At the end of last month the Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, denied that Jesus was crucified and asserted that Christianity was not meant for Africans. "It is a mistake that another religion exists alongside Islam. There is only one religion which is Islam after Mohammed," he told a mass prayer meeting in Niger held to celebrate the birthday of the prophet Mohamed.
Bold words like this might send shivers down European spines, but is there really much to fear?
Gaddafi’s theologising holds no water in not-so-far away Senegal. With its 95 per cent Muslim majority, fasting during the month of Ramadan has been part of the culture for centuries. The small proportion of Catholics do not to be want to be outdone and since the late 1970s have gradually returned to the Lenten practice of early Christianity of allowing themselves only one meal a day.
"I feel free within myself. I feel good because I'm doing this for God. My spirit is free and I feel uplifted. You don't even feel like eating," Yolande Sarr, a Catholic high school student in the capital Dakar, told Reuters.
According to Father Jacques Seck, a prominent Senegalese scholar, total fasting is now quite common. Catholics want to show they are as serious about their religion as the Muslims, and feel pressure to live the same level of self-denial. "Muslims eat an early breakfast, before sunrise, but we only eat once at night, and then go a full 24 hours without eating," Miss Sarr says.
Some religious scholars may dismiss this as cross-faith blending. Perhaps there is an element of that. Some Muslims fast for a day or two during Lent in solidarity with their Christian friends. It is common for Muslims to invite Christians to religious festivals and vice-versa. This happens in many areas of Africa. The seriousness and naturalness with which so many Muslims live their faith, and observe the calls to prayer throughout the day, every day, does not pass unnoticed by followers of other faiths.
Fortunately, fears voiced by many, especially in the West, that when the Muslims become a majority they will persecute the Christians — as happens silently but horrifically in parts of Sudan — is not the case in Senegal.
But even in countries where Muslims are few, Lent is taken seriously. On Ash Wednesday Catholic churches are packed. Many non-Catholics attend too, since their churches do not have this ceremony. On Good Friday in remote villages a large wooden cross will be carried by the faithful, perhaps taking it in turns, both men and women, for several hours until the time of the evening ceremony. Many fast as much as their fellow-Christians in Senegal. It is common to hear of people taking only one meal a day, and on Friday nothing at all — and still managing to put in a day’s work in the office, classroom or the factory.
Africans are not strangers to food shortages and almost relish opportunities for religious fasts. You can see vibrant and spontaneous faith vibrancy in the big cities and in the remote rural areas. One is reminded of the harsh beauty of the first centuries of faith in medieval Europe, recreated by Sigrid Undset, for example, in her classic novel Kristin Lavransdatter. It makes skipping chocolates and beer, as many do in Europe and the US, look rather wimpish.
Colonel Gaddafi is wrong about Christianity in Africa. Libya is trying to win converts to Islam through grants to Islamic communities for mosques and schools. Less than one kilometer from where I sit, perched on Old Kampala Hill, is one of the most beautiful mosques in Africa, started by Idi Amin and completed recently with Libyan money. But Christian conversions are on the increase in Africa, and Gaddafi’s provocative sermons will have little effect. It will require more than impressive buildings to bring about the mass conversions he is so confident will come to pass.
Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's contributing editor for Africa. He lives in Kampala.