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Central Africa

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Central Africa

    The region of Africa that lies along the equator, drained by the vast Congo River system, is known as Central Africa. The region includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Gabon, and the island republic of Sao Tome and Principe that lies off the coast of Gabon. Angola, Rwanda, and Burundi are also sometimes considered part of Central Africa.

    Profile of Central Africa.

    There are numerous ethnic groups in Central Africa. Pygmies live in forests throughout the area. Groups in Congo and Gabon include the Fang, the Teke, the Kongo, the Chokwe, and the Lunda. The Baya and the Banda occupy Central African Republic, and the Hutus and the Tutsis live in Burundi and Rwanda. The island republic of Sao Tome and Principe has a mixed population due to its history of slavery and ties to Angola and West Africa. Most languages spoken in Central Africa belong to the Bantu group.

    Although the population in Central Africa expanded greatly during the second half of the 1900s, most people live in rural areas clustered around kinship groups dominated by the head of the family. Polygyny, or the practice of having more than one wife, is common. Families live in houses built from plants and mud.

    Most rural groups worship ancestors and believe in a creator—a god associated with nature and natural occurrences. The influence of missionaries caused some Central Africans to turn to Christianity, although Christians make up less than 30 percent of the population in this region. Most Christians in Central Africa are Roman Catholic, with a smaller percentage practicing various Protestant faiths. Muslims are a small minority in the Central African states. For example, Muslims account for 15 percent of the population in the Central African Republic, 10 percent in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, and only 2 percent in the Republic of Congo. In Gabon, Muslims comprise less than 1 percent of the population.

    Many Central Africans, however, practice more than one faith. They may adhere to the beliefs of either Christianity or Islam, as well as to the beliefs of their tribal religion. Although Muslim and Christian groups have clashed on occasion, the tolerant aspects of most tribal religions ensure that interactions between groups generally remain peaceful.

    Islam in Central Africa.

    Islam first arrived in Central Africa in the 1800s, when Arab and East African traders introduced it to the region. Muslim slave hunters journeyed to Central African lands as they searched for captives for the Ottoman Empire. Traveling imams, healers, and teachers served as missionaries, spreading Islam throughout the continent.

    In 1908 Islam gained more followers in Central Africa when Muslims migrated in from Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan to escape European rule in those countries. In postcolonial Africa, Islam gained converts as people sought refuge from harsh conditions, such as famine or drought. The hardships experienced by many Africans resulted in a resurgence of faith and spirituality. Some embraced Islam as a way of resisting Western values spread by the growth of capitalism in the region.

    In the 1990s, the Muslim population in Rwanda underwent an especially rapid growth spurt. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which Hutu extremists slaughtered around 800,000 minority Tutsis, large numbers of Rwandans began to convert to Islam. By 2002 , Muslims comprised 14 percent of Rwanda's population—nearly double its pre-genocide numbers. Converts explained that they felt betrayed by Protestant and Catholic leaders, some of whom had supported the killing of the Tutsis. Although some Christians made efforts to protect the Tutsis, the betrayal by others drove the Tutsis to seek solace in another faith.

    Rwandan Muslims had traditionally lived apart from the rest of Rwandan society and had never taken part in the longstanding ethnic rivalry between the Hutu and Tutsi groups. The Muslim community in the capital city of Kigali was segregated in the Biryogo neighborhood, and people needed special permits to leave that area. Knowing that the Hutus would not invade their area, Muslims helped to hide and save families regardless of ethnicity or religion. They protected both neighbors and strangers. In the aftermath of the conflict both Tutsis and Hutus converted to Islam. Tutsis converted for protection and to honor the religion of their rescuers. Some Hutus also embraced Islam. For them, Islam offered symbolic purification for the crimes Hutus had committed.

    Both Hutu and Tutsi Muslims appreciate the lack of ethnic rivalry in the mosque and the concept that God considers all groups equal. The struggle to heal the differences between Hutus and Tutsis has been referred to as the new jihad, or spiritual struggle, of the Rwandan Muslim community. See also East Africa; North Africa; Slavery; Southern Africa; West Africa.

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