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Copyright F.B. Welbourn 1968


A question of dignity

Another point at which missionaries became - quite unwillingly - involved in politics was through the schools they set up. These were intended, in the very first place, to teach reading and writing and the basic principles of Christianity. But, as missionaries began to see more clearly the needs of African society, they realised that there must be both technical schools for farmers and craftsmen and more academic schools in which could be trained the future leaders of both Church and State. They hoped, of course, that not only western technical and academic skills would be learnt but good Christian character formed. They differed considerably in their ideas of what that character should be. Anglo-Saxon Protestants tended to copy the English public school system and to train for responsibility and initiative. King's College, Budo, came to be called 'the Eton of Uganda'. French Roman Catholics thought in terms of humility and obedience. Some fundamentalists suspected all academic education as tempting Africans to think too highly of themselves.

But most taught an ideal of human equality which contrasted strongly with the attitude of too many Europeans outside the schools. Men and women, who had been taught at school that merit depended on ability and that race was no barrier to personal relationships, could not indefinitely tolerate a wider society in which Africans were received only at the back door and made to feel that they were kept in inferior positions, or at lower salaries than less-qualified Europeans, simply because they were Africans.

First as clerks and interpreters, and later in more responsible positions, they began to learn the techniques of western government, to appreciate the power which it gave to its servants and to wonder why they could not exercise this power without foreign supervision. Moreover, within their own ranks, the different churches were encouraging African responsibility far faster than society at large. The Presbyterian Church of Ghana was completely free of foreign control, and had European missionaries working under its authority, seven years before Ghana obtained political independence; and there were few churches in Africa which did not follow a similar, if a slightly slower, route. There is little doubt that experience of Church-government was an important factor in encouraging the desire for political self-government.

Moreover, Christianity itself presents an ideal of a community larger than the tribe. If only because distances were so great and communications so inadequate, all secondary schools were, until very recently, boarding schools. There pupils of many tribes met and began to think of themselves as members of African nations rather than of particular tribes. It was no accident that more than half the members of Mr. Kenyatta's first government had been pupils of the Alliance High School, Kikuyu.

Missionaries, on the whole, were not political revolutionaries. Colin Morris, writing in 1961, could say, 'over the past four years many missionaries [in Central Africa] have almost come to regard the churches in the African townships as branches of [nationalist political parties] in Sunday dress'. But this was a new development. Most missionaries, like most colonial government officials, thought in terms of ultimate self-government for Africans but believed that the day was very far-distant'. Africans were 'not yet ready' to govern themselves. They still needed many years of European and missionary guidance. African politicians were snakes in the grass, turning (to use a not uncommon mixed metaphor) to bite the hand which fed them. Moreover, they were, at the least, critical of the Church: at worst, thought to be in league with the communists. Africa could not safely be left to their leadership.

There were subtle differences in the attitudes of different colonial powers; and these influenced the attitude of missionaries. At one end of the scale, Belgium and Portugal made little attempt to train Africans for self-government. Protestants in their colonies, because they demanded a relatively high degree of individual freedom, were often regarded as politically seditious.

France aimed at training a small group of highly-educated Africans, who would be wholly absorbed into the French way of living. One of these became a minister in the government in Paris. But the general experience of this group was that, in the last resort, they were not fully accepted by Frenchmen. It is among them that there arose the idea of 'the African Personality' - the assertion that Africans are equal but different. In the early days, this expressed itself in literature - novels, plays, poems - some of which is very fine indeed. More recently there has come an insistence on a rediscovery of the African past, through research by African historians, and the encouragement of traditional dancing and music. Several newly-independent countries claim to practise 'African socialism', which is said to have its roots not in Marx but in traditional African forms of community. It is not surprising if the question also arises, 'Is there an African religion?'

In the British colonies, education was offered much more widely and there was a conscious intention of teaching Africans to govern themselves - even if it was thought that the time would not come for hundreds of years. Whereas the French tended to impose French ways of life on a few, the British to some extent aimed at encouraging the development of African ways till they could hold their own in the world at large. This meant that English-speaking Africans were, to begin with, much less affected by the idea of 'the African Personality'. At the same time, because there were more individuals qualified to take over jobs from Europeans, they were all the more to feel the indignity of being kept in submission and of being denied full social equality.

Indeed, there is an important sense in which relationships between Africans and Europeans, all over Africa, became a question of human dignity. This is why the relative economic well-being of Africans in South Africa or Rhodesia is irrelevant to the political argument. They want to be treated not as economic animals but as responsible men and women. This is fundamentally a religious matter because it asks the question, with which all religions are concerned, 'Who am I?' Traditional society in Buganda answered, 'I am the slave of Allah'. Christianity said, 'I am Jesus' man'. Baganda saw men, first as members of particular clans set over against other clans: later, as members of a particular tribe, set over against other tribes who were not fully men. Both Islam and Christianity were potentially for all men. Modern Africans have sometimes tended to return to a half-way position - to say, 'I am African'. What might be called Africanism has been set up against both the traditional outlook and the world religions, as an attempt to establish the dignity of Africans and to define their place in the world. In this sense, it is the modern religion of Africa, set over against the European assertion that it is Europeans who must 'put the world in order'.

But there had been other, and earlier, attempts to assert African dignity within the broad limits of Christian belief and practice. In 1921 Simon Kimbangu led a movement in the then Belgian Congo which (if it was largely Old Testament in its emphasis) was definitely Christian in content and was more successful than the missionaries in turning men away from idolatry and polygamy. At the same time, Kimbangu used biblical texts to preach freedom from European control. He was imprisoned. But the Kimbanguist church, alongside Protestants and Roman Catholics, is now one of the three churches recognised by the government of Congo-Kinshasa.

All over Africa such movements have arisen, asserting emphatically that they wish to be Christian: but that it is possible to be Christian under African leadership and that there is a difference between Christianity and European ways of life. Some of them wear very colourful uniforms. They sing hymns in African rhythms, to African melodies , often accompanied by drums. Many of them lay stress on spiritual healing as an essential activity of the Church. They thus offer a Christian version of the traditional diviners and fill a deeply-felt need for a psychic dimension which seems to be absent from western medicine. Some of them refuse to take medicine of any sort and put all their trust in God. In place of the traditional 'possession' by ghosts and spirits, many of them experience that they believe to be possession by the Holy Spirit. In contrast to Kimbangu, they have often attacked the missionary insistence on monogamy as a purely European institution unsuitable to African life. Some of them, reading the Old Testament, have substituted Saturday for Sunday as their day of rest. Again in contrast to Kimbangu, they have usually avoided political action and been satisfied with independence in the church. But, again and again, this experience of independence has led individuals from the 'independent churches' to move on into nationalist politics.

There can be little doubt that, alongside the churches established by the missionaries, these independent churches have come to stay. They can no longer claim that the established churches are not led by Africans. But they have a link with traditional African ways, which the established churches have lost. In some cases, new independent churches have started since political independence; and it may be that they have something of the same part to play as the free churches in nineteenth-century Britain.

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