How the European God took disaster to Africa

The church of the Restoration of the Ten Commandments it is called, a consecrated building surrounded by banana farms, heads of cattle and schools for infants. It sits in the fertile savannahs of Uganda.

The pastor-in-chief experienced a visitation from God, who informed him that in the year 2000 the world would come to an end. He could have kept this to himself, but he chose to tell his flock. As a result, 500 of his 4,000 followers joined him in the church and immolated themselves and their children in balls of fire.

These evangelists exist on a large scale throughout Africa, alongside the orthodox religions, particularly the proselytisers from the Vatican. The Bible was at the heart of the colonial mission and it was the principal source of education in Africa. Almost all of the anti-colonial leadership was educated by missionaries from Europe.

Tribal Africa lived uneasily with the missionaries. Africa accepted European religion and its educational benefits without yielding too many souls. The tribal system, with all its values, remained largely intact. Now, modern evangelism has pierced Africa in its heart, disrupting a way of life established over centuries. Since independence, it has captured the minds of the peasantry deep in the African bush as well as the city dwellers.

Africans today are required to imbibe the most simplistic versions of religious thought. In a recent Channel 4 documentary, filmed at Lagos airport, a young counter clerk had ambitions to be an air hostess. She joined a church of hundreds of thousands of happy, clapping Nigerians in order to achieve her ambition. She was required to pay one-third of her meagre wages to the pastor who had convinced her that this was a condition of the miracle which would take her from clerk to air hostess. She was filmed in church virtually in a trance, seduced by this desire to lift herself out of poverty. Tribal Africa had to be discarded because, under its system of values, it failed to exalt the meek.

Orthodox missionaries are no different. "Join me and you prosper", so the saying goes. And the competition for souls is immense; every godhead has its own advertising billboard and everyone from Il Papa to Billy Graham is engaged in the hunt for souls.

Gullibility is not confined to Africa. Only a few days ago, I was travelling in a mini-cab on my way to west London. Two or three minutes into the journey, the driver pressed in a tape and the religious music crooned out of the speakers. Then came the spiel. God the provider was the theme. Since the driver had attended a particular church and paid his dues, he had acquired a Mercedes Benz. Soon, he added, he would own a whole fleet of escort cars and become a millionaire.

But it is in Africa that we find the grimmest consequences. As the continent is plunged deeper and deeper into crisis - economic, social and spiritual - the need for alternatives to the old systems and values will intensify. In Uganda, where this recent tragedy took place, the Aids virus has brought death on a scale never experienced before in Africa. No wonder a pastor and his flock are at ease with mass suicide. The religion of the trance relieves the suffering brought about by drought, tribal conflict, disease and floods.

Every day, we are faced by the horrors of Africa: religious conflict in Nigeria, floods in Mozambique, a kind of madness in Zimbabwe, mass self-incineration in Uganda, Aids everywhere.

If, as the historian Mark Mazower has suggested, Europe was the dark continent for much of the 20th century, Africa deserves the title now. But what it does not need is the light of the European God, which disturbs the spirit, takes away what is native and puts in its place a potent mix of sin and punishment.