African Secularists and the Missionary Legacy

By Moses Alusala

To some, African freethought may seem like an oxymoron; contradicting traditional stereotypes.  Most Africans are ignorant of the role freethought has played in the social, cultural, and political development of the continent and continues to play in its evolution. This is because the life, work and deeds of African freethinkers is often ignored or misrepresented by mainstream books of history.  Freethought in Africa emerged mainly as a critique of missionary Christianity for advancing and colluding in the colonial enterprise. It is a conceit of religious adherents in Africa that religion always leads the way in combating morally reprehensible situations. However, this is not always so, religious bureaucracies are often very conservative, accepting the status quo. In the major issues of the 20th century, colonialism, apartheid and neocolonialism, mainstream religions have been slow to react if not opposed to change. However there has always been considerable secular response.

Dr. S. Clarke Ekong once said that “one cannot understand Africa without first knowing African history, and in order to understand African history one must first understand colonialism.” Colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa introduced conflict across gender, race, class and sexuality. African freethought therefore developed largely as a direct response to concrete historical conditions, (colonialism, and neocolonialism.) which transformed both the function and ideology of the secular activist.

Freethought was largely influenced by the concept of an African cultural identity (negritude), a literary and ideological movement developed by Leopold Sedhor Senghor, the Senegalese poet-statesman. (Senghor’s Negritude served to reverse the system of values that had informed Western perception of blacks since the earliest voyages of discovery to Africa.) The Harlem Renaissance gave negritude both its form and content. The form was poetry and the content was pluralism.

It is no accident that the founding leaders of post-colonial African countries – men like Nkrumah, Nyerere, Mandela, Kenyatta – were able to articulate visions of nationalism that were both political and cultural. The idea of African nationalism always contained some notion of cultural affirmation. Significantly for African intellectuals the cultural counterpart to African Nationalism was not ethnic identity but a pan-African one: Negritude or African personality.

Francophone and Anglophone writers contributed to freethought and negritude literature as they produced works focused on the plight of their people – among them Mongo Beti, Sembene Ousmane, Kofi Awonoor, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and TsiTsi Dangarembga.

Mongo Beti is perhaps the most assiduous writer to have taken up the challenge for the quest for the dignity of the African peoples. He was influenced by the currents of rebellion sweeping Africa in the wake of World War II. Beti recalls arguing with his mother about religion and colonialism. He was later expelled from the missionary school in Malmayo for his outspokenness. His novel The Poor Christ of Bomba created a scandal because of its biting description of the missionary and colonial world. Under pressure of the religious hierarchy, the colonial administrator in the Cameroon banned the novel in the colony. In Mongo Beti’s Mission to Kala, the Poor Christ of Bomba and King Lazarus, the production of cocoa for export marks the beginning of“monoculture”, an international capitalist economic order so detrimental to Africa. Such novelists as Mongo Beti and Ferdinand Oyono bitterly satirized the men who had propagated Christianity among their compatriots.

In Oyono’s Houseboy colonialism plays the same role as in Amilcar Cabrals’ National Liberation and Culture. Colonialism is seen to have denied Africa the right to cultural development and set up a state of siege justified with theories about cultural assimilation.  Carbral argues that imperialist domination for its own security requires cultural oppression and the attempt at either direct or indirect destruction of the essential elements of the culture of the dominated people. The new ruling middle class is underdeveloped and reflects the culture of the metropolitan bourgeoisie with whom it is economically allied itself to exploit their own people.

In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o observes that the lack of congruency between colonial education and Africa’s reality created people abstracted from their reality; little wonder therefore that the negritude poets try to achieve disalienation through identification with Africa, African values and African origins. In Homecoming Ngugi says that to gain “acceptability and perpetuation, the colonialist enlists the services of Christianity and Christian oriented education….to capture the soul and the mind…” When one examines Ngugi wa Thing’os depiction of Christian missions and missionaries and their faith in Kenya against the backdrop of his intellectual development and political radicalization, one can readily discern a pattern of gradually increasing resentment and criticism of Christianity. By the early 1970’s the nuances of his perception of the missionary impact on colonial Kenya would yield to an ideologically determined presentation of it as the vanguard of imperialism in his fiction and essays. During an interview at the University of Leeds in 1967 Ngugi said, “I gave up the Christian faith at the university… But it was not that I woke up one day and decided that I was no longer a Christian. It just gradually lost its appeal to me as I saw what it stood for.” At the fifth General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in 1970 he declared that he was not “even a Christian,” and proceeded to upbraid “colonialism and its religious ally the Christian Church” and found it lamentable that “the Church opposed Mau Mau but never the colonial Caesar”. In 1973 he told an audience in the Soviet Union that “the missionary stood guarding the door as colonial spiritual policeman” while imperialists raided the homelands of indigenous Africans.

