Christianity and Islam dominate spiritual life in East Africa, but there are also a sizeable number of adherents of traditional religions, as well as small communities of Hindus, Sikhs, and Jains.
Christians are in the majority in all East African countries: Rwanda (88.9% of the population), Burundi (86%), Uganda (84.4%), Kenya (83%), and Tanzania (officially 61.4% but many of these people still practice traditional religions). Ninety-nine percent of Zanzibar’s population is Muslim.
The first Christian missionaries reached East Africa in the mid-19th century. Since then the region has been the site of extensive missionary activity, and today most of the major denominations are represented, including both Catholics and Protestants. In many areas, mission stations have been the major, and in some cases, the only channels for health care and education, with missions still sometimes providing the only schools and medical facilities in remote areas.
In addition to the main denominations, there is also an increasing number of home-grown African sects, especially in Kenya. Factors that are often cited for their growth include cultural resurgence, an ongoing struggle against neocolonialism, and the alienation felt by many jobseekers who migrate to urban centers far from their homes.
Church services throughout East Africa are invariably very colorful and packed to overflowing. Even if you can’t understand the language, it’s worth going to listen to the unaccompanied choral singing, which East Africans do with such beauty and harmony.
In 1984 archaeologists discovered a mosque’s foundations in Lamu, Kenya, along with coins dating from AD 830, suggesting that Islam had a foothold on the East African coast as early as the 9th century, barely 100 years after the death of the Prophet Mohammed. It should be hardly surprising that Islam took hold so quickly in East Africa, given the region’s trading connections with southern Arabia.
Further evidence suggests an Islamic presence in Zanzibar from at least the 11th century, while the famous traveler Ibn Battuta found that by the early 14th century, Islam was the dominant religion all along the East African coast as far as South Africa. These days, Islam here in typical East African fashion has developed in a considerably less dogmatic form than in other parts of the world.
Most East African Muslims are Sunnis, with a small minority of Shiites, primarily among the Asian community. The most influential of the various Shiite sects represented are the Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan.
The natural and spiritual worlds are part of the same continuum in East Africa, and mountain peaks, lakes, forests, certain trees, and other natural features are viewed by many as dwellings of the supreme being or of the ancestors.
Most local traditional beliefs acknowledge the existence of a supreme deity. Many also hold that communication with this diety is possible through the intercession of the ancestors. The ancestors are thus accordingly honored and viewed as playing a strong role in protecting the tribe and family. Maintaining proper relations is essential for general well-being. However, among the Maasai, the Kikuyu, and several other tribes, there is no tradition of ancestor worship, with the supreme deity (known as Ngai and Enkai) the sole focus of devotion.
Traditional medicine in East Africa is closely intertwined with traditional religion, with practitioners using divining implements, prayers, chanting, and dance to facilitate communication with the spirit world.