At 4:30 a.m. in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I am woken by the local mosque’s call to prayer, followed by the imam’s sermon. Not long after that, the bell of the Catholic center where I’m staying calls the nuns and Catholics in the neighborhood to daily Mass. At ten o’clock that evening the imam is preaching again—or is he debating with someone?

I’m visiting from South Africa and don’t speak Swahili, so I inquire among the locals. They’re not sure. This cacophony of voices, amplified by megaphone, has long since become mere background noise for them. I am not the only one woken by the megaphones: I hear the locals joke about “religious alarm clocks.” But they cheerfully tolerate the vying religious noises. It’s all part of the rich mixture of Tanzanian society.

You hear and see that mixture wherever you go. Islam and Christianity are both highly visible in Tanzania. The headscarf and the veil, which conceal the wearer’s personal identity, are also conspicuous symbols of religious adherence. The more concealing, the more conspicuous: a woman draped from head to toe in black cloth, with only her eyes uncovered, is making a statement. Her garment announces her membership in a certain community of belief and reminds the rest of Dar es Salaam of that community’s presence. Throughout Tanzania, such statements are everywhere—from large places of worship to religious texts painted on sides of buses.

Even secular South Africa could never get away with a French-style ban on public displays of religious symbols. The constitution prevents such a ban, and few South Africans would support it; they simply wouldn’t see the point. Wearing one’s religion on one’s sleeve, as it were, is not considered offensive in African society. Catholic women who are members of the Sodality of the Sacred Heart wear a deep-purple uniform with a medal attached to either a ribbon or a rosette. Some men who belong to the African Independent Churches sport splendid khaki military uniforms, complete with peaked caps and silver stars on their chests—a kind of decoration for spiritual valor. Members of the Zulu-based Shembe Church deck themselves out in brilliant white robes and carry ornate staffs, looking for all the world like a band of Old Testament prophets, which is what they consider themselves to be.

When I travel, I sometimes use a coach company that shows Pentecostal documentaries as on-board entertainment. At the beginning of a bus journey, an attendant will lead the passengers in a prayer for a safe trip, and at the end of the journey there’s a prayer of thanksgiving—all of it in Jesus’ name. One sometimes sees mild complaints about this sort of thing in the newspapers, but even if it were deemed unlawful, enforcement would be so problematic—and problems with serious crime are so pressing—that it’s hard to imagine anything actually being done about it. In a country struggling with a high incidence of child rape, the offering of a few Christian prayers before a captive congregation doesn’t produce much outrage. I’m told that in other, less developed African countries, bus drivers won’t start out on a long journey until a prayer has been offered by one of the passengers. That many of these countries also have dangerous road conditions and poor vehicle maintenance may help to explain this tradition, but the tradition could not exist without a shared belief in the importance of publicly expressed faith.

As in most African cities, Pentecostal churches are springing up all around Johannesburg, some with colourful names like “Fountains of Fire.” Many of these churches make impressive claims about their pastors’ healing powers and the wealth that accrues, by divine dispensation, to the church’s membership. African society’s easy tolerance, pervasive poverty, and lack of skepticism have made the continent a fertile ground for religious entrepreneurs who promise big returns on investments of faith (and tithing). Such entrepreneurs are also helped by the fact that in Africa, as in much of the developing world, in-your-face religion isn’t considered weird or impolite. It’s normal. Indeed, for those trying to attract converts or motivate the faithful in the din of central Dar es Salaam, the louder and brighter the better.

Published in the 2011-02-11 issue: 

Chris Chatteris, SJ, works for the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa (www.jesuitinstitute.org.za).

Also by this author
Report from South Africa

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books