Religions in sub-Saharan Africa :
Working and Walking together.
A Christian Reflection

Chidi Denis Isizoh

1. Introduction

             This paper begins with some assumptions. Interreligious dialogue is a term already widely used to describe relations between people of different religious traditions. It is “meeting people themselves and getting to know their religious traditions”. It involves “interaction of mutual presence”; “speaking and listening”; and “witnessing the commitments, the values, the rituals of others”.[1] It is “a meeting of people of differing religions, in an atmosphere of freedom and openness, in order to listen to the other, to try to understand the person’s religion, and hopefully to seek possibilities of collaboration.”[2] The following constitute the key elements of interreligious relations: “reciprocal communication”, “attitude of respect and friendship”, “all positive and constructive relations with individuals and communities of other faiths which are directed at mutual understanding and enrichment, in obedience to truth and respect for freedom”, “witness and exploration of respective religious convictions”.[3] The spirit that must animate interreligious dialogue includes: consistency with one’s religious traditions and convictions; openness to understand people of other religious traditions without pretence, prejudice, and close-mindedness; honesty; humility and frankness; renunciation of rigid principles; avoidance of false irenicism; intolerance and misunderstandings; realisation that dialogue leads to inner purification and ongoing conversion.[4]

            The world has become a “global village” in which barriers in communication are broken down by science and technology. Africa , in spite of her slow progress,[5] is part of this “global village”. In this village, people of all walks of life meet. The meeting of people of different religions take many forms: simple living together, sharing of daily life experiences; collaboration in undertaking projects of common interest; engagement in academic/theological discussions; and sharing of deep spiritual values.

 I propose for reflection some simple issues that may interest those who may eventually find themselves in the religiously pluralist societies of sub-Saharan Africa :

— How many religions operate in the area and where?
— How do followers of different religions relate among themselves?
— Which direction does interreligious dialogue lead all the partners?

Answers to these questions will guide the contents of my presentation.

2. Religions in sub-Saharan Africa

 2.1.  Statistics of the presence of Religions

             Today’s Africa is considered “a mosaic of religions”. Two years ago David Barrett and his companions published a new edition of their already well-known work, World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of Churches and Religions in the modern world.[6] It is the most extensive and best, so far, published work on religions in the world.[7] Being an African and interested in what is happening on my continent, especially in the religious sphere, I quickly compiled the entries on Africa .  According to this work, the following religions are identified in Africa with over a hundred thousand adherents: African Traditional Religion, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Baha’i, and Judaism.

The Encyclopaedia goes further to give figures for followers of these religions:

African Traditional Religion: 96.805.405 (12.3%)
Christianity: 360.232.182 (45.9%)[8]
Islam: 317.374.423 (40.5%)
Hinduism: 2.351.390 (0.3%)
Baha’i: 1.732.816 (0.2%)
Judaism: 214.055 (less than 0.1%)
Buddhism: 134.409 (less than 0.1%)

For many reasons, it is difficult to have accurate figures. As I explained elsewhere, it is almost impossible to have an accurate census of religious affiliation in Africa . Many countries in Africa do not have columns for religious beliefs in the census data form. While for the Europeans, figures help to establish the criterion for the distribution of common resources and for assessing the popularity of policies, for most Africans who depend on self help, calculating numbers would be useless, and a waste of time and money.  Indeed among most ethnic groups, human beings are never to be counted.  Many parents would be very reluctant to tell a visitor the number of children they have. There could be religious reasons for this hesitation. Caution is, therefore, needed when quoting population figures in Africa .[9]

 Despite these comments, what David Barrett and his group give is a working statistic. It comes approximately to the true situation on the ground. I have had occasion to listen to many people, especially Bishops and officials of Catholic Secretariats, from different countries of Africa and what they say corroborates what is found in the Encyclopaedia of Barrett et al.  

