An Overview of Eastern Africa

From twenty-eight million people in 1900 to 255 million today (and likely 450 million by 2025), Eastern Africa is the most densely-populated region on the continent. It is roughly the same as the United States and twice Western Europe. Children under the age of fifteen make up a third (100 million in all) of the population. Three-quarters reside in rural areas.

Eastern Africa has the second largest total farmland area and vast natural resources, yet droughts and food scarcity are still serious issues. Ethiopia currently faces a horrific famine. Much of this is due to war, grinding poverty and a lack of infrastructure.

The region’s recent history began in the first century after Christ, when the developing Axum Kingdom emerged as a world power to rival Rome and Asia. Supposedly led by the Solomnid Dynasty (with ties to Solomon and the Queen of Sheba), it ruled modern Ethiopia and Eritrea, most of Somalia and Sudan, and collected tribute from states across the Gulf, including Yemen. It traded with Arabia, India and China, and was a world market in ivory. In the third century, so the legend goes, a shipwrecked youth from Tyre was taken in by the king as a servant; he later converted the king to Christianity. And with the king came the kingdom. Whatever the truth of the story, the Axum Kingdom certainly did become Christian. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church was founded sometime around 332 AD.

Saddled with debt and riddled with corruption, the countries in Eastern Africa today are broken and impoverished, with half to three-quarters of their people living in poverty.

When Muslims came in the early seventh century, the Axum Kingdom—which was made up of Christians—sheltered some of the people. The Muslims did not attempt to overthrow the kingdom and it endured through the tenth century. It was succeeded by the Zagwe Dynasty, which was equally passionate about Christianity and constructed many churches and monasteries. In the thirteenth century, the Solomnids returned to power but were pressured by coastal Muslims and Oromo insurgents. The Europeans were new players on the scene and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came to dominate the region. The early 1900s saw ongoing battles of colonizers versus colonized, with the result being independence for the countries of East Africa by the mid-twentieth century. Unfortunately, this independence did not yield immediate peace and prosperity.

Saddled with debt and riddled with corruption, the countries in Eastern Africa today are broken and impoverished, with half to three-quarters of their people living in poverty. Many are subsistence farmers, dependent on crops whose value is set by the whims of the global market. Whole crops can be lost to drought or, more often, war. Yet even with this bleak picture, Eastern Africa is responsible for twelve percent of Africa’s Gross National Product (GNP).

Virtually every country has been wounded by many decades of conflict. Rwanda and Burundi have barely recovered from the horrific genocides of the 1990s. Comoros has endured more coups than any other nation. Djibouti has only barely kept out of war, and is now a base for Western forces seeking out terrorists; over half of its GNP is related to the French military. Ethiopia and Eritrea fought a costly border war in the late 1990s. Mozambique’s civil war only further impoverished it. Uganda’s civil war continues to this day. Worse, future wars are not impossible as many of the problems have not been solved. Refugees can be found everywhere; for example, refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia make up ten percent of the population in Djibouti. At the root of many of the conflicts are both ongoing tribal and religious wars which have yet to be resolved.

This political and economic instability is only worsened by rampant disease. Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe have terrible AIDS epidemics. Some nations have between a quarter and a third of all adults infected. Few will live beyond the age of forty, leaving hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. In addition, they face equally deadly killers like malaria, typhoid, yellow fever and hepatitis.

Christianity in Eastern Africa
Christianity’s early Ethiopian roots were extended by coastal missions in the seventeenth century and inland missions in the nineteenth century. Today the African Independent Churches cover the area and there are more evangelicals here than in all of Europe. Kenya is a key base for ministry. Still, tensions simmer between Muslims and Christians, and old beliefs still exist beneath a thin veneer of monotheism. Christianity’s share of the population is growing in eleven countries, and declining in seven. It is rapidly declining in four: Comoros (poor; dense population; solidly Muslim; no witness permitted), Djibouti (Muslim majority, but freedom to minister), Mauritius (half Muslim; work limited but possible; few workers) and Somalia (dangerous; severely limited). Some fifteen percent have no access to the gospel.

