William Robertson Boggs, American Renaissance, January 1992
In theory, Africa is a highly Christian continent. Over 50 percent of the people of Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, Madagascar, Ghana, Botswana, and Uganda are said to be Christian, as are more than 90 percent of the people of Zaire, Angola, Namibia, Congo-Brazzaville, and Gabon.
Just as it has among American blacks, Christianity among Africans has taken on a distinctive flavor. At the jam-packed masses in the Catholic cathedral in Nairobi, women ululate while men beat drums. In the Zairian rite, Christ is referred to as the Supreme Ancestor, sermons are interrupted with shouts of joy, and the bread and wine are danced up to the altar. The priest wears the robes of a tribal headman and is called the chief of God’s people.
Some European churches are too stuffy for African tastes. For years, Anglicanism went nowhere, since it required that polygamists, upon baptism, divorce all but one of their wives. It 1988 it relaxed the rules, and now permits polygamists to join the church, so long as they promise not to acquire any more wives. This practice of bending the rules of Christianity to fit local tastes is known as inculturation.
For many Africans, inculturation doesn’t go far enough. The most rapidly-growing African churches are entirely independent of mainstream denominations. They pick the bits of Christianity that go down well with Africans, ignore the rest, and mix in popular tribal superstitions. Of all the parts of Christianity, the Holy Spirit does best on a continent that takes spirits seriously.
A certain amount of cross-over is viewed as inevitable in the regular denominations as well, but lines must occasionally be drawn. When Zambia’s faith-healing Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo started saying, “I have talked with the witches, I have dealt with the dead,” he was called back to the Vatican for a talking to. Missionaries report that many “Christians” revert to charms and voodoo in a crisis.
In Uganda, which is supposed to be 50 to 75 percent Christian, AIDS has been a big boost for witch doctors, since Europeans admit they can’t cure it. One common treatment is to sacrifice a goat or sheep and, with the proper incantations, transfer the disease to the carcass. Then it is dragged out to a busy street corner, where a passerby will find it and get the disease in place of the patient. It is reportedly difficult to get cleanup crews to take away the dead animals that frequently litter Ugandan street corners.
Perhaps because it has been reduced to a pre-colonial state of misery by misrule and civil war, Uganda seems to be particularly ripe for magic. In 1987, a rebel group went into battle against the government under the leadership of a warrior priestess named Alice Lackwena. Its members believed that if they smeared enough of Miss Lackwena’s special ointment on their bodies they would be invulnerable to bullets. They were cut down like grass. In 1989, the Lackwena cult was revived under a new leader, whose members were known to charge into battle unarmed, shouting “James Bond,” and throwing empty Coca-Cola bottles they believed would explode like hand grenades.
Magic has been put to high political purpose. In 1986, former president of Nigeria, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo, suggested to an international group studying South Africa that it should use “juju,” or black magic to bring an end to apartheid. It seems to have worked.
The trouble with juju is that you never know when it might be turned against you. In 1990, Nigerians got a big scare when it was reported that witch doctors had perfected a technique for stealing women’s breasts and men’s penises with a touch or a handshake. Several people were killed in riots that started when people began screaming that their genitals had been stolen. South Africa’s revenge, perhaps.