2.2. African Traditional Religion

African Traditional Religion is a religion which has been practised in Africa from time immemorial. It is also described as “the religious and cultural context from which most Christians in Africa come and within which they still live”[10]

 2.3. Hinduism, Judaism, and Baha’i

Hinduism and Judaism have restricted membership and they are not missionary religions. Baha'i have their largest and strategically located hall of meeting in Kampala . It is said that the religion allows members to belong to multiple religions. But its members are not found in many countries of Africa .

 2.4. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam: A Trio of Missionary Religions in Africa

 In sub-Saharan Africa , Christianity, Islam and Buddhism exercise very strong influence. Although Buddhism is not in many countries, the members have put in place some missionary strategies for expansion, starting from South Africa . What the three religions have in common is the goal of winning new members. They, therefore, constitute what I have called “A Trio of Missionary Religions in Africa ”.

 2.4.1. Buddhism

          In 1992, the Bronkhorstspruit City Council, South Africa , donated 15 hectares of land to the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order to be developed into a Chinese Buddhist, Cultural, and Educational Complex. Ven. Master Hsing Yun sent one of his long-time disciples, Ven. Master Hui Li, to build the Nan Hua Temple in Bronkhorstspruit, to attain these goals and promote Buddhism on the African continent. Since then, the Nan Hua Temple Guesthouse, African Buddhist Seminary (ABS), Nan Hua Village , Assembly Hall , Zen Retreat Centre have been completed and are continuously being upgraded.

The Seminary is for the training future monks. According to the information on the website of the monastery,[11] there are about 14 monks and nuns from the Fo Guang Shan Order teaching in South Africa . Novice monks come from Congo , Tanzania , Malawi , Madagascar and South Africa and they are studying at African Buddhist College .

The monastery has branch temples in New Castle , Bloemfontein , Durban and Cape Town . The programme of this monastery is very clear. “In future we plan to open more branches in other major cities throughout South Africa and other African countries. Those who come to us to learn more about Buddhism and enter the Order for training as monks will continue their training in Taiwan after finishing their three year program here. These Africans are the people who will be responsible for spreading Buddhism in Africa , if they believe Buddhism is of value to this continent and its people.”[12]

            There is another Buddhist foundation, which is of Theravada tradition, coming from Sri Lanka . They now operate in Dar es Salaam , Tanzania .

           The growth of the population of Buddhists in Africa in recent times is significant[13]:       


Population of Buddhists in Africa

Total Population of Africa










 2.4.2. Christianity

 The 1994 great assembly of the Catholic Bishops for the African Synod was an important demonstration of the commitment of the Catholic Church to spread the Christian religion in Africa . The theme of the Synod said it all “The Church in Africa and her Evangelising Mission toward the Year 2000”. Through the programme for Evangelisation 2000, an effort was made to prepare the continent as a gift to Christ in the third millennium.

In Harare , during the 1998 Assembly, the World Council of Churches rededicated itself to “the African dream and agenda for the 21st century”.  It declared: “We are proud in seeing a vision of the journey of hope of African Churches for the development of the continent for the 21st century….  We are determined to work out this vision that promises life with dignity for the African people”. Among the areas mapped out for concentration are:

- focus on the religious heritage of Africa, hoping that this would lead to a greater understanding between Christians and people of other faiths and open new avenues for interaction and co-operation between peoples of faith;

- throw light upon the continued vitality of the religious heritage of Africa in religious traditions in various parts of the world.

            The steady growth of Christianity is evident from the following statistics:[14]


Population of Christians in Africa

Total Population of Africa









2.4.3. Islam

Islam has existed in sub-Saharan Africa for a long time embedded in the culture and sharing in some aspects of the African worldview. Some of the Muslims have the vision of taking the religion beyond their immediate confines. Until recently, there was not a clear and articulated desire to take possession of the whole continent of Africa . The impression given now is that this has changed. With financial support from some Muslim countries outside the sub-Saharan region, there has been a significant missionary engagement of Muslims in social projects (notably in education, healthcare, and erection of places of worship). A number of important Muslim leaders have openly tried to sell the idea that Islam is for Africa and Christianity is for Europe . The international conference organised in November 1989 at Abuja by the Nigerian Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs together with Islamic Council of London and other important international organisations was an attempt to focus world attention on the point that “Africa constitutes a great Islamic potentiality” which should be “exploited”.[15] Many investments and projects on the continent have this motive as their background.

