Change of Religion in Africa


With advent of foreign religious missionary and colonialism in the second half of the 19th and early part of 20th century, the traditional cultural and religious set-up of different African societies was changed. The whole outcome was a qausi-colonial culture which tended to describe everything of African as “black” causing the people to discard their cultural and religious values and imitate Europeans in manners of worship, marriage, eating, walking, dressing and even talking.

Missionary Religion changed everything. Prior to the intrusion of foreign religions, African societies had their own ideas of God. When Muslims and later the Christians came in, they described the African ideas of God as being erroneous and evil. Accordingly, they started searching around for traditional names to represent their God. The Muslims had little difficulty in getting a name. Their God was Allah and Allah he would remain. The Christians however needed an interpretation. In most cases, despite their misgivings, they ended up using the traditional equivalents to describe their big God; one funny instance was among the Acholi, Langi, Alur and Lugbara in Uganda. Their traditional idea of God was Jok but the Europeans associated Jok with evil and so they forced the people to use Lubanga for God while Lubanga in Luo language means evil spirit.

With the introduction of Islam and Christianity, it became fashionable to communicate with God in Arabic, Latin and English. The mode of worship changed greatly as the traditional shrines of abila type were replaced with mosques and churches with seats, church organs and electric operated devices. Prayers became regular on every Friday for Muslims; and Sunday for Christians or in the evenings. Praying no longer depended on particular instances of want or trouble as it was in most African societies.

Gradually religion did not only become a belief but also a way of life. Accordingly, the eating habits and manners of dress came to be styled according to religions. The Muslims took up the Arab style while the Christians took up the European style. The African values were severely undermined by the new foreign religions and European colonialism to the extent that those who became greatly engrossed in religion came to despise the traditional ways of life.

For instance in Uganda, any discussion of Christianity –the creation of colonialism at the end of the 19th Century–must begin with Buganda–the ancient independent kingdom on the northern shores of the lake which the Baganda called Nalubaale (the home of the balubaale -gods) and which the British christened “Victoria.”

The Impact of Islam and Christianity (Case of Buganda)

In the 19th Century two “world” religions–Islam and Christianity–were both making significant advances in Africa. Often they were in serious competition; and this indeed was the case in Buganda. But this should not disguise the fact that both Islam and Christianity were in many ways complementary. Both were called “dini” in contradistinction to the traditional African religious heritage.

Islam had prepared the way in other ways. The idea of a holy book, of a holy day, of a God above all gods who was interested in the affairs of this life and in the moral life of the individual, the expectation of the resurrection of the body and of a judgment after death. These were concepts pioneered by Islam which received further emphasis from the Christian missionaries.

But how far did the Baganda already acknowledge such a supreme God? Certainly neither Islam nor Christianity needed to import a foreign name in order to proclaim their God. The Baganda already knew of Katonda, the Creator. But the status of this Katonda has been the subject of controversy within the religious historiography of Buganda. Was Katonda just one, very insignificant lubaale? Or had he always been regarded as superior to the balubaale, high above Mukasa and Kibuuka and Muwanga, but remote from the life of the nation and of the individual, and therefore not the focus of a strong cult? Whatever the answer to these questions, it is certain that Islam gave a new prominence to Katonda, and that Christianity built on this growing significance.

Thus, in a society already open to new ideas, responsive to the technological, cultural and religious influence of the outside world, first Islam and then Christianity made an impact on Buganda in the second half of the 19th Century. But if the Baganda were so receptive to the message of a “world-religion,” why did they not simply remain with Islam? How could Christianity not only mount an effective challenge to Islam but eventually become the dominant dini of Buganda, forcing Islam into the position of a small (but tenacious) minority?

Answers to this question lie, not in any supposed superiority of Christianity over Islam, but in the volatile political situation of those years.  Thus, the change of religion in Uganda and the entire Africa was a way of easing the political needs of the colonial masters other than an intention of proclaiming God the creator.