One could say that in Nigeria , like in many African countries, what is modern is often equated with western education, a mode of dressing that goes along with it, and a consumption pattern that is taken to reflect that kind of education. One could add to this a certain way of doing things, of speaking (even if the language is a Nigerian language), of comporting oneself, and of relating to others. One way by which one could approach what is generally taken to be Western-style modernity in most African countries is by looking at Christianity. It is perhaps not exactly news that Christianization went hand in hand with Western colonization. In fact, one of the ways for justifying colonization was with reference to the civilization of the primitive natives of the colonies. While the colonial administrators were taking care of civilizing the economic, the social and the political, the missionaries were taking care of the souls of the poor natives.
For many people in the colonies, at that period, becoming economically strong was contingent upon learning the language and the methods of the colonialists (just to be clear, the people did not roll over and accept colonization). And learning the language and methods meant attending schools that were run by missionaries. Again, while they were learning modern subjects they were also being taught the importance of Christianity, and the love of the Christian God. This invariably set the stage for equating Christianity with modernity.
So, why have I gone this far back to examine the contact between peoples of the colonies and Christianity? Quite simple: the equation of modernity and Christianity continues till today, and it is often posed as if it were a natural union. That equation continues in the lack of much knowledge of the Yoruba cosmology, for instance, and in the description as traditional anything that does not belong to Christianity.
Even more importantly, it has resulted in the condemnation of anything that has the traces of African traditional religion as backward, dirty and something to be repudiated. I remember talking to a Nigerian university graduate student who believes that going to visit the grove of the Osun Oshogbo would not only anger God, but that it would also mean opening oneself up to the evil powers of the goddess. It would also be something dirty, from the past, traditional. Not to be touched by the modern. Again, the modern is the clean, something not to be touched by the dirt of traditional religious icons and practices. Do I still need to repeat that Christianity is seen as the modern?
But is Christianity really equal to modernity? It is very interesting for me, on another level, that in most parts of Europe , Christianity is what is seen as traditional. Just at about the same time that Christianity was taking roots in the colonies Europeans were abandoning their belief in religion and increasingly turning to what they described as a rationality that was steeped in something other than religion. Anytime I mention religion to my European friends it is almost immediately described as a tradition from which they have escaped. Little wonder that a visit to Bremen in Germany , or the Normandy region in France , is not complete without a visit to an old medieval cathedral. Churches are tourist attractions, and little more than that.
The point of this article is not to deride the belief of Africans in the Christian God, just as it is not a project in lending a support to that belief. It is to show a little of the different regimes and typologies of modernity that are present in different parts of the world.