The Muslim population is spread in most countries of the sub-Saharan region.[16] Senegal , the Gambia and Niger have the highest percentage of Muslims, ranging from 75 to 90% of the population. They are followed by Mali , Sierra Leone , Chad , the Sudan , from 50 to 75%. Guinea , Burkina Faso , Nigeria and Tanzania come next, 25 to 50%. Liberia , Ivory Coast , Ghana , Togo , Benin , Cameroon , and Mozambique , from 10 to 20%. All the other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa , have less than 10% of their population as Muslims.

 According to David Barrett et al there is a steady growth of the population of Muslims in Africa :[17]



Population of Muslims in Africa

Total Population of Africa









3. Interreligious relations in Africa

 Sometime ago, out of curiosity, I keyed in the phrase “interreligious dialogue” and clicked on a button of Google search engine and what came out was astonishing: 22,000 entries. Then narrowing the search, I typed in “interreligious dialogue in Africa ”. What I got was 5,200 entries. This means that 25% of the world’s interest in interreligious dialogue is devoted to Africa alone. For many reasons, interest in dialogue among religions is expected to be high. Many people are interested in what followers of different religions do in Africa .

            From records available indicating frequency of occurrence, Africa could be described as the number one theatre for religious conflicts in the world. Many religiously motivated conflicts have taken place on this continent. It is true that most of these conflicts have many sources, which include poor, corrupt, and inept leadership; exaggerated ethnic affiliation, religious extremism, etc. In itself religion does not generate conflicts. It is often the manipulation of religion and religious sentiments that leads to tension and could degenerate into violent conflicts. On the list of countries with a record of violent conflicts, with a tint of religious motivation, would have to be included: Nigeria , Uganda , Ghana , the Sudan , Kenya , etc. Some of these countries have had several rounds of violent conflicts.

In Nigeria , for example, many lives have been lost, many mosques and churches have been torched, on several occasions in which Christians and Muslims have fought against one another especially in the north. Numerically, Nigeria has the highest number of Muslims in the sub-Saharan region. The country presents a unique case, perhaps not seen anywhere in the world. While in most countries the balance of the numerical strength always tilts in favour of one religion or another, in Nigeria there is a near balance between the number of Christians and of Muslims. This fact has prompted Archbishop Teissier of Algiers to describe the country as “the greatest Islamo-Christian nation in the world”.[18]

            Another example is Ghana . This time it is between followers of African Traditional Religion and Christians. Homowo is an annual festival celebrated by the Ga people of Ghana . The word “Homowo” actually means 'making fun of hunger.' Traditional oral history describes a time long ago when rain stopped and sea closed its gates. A deadly famine spread throughout the southern Accra Plains, the home of the Ga people. When the harvest finally arrived and food became plentiful, the people were so happy that they celebrated with a festival that ridiculed hunger. The Homowo festival starts with the planting of crops before the May rainy season and continues through August. The actual time for the August celebration is determined by the Chief Priests after consulting with the Lagoon Oracles. Sometime in June there is a total ban on noise throughout the State, and fishing is limited to certain days. It is this ban on noise that has brought the adherents of the Ga traditional religion into conflict with some Christians who beat drums in their Churches during worship. On 15, 29 and 30 May, 2002, groups of men attacked Christian Churches that were not observing the drumming ban. Some Church equipment was stolen and facilities were vandalised. A number of persons were injured.

            Despite many of these conflicts, most followers of different religions in Africa live and work together quietly. Sometimes the news media do not report these quiet initiatives.

