Christianity in African Literature

Athanasius's Shrine (where a portion of his relics are preserved) under St. Mark's Cathedral, Cairo
Athanasius's Shrine (where a portion of his relics are preserved) under St. Mark's Cathedral, Cairo | Source

Historically, Europeans and Americans have regarded Africa as a continent of exotic, superstitious beliefs and primitive, animistic religions. Even the African literature with which most Westerners are familiar is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which is set in a traditional, pre-colonial Igboland devoid of religious traditions readily recognizable to non-Igbos. However, the coming of Christianity in the novel is an event which forever changes the way the African’s interact with the white men and each other. This case study is part of a larger trend in literature in Africa which chronicles the ebb and flow of Christianity on the continent. African literature reflects a tradition of accepting and absorbing Christianity even in spite of some of the methods by which the African people became exposed to the religion.

It may come as a surprise to many people who have not studied church history that Christianity has existed in Africa since at least the second century. Christian communities were well established in Alexandria, Carthage, and many Roman occupied parts in between in North Africa. Some of the earliest non-canonical Christian writings come from this region and its people. Tertullian, for example, “seems to have been a native of the North African city of Carthage” (Gonzalez 73). He lived in the last years of the second century and “wrote a number of treatises in defense of the faith against the pagans, and in defense of orthodoxy against various heresies” (74). Two of his most famous works are On the Witness of the Soul and Prescription against the Heretics. Another African would later become one of the loudest voices in the Christian struggles against heresy. Athanasius of Alexandria, sometimes called “the black dwarf,” struggled his whole life against the Arian Heresy in the Roman Empire, particularly in North Africa (173). Because of his background, there is a strong case that Athanasius was a native African like Tertullian before him

Since [Athanasius] spoke Coptic, the language of the original inhabitants of the area who had been successively conquered by Greeks and Romans, and his complexion was dark, like that of Copts, it is very likely that he belonged to that group, and that therefore he was a member of the lower class of Egypt. He certainly never claimed to be of high birth, nor to be well-versed in the subtleties of Greco-Roman culture. (173)

The trouble with listing Tertullian and Athanasius as African writers is that their writings have less to do with the “African experience” than they do with the early “Christian experience.” It may be a stretch, but one could argue that since the bulk of their writings deal with combating heresy in North Africa they give insight into the “African experience” in their respective times. Nonetheless, it is not hard to imagine why some scholars make little if any effort to include them in a catalogue of African writers.

The Copts and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church do recall these writers, however, and they presently still exist in Africa. Allegedly, “the Coptic Church is among the oldest in Christendom. The Evangelist Saint Mark is said to have preached here in the early first century A.D., and established churches in Alexandria, [Egypt]” (Kaplan 112-3). Likewise, the Ethiopian King and his subjects were converted in the fifth century after years of work by Christian missionaries from Egypt and maintained good relationships with the Coptic Christians there (Gonzalez 262). Despite holding some borderline heretical beliefs about the nature of Christ, their religious traditions “have continued existing side by side until the present day” (262). It is a historical irony that one reason these Christian groups still exist is because of the Arab conquest of North Africa. Between 622 and 711 the whole north coast of Africa came under the dominion of Arab invaders who set up caliphates and began converting all peoples not already “of the Book” (249). One of the consequences of Islamic lordship was that Christians in these lands where sheltered from the schisms, persecutions, and inquisitions brought by Christians against other Christians in Europe, Asian Minor, and parts of the Middle East. In one sense, this historic and geographic cut off allows still existing African Churches to claim a longer standing tradition in touch with the early expressions of Christianity. However, this same condition also kept these churches from participating in developing traditions such as mendicant monasticism, translation of the Bible into common languages, and the developments of the Protestant Reformation.

Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the "Babel: Season 2" series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute.
Chinua Achebe speaking at Asbury Hall, Buffalo, as part of the "Babel: Season 2" series by Just Buffalo Literary Center, Hallwalls, & the International Institute. | Source

African literature reflecting the pre-colonial period, though, usually doesn’t make mention of the aforementioned Christian traditions in the continent. Possibly the most famous example of African writing concerning this era is Things Fall Apart. Some of the commentary which follows Achebe’s work paints Christian missionary work as entirely without benefit for Africans. Early in one essay the reader sees where the author calls the missionary message “propaganda” (Ohadike xli). Shortly thereafter, he claims “missionaries were prepared to destroy the entire system of Igbo customs and beliefs in order to convert people to Christianity” (xliii). While there is some truth to these statements, they also reflect a strong degree of prejudice. It sounds dishonest that no Christian action is met with approval, yet Ohadike glosses over the Igbo practice of infanticide in the case of twins in a mere two paragraphs in which he essentially labels the practice as inexplicable while attempting to mitigate it by citing the practice as a religious ritual in other African societies (xxxvi). In any even, even Achebe does not portray the religious conflicts in so cut-and-dry terms. In his novel, the first reaction to Christians is largely disinterest and mild xenophobia, for when the Christians ask for land to build a church, the elders “give them a portion of the Evil Forest” (Achebe, 105). This action is a passive-aggressive means of getting rid of the Christians because the elders don’t expect them, or anyone else, to survive more than seven weeks in the forest (106). This encounter, though, is hardly like the “patient,” “conciliatory,” and respectful way in which the Igbo people were characterized in some scholarship (Ohadike xliii). An important issue arises in the novel, for it is one of the first times both parties display willingness to attempt to understand one another’s view points as characterized by Mr. Brown’s meetings with Akunna. Like some other Igbo people, Akunna had “a growing feeling that there might be something in [Christianity] after all, something vaguely akin to method in the overwhelming madness” (Achebe, 126). Likewise, Mr. Brown is willing to refer to God as “Chukwu” for the purposes of trying to explain his religion just as he avoids delving into the confusing and mysterious details of concepts like the Trinity (127). This scene is more like what Ohadike described only it isn’t a result of the even temperament of the Igbo, but willingness on both parts to work hard and listen to the other side. Ultimately, Things Fall Apart is a novel about social change. Characters who cannot or will not change, such as Okonkwo or Mr. Smith, are doomed to suffer. The role that Christianity plays in these events is mixed. While it does offer hope to people like Okonkwo’s son and it ends the practice of killing twins (110), the missionaries do bring with them oppressive and belligerent institutions such as the District Commissioner and his ilk.

After the time in which Things Fall Apart is set comes an era of imperial colonization for Africa. Early on, European powers had little interest in Africa. The Portuguese were among the first to do so at the mouth of the Congo in 1483 (Gonzalez 402). While relations were cordial in the beginning, it was partially because the Portuguese were looking for “proof that it was possible to establish commercial links with India while circumnavigating the Moslems” (402). The decades of minimal colonization with little importation of Christianity showed “the attitude of Portugal itself, which by [the 1500’s] was much more interested in the Far East, and paid little attention to its African colonies” (403). Of course, this story is a far cry from the Africa of 1914 where “the only independent states remaining in the entire continent were Ethiopia and Liberia” (316). In these colonies missionary work was a reflection of imperial interest because Catholic missionary groups prospered in colonies controlled by European Catholic nations, and Protestant missionary groups prospered in colonies controlled by European Protestant nations.

A novel that examines this period of colonialism and its end is A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. The novel sets its tone by quoting 1Corinthians first thing; the reader knows this story of Africa will also involve a lot about Christianity. There are multiple times in the novel where excerpts from Kihika’s Bible are shown. These excerpts include: Psalm 72 (Thiong’o, 22), Exodus 8:1 (31), Exodus 3:7 (129), John 12:24, and Revelation 21:1 (201). Each of these selected verses deals with the idea of liberation or has an apocalyptic tone. In either case they show that in Kihika’s mind, gaining freedom is linked to Christianity; the Biblical stories explain how God helped people escape from oppression before. As a child Kihika is “moved by the story of Moses and the children of Israel [....] Kihika bought a Bible and read the story of Moses over and over again” (85). This preoccupation with Moses forecasts Kihika’s messianic ideas, and it shows his willingness to accept ideas which do not comes from traditional African sources. The Exodus story is a Jewish tradition only tangentially related to Africa by the story’s Egyptian setting. In a sense, Kihika gets his messianic vision fulfilled because he is “hanged on a tree” in a display not dissimilar to the crucifixion (143).

