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Opening Doors to Africa

Refusing to Simplify 

Opening Doors to Africa 

by Paul Chaffee 

What we don’t know we oversimplify. As a pre-teen, I had a few desolate images of India – a really hot climate, vast arid deserts, cows wandering down city streets, and overwhelming poverty. Little more. So arriving as a high school freshman at a school in the foothills of the Himalayas was a series of stunning surprises – majestic mountains, ancient cultures still alive and vital, wonderful people, amazing food, and so much more.

Half a century later, though, in spite the daily media glut, almost inevitably we oversimplify what we don’t know much about.

  Uganda – Photo:  Helena Van Eykeren, C.c. 2.0

Uganda – Photo: Helena Van Eykeren, C.c. 2.0

Taking on a theme like ‘Interfaith in Africa’ is like publishing a catalogue of what we know little about and succumbing to considerable oversimplification in the process. So, to be sure, TIO this month is not a summary of faith and interfaith in Africa. Instead, it seeks to offer a few new glimpses of a continent brimming with religions old and new, where sectarian differences can inspire violence or remarkable peacemaking, where the dominant traditions (Christianity and Islam) were both imported, and where the ancient indigenous traditions are infinitely more peaceable than the imports. Our first article this month is a brief, brilliant survey of the religions native to Africa, written by a Harvard academic, Jacob Olupona, who has spent his life studying the spirituality which emerged from the soil of this great continent.

Rather than a summary of religion in Africa today, this month’s TIO aims to open doors into worlds we didn’t know existed. Bad news gets generated about Africa every day; good-news stories get scant major media attention in the West. Though we rarely read about it, Africa hosts hundreds of vital educational, peacemaking, ecologically grounded projects that improve people’s lives. Kira Zalan, who writes here about the mediating Aunties in Sudan, earlier this month published “Schooled in Tolerance.” Her subject there is organizations like “AREF, or Action for the Renovation of Non-formal Education, a local non-governmental organization that helps Koranic schools integrate vocational training and tolerance-focused curricula. AREF is one of many local organizations across Muslim Africa fighting the threat of radicalization at the grassroots level.”

In November’s TIO, you’ll find intriguing stories from Egypt, Morocco, Sub-Sahara, and Tanzania, stories which should stretch your mind about what you associate with religion in Africa.

So much is left out, of course … the shifting religious demographics, Catholic-Muslim conflict across the continent, the interplay between religion and politics, and much more. We’ve haven’t been able to include anything about the African Council of Religious Leaders or the National Interfaith Council of South Africa. KAICIID, Religions for Peace, and United Religions Initiative all generate considerable interfaith activity in Africa, but you’ll have to read those stories on their websites. The interview here with URI’s Despina Namwembe, however, and her article about caring for refugees arriving in Uganda, provide vivid examples of what is possible with grassroots interfaith work in Africa.

At the final sold-out plenary session of the 1999 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, Nelson Mandela spoke to more than 5,000 crowded into one of the city’s largest arenas. Interreligious education was a major theme:

  Nelson Mandela addressing the concluding session of the 1999 Cape Town, South Africa Parliament of the World’s Religions – Photo:    CPWR

Nelson Mandela addressing the concluding session of the 1999 Cape Town, South Africa Parliament of the World’s Religions – Photo: CPWR

“We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites: a minority of less than 15 percent. They took no interest whatsoever in our education. It was religious institutions whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish. In the context of our country, they are the people who bought land, who built schools, who equipped them, who employed teachers, and paid them. Without the church, without religious institutions, I would never have been here today. It was for that reason, that when I was ready to go to the United States on the first of this month, an engagement which had been arranged for quite some time, when my comrade Ibrahim told me about this occasion, I said I would change my whole itinerary so I would have the opportunity to appear here.”

Later he talked about the nightmare of being a prisoner on Robben Island for 18 years and his deep appreciation for what local religious communities did during that incarceration: “Apart from the background that I’ve given you, you’d have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid where you can see the cruelty of human beings to others in their naked form. But it was again religious institutions, Hindus, Muslims, leaders of the Jewish faith, Christians, it was them who gave us the hope that one day we would come out. We would return. And for prisoners, the religious institutions raised funds for our children who were arrested in thousands and thrown into jail.” Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims all visited Robben Island and built sanctuaries there. Prisoners were allowed to visit them and learn from them, inspiring Mandela to become a lifelong reader of the scriptures of the world.

You can read the whole of Mandela’s speech here. He vigorously urges us to make the 21st century less burdened with poverty and violence than the 20th century. This interfaith challenge from Mandela is more important today than when he spoke it 18 years ago. TIO this month is about people who are taking that challenge seriously.

Header Photo: Drakensberg Mountains, KwaZulu-Natal South Africa – Photo: Steve Slater, C.c. 2.0