It was the rhythmic chants, the melodies that filled the air in ritual, the repetitive “thump, thump, boom, boom” of the drum and the dancing that created an intimate bond between the African people and their gods. Everyday rituals that prepared people, the dependable existence of gods carried the tribes through hardship, through harvesting food, the gods helped give the tribes life, assisted in their warm welcome to death and kept them prosperous in living. As in this Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart, of how important gods and hierarchies within their religion shaped their way of life:
“The Oracle was called Agbala, and people came from far and near to consult it. They came when misfortune dogged their steps or when they had a dispute with their neighbors.. They came to discover what the future held for them or to consult the spirits of their departed fathers.” (page 16)
But these traditions were slowly killed by the domination of European powers as colonialism forced its way into Africa. Today Africa is made up of two major religions: Islam which controls much of the northern region, and Christianity which takes it’s reign south of the Sahara. The focus of domination in this piece will primarily focus on the Christianity domination during the colonialism era.
The Portuguese, who were the first Europeans to explore south of the Sahara desert made their greatest revelation in Kongo, providing a strong background of Roman Catholicism which provided the background for the missionaries that placed its roots into the ground of Africa.
Christianity began in Kongo with the visit of Diego Cam in 1484. Cam was a Portuguese explorer and Cam invited several people of the Kongo to Portugal, one being the Manikongo, or ruler of the Kongo who was so impressed with not just the culture but the religion that he himself converted to Christianity. He then asked the missionaries to make a visit to the Kongo, which they did in 1491. Mbemba Nzinga was a devote Christian all his life, which became the pitfall of his country and eventually was the opening doors for what would become the most devastating time for the peoples of the region; King Leopold’s invasion. Because many of the people who lived in the Kongo were so eager to accommodate to the Christian needs and wants because the opportunity with missionaries and settlers to create a good system of trading, and so then slaves were traded which opened up the settling of Europeans in Africa, which would eventually leave to the enslavement and domination of all African people. (Lettinga)
European domination through religion made it easier for the European powers to influence the African people. Missionaries brought schools to Africa where they could offer Africans education. The basis of much of this education was having Africans assimilate the European culture, language and religion. Africans were taught to forgo the native tongue and speak those of their teachers. Most teachings began with translating the bible which helped to slowly brainwash the native people. Like Achebe’s novel where the lead character Okonkwo’s tribe is taken over by Christian missionaries, his son is soon converted in the mess. This novel equally portrays how the European culture took over and molded the culture of the pre-existing tribes labeling the Africans “heathens.” This excerpt from the book where the missionary orders outcasts to the church to shave off their long hair.
“Unless you shave off the mark of your heather belief I will not admit you into the church,” said Mr. Kiaga. “You fear that you will die. Why should that be? How are you different from other men who shave their hair? The same God created you and them. But they have cast you out like lepers. It is against the will of God, who has promised everlasting life to all who believe in His holy name. The heathens say you will die if you do this or that, and you are afraid. They also said I would die if I took care of twins. I am still alive. The heathens speak nothing but falsehood. Only the word of our God is true.” (Achebe, 157)
The missionaries saw the African tribes as uncivilized, evil and heathens. They looked down on their ways like polygamy, the devotion to multiple gods, and their different way of dress. But to the African people, it had worked for years with no impact on European culture. The African people had not posed a threat to Europeans way of life because the life in which they lived remained on their own content. It was the Europeans who took over and dominated the culture, who only saw from problem because they searched for it. These effects have lasted a long time, as today most of the region below the Saharan desert are pre-dominantly Christian, losing the culture of the ancestors.
It was the domination of religion that made it easier for the Europeans to take over, for it made the Africans weak and easily manipulated. Africans were ruled by their religion and gods, who they consulted with for everything. By taking away what controlled their life and finding a new way, it molded their way of thinking and the Africans were able to slowly lose their judgment. They were fed that the Christian God would give them everlasting life and if they disobeyed, an eternal damnation, and for those who believed, were only forced to comply in order to satisfy their new higher being. This made it easier for missionaries to convince them to act in the way they did (slave trade, for example) because they were there to please God and their teachers who brought the Holiness to them.
Frantz Fanon’s essay “From the Wretched of the Earth.” in Chapter Four where he talks about the demise of culture illustrate how the native brakes into European culture. He explains that the Africans felt like strangers and inferiors to their land, because the Europeans knew they could break down and basically own the Africans this way. The Europeans seemed more sophisticated and more educated, which they used to their advantage in bully-like way. Because the Europeans wore clothes, went to school and learned trades, because they had the technology of guns and weaponry that surpassed that of the Africans, they were able to force their ideology onto the Africans/ Africans began to water at the mouth to be able to write, go to school, and speak the language of these men who had so many wonderful things.
