are marked out for subjection, others for rule (…). (…) The rule of the inferior is always hurtful. The same holds good of animals in relation to men; for tame animals have a better nature than wild, and all tame animals are better off when they are ruled by man; for then, they are preserved. Again, the male is by nature superior, and the female inferior; and the one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind (Aristotle, The Politics, I.v.2, Jowett’s translation).

It thus appears that the survival of the fittest is, in fact, a notion not of a recent invention. But it seems to have been more so for the Africans who, unlike the other cultural creeds, developed community religions that left so much freedom of association to the individual that most of the religious practices remained community-based, familial or even individual, and did not, in most cases, expand beyond the village or tribal constituencies. And when they did expand, they did so more in the form of borrowings rather than cultural impositions.

Arguably, and thanks to the basic pacifist traits in African cultures, the imposition or introduction of aggressive and exclusive alien religious practices seems to have indeed been amortized, allowing for a smoother adaptation that saw most African cultures integrate and pacify such alien practices somewhat.

As a result, because no wars were fought in pre-Islamic and Pre-Christian Africa on the basis of religion, only a limited number of such wars were witnessed in Africa’s Islamic and Christian times. Ibn Battuta himself, the great Arab traveler of the 14th century, testified to the pacifist and non-aggressive spirit of the Islamicized African areas that he visited. He, for instance, expressed amazement when he came across Islamicized African tribes and kingdoms that seemed to practice Islam in ways that would have appeared utterly sinful to the Arabs. For instance, Ibn Battuta found it scandalous that Islamicized Africans should let their women go freely and unveiled about the community, and allow them to be alone with male companions that were not their husbands. He also testified to the incredible benevolence, righteousness and generosity of the African “kings” that he encountered. As a result of the above, a few more questions come to mind. What, in God’s name, made the Africans depart from their tolerant tradition in order to wholeheartedly embrace religions of oppression that were doomed to turn them against one another? Could the current Nigerian crises mean that Africans have now integrated the cultural aggressivity and intolerance that was so characteristic of Western and Arab holy warriors and missionaries?

I unfortunately have no answers to these questions. However, one thing is sure: despite the existing vestiges of its own indigenous cultures, Africa now seems to stand out as a cultural void that can define itself only according to how those who conquered it defined its cultural, and even political, universe. Because of this paradoxical tendency of the continent to see itself only through the eyes of its imported cultures, one may argue that, in fact, the grand design of the many racist European philosophers and rulers who, since the 16th century, advocated the conquest of Africa in order to save the continent from itself has now been achieved.

It also remains that, even today, the West still refuses to see value in anything African. One of the manifestations of this cultural reductionism is utterly visible on the World Factbook Web site of America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where there seems to be an obvious and deliberate effort by the American government not to recognize African religions, among other indigenous religions of the third world, as valuable expressions of cultural identities.

Thus, in the descriptions provided on the African countries that are listed on the CIA World Factbook site (World Factbook 1999), the imported religions are given a prominence that seems to negate the essence of Africa’s indigenous religious practices. For instance, on the pages describing such countries as Senegal and CONGO (DRC), one reads the following:

SENEGAL Religions:
Muslim 92%, indigenous beliefs 6%, Christian 2% (mostly Roman Catholic)

CONGO (DRC) Religions:
Roman Catholic 50%, Protestant 20%, Kimbanguist 10%, Muslim 10%, other syncretic sects and traditional beliefs 10% What is wrong with such readings of religious practices in Africa?

First, there are the derogative terms that seem to always accompany African practices. Its religions are not considered as “pure religions” or “religions.” Rather, they are seen as “indigenous beliefs”, “syncretic sects,” “traditional and animistic” beliefs, among other epithets.

