African Religions, traditional indigenous (native) religions practiced on the African continent. A discussion of Africa’s traditional religions presents a number of problems. First, the languages of many African ethnic groups lack a term for religion in the Western sense, as an activity or entity separate from everyday life. Whereas Westerners conceive of religion as an independent system of beliefs or an organizational structure, in Africa religion is a complete way of life. Second, the term traditional is misleading, suggesting to the Western mind something ancient or unchanging. In reality, all religions change as they adapt to historical events and social circumstances, and African religious traditions encompass both continuity with the past and innovation.
Finally, the phrase “African traditional religions” risks implying uniformity among African cultures, whereas cultural diversity characterizes the continent. More than 40 modern nations, each with its own particular history, occupy the African continent south of the Sahara. Each nation encompasses numerous ethnic groups with different languages, customs, and beliefs, and African religions are as diverse as these ethnic groups. (North of the Sahara, Islam has long been the dominant religion.)
Nevertheless, certain features enable us to distinguish between East and West African religions. These features result from distinctive geographic conditions and long histories of trade and cultural contact within these regions. Along the coast of West Africa, where tropical forests boast extravagant vegetation, settlement is dense. For hundreds of years, agricultural communities in West Africa have supported urban-based civilizations with flourishing markets. Kings of Nigerian city-states became associated with divinities (gods and goddesses) and with the fertility of the land and the welfare of the people. In East Africa, by contrast, temperate grasslands spread from the base of snowcapped mountains and lend themselves to cattle herding. East Africans, who led a rural life, organized religions around the worship of sky divinities associated with their ancestral spirits.
Even though no body of beliefs and practices can characterize African religion as a whole, certain similarities in worldviews and ritual processes cross geographic and ethnic boundaries.
|A||Worldview and Divinity|
Generally speaking, African religions hold that there is one creator god, the maker of a dynamic universe. After setting the world in motion, this supreme being withdrew and remains remote from the concerns of daily human existence. As a result, people do not ordinarily offer sacrifices or organize a cult around this high god. Instead, they turn to secondary divinities who serve the supreme being as messengers or go-betweens. These secondary divinities are sometimes portrayed as children of the supreme god, but religious teachings also regard them as refractions of a divine being.
Finding no outward indications of the worship of a supreme being, early European travelers, missionaries, and explorers dismissed African religions as superstition, animism (attributing a soul to nonliving things, such as trees or rocks), or ancestor worship. However, African religions do recognize one supreme creator.
In East Africa, especially the regions around Lakes Malawi, Victoria, and Tanganyika, the supreme god Mulungu is always present but is sought only in prayer of last resort. People living in the valley of the Nile River also recognize a supreme being whom they address in prayers of petition (request) only after exhausting petitions to secondary divinities. In the tradition of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the almighty creator, Olorun, oversees a host of secondary divinities called orisha, with whom worshipers develop a close personal relationship. According to Yoruba tradition, 401 orisha line the road to heaven, and diviners (people with special insight) identify the personal orisha to which an individual should appeal for guidance, protection, and blessing. Nevertheless, an individual’s ultimate destiny is considered to have been fixed before birth by Olorun.
|B||Rituals Relating the Human and Divine|
African religions do not demand adherence to any single doctrine. Their focus is primarily practical: Religious rituals serve as strategies for reinforcing life, fertility, and power. The principal vision shared by African religions is that human beings must vigilantly maintain a harmonious relationship with the divine powers in order to prosper. African religions aim at harnessing these powers and channeling them for the good of the community, and ritual is the way to do so. Ritual helps ensure a community’s responsible relationship with ancestors who are guardians of the moral order, with spiritual forces within nature, and with the gods.
The worship of secondary divinities is evidenced by the many shrines and altars dedicated to them. Worshipers maintain contact and correct relations with these divinities through prayer, offerings and sacrifices, and other rituals. If people neglect ritual duties, it is expected that the divinity will call them to attention by causing illness or misfortune. Blood sacrifice—the offering of a sacrificial animal—is the most important ritual, expressing the reciprocal bond between divinity and devotee. Shrines and altars to the divinities are generally not imposing or even permanent structures.