“But at the moment when the nationalists parties are mobilizing in the people in the name of national independence, the native intellectual sometimes spurns these acquisitions which he suddenly feels make him a stranger in his own land…
He sets a high value on the customs, traditions and the appearances of his people but his inevitable, painful experience only seems to be a banal search for exoticism. The sari becomes sacred, and shows that come from Paris or Italy are left off in favour of paxnpootiea, while suddenly the language of the ruling power is felt to burn your lips…”
Like Manikongo, who saw the world in which the Europeans lived, it wasn’t hard to see how easily one could be bought by the circumstances. Europeans had grand houses compared to the huts, they had clothes, shoes and most Africans barely worn clothes. Europeans had books that they had wrote themselves for their peers to read, they had schools where they learned higher knowledge to become wealthier people. And with a life like that, one could wonder, ‘well, what’s the problem?’
The problem is not only did the greed and want of this live end to their demise but it has been so blindly accepted that the African people had a perfect civilization in which they had built themselves before the European powers had sunk their clothes into the Motherland. But at the time when the Europeans arrived in Africa the average African lived as wall or better than the average European.
The African people had led a life where they were able to obtain food by hunting and harvesting, they had their own trade markets for what they could not obtain on their own land, they had government systems and they had a working religion in place. They lived this way for many years without invading Europeans taking over their land, and lived in a substantial amount of peace. The Europeans found the willingness and the eager anticipation of the native who wanted to find themselves with the European nationa and found that manipulating the minds and gaining the trust of the native would make their job easier.
The Europeans viewed African religion as witchcraft because of the specific practices and the superstitions that Africans relied on (example: multiple gods, sacrifices of humans, the idea that illnesses such as chicken pox was “evil” and killing twins, as seen in Things Fall Apart). Like in Walter Rodney’s essay “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” Europeans found the easiest converts in the natives who were considered outcats. By accepting those people and showing them to their “everlasting life” they were able to convert the weakest minds first in order like Nwoye in Things Fall Apart, he was able to be shaped by the missionaries because his father was never close to him anyway, in the missionaries he ofund acceptance.
“Although Nwoye had been attracted to the new faith form the first day, he kept it secret. He dared not go too near the missionaries for fear of his father. But whenever they came to preach in the open marketplace or the village playground, Nwoye was there. And he was already beginning to know some of the simple stories they told.” (Achebe, 150)
By dominating the weak, they could convert the strong. It became a trend, when the brainwashed weak would speak to the strong, they could convey this beautiful image of what the Christians were offering. It was even more appealing when schools began to open up for he converters. By complying with the needs of the Christians, they could be offered education, and they could befriend the beings that held this new technology. The weak became a portal for those who may have been strong or those who were undecided by the beings.
On top of that, the missionaries would preach inside the villages, everyday so that they could pull focus on themselves by putting their word in the heart of the village. They built the schools in the villages and their churches also so that not only would the native have to see this eyesore on their cultural being everyday but also, so they could watch their fellow neighbors one-by-one enter in trend. The villagers could not ignore the missionaries this way as they began to dominate their lives, by their appearance at the market places and the cycles in which the missionaries could soon influence the converters so much that they began to build churches and schools for the missionaries.
And although the natives fought back, burning down churches and schools, they were only responded to with a gun barrel. The natives did try to refuse the domination, the few that still held their native ground, but with more followers, the army wasn’t even stacked with European’s strength against the naivety that masked the African’s eyes. And so the Europeans began to enforce with violence with the last bit of civilization yet untainted by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As in Things Fall Apart carries out the timeline of which the demise of the African culture and its people overcome by the settlers:
“But on one occasion the missionaries had tried to overstep the bounds. Three impotent and that they were prepared to defy them by burning all their shrines.” (Achebe, 154)
Natives who fought back against the missionaries were eventually taken out by violence, some were hanged and others were shot. Shrines were burned that served dedication to gods other than Jesus Christ or the Christian God. If some spoke out, they were beaten by missionaries. Violence showed the native that the domination was slowly becoming inevitable for those who resisted. If it wasn’t the threat of eternal damnation in a pit of fire, it was the fists or metal that rang against the bare back of those who went against the “norm.”
And so Europeans dominated the being and essence of African culture, because the Africans were either too trusting of these new beings or too weak to fight aginst the strength that had made its way in Africa. Those who fought back were violently kiled, and so the Europeans were able to grab the hand of the Africans and punch them in the face with it. The Europeans found a hold in the lives of Africans by changing one of the most important aspects of the African culture; the religion. Africans were left helpless, and drowned out a society of many cultures. It stripped the religion and took the lives of many. Although Africa seems like a widely populated continent today, is poor in economic value and the snuffed out culture is a result of a domination that nearly ruined the entire society. Which leave the question to differ, had the Europeans never settled in Africa today, where it stand?
1. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart
2. (http://www.bethel.edu/~letnie/AfricanChristianity/SSAColonialProtestant.html) By Dr. Neil Lettinga
3. Walter Rodney’s essay “How Europe underdeveloped Africa”
4. Frantz Fanon’s essay “From the Wretched of the Earth”