Mmegi/The Reporter (Gaborone)

16 September 2005

Botswana: Whose God?

He views no religion with negativity, nor does he blaspheme any, but Bugalo Chilume vows never to render his worship to Jesus Christ, nor communicate his prayers through any other means, except his African ancestors.

Controversial Chilume stands his ground. He has publicly declared his views on Christianity and condemned Africans for forsaking their religion only to embrace, one foreign to them.

"I believe whites sometimes shake their heads in disbelief, our gullibility and naivety still baffles them," he says. "I cannot believe we were easily swayed by people who told us our religion was bad and theirs was superior."

Perhaps it was all about the military superiority, they flaunted to the Africans, Chilume says. To him, Christianity is a marketing gimmick to exploit Africans. He believes missionaries were smart people, who used African leaders to sway the masses to the new religion.

"I maintain my words, we are merely helping whites pray to their ancestors. Why do you think most of them no longer go to church? They know that we pray for them." Brought up in a Catholic family, Chilume started having questions as he continued his walk with Christ, but it did not take long for him to realise what he considers "the truth". He looked into practices borrowed from the West and wondered if they were beneficial to Africans. He came to the conclusion that the borrowed practices only brought self-hatred and inferiority among blacks.

Senior lecturer in church history at the University of Botswana (UB), Dr Fidelis Nkomazana differs with Chilume. "This is a demonstration of ignorance over the origins of religion and process of Christianity," he says. Nkomazana believes that Christianity is a universal religion, which goes beyond race and boundaries. He disagrees with associating Christianity with the western community and accuses Chilume of misleading people. "Christianity did not originate in Europe, it originated in the Middle East. In fact Christianity came to Africa before going to Europe. It was created to be preached to nations beyond boundaries of place, or originality," Nkomazana says.

Chilume does not take kindly to the claims that Christianity came to Africa before reaching the western community. "They have always disassociated us from any success that has occurred in various areas, why then would we fit in when they speak about religion?" asks Chilume.

As a result of self-hatred, Chilume believes that a lot of Africans have been enslaved psychologically and economically. "These exported religions have created various complexities among Africans. They have created dependency to an extent that we can no longer do anything without consulting them. We adopt economic policies that benefit them," he says.

Nkomazana urges Africans to revive their economies and stop blaming their misfortunes on other people. "Our ancestors cannot help us, they are dead and have peacefully rested so they cannot make any contribution."

He says so many countries that were once poor have worked hard and overtaken powerful economies without the aid of their ancestors. He points to Japan and China as examples of countries, which climbed the economic ladder without the assistance of anyone. "They used the resources they had," he says.

He says ancestral worship came as a result of the void that people felt. "A human being is spiritual, everyone knows that there is God. That is why some people can go to the extent of worshipping a tree," Nkomazana says.

Since ancestors are mostly older people who made immense contribution to their communities before they died, worshippers think the same people could help them even after their deaths, Nkomazana says.

Chilume maintains that he is only advocating for Africans to go back to their roots. He says that every time Africans eat halaal, blessings are poured on Arab descendants and every prayer referenced to Jesus means blessings for whites. It frustrates him that little is written about African religions. "I know a lot about Christianity because there is so much literature on it," says the man who does not believe in the existence of heaven, but agrees with the concept of the "after life". Nkomazana, however, indicates that a lot has been written about African religion. "It's only that Chilume has not read a lot. I myself as a church historian have done research and read documents on African religions," Nkomazana says.

Chilume believes that by inheriting the western religion, Africans are accepting the myth that theirs is an evil and sinful religion. Having converted Africans to their religions, Chilume says whites have been able to weaken, manipulate, divide and exploit Africans. "By saying Jesus is the Son of God, they are selfishly associating God to themselves only because Jesus is their ancestor," he says.

He believes that worship is defined along racial lines and for these reasons, Africans can never be Christians. "Africans who regard themselves as Christians are merely deluding themselves," he says.

Nkomazana argues that Christianity is a religion limited by no boundaries or race. "Of late God has honoured Africans and now they have began preaching Christianity to Europeans. The Europeans are now seeing it as an African religion."

He says most Westerners now prefer circular religions. He says spiritual religion gains territory within the heart, therefore cannot be foreign to any individual.

"We still have people bringing seeds to be prayed for before ploughing, that is not in the bible, it is an African tradition as they used to be taken to traditional doctors, who are now being substituted with prayer."

He argues that culture is not static, but adapts to circumstances. "I wonder if Chilume is aware that Christianity can be translated to be relevant to the people of that particular community. That is why the Bible is written in so many languages unlike in Islam where they believe that the Qur'an should remain written in Arabic, as it is their heavenly language."