The most dramatic and intimate contact between human being and divinity occurs in the ritual of trance, during which a divine spirit is believed to take possession of the worshiper. In most cases, rhythmic chanting, drumming, dance, and other techniques are used to facilitate an altered state of consciousness. Sometimes only the priest is susceptible to possession, but in other cases, as in the vodun religion of Benin, others also serve as receptacles. Under the direction of a specialist in the ritual, the possessing spirits enter participants, who submit to the spirits’ control. The presiding god engages the congregation in dialogue and delivers messages to devotees.
Contact with divinities is not always so direct and often calls for mediators between the human and divine realms. These intermediaries range from a simple servant at a family altar to prophets, sacred kings, and diviners (See also Divination).
Heads of lineages—long lines of important ancestors—commonly maintain ancestor cults and act on behalf of the community as priests, responsible for sacrifices offered to the spirits of sacred sites or ancestors. Among the Bambara people of Mali, the dugutigi, who serves as head of the village, also performs sacrifices before the first rains of the season or after the first harvest.
Beyond performing ritual operations on behalf of the community, certain priests are invested with powers that identify them more directly with the gods. For example, the Hogon, who officiates at rituals of the Dogon people of Mali, is also a sacred person. His saliva is believed to be the source of life-giving humidity, and if his foot should ever touch the ground, the land would dry up. Keeping his feet off the ground is one of a number of prohibitions to which priests with these special powers must submit.
Other powerful intermediaries between the human and sacred realms are sacred kings. Some derive their power from their association with the forces of nature. Because the king, or moronaba, of the Mossi people in Burkina Faso is linked with the sun, devotees believe that his feet would burn the ground if they touched it. Sacred kingship systems in Africa also help unify ethnic groups that have come together under the domination of a modern political state.
Diviners function as ritual specialists who have gained mastery of a technique for reading signs that communicate the will of the divinities. Typically, diviners are considered to share the power of insight usually reserved for spirits. Divination ritual is the centerpiece of African religions because it opens to all a channel of communication with the gods.
Other rituals mark transitions between the stages of life, such as puberty or death, which are coupled with a change in social status, such as child to adult, or member of the community to ancestor. Rites of passage are natural occasions for initiation, a process of socialization and education that enables the newcomer to assume the new social role. The progression of birth, growth, illness, death, and decay also shows that human existence shares in the fundamental dynamic of the universe: transformation.
African myths express values, identify moral standards, and embody profound philosophical reflections. In Africa, knowledge and culture have traditionally been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. The mythology of these oral cultures is embedded within their ritual practices. For example, a myth that recounts a sacrifice as the act that established order at the beginning of time can provide the model for a ritual sacrifice that aims at restoring social harmony.
|A||Creation and Life’s Purpose|
African mythology and ritual commonly depict the cosmos as an entity with human traits. The human body is thought to be modeled on the structure and dynamics of the larger cosmos, incorporating the same essential elements and forces that make up the universe.
Myths about the cosmos explain the origins of creation and offer insight into the nature of reality. They also address the place and purpose of human existence. According to the Dogon of Mali, the first being was a smith (metalworker) able to transform the elements of earth and fire into tools. When he fell to the earth from the heavens, his formless body was broken into joints, giving him permanent shape and definition. When the supreme being made human beings, he gave them joints as well. The elbow symbolizes the human capacity to work, to be fashioners of the world, like the divinities. The clavicle, or collarbone, is the most important bone in the male skeleton because it resembles a hoe, indicating God’s intention for human beings: to bring together the elements of creation through agricultural labor.
|B||Trickster and Culture Hero|
The trickster is a type of mythic character prevalent in African mythology. He introduces disorder and confusion into the original divine plan for the world, but in doing so paves the way for a new, more dynamic order.