4. Working together

 4.1. Daily life sharing

  Africa is not a homogenous society. There is a variety of cultures and customs. Although similarities could be detected, there are different worldviews. And many factors contribute to shape these worldviews; chief among them is the traditional religion. The diversity in Africa is particularly striking if we take a look at a country like Nigeria . The north is largely inhabited by the Hausas and Fulanis. But there are many many other ethnic groups. The southwest is the home of the Yorubas. Both Muslims from the north and from the southwest come from the same stock. But there is a radical difference in their attitude to life and their spirit of tolerance.

Among the Yorubas a family of many members could have mixed religious affiliations (Christianity, Islam, African Traditional Religion, etc.), yet they live happily together. They easily accept their differences. Their attitude to life is “live and let live”. This is not always the case in many parts of northern Nigeria , especially the extreme northwest.

The Gambia could be described as one of the smallest and, perhaps, poorest of the countries of Africa . The majority of the population is Muslim (over 90%). Yet there is peace and harmony among the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. Often people of different religions inter-marry and each partner shares with the other the highest positive family values of his or her religion.

4.2. Education

             Ignorance is one of the major causes of conflicts and tension in many communities. Who is my neighbour of another religious tradition? What does he/she believe in? Why does he do what he does? Why does she behave the way she does? Lack of information about the other leads to suspicion and misinterpretation of the other person’s action. Fighting ignorance is very important. People are educated through several means: formal education in schools, use of radio and television, personal exchange at home, in places of work and common meeting places, etc.

            Pemba is one of the islands in the United Republic of Tanzania. It used to be considered as “a centre for the juju traditions of medicine and magic” but was seized in the 17th century by the Sultan of Muscat (now Oman ). It is, therefore, a strong Muslim domain. It is extremely difficult to belong to another religion apart from Islam.

            There is a Catholic Bishop in Zanzibar , Mons . Augustine Shao, who looks after Pemba . He has a vision for his diocese. He wants to invest in schools and healthcare services. Muslims suspect that he wants to use the schools to convert their children to Christianity. But this is far from the Bishop’s idea of establishing educational institutions. Muslim children will still receive instructions in the religion of their parents, and so too will Christians. The school will provide an environment for interreligious exchange among the children. They relate among themselves as human beings. They learn to trust one another and to work together. After staying together in the same school for several years, the children learn not to fear one another.  Bishop Shao’s school is a preparation for a better future in which interreligious relations will flourish.

            The experiment of such schools of mixed religion has proved effective in many countries like Chad , Mali , Senegal , the Gambia , etc., where though Christians are in the minority, they have built several schools and admit many Muslim children. The same would be possible in Muslim schools, especially where no person is deliberately forced to convert to the religion of the founding religious institution.

            Tamale is a town in northern Ghana . It is a Muslim stronghold. It has an Interreligious Dialogue Committee with a Muslim as the Chairman and a Christian religious Sister as Coordinator/Secretary.  Members go to schools to teach students about the points that unite Christians and Muslims, and areas of differences. They buy airtime and use FM radio station to hold discussions on interreligious relations.

            In Mozambique , the Catholic Church has two radio stations: Radio Encontro in Nampula and Radio Watana in Nacala. Muslims are often invited to give their points of view on national and local issues. Using radio and other modern means of communication to promote interreligious dialogue is important. Cardinal Polycarp Pengo[19] of Dar es Salaam three weeks ago, at a Consultation organised by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue for its close collaborators in Africa, expressed gratitude to God for enabling “ingenuity among human beings”, who have made it possible “to grasp the whisper of someone across the ocean or read a book from the most distant library…(by pressing) the appropriate button on one’s radio or computer”. He remarked that “the problem facing the modern means of communication today is that good news in itself is not considered as news worthy of communicating. The news worth communicating is that which will sell. And since bad news seems more palatable to the world of today, good news tend to be passed over in silence or distorted to be bad enough to sell.” For relations among people of different religious traditions, the Cardinal emphasised that “the starting point for any interreligious dialogue communication today must have the courage to swim against the current of commercialising news.  Modern means of communication must learn to communicate in the first place what is good and respectable about all religions.”

