The catalytic role of the Christianity in developing African nationalism arose from the education that the church schools provided in colonial Africa. In many African colonies, mission schools were the main educational institutions, and the expense of educating Africans was often borne entirely by the missions. In other colonies, the colonial government provided the funding, but the teaching staff and the curriculum were the responsibility of the missions. Mission education had three modest goals: First, to provide the basic literacy that would enable Africans to absorb religious education and training and help in the spread of the Gospel; second, to impart the values of Western society, without which missionaries believed the Africans could not progress; and third, to raise the level of productivity of the African workers (both semiskilled and clerical) without necessarily empowering them sufficiently to challenge colonial rule. Mission education was, generally speaking, inadequate, especially in its emphasis on a religious education that Western society was already finding anachronistic. But, limited or flawed as it might have been, it was enough to whet the appetite of African people for more education and to pique their political consciousness.
In central Kenya, for instance, the Kikuyu people were fascinated by the possibilities offered by a good education, but they were so dissatisfied with the missionary education provided by Anglican and Scottish missions that they began to found their own schools. African parents wanted the kind of education that would equip their children with more than just the ability to read the Bible and write in their own indigenous languages. They wanted their children to acquire the intellectual skills and language abilities necessary to fight for the land that had been taken away from their parents by European settlers and colonizers. Parents also wanted their children to succeed in the white man’s world, the glimpse of which had been provided by colonial as well as missionary education. When colonial authorities restricted the number of African-run schools, some parents showed their defiance by keeping their children out of mission institutions. Africans developed enormous respect for modern education. They believed, correctly, that colonial authorities were more likely to deal with an educated African spokesperson than one who was not. It helped a lot if an African emissary who was sent to plead the cause of his people happened also to be fluent in a relevant European language.
In 1929, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya was chosen by his people to go to England to present their grievances to British authorities. His people hoped that he would make a strong impression on the British and convince them that educated Africans, like himself, were not only ready to handle political responsibilities seriously but perhaps also able to run a government.
During the long stay in England, Kenyatta Modern African Nationalism studied at the University of London, producing Facing Mt. Kenya, a book in which he not only interpreted Gikuyu life and culture to the Western world but also documented the cultural devastation that had occurred among the Gikuyu people at the hands of the colonial administration.
Moreover, he made an impassioned case for his people’s desire and right to regain their land and to govern themselves. In addition, he traveled all over Britain speaking to sympathetic British people willing to hear about colonial injustices in Kenya. Clearly, he contributed to the crystallization of British groups such as the Fabian Society as anti-colonial organizations. These societies later not only lent their support to anti-colonial organizations in the British empire but also contributed to the shifting opinion in Britain against continued colonialism. Kenyatta’s rise to prominence and eventually to the leadership of Kenya was greatly assisted by his mastery of the English language.
Another African whose mastery and command of a European language became a pivotal factor in his political career was Léopold Sédar Senghor, the late first president of Senegal. Senghor was educated in Catholic mission schools in Senegal and later studied at the Sorbonne at the University of Paris. He rose through the ranks to become an important political figure in the French colonial system and, despite the intellectual controversy that attended his articulation of ideas such as negritude, he was a significant interpreter of African culture to the French-speaking world. Throughout his life, he enjoyed widespread respect and admiration as a philosopher, poet, and writer among French intellectuals and in the French-speaking world in general. In 1984, Senghor became the first African to be awarded membership in the exclusive French Academy. This is “the highest honor France can bestow on its statesmen and men [sic] of letters.”
Missionary education then had dual consequences for the Africans: it gave them skills with which to articulate their demands and question the legitimacy of colonial authorities; it also turned out to be a powerful medium of African acculturation of Western Christian (and political) values, values that the African very cleverly and ingeniously, to the utter surprise of his colonial master, incorporated into political debate over their struggles for freedom. As Ali Mazrui puts it:
“The destruction of the ‘pagan’ African culture was naturally accompanied by attemps to replace it with some aspects of the English way of life. Next to making the boys and girls upright
Christians, this was an important aim of the Christian educators.”6 He concludes that missionary education was perhaps far more successful at producing a new cultural African than a consistent Christian.