In The Breath of the Earth, Kofi Awonoor sees the “fundamental erosion of the African confidence in himself” as beginning “with the first Christian convert.” The African, writes Awonoor, “was cast in the white man’s image, a woeful caricature of this man, without focus or identity.” It can be seen as significant that both men – Ngugi and Awonoor – explicitly rejected the Christian names that would infer an acceptance of that caricature of identity.

Yvone Vera’s Nehanda and the feminist TsiTsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions exemplify the way in which missionary work and western religion factor into colonization as an integral part of establishing superiority over another people. Nervous Conditions is an autobiographical novel of growing up within a colonial and African context and the force of gender in the context of patriarchy.

By common accord, the ideals of negritude played a strongly positive role in the formative period of articulated Mozambican nationalism after the Second World War. Samora Machel, an atheist leader of FRELIMO and first president of Mozambique, was a famous exponent of negritude and was attracted to Marxist ideals. In one of his public speeches he said: The church is always on the side of oppressors…It is a reactionary institution…Religion is something that divides people. It is ironical that upon his death, he is praised and celebrated by the church as well as the secular community.

On the other hand, the atheist and secular humanist intellectual and activist Tai Solarin proved that a true moral and ethical system could be freed from dogma and the supernatural. Together with his wife Sheila, he founded a high school called the Mayflower school in 1956. The only secular school in Nigeria, it has ranked among the top learning institutions in the country. “Uncle Tai” as he was affectionately known to his admirers, was involved in human rights activism throughout his life.  Similar types of schools have recently been set up in Uganda with the help of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and are a testament to the burgeoning presence of secularism on the continent.

Although the Negritude movement had its detractors, it is clear that it was the leading of the black consciousness movements in providing a great impetus to African literature and freethought in the 1930’s and later, helping an entire generation of authors and intellectuals to develop an awareness and an appreciation of their racial and cultural identities. In doing so, the movement also helped pave the way to national and political freedom for many countries.

In his anthology, Hopes and Impediments, Chinua Achebe draws attention to an incident at the Tokyo Colloquium of October, 1981, under the theme of Diversified Evolution of World Civilisation, which he attended. Professor Marion J. Levy of Princeton University made the following comment about Japan: “Well, over half a century ago when everyone was occupied with describing Japan in terms of the warrior and merchant classes, Yanagida Kunio took the initiative that the real heart of Japan were the customs of the Japanese farmer.” Similarly Professor Kunichiro Toba of Waseda University observed: “My grandfather graduated from the University of Tokyo at the beginning of 1880’s his notebooks were full of English. My father graduated from the same University in 1920 and half of his notes were filled in English. When I graduated a generation later my notes were all in Japanese. So…it took three generations for us to consume western civilization via the means of our own language.” So as Japan traveled away from itself towards a cosmopolitan, modern identity, it was journeying back to regain a threatened past and selfhood. The nature of creativity is that it will accommodate paradoxes and ambiguities.

The long list of freethinkers in Africa, the proliferation of secular blogs, together with the burgeoning presence of secular humanist organizations in countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi and Ghana is a clear testament to the fact that African freethought has been, and will always be a reality and not an oxymoron.

Moses Alusala is the Chair of the Kenyan Humanist Society

African Secularists and the Missionary Legacy

5 thoughts on “African Secularists and the Missionary Legacy

  1. 1

    I’ve always found it… interesting… how African clergymen would rail against “western ideas” trying to destroy “African traditions” by which they generally mean Christian traditions. Good to know there are people pushing back against this silly idea that Christianity isn’t part of colonialism in Africa.

    Also, that’s a lot of names and books that I’ve never heard before; of course, given that learning about Africa in the West still means reading white Americans’ or Europeans’ opinions about the continent. I’ve added some of the writing listed here to my reading list, and will try to remedy some of that.

  2. F

    [I’d like to borrow Jadehawk’s second paragraph and insert it here.]

    It never occurred to me that African freethought might be an oxymoron (nor for that matter, African-American atheist), but I learn something new every day. I can certainly imagine that people, informed by racism and/or ignorance, can think such things. I guess I hadn’t encountered that nuance of racism yet. The more expansive “Africans are stupid” idea, I have certainly run across before. (Which reminds me that encyclopaedias from, say, the 1950s can be a strange, and strangely honest, window into the world of the cultures that produced them.)

  3. 3

    American education is so badly informed about anything not American or European, it is no surprise that I’ve never heard of any of the men or women you speak of here. Thanks for adding a bit to my education. This was a fascinating post!

    It is good to see that Western religion is being rejected, at least by some. Here’s hoping it keeps on spreading around to clean Africa of that poison.

  4. 4

    I feel there is need to bring to the limelight African champions of humanism whose contributions to secularism may have been obscured by those with sociopolitical agenda. The misconceived myth of atheism as foreign to Africa should not be allowed to persist. These African freethinkers definitely make up an important if not a neglected part of the black humanist canon and are at the heart of its non-conformist landscape.

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