Why is it that Africa – a continent of bloody conflicts, forced migration, rampant health problems, and profound poverty where as many as 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger – contains some of the most exuberantly religious people on earth? How do Africans find so much hope amid the hopelessness?
Unlike Europe and much of the Western world, where church membership seems to be on a constant decline, Africa is a kind of religious Klondike, where mainstream Christian churches, evangelical churches, and Muslim faiths all appear to be growing with no end in sight. The Catholic Church alone has 185 million members in Africa – 20 percent of the continent's population. In countries, like Angola, with a Catholic colonial past, Catholics make up 60 percent of the population.
"Africa has so little, but it has a strong spiritual sense that is often lacking in the Northern Hemisphere," says the Rev. Rodney Moss, head of the school of theology at St. Augustine College, South Africa's only Catholic university. "Those who have the least often are those who realize the deeper need for the grace of God."
It's hard to imagine a time of greater need than right now in Africa. The global economic slowdown means richer nations have less demand for the natural resources – from oil and uranium to copper and gold – that Africa has to sell. The credit crunch has also slowed aid dollars. Add to that the continued spread of HIV/AIDS, ongoing conflict in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a self-destructive government in Zimbabwe, and Africa's needs might seem unfathomable.
Yet African clerics say there is a hidden strength in that misery. "There is a certain way of evaluating the material worth of things, that it has not conveyed everything of what it means to be happy," says Father Pius Rutechura, chair of the Nairobi-based Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa. When the pope comes to Africa, he will see a real mixture of hope, a church that is vibrant, that celebrates life, but also he will see the challenges many Africans face, and a people who have more questions than answers about their lives."
Starting on Tuesday, in the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde, Pope Benedict (known as Benoit in French-speaking Africa) will meet with the country's leaders and conduct masses for the large Catholic population. He will also meet with leaders of Cameroon's large Muslim community.
Cameroon has avoided many of the sectarian conflicts that have cropped up repeatedly in Nigeria and Sudan, although the aggressiveness of Muslim and Christian missionaries, and the political use of religion by national leaders found in this country both contribute to violence throughout Africa.
After Cameroon, the pope will go to Angola – site of the first African mission, where Portuguese priests began to convert people 500 years ago. Angola's newfound oil wealth is just beginning to help the country rebuild after a 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002.
In a speech Sunday, Pope Benedict said he would avoid politics, but would discuss with political leaders the crippling effects of corruption. He also promised to appeal to donor nations not to neglect Africa.
"I entrust to the heavenly intercession of this great saint the upcoming pilgrimage and the populations of Africa as a whole, with the challenges that mark them and the hopes that animate them," the pope said.
"In particular, I think of the victims of hunger, of disease, of injustice, of fratricidal conflicts, and of every form of violence that continues to afflict adults and children, without sparing missionaries, priests ... and volunteers," he said.
By choosing Cameroon and Angola, the pope has underlined the church's strength in non-English-speaking Africa. Some aid workers say the church flexes its power in French-speaking Africa almost as if it were the state itself.
"If you [mess around] with the Catholic Church, they will break you," says Christine Karumba, country director for the Democratic Republic of Congo for Women for Women International, a women's rights organization based in Washington. "If they like you, they'll fight for you."
Family planning is a big initiative for the group, and condom distribution was one of its programs, which the church vehemently opposes. The church made it very hard for her to carry out other programs, because of its opposition to that issue, she says, so she had to go into overdrive diplomatically to smooth things over.
A priest from the village of Kanyola says the Congolese people would be overjoyed if the pope came "because he's the top guy. The joy to see the father come to our home would be huge."
He said if he had a message for the pope, it would be: "We want you to lobby for peace and unity [in Congo] so the population can live without worry."
Africans will certainly expect the Church to come to Africa's aid, says Father Rutechura, noting that already it is one of the major donors in Africa. "People will have expectations and hope that the religion of Christianity will respond with the provision of social services that could make people better off. There is an issue of credibility here that we get value, not political short-term promises."
• Matthew Clark contributed from the Democratic Republic of Congo.