The Religious Conversion Process among the Sidama of North-East Africa

Article excerpt


This article analyses the conversion process and the experiences of the Sidama, in being proselytised by Protestant missionaries in an attempt to integrate them into the modernising Ethiopian state. The conversion process is considered in terms of reasons for accepting or rejecting the new religion. A minority of Sidama are shown to have changed from old beliefs and practices, partly because of the ease of moral reinterpretation and secular incentives, but primarily because of dissatisfaction with reciprocal exchange relations with indigenous spirits and a desire to transcend the finality of death. In advancing this proposition it rejects the possibility of Sidama beliefs as constituting a closed system of cosmology. Though Islam is also present in the region, for political and economic reasons it has been less attractive to prospective converts than Christianity.

In the 1960s and 1970s it was possible to observe the beginnings of religious change among the Sidama in North-eastern Africa. (1) I propose to examine the conversion process among a minority of Sidama to Protestant Christianity. I begin by analysing the way in which their experience relates to Horton's theory of 'closed systems' of cosmology and how their conversion has been similar to and different from what has happened in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It will then be appropriate to consider proselytisation and the reasons for and against accepting Christianity, the basis of the challenge to the parochial order of kinship continuity, community commitment versus individualism, and the reasons for lack of complete religious schism among the Sidama. I then introduce a brief comparison of similarities to and differences from the Christian conversion process, with an analysis of why the neighbouring Oromo-speaking peoples have tended to adopt Islam rather than Christianity.

Horton has suggested that African cosmologies are partially 'closed systems' in the sense that they have not historically been open to competing explanatory paradigms (1982: 2B). It is not so much that there is a lack of a 'multiplicity of agencies', but that alternative choices can be made only within a 'single theoretical framework'. In this article I wish to examine the conditions under which dissatisfaction with the premises of the indigenous religious beliefs makes some individuals open to alternative explanations provided by Protestant Christianity. Given the exclusionary aspect of Christianity, I want to suggest that syncretism between the two systems of religious beliefs becomes virtually impossible. On the other hand, I agree with Horton that the 'missionaries of the world religions' bring new ideas about Western materialism, but for those who find customary beliefs unsatisfactory they also bring an alternative cosmological paradigm. It has been possible to reinterpret parts of Sidama secular life to fit 'modern Western mechanistic materialism' for all Sidama. It is, however, virtually impossible to syncretise indigenous religious symbols and rituals for those who become converts to Protestant Christianity. But, as I shall demonstrate, religious syncretism is apparent for the even smaller number who have embraced Islam.

Unlike Sidamoland, where Protestant Christian conversion has been piecemeal, involving the commitment of individuals, there was mass conversion among the Ijebu (Nigeria) and Buganda (Uganda) in the late nineteenth century. Peel says this was due to a form of proselytisation that either did not threaten old beliefs, or occurred in a context where the latter had become irrelevant (1974:112, 117, 124-5, 127). Ijebu were representative of the marginalising of the indigenous religion when young men, considered peripheral by the elders who controlled spiritual access, became seriously involved in trade and the British colonial system. Colonialism was drastically changing Ijebu culture. …