The Future in Eastern Africa
East Africa will continue to struggle with poverty, disease and war. Hope for a brighter future is dim. The hardest problems of conflict, corruption and contagious diseases are not likely to be solved even by 2010. Microenterprise and leadership and ethics training would all be valued. Water issues and ministry to refugees are particular areas to focus on. Despite these obstacles, this region’s substantial Christian base should be utilized, particularly to focus on ministry to Somalia and Comoros.

Statistics for the Eighteen Countries of Eastern Africa

Name P'00   P'25 C '00   %  C '25  %  75-00  00-25  Issues affecting the future
Burundi  6.5  14.0  5.9  92%  13.3  95%  ++  ++ AIDS, few resources, poverty, poor, ethnic war, refugees, no education
Comoros  0.7  1.2  0.0  1%  0.0  0%  ++  +- Poverty, government instability, growth of Islam, no education
Djibouti  0.7  1.1  0.0  2%  0.0  1%  +-  +- AIDS, water, unemployment, poverty, droughts, war, Islam
Eritrea  3.6  7.4  1.7  47%  3.6  49%  +-  ++ AIDS, strategic position, post-war rebuilding, poverty, water
Ethiopia  68.5  118.4  37.4  55%  69.7  59%  ++  ++ AIDS, poverty, post-war rebuilding, coffee, droughts, famine, wars
Kenya  30.7  55.0  24.4  79%  48.2  88%  ++  ++ AIDS, church, financial hub, corruption, ethnic war, drought, poverty
Madagascar  16.2  29.4  8.2  50%  15.6  53%  ++  ++ Poverty, growth, AIDS, refugees, droughts, deforestation
Malawi  11.5  19.7  8.8  76%  15.8  80%  ++  ++ Development, tobacco, debt relief, corruption, drought, AIDS
Mauritius  1.2  1.4  0.4  33%  0.5  34%  +-  ++ Economic growth, diversification, low poverty, sugarcane, business
Mozambique  17.9  27.6  6.9  39%  11.1  40%  ++  ++ Post-civil war, absolute poverty, AIDS, debt reduction, droughts
Reunion  0.7  1.0  0.6  88%  0.8  85%  +-  +- Cyclones, rich/poor gap/tensions, rioting, sugarcane
Rwanda  8.0  13.4  6.2  78%  10.8  81%  ++  ++ Severe poverty, mostly recovered from 1994, dense population, debt
Seychelles  0.1  0.1  0.1  97%  0.1  94%  +-  +- Tourism, short droughts, stable government, growing economy
Somalia  7.0  13.8  0.1  1%  0.1  1%  ++  +- Anarchy, semi-stable economy, poverty, Islam, persecution, famine
Tanzania  34.8  52.8  18.4  53%  29.5  56%  ++  ++ Severe poverty, agricultural economy, AIDS, droughts
Uganda  24.3  60.6  21.6  89%  55.8  92%  ++  ++ Many resources, AIDS, civil war, refugees, corruption, debt
Zambia  10.7  16.4  8.9  83%  14.4  88%  ++  ++ Severe poverty, horrific AIDS epidemic, drought, corruption
Zimbabwe  12.6  14.4  8.5  67%  10.8  75%  ++  ++ War recovery, horrific AIDS epidemic, drought, repression

P’00 – Population, AD 2000
P’25 – Population, AD2025
C’00 – Christianity, AD 2000 (followed by the percentage of the overall population)
C’25 – Christianity, AD2025 projection, World Christian Database (followed by percentage of overall population)
75-00 – Growth rate. The first (+/-) indicates whether Christianity is growing or declining; the second (+/-) indicates whether it is growing faster or slower than the population (thus whether Christianity’s influence is growing or declining). (+-) means Christianity is growing, but not as fast as the population, and so is declining as a share of the country.
00-25 – Growth rate projected for AD2000-2025
Issues – A brief encapsulation of the issues affecting the growth of Christianity in the nation

Justin Long manages and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].