The Blog

On Faith and Secularism

Perhaps the poor do have more to gain from faith then the middle classes, and religion for all its good and bad will not give way to secularism in Africa.

*Zenobia Ismail [2013] is doing a PhD in Politics and International Studies with the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. Picture credit: 'Hands' by africa and

I recently accepted an invitation to visit a church in Kalinga Linga, one of the many shantytowns in Lusaka, known locally as compounds. The service was held in a dilapidated classroom where the floor was worn out and had big ruts, the furniture was small, old and not very comfortable and there was an uninspiring zinc roof with some bright florescent tubes attached to it. There were no musical instruments or equipment, but there was plenty of music from the human voice and an African choir can transform the voice like no other. The choice master conducted the range of male and female voices methodically, showing skill, depth and a superb understanding of harmony. The singers sung with a passion for God you can only find on this continent.

Zambia is a very religious country and in 1991 President Chiluba declared that the country was a Christian nation. Gay rights became a political football which rival political parties play to try and discredit each other in the eyes of the most important institution after the state, the Church.

People in Kalinga Linga face many hardships and being able to eat two meals a day is a luxury for many families, yet their faith is deep and unwavering. I have often wondered how those in precarious circumstances maintain their faith, but perhaps the answer lies in the deacon's opening statement. He said: "Let us thank God that we are alive and energetic." How strange that those struggling with survival should appreciate and honour the gift of life which those living in comfort take for granted so easily, as they yearn for what they do not have.


The deacon said that January is the month of thankfulness and I thought how hollow this might sound to a cynic reading about the terrible events in France. Secularism is the privilege of the comfortable while those languishing in the compounds or the banlieux cling to their faith for in faith there is hope and with no faith there is hopelessness.

In the compounds people identify with Jesus because he was poor, he suffered and he was redeemed. Perhaps they need to believe that there is more than this life and the harsh hand it has dealt them. Of course, many well off people are religious. Wealth does not insulate us from illness, accidents, crimes, loss and other vagaries of life or existential crisis. Likewise, there are poor people who have given up waiting for a God who does not heed their prayers. Life is too complex to conform to simple bivariate explanations.

Yet the multitude of faithful poor, downtrodden people in the world is still astounding. In Africa they look to Jesus or Mohamed to find the courage to face another day hustling in the markets, begging in the streets or doing what it takes to put food in mouths. In religion there is community and in community there is help when the load becomes unbearable. There is the discipline of the choir and the literacy of religious studies. And when confronted with the humiliations of poverty the churchgoers in the compound can reclaim some of their dignity.

Perhaps the poor do have more to gain from faith then the middle classes, and religion for all its good and bad will not give way to secularism in Africa.