2004 Africa and religion

Lecture at Oikos 2004

Reverend Dr. Mvume Dandala describes in a compelling way the history of African development, how Africa was the playground of the European powers serving their economic interests. How Africa after decolonisation and because of the Cold War was trapped into the America-Soviet rivalry. But he described also how, in spite of that, philosophers and poets kept alive the African identity in the movement for independence and emancipation (Césaire, Fanon, Senghor). It’s just two years ago that the civil war in Angola as one of the last residues of the Cold War has ended.

Nationbuilding was –because of the history Reverend Dandala has described one of the main challenges for African countries. The boundaries of the nineteenth centuries are still artificial and do not reflect the natural cohesion of peoples, but they are realities and questioning that reality is perhaps the most threatening process for the continent.

Still Africa is still struggling to find its way in building up state and its institutions. The example of South Africa is inspiring: overcoming apartheid in a peaceful way, building a government with a strong legitimacy as the elections of 10 days ago showed to the world. And the change of government in Kenia at the end of 2002 by elections and by unifying parties was also a sign of hope in that process of nationbuilding. But it’s still a struggle, to my opinion especially with regard to leadership. What is happening in Zimbabwe is a tragedy: Mr Mugabe once a well respected leader of independence, now ruining the country by his dictatorship. And in Namibia and Uganda leadership is aiming to change the constitution in order to stay in power. We have had too many examples of leaders who kept on power and pretended that the country would be lost without their guiding and ruling hand. Maturity of leadership and of the institutions of the state proves itself by being able to hand over responsibility. It’s a sign of trust and a sign of the acknowledgement that there are always other competent people and new leaders to take over.

Reverend Dandala noticed that the space offered to African nations by the end of the Cold War was not used in the most adequate way. I quote ´But this space was also occupied by disgruntled elements who saw an opportunities for political carriers out of the deficits of state authority. There was a gradual erosion of public confidence on the State and her capacity to deliver. (unquote). African states are still fragile, but they should no longer be seen as helpless. They are nowadays to be considered as the prima actors of development processes in their countries. What we are seeing in Uganda and Kenia with regard to basic social services like basis education is vital and promising. And in the fight against the aids-pandemic states are indispensable, as well as in the field of prevention as well as in the field of treatment. We have to endorse and underpin the legal authority and legal mandate of the state. If not it will be a classic example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Then the question is: what should be the role of the church, of the churches in the African context, given that –and again I quote reverend Dandala – The poverty in most African countries has its roots in the disorganization of this earlier period, when Africa was the playground of the European powers and largely had to serve their economic interests (unquote) and given the fragility of the state and its problems to deliver. Let me make some remarks to the role of the church.

Church it not a competitor of the state. At a conference of catholic bishops about the rol of the church in healthcare, three weeks ago in Kampala, Bishop Mensah from Ghana formulated this principle by saying: church has to accept and acknowledge the legal mandate of the state regarding health care and other basic social services. The healthcare of the church should be an integrated part of a national healthstructure. But within that framework of the rules and regulations of the state the church and its own institutions claim their own moral mandate. I fully agree with him. The relation between church and state is a complementary one, giving space for identity and faith-based services.

Churches are an important element in the social infrastructure, the social fabric. They have a huge credibility, not at least by their presence all over the countries, even in the most remote areas. They are there and they don’t leave. I am impressed by the way the church keeps its presence at and solidarity with the people in Southern Sudan: in the turmoil of civil war, IDP’s and natural disasters they stay. In a world bank report churches are, after families, the most reliable social structures, far more than non governmental organizations ore states.