However, the reader comes to see that when Kihika appropriates Judeo-Christian ideas, he ends up altering them for his specific time and place in colonial Africa. When talking about why he thinks Jesus failed as a messiah, Kihika elaborates his position:

[Jesus] had failed because his death did not change anything [....] In Kenya we want deaths which will change things, that is to say, we want a true sacrifice. But first, we have to be ready to carry the cross. I die for you, you die for me, we become a sacrifice for one another. So I can say that you, Karanja, are Christ. I am a Christ. Everybody who takes the Oath of Unity to change things in Kenya is a Christ. (95)

This sort of belief is heretical, but beyond that, it shows Kihika’s interpretation of Christian belief for his own circumstances. In effect, he is blending Christianity with his tradition especially in terms of the “Oath of Unity.” This occasion isn’t the only time Kihika says something that runs counter to the Christian images he appropriates. When is comes to the teachings of Jesus, Kihika says, “You are struck on the left cheek. You turn the right cheek. One, two, three—sixty years. Then suddenly [...] you say: I am not turning the other cheek any more. Your back to the wall, you strike back” (191). Clearly, he doesn’t trust much in what Jesus said about loving one’s enemies and learning to forgive all people (Mat. 5:44). Instead, Kihika uses the Exodus story to promote terrorism: “the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on the throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon [....] And the following day, he let [the Hebrews] go. That is our aim. Strike terror in their midst” (Thoimg’o 191). Aside from being morally reprehensible in his use of Biblical stories, Kihika is missing an important theological point. It was God, not men, who brought the Ten Plagues to Egypt to free His chosen people. The Hebrews were not to take any such matters into their own hands to be proof that it was God alone who delivered them from slavery. Nonetheless, the importance of this passage is to show that Kihika takes Judeo-Christian images and reinterprets them for the context of colonial Kenya.

To a lesser extent, Mugo is surrounded by Christian imagery. When other people talk about Mugo, they make him out to be a type of holy man, saying, “People say [Mugo] talks with God and receives messages from spirits of the dead [....] The man Mugo is a true hermit, has kept to himself, has never spoken to anyone, since the detention camp” (160). While these claims are exaggerated, they, too, appear to blend traditions. In these comments, Mugo is made both a prophet in contact with God and something of a traditional shaman who speaks with spirits. As with Kihika, Mugo is associated with Moses and the Exodus but in a different light.

Moses too was alone keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law. And he led the flock to the far side of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. And God called out to him in a thin voice, Moses, Moses. And Mugo cried out, Here am I, Lord. (125)

There is the same messianic hint of being chosen by God, but Mugo is characterized along with Moses as a shepherd, not a prophet. In a sense, Mugo is being called to tell what he knows of Kihika’s betrayal the same way Moses was called to return to Egypt and be a shepherd of a different kind of flock: the Hebrews' God was going to free them from slavery. In the cases of Kihika and Mugo a similar technique is used. Stories and images drawn from the Christian tradition are brought into a colonial African framework where they are reinterpreted and ultimately synthesized with the African tradition.

