On His shide of the street

Religion in Africa - The Church in Africa 1450-1950 - A History of Christianity in Africa
October 26, 1995

When I was still in primary school we studied a South African history textbook written by a white missionary. Although we were not particularly politically aware, we were in our class somewhat bemused at what seemed a strange coincidence. In the descriptions of the Cape frontier encounters between the Xhosas and the European settlers, almost invariably the Xhosas were described as having stolen white farmers' cattle and the farmers almost equally invariably were said to have captured their cattle from the Xhosas.

A great deal later, when I was perhaps a little wiser in the ways of the world, I heard a delightful story about the drunk who accosted a pedestrian to ask: "I shay, which is the other side of the street?" "That side, of course!" replied the somewhat nonplussed pedestrian. Upon which the drunk muttered: "Shtrange, when I was that shide, they shaid, this shide!" I learned that the other side of the street depended on your perspective from where you were, or who you were. No wonder therefore that histories written by Europeans saw nothing odd in saying that David Livingstone discovered the Victoria Falls, as if the natives had not noticed that there were any falls until Dr Livingstone made them and the world aware of their existence. One learned with age that beauty seemed indeed to be in the eye of the beholder.

I have no hesitation in letting Adrian Hastings and Elizabeth Isichei write histories of Christianity in Africa because they have a wonderful capacity to write as from within the African viewpoint. They can see the African "other shide" and have done so with much sensitivity and erudite and meticulous scholarship, and not without impressive touches of humour and felicitous turns of phrase. There are many purple patches in both accounts.

I read the two histories in tandem and it was fascinating to see the degree of consensus between them on the distinctiveness of Christianity in Africa and the issues at stake.

Hastings has sought to confine himself to the church and black Africa, excluding from the close consideration the history of Christianity on the Mediterranean seaboard, and has also deliberately set himself time limits, though he has been reasonably flexible about both kinds of boundaries. Isichei has more daringly and ambitiously sought to describe the history of African Christianity from antiquity to the present day. Even though both authors have a huge period of history to describe and have sometimes had to be content with brief summaries, I did not feel let down. Though they whetted my appetite for more, they could not be accused of being too skimpy.

The histories they describe so well are quite compelling. There is the remarkable lusophone church in Zaire; and the distinctive Ethiopian church with its Judaistic characteristics. Hastings and Isichei are both sympathetic and critical in their accounts of the problems faced by the missionaries in relating to their home governments and to those they came to evangelise.

Someone has noted that what we learn from history is that we do not learn from history. It is interesting to note that many of the problems of yesteryear are issues we still have to grapple with - acculturation, clergy training, African advancement into leadership positions (certainly in southern Africa), polygamy, clerical celibacy and the relationship of church and state, to choose but a few. We just might begin to learn a few things from these two well-written and well-researched histories.

Religion in Africa is a book of a different genre, being more concerned to describe religion as a whole in Africa phenomenologically. It is a collection of very scholarly papers given at a conference entitled "Religion in Africa: varieties of religious experience in sub-Saharan Africa", held at the Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, in the United States. The scholars seek to discover what is uniquely religious and authentically African, and they try not to make value judgements but seek to describe what they have studied. Of course, who they are and where they come from will have helped determine what they have seen. Is what is peculiarly religious transferable or translatable from one cultural milieu into another and how, if it is so, does it retain its integrity? This is a closely argued set of papers, which requires unwavering attention to follow the minutely argued points.

The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu is archbishop of Cape Town.

Religion in Africa: Experience and Expression

Editor - Thomas D. Blakely, Walter E. A. Van beek and Dennis L. Thomson, James Currey
ISBN - 0 85255 206 8 and 207 6
Publisher - None
Price - £45.00 and £14.95
Pages - 512

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