4.3. Social Welfare, Justice and Peace

            There is so much injustice in our world today. Different religions in Africa are often expected to speak against the oppression of the poor, exploitation of the weak in society, and act as arbiters in case of disputes.

            Malawi is a country of over ten million inhabitants of which about 76.8% are Christians, 14.8% are Muslims and 7.8% belong to followers of African Traditional Religion. In response to the Catholic Bishops’ letter of March 1992, which won the support of the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP) and other religious bodies, a process of transition from one party rule to multiparty democracy was ushered in. A group, comprising the Malawi Council of Churches, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malawi, and the Muslim Association of Malawi, was formed and became known as the Public Affairs Committee. This Committee has as its scope encouraging religious bodies to fulfil their prophetic role in responding to the social and political affairs of the country; mediating in cases of misunderstanding among members of religious bodies; and safeguarding the rule of law and human rights in the society. The group was instrumental in translating a popular desire for political change into reality between 1992 and the first General Election in 1994. It remains in the forefront in safeguarding the hard-won democracy in the new Malawi . Activities, such as advocacy, institutional confidence building among Malawians, workshops on gender and civic education, have been implemented.

            NAIREC stands for Nigerian Inter-Religious Council. The Council was established about three years ago, at the initiative of the Christian leaders and with the full and enthusiastic support of the government of Nigeria , as a forum for dialogue between Christian and Muslim leaders at the highest level. It is meant to advise the government on national issues that affect the interest of different religions, especially Christianity and Islam, in Nigeria .

5. Walking together

             I started this paper by giving some indications of what we have assumed as a description of interreligious dialogue. When Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical, Redemptoris Missio (1990), declared that “Interreligious Dialogue is a part of the evangelising Mission of the Church,”[20] some of our dialogue partners, at first reading, were frightened. It was like an affirmation of their worst fears about the interest of the Catholic Church in promoting interreligious dialogue as tactics for conversion to Christianity. But that statement of the Pope was a conclusion of a long discussion, spanning through a period of time, in the Church on the meaning of the mandate which Christ gave to his disciples to evangelise the whole world (Mat. 28, 18-20).

            The Church is sent by Jesus Christ to all human beings to announce the Good News of salvation and reconciliation with God. The meaning of evangelisation and the mission of the Church in the world is broad and inclusive. In 1984, The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue published a small booklet, entitled Attitude of the Church towards the
Followers of Other Religions: Reflections and Orientations on Dialogue and Mission
. In order to explain the place of dialogue in the context of the overall mission of the Church, the document introduces various ways “the church makes itself fully present to all persons and peoples”:[21] simple presence and living witness of the Christian life, commitment to the service of mankind and all forms of activity for social development and for the struggle against poverty and the structures which produce it, liturgical life, prayer and contemplation, interreligious dialogue and proclamation of the Gospel and catechesis. Interreligious dialogue, therefore, is one of the forms of the mission of the Church.

            But interreligious dialogue is not a remote preparation for conversion to another religion. It is rather an expression of respect for the other. It is about making people better human beings. It leads to better appreciation of one’s religious commitments, to mutual understanding of believers, and to active engagement in the service of “brothers and sisters”. Thus, engagement in interreligious dialogue leads to a better horizontal relationship with others.