Photo taken in November 2006 during a UK tour organised by Ayebia.
Photo taken in November 2006 during a UK tour organised by Ayebia. | Source
originally posted to Flickr as Professor Wole Soyinka.
originally posted to Flickr as Professor Wole Soyinka. | Source

Postcolonial

When the colonial period ended, Christianity remained in Africa. This persistence signifies how the religion had become a part of African culture in that once the European governments were gone the religion they brought was still practiced by Africans. Parts of this development can be seen in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel Nervous Conditions. Early in the novel, Tambu mentions how one of the places most frequented by the villagers is church (3). Her observation suggests the strength of the church as an institution within the community. Most of her formative ideas about Christianity, though, come from her grandmothers stories. Her grandmother talks about “the mission, where the holy wizards took [Babamukuru] in. They set him to work in their farm by day. By night he was educated in their wizardry” (19). This mythologized family history explains two things: Babamukuru’s high position in the family and that missions and Christianity are linked to education. This characterization stays with Tambu and resurfaces later when she says, “We had no knowledge of nuns except as spiritual, chaste beings who dedicated their pious, prayerful lives to the service of God. This, we knew, was why the Roman Catholic Church was superior to our own: it created such virtue” (176). The same overtones of the grandmother’s story are present in the admiration for these nuns who are described in semi-divine terms.

Babamukuru is a literary representation of a trend in the Christian missionary structure. As seen in Things Fall Apart, the missions were run by Europeans at first. Even these missions had placed “emphasis on education” and “created a highly literate society in which schools flourished” (Hanciles 148). This scenario sounds, in many ways, like Babamukuru. Even more of Hanciles’s essay sounds like him when one remembers that Babamukuru was in charge of many aspects of the mission. The Anglican Church in Sierra Leone “was distinctively African in its day-to-day operations. The first African archdeacon was appointed in 1887. The only remaining office occupied by a European was that of the bishop” (Hanciles 149). A similar situation occurred with African Methodists where they “rejected European superintendence and in 1822 seceded from the London-based Wesleyan conference to form a separate West African Methodist Church” (149). These African Christians taking control of their religious destiny from external powers foreshadow many of the national independence movements and also give rise to individuals like Babamukuru. He is the product of “the settlement of indigenous churches under local pastors free from all supervision by foreign agency” (147). Of course, Babamukuru has problems with his family and the extent to which they have been Westernized, so what Dangarenbga seems to say is intelligent, motivated, and somewhat conflicted individuals is what will be produced from missions run by Africans. It will be up to them to balance their traditional African heritage and their Western-style education. Whether she is correct or not is debatable, but, as evidenced by previous novels, there are worse things than for Christianity to be in African hands.

Brother Jero represents a different take on Christian traditions in Africa. Wole Soyinka’s character is part prophet, part bum, part con-artist, and part revolutionary. As the protagonist in two plays, he cannot be written off as a comic character without substance. From even a cursory reading of the Brother Jero plays, one gets a sense of what a scoundrel the titular character is. He says of his followers, “I am glad I got here before any customers—I mean worshipers—well, customers if you like” (Soyinka 153). This prophet sees his ministry in business terms and transactions with customers. Later, he even considers his new position along the lines of a “monopoly on the rights to hold religious rallies” (210). It is obvious Brother Jero seeks financial gain from his spiritual work, so his motivation is suspect. However, the readers learn he is no worse than the lot of prophets. Ananaias shows himself to be an intolerant thug when he exclaims “When I’ve dipped him in the sea a few times he will emerge a good Christian and learn how to leave holy prophets alone” (179). Another named Matthew is proclaimed a “sex-maniac” and “fornicator” by other religious leaders from the beach (199). It appears Soyinka is poking fun at many religious leaders when the ones in his play are all thieves, crooks, and perverts. Likewise, there seems to be nothing inherently special about what these prophets do. At one point, the hapless Chume is made to stand in for Jero and is confronted by a woman seeking forgiveness.

Chume [stammering]: Father . . . forgive her.

Congregation [strongly]: Amen.

[The unexpectedness of the response nearly throws Chume, but then it

also serves to bolster him up, receiving such support.]

Chume: Father, forgive her. (159)

From here, Chume continues forgiving people and launches into a long prayer for God to make their home lives without strife (160). What this scene shows is how there’s nothing special in what Brother Jero does, since anyone can do it, but he is charismatic enough to convince enough people to follow him and make donations.