Nkomazana argues that Christianity is the only religion that is able to adapt to various cultures, though the fundamental concepts and doctrines remain the same. He cites an example of the variation of dances and the way people praise God.

Reverend Rupert Hambira of United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (UCCSA) shares some of the views forwarded by Nkomazana. He says Christianity was in Africa long before it reached the West. "Christianity originated from the Middle East, then spread to parts of Africa such as Egypt, Ethiopia and parts of what is presently Mali. The church is older in Africa than in Europe." He says the confusion emanates from the fact that Christianity was brought to the southern parts of Africa by missionaries.

Hambira says many religions appreciate the existence of a supreme being called God, but each speaks to him through different ways. He says Chilume has a theological lapse, as he seems to think that all Africans had a single religion. Hambira condemns Chilume for failing to support his claims with facts. Hambira says Christians cannot confidently say that there is no value in other religions. "They have now realised that they do not hold monopoly over the truth. Other religions are as spiritual as we are," Hambira says.

However, he argues that Christianity is the only religion that has the ability to adjust to the traditions of people around their culture. "The clearest example would be the African Independent churches."

Hambira mentions churches such as Zion Christian Church and Spiritual Healing Church, which are able to incorporate African practices into Christianity. He says the churches are so popular and that alone is an indication that their practices bear more fruits to their followers. These, he says, are post-Christian institutions that have Jesus Christ as the chief ancestor.

"It is unfortunate that Chilume's claims are expressed with deep conviction. He writes as if he was around in the 1920s. His writings have been overtaken by time," Hambira claims.

He says there is no empirical data that can substantiate that the Western affluent communities came as a result of prayer. "We have poor communities that are predominantly Catholic. We have South America, and they are Christians, yet they remain poor. There are others who are not Christians but are very prosperous. "Around 1910 the World Missionary Association and Student Christian Association met in Edinburg, Scotland where it was resolved that the whole world be Christianised. It was during that time that Christians believed their religion was superior, however not long after that they realised they were wrong," says Hambira.

Godirileone Segaise who grew up in a Christian family, spent most of his younger days driving his grandfather, a priest in the UCCSA, to church errands. "A lot of people had expected me to become a reverend because I spent a lot of time with him, but that did not happen," Segaise reveals.

As he studied the Bible, he found it confusing and full of contradictions. It was the Qur'an that saved him. While reading the second chapter of the Qur'an, Segaise found peace and solace in Islam. "It is not the kind of religion that one has to go out and market; its intellect appeals to any individual," he says.

Segaise finds allegations attributing African perils to the deviation from African religion as nonsensical. He says Islam has a lot in common with African religion. "Traditionally, a dead person would be buried in three days, just like in Islam," he says. The concept of helping the needy applies to both religions. Islam, according to him, is the only religion that has an intellectual appeal. "Other religions are a result of emotions. The converts of such religions do not argue well but instead get emotional when their shortcomings are pointed out. Islam is an Arabic word that means total submission and obedience to the commands of Allah or God," he says.

Segaise says Islam is not merely a set of beliefs or a purely theoretical system, but a complete way of life. It gives followers a code of life that offers them the opportunity to develop intellectually and spiritually in this life, that gives a basis for a higher form of success in the after life. He says Islam is a sister religion to Christianity. "The great prophets Moses and Jesus Christ are from Isaac's progeny, while the prophet of Islam, Mohamed was Arab from Ishmael's progeny."

He argues that other practices are a deviation from Islam. It hurts him when people associate Islam with Indians, as it is a religion for the entire world. In his view, there should never be a mediator between God and the people. "We only have prophets, who just come to preach that which God has put in their hearts, not that they should be worshipped," Segaise points out.

He says Jesus Christ never asked to be worshipped and it was only after his death that Christianity started. Segaise also condemns the principle of Trinity. "If Christ is God, he would not have said, 'Oh Lord why have thou forsaken me', when he was crucified. How can God ask for help from himself?" Segaise asks.

He fails to see sense in the worship of ancestors.

"Dead people cannot do anything for us," he says. "Instead, we are the ones that can pray for them."

Hinduism or Sanathana Dharma is one of the world's oldest religions. Though its origins can be traced to India, it is open to anyone who subscribes to their ideology.

A priest at Botswana Hindu Society, Appadur Subramanan believes that there is no superior religion. "All religions are a pathway to salvation. For as long as one upholds the practices of a particular religion and does so faithfully, they shall obtain their salvation," Subramanan says. Often when criticisms mount on their religion, Subramanan only sees that as a dog barking at the sun, as nothing would make them change heart.

He says that the Hindu community never evangelise, rather one has to feel a deep conviction from within. He believes that God can answer everyone despite their race. "One does not have to be Indian for them to be heard when they pray to God, the important aspect is to remain faithful," he says.

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