Muslims and Christians in West Africa

A surprise from Sierra Leone

It comes as a surprise to attend a big meeting of the Council Churches in Sierra Leone about health care and to find more Muslim than Christian leaders there.  The warmth of the relations between the two groups was palpable and the fact that the Christian Health Association represented Muslim health workers and hospitals in relations to the government was not considered worthy of comment.



One of the participants on learning that I had spent several years in the north of Nigeria expressed his incomprehension at the tension between Muslims and Christians in the north of Nigeria.  “I just don’t get it”, he said.  And the rest of the group heartily agreed that they couldn’t understand it either.  My attempts to explain didn’t really help.

What is it that makes Sierra Leone, with large Christian and Muslim communities, such an exemplary for inter-faith relations?  The size of the country might have something to do with it. Tiny Gambia has similarly warm relations; the Christians are in a small minority though Christian schools are very popular with Muslim parents.  In Sierra Leone, with a population of only a little over 5 million people, everyone seems to know everyone else and the first thing they will clock is not religious identity but which part of the country you come from.  But family life is still very strong and religion is not unimportant as a part of identity. National identity matters more.

This is partly the product of a dreadful civil war that lasted until 2002. Everyone has stories to tell of the terrible depredations of the youth militias and the suffering that brought the country to near total destitution.  It was religious leaders, Muslim and Christian, working through an inter-religious body that took the first steps at mediation between government and rebel armies, often showing great courage in travelling and risking encounters with unreliable forces.  This collaboration in the living hell of a civil war did much to bond Muslims and Christian to each other. It was British forces who finally brought the civil war to an end but not for want of their trying. The desire to rebuild the country was the next bond to be forged and it remains strong today.

One of the characteristics of Christian-Muslim relations in West Africa is that no-one has much time to talk about theology and sacred texts. The magnitude of the problems confronting their countries is too great.  It is a dialogue of life and action, “hands to hearts to heads”, working together, building and sustaining friendships and learning to respect each other.  We have a lot to learn from Sierra Leone in Europe.

Ian Linden

Leave a response: