The growth of religious adherence in sub-Saharan Africa from 1900 to the present day confirmed by a landmark study must be an historical record. In this vast expanse, from the Sahara to the Cape, and from Somalia to Senegal the Pew Forum survey found that there were some 11 million Muslims in 1900; now they number 234 million — a more than 20-fold increase. Christians were then 7 million, and now, at 470 million, they have grown by almost 70 times. More than one-fifth of all Christians are to be found in this part of Africa, and 15 per cent of all Muslims. The total population of sub-Saharan Africa is presently around 820 million.

But isn’t this the religious fault-line where Christians are under mounting pressure from Muslims to convert, and which al-Qaeda finds it easy to influence? Aren’t the troubles in northern Nigeria and southern Sudan spats over contrasting beliefs? Do Africans lack tolerance for each others religion? Is religion a source of conflict in the huge swathe of central and southern Africa? Or is it a reason for hope? Isn’t it a meeting place for Christians and Muslims which could even provide a lesson for other parts of the world?

Central Africa is a volatile place. But to attribute this to religion would not reflect the real situation. Two enormous rivers rise there, the Congo and the Nile, and the region is therefore a source of livelihood and survival for millions. Increasingly oil is being discovered, and the mineral wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo and southern Africa, on which the developed world depends more and more to run its economies, is well known. Africans are only too familiar with foreigners fighting over their resources, and seeing their minerals and agricultural produce — collected with the sweat of their brow — being extracted and exported. This is a potential reason for African unity rather than friction.

Moreover, all these states have emerged in a span of several decades from a rudimentary Stone Age kind of existence to face the challenges of modern urban living. Simultaneously they had to cope with huge population increases, corrupt or inefficient leadership and collapsing public services. It is no wonder that the process has generated so much conflict.

What may not be generally known is that religious leaders and movements are a major force in civil society and, although most countries are politically “secular”, the opinions of Christian and Muslim leaders must be taken into account. Clergy and preachers are needed to win the faithful over on contentious moral issues. A case in point is the current debate on the Kenyan draft constitution, and the disputed clauses regarding the provision of abortion and the “kadhi” courts.

African governments also need the assistance and favour of the churches, especially the Catholic Church, which is a key provider of relief and development for the needy and for refugees from war and natural catastrophes. In some remote parts, the only white faces to be seen are the missionary priest and the religious sisters. Recently Muslims have joined the humanitarian aid sector, and the faiths work together.

Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of Christians and Muslims do not consider religious violence or “extremism” a solution to anything, unless to defend oneself from forcible conversion. Africans are normally very tolerant regarding religion. In north-west Uganda and the capital, Kampala, for example, many Christians and Muslims live together in the same family. In Pew’s survey on religion in sub-Saharan Africa, involving 25,000 one-on-one interviews in 19 countries, one third of the Ugandans interviewed who said they had been raised as Muslims now consider themselves Christian.

Blood is still generally thicker than religious beliefs, and elements of traditional religion are practiced alongside the major faiths, but mainly among the older generation, even though some of them have passed through university and hold good jobs. Just in case God or Allah doesn’t hear prayers and grant them quickly enough, there is a Plan B — the witch-doctor. Throughout this whole region witchcraft may have been outlawed by the colonial constitutions, but it is not prosecuted, and modern African constitutions leave the issue open since the practice is widespread.

Africans are morally conservative, as the Pew study shows, and are opposed to anything that threatens the integrity of the extended family, which is their lifeline. This is presently being witnessed regarding foreign pressure on issues such as homosexuality and “sexual orientation”, abortion, prostitution and pre-marital sex. Polygamy of the traditional type is practiced among the older generation and rural people, and is allowed, constitutionally and socially. “Serial polygamy” – modern divorce — is officially frowned upon, but children conceived outside wedlock are generally welcomed into the larger family.

If you ask them, most Africans will say that Western music, movies and television have damaged traditional morality, but they still enjoy such entertainment for it reflects a technically advanced, more ordered and comfortable lifestyle. Among the youth, who are the majority — Uganda’s median age, for example, is 14.8 years — African-American and Nigerian entertainment has a strong following.

Islam is a religion of the “book”. Many Christians also believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and this has brought about a flourishing of Evangelical groups whose worship is heavy on music and dance. Africans like their religion “lively”, outspoken and often emotional, which has attracted many youth to the Pentecostal churches. Health and wealth — the “prosperity gospel” — are decisive factors for many in practicing their religion. The Pew survey found that most believers worship regularly, give alms and fast – often very seriously — during Lent and Ramadan.

Evangelisation spread through the Christian missions. These were compounds with a church, clinic, schools and convent, missionaries’ quarters and a guest-wing. In the late 1960s the Church lost its hold on education which, in a sudden spurt of nationalism, was taken over by governments. The loss was great; catechesis suffered and is still trying to recover. Nevertheless, and despite the ideological assaults of much of the mainstream media and a few vociferous Western-trained intellectuals, people are open to the truth and embrace it when they find it.

Sub-Saharan African may be the most religious part of the planet. Whether this is so or not, it is far from being a religious battle-ground.

Martyn Drakard writes from Kampala, Uganda

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.