What Brother Jero signifies, though, is a greater blending of African tradition and Christianity. He fulfills the traditional role of a trickster, which is a part of many African folk tales. Even a brief look at non-Christian African religions show “’Tricksters’ such as foxes often appear in the stories of indigenous traditions. They are paradoxical, transformative beings” (Fisher, 61). Brother Jero, with his low cunning and mischievous behavior nonetheless provokes radical social change by saving all the prophets who wish to join him, maintaining their authority on the beach and transforming them from disreputable, solitary preachers into “the Church of the Apostolic Salvation Army. CASA” which is granted “A monopoly of spirituality” (Soyinka 209). Granted, Jero manages to affect this change through underhanded means and blackmail, but those are characteristics of his trickster nature as well. By masking a traditional trickster figure in the guise of a Christian, Soyinka gives an entertaining and provocative notion on how Christianity and African tradition may be brought together.

For Theirs Is the Kingdom of Heaven

The blending of religious traditions is nothing new to the African people. Even given the colonial experience African peoples “sometimes earnestly try to practice the dominant religion, and in doing so they bring new life into it, as in the lively practice of Christianity in rural Africa” (Fisher 50). Of course there are other outcomes where “forced converts may practice the new religion only indifferently” or as the reader of African literature can see, there can be a “mixing of traditions to produce a new hybrid” (50). Even Americans could have a passing familiarity with fused traditions such as Voodoo in the American south-east and Santeria “which literally means ‘the way of the saints,’ blends some of the Yoruba gods of ex-Nigerian slaves in Cuba with images of Catholic saints” (424). In Africa, several groups with similar backgrounds as Santeria and Voodoo are put in the category of Syncretism. This term encompasses African religions which “combine ritual elements of indigenous religions and Christian traditions which had been brought by missionaries” (425). These “syncretistic new religions take seriously problems of the spirit world, such as retaliations from spirits [...] and mix Christian prayers and incense with fetishes, talismans, divining, chanting, and drumming” (425). While this syncretistic tradition has yet to produce much of its own literature, it is a new movement that is still, in many ways, developing. However, “the movements revive traditional African community spirit as a stable support network within a changing society. They may also build a sense of African pride and spiritual destiny” (425). If such an observation holds true, this blended tradition of syncretism may yield fruitful ground for future African writers.

Christianity has a long and complicated past in Africa. Writers from the continent have dealt with this history from many perspectives in their literature. In each case, though, readers see where many Africans are willing to accept Christianity alongside their own traditions converting, or blending them together to form a new, uniquely African idea.

Sources

Acheba, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. Oxford: African Writers Series, 1996.

Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1988.

Ed. Fisher, Mary. Living Religions 4th Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall,1999.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity Volume 1. San Francisco: Harper Collins,1984.

Gonzalez, Justo. The Story of Christianity Volume 2. San Francisco: Harper Collins,1984.

Hanciles, Jehu J. “Missionaries and Revolutionaries: Elements of Transformation in

the Emergence of Modern African Christianity.” International Bulletin of Missionary

Research vol. 28, no. 4. New Haven: Overseas Ministries Study Center, 2004. 146-152.

Kaplan, Robert. The Ends of the Earth: A Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy. New York:Vintage. 1996.

Ohadike, Don. “Igbo Culture and History.” Things Fall Apart. Achebe, Chinua. Oxford:

African Writers Series, 1996.

Soyinka, Wole. The Trials of Brother Jero. Collected Plays Volume 2. Oxford University Press, 1974. 143-172.

Soyinka, Wole. Brother Jero’s Metamorphosis. Collected Plays Volume 2. Oxford

University Press, 1974. 173-214.

Thiong’o, Ngugi Wa. A Grain of Wheat. Oxford: Heinemann, 1967.

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Chatty Chat 7 months ago from United States

An interesting read. Great and well-researched article.


satomko profile image

satomko 7 months ago from Macon, GA Author

Thank you, Chatty Chat. I appreciate your readership.

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