Much of East Africa is a glorious safari tourist destination, including Kenya’s Masai Mara Park, Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Falls, and Tanzania’s Serengeti and Dar es Salaam. Other parts of East Africa are dangerous: Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and any region bordering these nations.
The climate ranges from refreshingly cool highlands to excessively hot and humid grasslands, scrub forest, and arid deserts. Highland farming is as famous for teas, coffees, trees, and crops, as the desert regions are infamous for drought, crop failures, and famine.
East Africa boasts a wide diversity of some 70 ethnicities among 300 million people. Only Somalia has a large majority people (85% Somali). The major cities are centers of 21st-century global development, especially in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Tanzania. The outlying regions remain traditional, rural, and agricultural or nomadic.
For millennia, Ethiopia has cherished its ancient history, Semitic culture, and autonomy. Coastal regions developed under Arabian and Indian influences centuries before the interior attracted Arab slave traders and their eventual rivals, the European colonists.
The region’s greatest struggle is bad governance, which exacerbates ethnic conflicts, unaffordable medical services, unemployment, and the tragic lack of food, shelter, and clothing for far too many. The inability to put food on the table – especially for their children – weighs heavily on parents.
Militant Muslims have recently destabilized large regions. Al-Shabab operates chiefly out of Somalia, and Sudanese troops out of Khartoum.
Somalia and Sudan are two of the most dysfunctional nations in Africa. Piracy off the Somalia coast is infamous, and Eritrea’s struggle with tyrants is so debilitating that it has become the poorest and most restricted nation in Africa. Aside from some remarkable urban growth, most of East Africa still struggles below the poverty line.
Over 750,000 Somalis are currently refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya alone, and there are 3 million more Somalians who have migrated to Kenya. There are 4.5 million Somalis in Ethiopia. Somalis hold great influence in the region.
Percentages vary widely: Muslims make up 11% in Kenya, 14% in Uganda, 34% in Ethiopia, 35% in Tanzania, 97% in Sudan, and 99.8% in Somalia. Though its growth is not as fast as claimed by its adherents, Muslims are increasingly occupying key government positions. They also are deeply invested in transportation and shipping industries.
The moderate Shafi school of Sharia law dominates in East Africa and is strongly applied in Somalia. Sudan follows the stricter Maliki Sharia law.
There are minority groups of non-Sunnis in capitals and in Zanzibar, off the Tanzanian coast: the Ibadi, and the Ismaili, and Twelver Shias.
Three forms of Islam have co-existed well for centuries: classical Islam (following Shafi Sharia law), Sufism, and Swahili folk Islamic practices.
The conservative Qadiriyya Sufi brotherhood and the North-African Shadhiliyya Sufi brotherhood have been dominant. Both were instrumental in spreading Islam widely following the European colonial occupation.
The Somali al-Shabab and other jihadists are in violent conflict with all three traditional Muslim streams and especially with Christianity. Sufism has almost been wiped out in Somalia.
Christianity makes up 40% of greater East Africa, yet large buildings and high attendance camouflage a superficiality caused by foreign ‘health, wealth, and prosperity’ teaching on TV and in megachurches. The most urgent need is for Biblical discipleship of the younger generation.
Christianity is growing – even secretly in Somalia – but so are trends towards westernization and individualization advocated by American televangelists. Expatriate missionary status varies from acceptance in Kenya to restrictions in Tanzania, South Sudan, and Ethiopia to a total ban in Sudan, Somalia, and Eritrea.
TV, radio, and internet evangelists are free to preach, and vibrant local churches evangelize in English as well as in trade and mother-tongue languages. Persecution of those coming to Christ out of Islam varies widely, ranging from violence in Somalia, to community rejection in Tanzania, to intense disapproval in Kenyan or Ethiopian cities.
Only the Sudanese and Somalian governments actively persecute converts. Several nations, seeking to promote tolerance and pluralism, forbid the volatile practice of religious census-taking.