Pope Francis’ recent speech in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been turning heads. Aware of the country’s struggles, the pope addressed head-on a core affliction in the DR Congo: economic exploitation by foreign corporations and governments: “It is a tragedy that these lands, and more generally the whole African continent, continue to endure various forms of exploitation. The poison of greed has smeared its diamonds with blood.” (NPR)
The pope further added: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa, it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.” (BBC News), his passion evident despite now being confined to a wheelchair. In a tweet shared by the account @Pontifex, the pope re-iterated his hope that Africa might become the protagonist of its own destiny, and that the continent and its countries need to be respected and listened to—to “find space and receive attention.” (Twitter)
A report by BBC News noted that the Pope was not technically addressing the damage done by Catholic colonizers, whose historical atrocities were given full-throated support by edicts from the Vatican. His undeniable sympathies toward liberation theology, which is popular among Catholics in the Global South, are sometimes mistaken for progressivism in a Western, and especially American political sense. What he was arguing for in his Kinshasa speech was the elevation of human dignity, ethical economics, and authentic identity over what could be called a pro-corporate rush for the country’s considerable natural resources. In doing so, the Pope not only raises the critical question of who benefits from the DR Congo’s inbound investments, but also what Christianity must offer the the people in order to be a meaningful force in their lives.
The theme of human dignity as a cornerstone of Pope Francis’ papacy is an integral part of not just his theology, but the identity of his ministry. As the news website NPR observed: “This [Africa] is where the church sees much of its future. Twenty per cent of the world’s 1.4 billion Catholics are here on the continent, and it’s the fastest-growing part of the Catholic Church. And as it grows, it’s going to have a greater sway on its identity.” (NPR)
With this region of the Catholic world being the largest and the fastest-growing, it is no surprise that the Pope wants to not only show his support for Africa, but to also express his affinity for the “different energy and sense of spirituality” (NPR) that characterizes African Catholicism, including mass, as opposed to traditional European Catholic sensibilities, much of it traditionally directed by Rome until some decades ago.
While the Buddhist footprint in Africa is very small compared with Catholicism, let alone Christianity, two Buddhist organizations also stress similar priorities as the Bishop of Rome. Ven. Hui Li of Amituofo Care Centre, which has centers for orphans in Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, and Namibia, is the Buddhist leader who has come closest to developing a philosophy of inculturation for Africans. As Amituofo Care Centre chief executive officer Jasmine Chu told BDG about her work:
Venerable Master Hui Li’s plan of “Spreading Dharma in Africa and Extending the wisdom of Buddhist teachings” comprises three steps.
The first is “Taking ten years to sharpen a sword,” which means “advancing to Africa to establish a stronghold.”
The second step is “Turning knives and swords into ploughs and hoes so as to take root deep in Africa.”
The third step is “Sustaining the Dharma path with commerce like cultivating virgin soil with the sword.”
This is his so-called “Spreading Dharma in Africa and extending the wisdom of Buddhist teachings.”Jasmine Chu
Ven. Hui Li’s first step recognizes that spreading the Dharma requires time and commitment to engaging with Africa on its own terms, even if it takes decades to forge and hone one’s understanding. The second step is for Buddhism to offer a clear solutions for the real problems faced by African societies. Ven. Hui Li identified war in violence-ridden countries as his top priority, and “turned swords to ploughshares” by giving lodging, schooling, and training for orphans. The third step brings an economic element to the orphans’ lives by facilitating their learning of trades and disciplines, as well as Mandarin Chinese so as to be able to engage with the large presence of Chinese business and entrepreneurial activity across Africa.
Ven. Hui Li’s strategy for spreading the Dharma in Africa goes hand in hand with not only alleviating war’s long-time scourge of orphaned children and severing the cycle of violence with the youngest generation, but also empowering them to be equal partners with outside influences, especially in business. This could be said to be a Buddhist approach to support Africans’ striving to be the protagonists of their own destinies, as the pope urged.
On a smaller scale, but equally important, Ven. Buddharakkhita of the Uganda Buddhist Centre in Entebbe has acknowledged that Buddhism can only find a foothold if local communities can see that Buddhist groups have their well-being in mind. Like the Pope, the Ugandan-born Theravada monk has been keen to portray Buddhism as a tradition authentically for African people, not simply as inherited or imposed. “I’m teaching Theravada Buddhism with African flavor to ensure people understand the Lord Buddha and don’t see it as something weird, foreign and Asian,” he told The Guardian newspaper in 2020.
Ven. Buddharakkhita’s Peace School, the first Buddhist primary school in the country, has sober and basic objectives that sit well with African needs: to shape children into conscientious citizens, free of charge, in an ethical learning environment. What is not forgotten is the deep roots African people feel toward their own culture and heritage—traditional African teachings such as ubuntu are incorporated alongside Buddhist teachings so that the latter is not simply an imported body of teachings, but one that Africans can actively find an affinity with and feel comfortable learning alongside traditional ideals.
As the Catholic Church renews its push to evangelize Africans, most forward-thinking religious groups recognize that success can only be sustained by foregrounding the African experience, to cultivate agency and empowerment amid poverty, war, and overseas economic exploitation. Buddhists might word this as the complementary dynamic of inner (individual) and outer (societal) peace, hence the emphasis on education generally and, for ACC, destroying war where it starts earliest: with the orphaned. While the Buddhist path diverges from that of the Catholic Church in Africa, what is not in question is that Africa is the protagonist. Its people are not “the missionized” like in the European colonial days, but rather, the decision-makers of what faith traditions have their long-term interests at heart.
Pope in DR Congo: ‘Hands off Africa’ says Pope Francis in Kinshasa speech (BBC News)
Pope Francis performs a high-wire act as he courts followers in Africa (NPR)
‘It’s not weird or foreign’: the Ugandan monk bringing Buddhism to Africa – photo essay (The Guardian)