Christianity in West Africa
Evidence is unclear about the early advances of Christian faith in West Africa. The Tuareg are a people group known for decorative crosses in their artwork. Some point to the crosses as evidence of an early Christian presence in West Africa, while others argue that the crosses represent four directions of the compass. If any early Christian influence on the Tuareg existed, such influence is gone. The people have long since become adherents to Islam.
The Fulani mega-people group claims that they were the bearers of Islam from the East to West Africa. From Nigeria and Niger in the easternmost part of West Africa to Senegal and the Gambia along the western coastline, Islam became the dominant religion. Long before the Portuguese sent Catholic missionaries to evangelize and “civilize” the tribes, Muslims had built a presence and pride among the tribal peoples that was not easily forsaken. Threatened by death for apostasy – including conversion to Christian faith – few were willing to follow Christ.
African tribal religion is as influential as Islam. The wearing of charms, practicing of occult rituals, and fear of spirit powers are woven into the fabric of life. Most West Africans identify themselves as Muslim, though a majority of them practice folk Islam. Many are Muslim by day and animist by night. While they follow the basic teachings of Islam, animistic practices continue to bind the people in fear. Both animism and Islam threaten the expansion of the gospel in West Africa.
Portuguese explorers were the first Christians to bear witness to Christ, when in 1458 Diogo Gomez debated with a Muslim cleric about theology. After this discussion took place, a Mandingo tribal chief, Nomimansa, desired to convert to Christian faith and be baptized, but Gomez felt unqualified to perform the baptism. He requested a Catholic priest, and Prince Henry sent the Abbot of Soto de Cassa to teach the chief and other converts.
Portuguese missions were also established in the Gambia and elsewhere. In the Gold Coast (Ghana), 1471 marked the year in which Catholic missions began. The mission was brought about not only by Henry the Navigator’s evangelistic zeal, but also by the enterprising merchants who discovered that gold was readily accessible through bartering.
Other Europeans began to explore West Africa, introducing western culture, food, architecture, and language, all of which affected indigenous life. Just as the Fulani had introduced Islam, its worldview, and religious practices, so the Europeans introduced their “civilized” culture to the continent. West Africa was changing.
map from 2010
Edited by SamoneLenior - Jun 30 2014 at 10:46am