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ARC Home > News and Resources > News archive:

Africa's well-kept secret revealed

Martin Palmer: November 19 2004:

Delegates at the African Christian Leaders Gathering in London

This week, one of the world’s best kept secrets about Africa was revealed. It was a secret that was apparently unknown to most of the world’s governments, especially Western governments and not least our own. It was also unknown even to international agencies with thousands of specialist staff supposedly expert in these areas. In fact, to a certain degree it was even unknown to the very groups involved.

The secret is this:

Link to BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, November 23 2004.
That the welfare, education, development and environmental well-being of Africa is largely reliant upon the Churches and Mosques of Africa. Without the networks, service and love of the Churches throughout Africa, hundreds of millions would go without food, shelter, healthcare, schooling and opportunities for development.

Without the compassion of the Churches, the environment of Africa would be in an even worse state than it is now. Not just because of the pressure of the African population but also because of us. Our desire, for example, to have fresh flowers which are out of season means that land, soil, water and even the farms which used to feed Africans, have been taken over and exploited for us. We are as much the destroyers of Africa’s fragile ecology as any one else.

Two examples illustrate this best kept secret:

"In Britain, the Churches are still not taken seriously by our own Government nor by the key agencies trying to protect our ecology or planning local community development. For reasons locked in old fashioned ideas of secularism and ignorance, civil society seems to view religion as at best an irrelevance, at worst a joke."

•In Zambia, 40% of all healthcare and 30% of all education is run by the Churches.

•In Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox Church (which traces itself back to 49 AD) is working in over 5000 of the poorest villages in Egypt. They help bring clear water, provide sanitation and establish micro-finance structures to help the poorest become wealth creators.


The unpublicized, and frankly unhonoured, role of the religions in helping Africa was revealed this week in a unique Gathering of African Christian Leaders held in London at the invitation of Her Majesty the Queen, HRH The Prince Philip, the charity Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and the World Bank. An unusual collection you will agree, but perhaps a sign of the times. A sign that at long last the great faiths are being taken seriously as key stakeholders in shaping our world, not just spiritually but physically as well. And not before time.

This is no notional Christianity

The fact is that 45% of the population of Africa is Christian. And this is no notional Christianity. It is a vibrant, joyful Christianity which moulds the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It is also often the only group capable of confronting and surviving the disasters, wars, civil violence, corruption and fear which so often marks the lives of ordinary Africans.
The fact is that 45% of the population of Africa is Christian. And this is no notional Christianity. It is a vibrant, joyful Christianity which moulds the lives of hundreds of millions of people. It is also often the only group capable of confronting and surviving the disasters, wars, civil violence, corruption and fear which so often marks the lives of ordinary Africans.

For example, in devastated Kinshasa, it is the Benedictine monks who still remain, offering education, refuge and hope to a city from which almost all the aid agencies have fled.

So why was this Gathering necessary?

It was called because for decades the secular agencies of development and conservation have ignored or even ridiculed the role of the faiths in Africa - indeed world wide and not least in our own country. When ARC began to discuss with the key international and national bodies, the Christian Leaders’ Gathering, the usual question was “But surely the Churches will only be doing this in order to try and convert people?”

Firstly nearly half the population of Africa is already Christian. Secondly, every Western agency from the British Government to the World Bank has its own conversion agenda - not just a sense of altruism. They want mini-reproductions of their own values which are often linked to concepts alien to African tradition, such as individual rather than collective ownership of land, privatisation and consumerism.

Secondly, without faith, where can hope spring from?

On the other side, some Christians and media people asked whether the Churches shouldn’t spend their time on saving souls rather than bodies.

The answer to that was beautifully expressed by Pope Shenouda, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt when I met him last month, who said the role of the Churches in any situation was as follows:

“The first is how to love people; the second is how to serve the people; the third is how to organise people.”

What the Gathering achieved

It was clear from the reaction of the secular groups that they had had no idea the extent or depth of the role the Churches and Mosques play in holding Africa together. Used to dealing with governments, most of which are corrupt or irrelevant to the lives of most African, often ruling countries created by imperialism and having no relation to older tribal communities, they were amazed at the countrywide network of the faiths.

This is why, during the Gathering, new projects were identified and new partnerships formed. Church groups can now come as invited guests to the table of international planning for the preservation of the ecology and sustainable development of the potential of Africa.

They can be honoured as key elements of civil society. They also bring an array of critical assessments of contemporary aid, development and ecological work, for they know what really works on the ground and what doesn’t.

Two Reflections

As I listened to all that was aired, revealed, debated and decided during this week, I was struck by two things.

Firstly, the fact that in Britain, the Churches are still not taken seriously by our own Government nor by the key agencies trying to protect our ecology or planning local community development. For reasons locked in old fashioned ideas of secularism and ignorance, civil society seems to view religion as at best an irrelevance, at worst a joke.

My second reflection was that we British have little to offer alongside the range and depth of African Christian involvement with ecology and development.

I often hear UK Christians saying we need to be prophetic on the environment and on social issues. Frankly, especially on issues of the environment, our record is more pathetic than prophetic.

I’m not sure ARC could so easily have organised such a creative encounter between UK secular bodies and the religions of our land as we were able to do with Africa. We have a lot to learn from Africa - not least how to live as Christians.

This article first appeared in the Church of England Newspaper, November 19 2004.



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