It goes further. It reaches a deeper spirit of communication, leading towards a vertical relationship with God. It becomes a response in faith to God. As Pope John Paul II explained in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis (1979), the courage to engage in dialogue is an affirmation of confidence in the grace of God operating in and through the Church.[22]

In its vertical dimension, interreligious dialogue leads to conversion of the heart to God. All dialogue partners are pilgrims on the way to discover God, the absolute Truth, through fellow human beings. According to Piero Coda of the Lateran University of Rome, “the conversion of the heart brings forth a demanding and liberating spirituality, capable of engendering the great art of the dialogue of salvation, in all of its wonderful potential.”[23] He goes further to explain: “a converted heart knows how to look at the other through the eyes of God, like a son loved by the Father, like a brother or a sister called to be welcomed, with everyone else, into God’s bosom….  (T)he conversion of the heart makes one capable of grasping and welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the one who is before us, both because of his personal path towards God and the experience of God that he has had and cultivated, and because of the many graces deposited and renewed by the religious tradition to which he belongs.”[24]

6. Conclusion

 To sum up all that this paper wants to demonstrate, there are many religions in Africa . Even though from time to time conflicts motivated by religious sentiments take place, people of different religions on the continent generally, without much publicity, live together peacefully. They work together in projects of common concern and they walk together as pilgrims towards Truth.

Dialogue as conversion to God is not something that shows an immediate visible result. It cannot be demonstrated, as I have done in the case of collaboration among people of different religious traditions in Africa . But it is an essential goal that must be kept in mind in all interreligious encounters.


[1] Cf. Donald K. Mckim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, ( Louisville , 1996), p.147;  “Principles of Interfaith Dialogue,” in Online publication at www.; and Paul F. Knitter, Jesus and the Other Names, (Maryknoll, 1996), p.4.

[2] Francis Arinze, Meeting Other Believers, ( Leominster , 1997), p.5.

[3] Dialogue and Proclamation, a joint document of Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, (Vatican City, 1991), nn. 47-51.

[4] Cf. Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, n. 56; also Chidi Denis Isizoh, ed., Milestones in Interreligious Dialogue (Rome, 2002), p.xxi.

[5] The 2001 status report, published at, reveals that 1 in 4 have a radio (205 million); 1 in 13 have a TV (62 million), 1 in 40 have a fixed telephone line (20 million), 1 in 35 have a mobile phone (24 million), 1 in 130 have a PC (5.9 million), 1 in 160 use the internet (5 million), 1in 400 have pay-TV (2 million).

[6] Oxford , University Press, 2001.

[7] CIA–The World Factbook 2002 on the internet ( gives another statistics according to percentage. From many indications, Barrett’s version is more comprehensive and updated.

[8] This includes all Christian denominations. The Holy See publishes country by country annual statistics of the Catholic Church membership. There are also diocese by diocese statistics published in the official directory of the Catholic Church, Pontificio Annuario. The latest edition came out in February 2003.

[9] Chidi Denis Isizoh (ed.), Christianity in Dialogue with African Traditional Religions, Seminar papers vol.1 (2001), p.19, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican City.

[10] Pastoral Attention to Followers of African Traditional Religion, Letter to Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences of Africa and Madagascar , in Bulletin of Secretariatus pro non Christianis 68 (1988) 102-106.


[12] Ibid.

[13] David Barrett et al., World Christian Encyclopedia, Op.cit, p. 13

[14] Ibid.

[15] Quoted by J. Onaiyekan in “Being the Church in an Islamo-Christian Society: A Nigerian Perspective,” in G. Albergo & A. Mushete (ed.), Towards an African Synod, Concilium, 1992, p. 48.

[16] See Nigrizia of 11 November, 2001, p.2.

[17] Op. cit., p.13.

[18] Quoted by J. Onaiyekan in “Being the Church in an Islamo-Christian Society: A Nigerian Perspective,” in G. Albergo & A. Mushete (ed.), Towards an African Synod, Concilium, 1992, p. 48)

[19] “The use of Modern Means of Communication to promote Interreligious Dialogue: Challenges and Possibilities.”, Address to the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue Consultative Assembly, 15 March, 2003.

[20] No. 55

[21] No. 13

[22] No. 15.

[23] “Called to the Conversion of the Heart,” in Pro Dialogo 101 (1999), p. 231.

[24] Ibid.