Eastern Africa

09 Sep 2022

Eastern Africa is an interesting region for Westerners, particularly Americans, to consider. We might think of the region as home to the Horn, including Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and other ‘hot spots’ for Islamic fundamentalism—as well as the incredible droughts and the Ethiopia-Tigray war. But if we think of Eastern Africa as dominated by Islam, we miss the real picture.

North America is substantially larger than East Africa in total area: North America is 2.64x107 km2 while East Africa is 0.637x107. The populations in the region, however, are close to the same, albeit changing. In 2000, East Africa (255.6 million) was less populous than North America (314.9). Now, this has shifted. By 2025, the latest UN population model estimates project East Africa will have 447.6 million people, while North America will have 388 million.

The history of these two regions is different. North America’s history is generally shorter than East Africa’s, which stretches back for thousands of years. Eastern Africa is obviously poorer, with a GNP of about $950 per person. But religiously, there are interesting parallels. East Africa has a rich Christian stretching all the way back to the apostles and the first century church. Looking with a modern lens, it’s not even predominantly Muslim now. There were 5 million Christians in the region in 1910 (11% of population). That number grew to 214 million (65%) Christians in 2010.

This means the Christian/non-Christian distribution of East Africa is actually closer to that of North America than many people might instinctively think. (There are about 72 million Muslims in East Africa, which is one order of magnitude off from North America’s 5 million—East Africa’s Muslims make up about 22% of the population, whereas America’s make up about 2%.)

It makes sense to look at East Africa as a region not dissimilar to North America—majority Christian, with a rich heritage, a vast array of disciple-making resources. The difference is that, instead of groups of non-religious people, East Africa has groups of Muslims. It’s not particularly surprising that, given the huge numbers of Christians in the area, there are many apostolically gifted evangelists, teachers, and church leaders who are “near-culture” to the unreached peoples in the region and can organize large efforts to penetrate those groups.

This means we really shouldn’t be thinking of “missions to East Africa” using lenses from the 1800s and early 1900s. Instead, we should always be thinking of how we can build relationships and serve our Christian brothers and sisters as they seek to bring the Gospel to the last gaps nearby. The story of the spread of the Gospel to the last gaps in Eastern Africa is not a story to be written by Western missionaries, but rather by East African believers–possibly with some footnotes acknowledging the service of kind people from distant lands.