Churches have a long track-record in their commitment to people in rendering services. They are deeply tooted in societies and are reliable. I think it is a challenge for churches in Africa to become more and more the voice of the people who they are taking care for: raising voice in public to advocate for good legislation, for eradicate corruption, for equality between men and women for sharing the goods of the earth. Churches know what are the needs and hopes of people in their day to day life. They have the authority to present these there where decisions are made. Churches can do so much more than stick to their role as a deliver of these basic services. The language of obedience to authority – as reverend Dandala stated – has to change to the language of obedience to the will of the people. In this respect it is important to notice that catholic Episcopal conferences are establishing and enforcing relationships with political institutes. Last year there was the meeting of African bishopsconference with the European union en recently the bishopsconferences of East and Southern Africa joined with representatives from NEPAD to see how church can contribute to this new initiative in development and how NEPAD join with the faith-based community.

Reverend Dandala made important and valuable remarks on the theology of the African churches. He pointed out that the spirituality of Africa is a spirituality of inclusiveness: in the community every voice must be heard and everyone’s contribution is valuable. It’s that spirit of community that fed the Justice and Reconciliation process in South Africa. Latin America enriched the church with the theology of liberation, pointing at our God who liberates men from all forms of slavery and : social, economic, cultural, sexual. I strong believes that Africa can enriches the churches with a theology of –so to speak – inclusiveness. We are really in need of such a theology. And our gospel is one continuous story of inclusiveness: look at the way Jesus Christ is communicating with Samaritans, with the disabled, with prostitutes, the blind, with publicans. But I believe we as Europeans are not able to develop such a theology, because we are lacking the day to day experience of inclusion: exclusion is the dominant paradigm of our societies: look at the way we are treating immigrants and refugees, al the way we are dealing with the war on terror and the way we are not sharing the goods of the earth. Such an African theology would contribute to Africa but also to our world.

Let me explain some of the key-elements in Cordaid’s policy regarding Africa. Africa counts for 50% of our annual funding. We are building on the power and competences of African people and African organizations. As a funding agency we are not ourselves implementing projects: we are financing promising programs of our African counterparts. Programs that are alleviating poverty, that are supportive to the civil society movements in Africa, that are raising the voices of Africans in their own country, at continental level and in the international arena. We are focusing our work on five prioritized themes:

  • Peace and Conflict
  • Health and Care
  • Access to Markets
  • Quality of Urban Life
  • HIV/Aids.

We are working with faith-based organizations, not exclusively but especially in the themes peace and conflict and health and care church-related organizations count for an important share of our funding.  Emphasis gradually shifts from providing the financial and technical means for service delivery to strengthening their capacity for sound management of their institutions, for example their mission hospitals. In order to play an important role church organisations must be able to enter in contractual agreements with the national governments.

Also in Peace and Reconciliation the role for the churches, in the way so clearly presented by Rev. Mvume Dandala is obvious and so is Cordaids role as a partner to organisations like for instance the Sudanese conference of churches. Trauma healing, reconciliation, democratisation, civic education are just a few of the areas of intervention. They have to  play a role in the process of reconciliation, the integration of large numbers of IDP’s and the challenge to establish a sound political basis for the future. They represent a movement from bottom up as a necessary complementary action to what is reached by negotiations at the top.

The role of the churches in fighting the aids pandemic is an important one. We can hardly overestimate their contribution to alleviate the suffering of patients and caregivers. They play an important role in programs for prevention and in home care. We know that the catholic church takes its own position regarding the use of condoms. We as Cordaid agree with the church on their position that changes in lifestyle and behaviour are in the long run the sustainable ways of containing and rolling back the pandemic, but we believe that the use of condoms is indispensable as an additional tool to stop the pandemic. Sometimes it’s enough to agree that we disagree, as was the case in the agreement between the Vatican and UNAIDS: both acknowledge each other as partners in the struggle against HIV/Aids and acknowledge that they have different convictions and beliefs. It’s important that we as a development organisation are linking HIV/Aids to poverty and in a community based approach. In two weeks Cordaid will organise an international conference on HIV/Aids entitled ‘the infected community’: HIV/Aids is not an individual threat: it threatens families, communities, parishes, schools, factories.