The impact of the Christian church is evident all over the African continent. African Nationalism and the Struggle for Freedom The majority of the first generation of African leaders, among them Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Léopold Senghor (Senegal), Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia), Nnamdi Azikiwe (Nigeria), and Hastings Kamuzu Banda (Malawi), were products of missionary education in their own countries. In South Africa, the Africans who organized the first nationwide political movement to address the needs of the Africans and to oppose the impending racist legislation being contemplated by the white minority government in 1912 were pastors. In Kenya, the independent schools that African religious leaders opened were quite political in terms of articulating the grievances of their people, as well as in combining local and Christian beliefs. Not surprisingly, the colonial government treated these schools as a very serious security risk.
Another sense in which Christianity played a role in the growth of African nationalism was in the doctrine and content of its teachings.
Christian doctrine stressed the spiritual kinship of people, the idea that all human beings, regardless of color and nationality, were God’s children and equal in the eyes of God—therefore endowed with a right to treat each other, and to be regarded, with kindness and consideration. The church, however, failed to translate this doctrine into practice. It was contemptuous of Africans and their culture. It behaved as though it did not expect Africans to notice the contradiction between the benevolence of the doctrine and the virulence of the racism exhibited by some of the missionaries. Indeed, student interest in political affairs and frequent discussion of political issues were frowned upon and often punished. The missionaries excluded the Africans from any meaningful role in running the churches. They maintained a discrete social distance from the Africans, interacting with them in a patronizing manner, and preaching the Gospel or teaching African school children simply as a job to do, not a sacred calling. Missionaries who had children, for instance, would send them abroad for education rather than to the same schools with African children. This may have been justified at the turn of the century when educational facilities in Africa were poor and primitive but not in the middle of the twentieth century. In eastern, central, and southern Africa, where European settlers had their own schools, the missionaries preferred to send their children to racially exclusive schools, never raising any moral objections to the existence of such segregated schools. Missionaries made few attempts to learn about and understand African traditions and values, although they wrote a great deal about Africans.
They looked down upon African rituals, Modern African Nationalism customs, and languages and, in some cases, deliberately attempted to destroy African institutions. Herskovits says, Other things being equal, Africans everywhere came to prefer schooling under secular auspices. One reason for this . . . was that in lay schools they were less subjected to the continuous denigration of their own culture. In the mission schools, many aspects of African ways of life that continued to be highly esteemed, or were important for the functioning of society, particularly customs associated with sexual behavior and with marriage, fell under missionary disapprobation, and were attacked in the classroom.
There was no attempt in such schools to consider points often raised in defense of certain African customs and rituals. When Africans, in defense of polygyny, pointed to the early Biblical tradition of polygamy, the missionaries responded simply by quoting the Church’s dogma on
monogamy as God’s only sanctioned practice. When some sought to continue the veneration of their ancestral spirits along with Christian rituals, the missionaries threatened them with expulsion or excommunication from the church. Even the use of traditional music and dance in worship was severely discouraged as barbaric and heathen. Except for scattered and isolated acts of defiance or opposition by a few missionaries toward forced labor or physical abuse of Africans, the churches, by and large, wanted Africans to believe that colonization was undertaken for the good of the Africans. They enunciated the “colonial purpose,” whatever it was.
Moreover, some missionaries served as apologists for colonial governments. For example, the Rev. Robert Moffat, a missionary in central Africa, is reported to have advised King Lobengula of the Ndebele people to accept the Rudd Concession, even though he knew of Cecil Rhodes’ ultimate imperial intentions to seize African lands north of the Limpopo River. Many Africans, of course, quietly endured this kind of treatment, believing that obedience, humility, and “turning the other cheek” were necessary for spiritual salvation. Others began to resent being treated like inferior human beings and decided that it was time to demand a voice in running religious institutions. They founded their own churches, separatist churches, where they could interpret the scriptures in ways that did not denigrate their cultures and their heritage and where the people could enjoy “religious self-expression.” Such separatist churches included the Chilembwe church in Malawi, the Kimbangu and Kitawala churches in what is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Tembu church in South Africa. Colonialists called these churches “cults.”