Second, there is the totally erroneous reading of the importance of each religious practice. Because Africans tend not to define themselves in the absolutist and segmentarist way in which Westerners see the world, they do not often see their religions as exclusive. In other words, they do not see a major problem in being both a Christian and a believer in traditional religions, or both a Muslim and an “animist.” They can be all at the same time, using each depending on the context and the circumstances, thus going counter to Islam and Christianity’s exclusive requirements of renunciation. According to these, one can have only one religion at a time. The assumption is therefore that once one has accepted to become a Christian or a moslem, he can no longer be African in culture and tradition. But this would be to totally ignore the spirit of inclusion and integration of African cultures. Consequently, to render justice to Africa’s tolerant, integrative and non exclusive view of the world, the CIA’s descriptions should read as follows:

SENEGAL Religions:
African religions: 100%. Among these, 92% are also Muslim and 2% Christian (mostly Roman Catholic)

CONGO (DRC) Religions:
African religions: 100%. Among these, 80 % are Christian (Roman Catholic 50%, Protestant 20%, Kimbanguist 10%), 10% are Muslim, and 10% undetermined.

Clearly, this new reading would do more justice to Africans. Interestingly, the current religious crises in Nigeria are not opposing practitioners of Islam or Christianity to practitioners of African religions. They are opposing practitioners of Islam to practitioners of Christianity, thus symbolizing the transfer into Africa of the secular rivalries that have opposed these two religions since their inception some 2000 years ago.

Fortunately for those who brought Islam and Christianity to the “dark continent,” Africans are good learners. Religious wars were first historically witnessed in both West Africa and the eastern coast after Islamicized kingdoms surfaced and built themselves into conquering empires as was dictated to them by their new religion. And this, combined with the Arab slave and gold trade, brought its first major eras of instability to the continent. The European-controled slave trade, as well as their desire to combat not only what they perceived as stateless-ness, but also both “primitive animism” and Islam, brought about times of acute divisiveness on the continent. Today, Africans seem to have gulped down and taken in foreign religions and cultures so well that they are now at the forefront of cultural and political imperialism over their own. As soon as most of them became “independent” in the 1960’s, they embroiled themselves in Western-type ideologies by taking sides and becoming pawns in the Western Cold War, adopted the centralized, monarchical forms of government the West had taught and left them, and waged wars against each other for the control of both their artificial countries and the inherited central banks. And now, this Nigerian aberration.

Now, the Nigerians have ridiculously taken it upon themselves to fight for the religions that the Arabs and the Westerners pushed down their cultural throats several centuries ago. They now want to become the new frontier of cultural imperialism, not on their own behalf, but on the behalf of those who, from the cultural homelands of those religions, take pleasure at seeing their “children” continuing and finishing for them what they had not been able to complete openly in the 20th century of forced and accelerated “decolonizations” Some call that “political correctness.”

I once thought the cultural disaster of Africa had ended and that the 40 years since independence, added to the prospects brought about by the nascent new millennium, would make us Africans come back to our own cultural senses and start to think African again. Thinking African entailed a re-introduction into ours values of those principles of tolerance and integration that, before the Arabs and Europeans came, ensured peace and harmony among peoples of the same creed and their neighbors. Thinking African meant that Africans needed to learn to rediscover the value of African institutions and cultures, and use these as the ferment that would allow them to harmoniously adapt to the constraints of contemporary political and economic necessities. But, I was wrong. The disaster is just beginning. The solution? Kill and ban MASS RELIGIONS from African institutions altogether, and leave it to the individual to decide what they want to do, just like pre-Christian and pre-Islamic African societies used to do. How? I have no clue. What conclusion can be made, then?

Well, that we Africans have lost ourselves in the mud that the curse of alien religions and cultures threw at us several centuries ago. And the effects of the curse are becoming more poignant every day as multifarious forms of miseries continue to settle in more deeply than before, and as ruthless political and religious leaders continue to exploit such miseries for their own purposes.

Clearly, Africans more than before need good leadership. Is it not a shame that the leaders of the Nigerian northern states of Zamfara, Kaduna and Kano, among others, should have chosen the path of religious integrism and intolerance against their own people? Is it not a sign of irresponsibility that, instead of solving the miseries of their own citizens, they should have chosen to push their peoples against one another in ridiculous wars of religions?

How, may I ask, are Islam and Christianity going to save Africa from the terrible bankruptcy of its institutions and economic systems when its leaders are, in fact, the root of the problem?

Now that we no longer see ourselves as Ibos, Hausas, Yorubas, Zulus, Fangs, or Kongos, but rather as Christians and Moslems that must suppress one another from the surface of the earth, I can say only one thing:

We are doomed. Shame on us!

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