The Yoruba divinity, Eshu, is such a trickster. He disturbs peace, intentionally disrupts harmony among friends, and sows confusion everywhere. Nevertheless, he is not the incarnation of evil, as is Satan who struggles against the will of God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, because the African trickster benefits both the divine order and humankind. He is the messenger of the gods who established divination so that human beings can know divine will. He opens the way for communication and clears obstacles, opening up new possibilities, and is revered as a transformer and healer.
African myths thus communicate an important paradox: The cosmos, grounded in a fundamental order given by God, is characterized by constant change and renewal.
Today Christianity is widespread in Africa, but until the beginning of the 19th century, efforts to establish the religion in Africa had little success. Numerous Christian missionary ventures had attempted to penetrate the coastal region, but they succeeded only after Europeans began to exploit commercial possibilities in Africa and build overseas empires. Islam was introduced to northern Africa in the 7th century and is now widely practiced there and in parts of East Africa.
During the 20th century new religious movements that fused indigenous religious traditions with Christian practices arose in Africa below the Sahara. These movements proliferated in the wake of colonial domination from the 1930s on, as the response of Africans to the loss of cultural, economic, and political control.
|A||Independent and Indigenous Churches|
By competing for membership and presenting rival doctrines, Catholic and Protestant churches fostered divisions in African communities and alienated many converts to Christianity. African converts found themselves further disappointed by the failure of the European churches to meet local needs. Largely in reaction against these churches, African leaders not associated with the European Christian missions founded independent or indigenous churches.
The churches that sprang up stimulated political action and played a significant role in Africa’s postcolonial struggle for independence. By the late 1990s, more than 15 percent of the total Christian population on the continent belonged to African Independent Churches.
|B||Prophetic and Messianic Movements|
Two types of religious movements were behind the independent churches: prophetic and messianic. Christian prophetic movements are organized around an individual who is believed to reveal a message from God—in great contrast to Africa’s traditional religious systems, which are more typically generated and sustained by the community. Prophets are seen as charged by God with the task of purifying the people and struggling against witchcraft. Public confessions, exorcisms (ridding people of evil spirits), and purifying baptisms are typically dominant features of the movements led by prophets. Like indigenous African religions, these movements are preoccupied with healing.
One such prophet-healer, William Wade Harris, founded an important independent church movement in West Africa in 1913 and 1914. While imprisoned for participation in a 1909 coup attempt in his native Liberia, Harris claimed that the angel Gabriel visited him. After his release he led a vigorous campaign in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire against what he perceived to be the worship of idols. The church Harris founded became one of the first of the African Independent Churches to receive state support. Churches that claim Harris as their founder are still active in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as the Belgian Congo), Simon Kimbangu, a religious instructor at a British mission, inaugurated a healing revival in 1921. Claiming that the voice of Christ called him as a prophet, Kimbangu drew thousands of converts. The Belgian colonial authorities who then governed the Congo viewed Kimbangu’s revival ministry as a threat and arrested him. His imprisonment and the subsequent Belgian attempts to suppress his movement only stirred the fervor of his followers. After the prophet’s death in 1951 the Kimbanguist church survived under the leadership of his son. When the Congo gained independence in 1960, the church became one of four religious bodies recognized by the government. With more than 4 million adherents, the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth Through the Prophet Simon Kimbangu was admitted to the World Council of Churches in 1969.
A number of new religious groups in Africa have been organized around a leader regarded as a messiah, or savior. Messianic churches are sustained by a message of hope for spiritual and political liberation. Such messianic vision promises a golden age of self-sufficiency. Isaiah Shembe, a self-proclaimed Zulu prophet, founded such a messianic church in South Africa in the early 1900s. In 1932 Johane Masowe, another self-declared prophet, preached among the Shona in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), imploring followers to resist cooperation with colonial authorities and institutions, including the church. Perceived as a political threat, he moved his Apostolic Church to South Africa but in 1960 the church was expelled from that country as well.
Movements described as neo-traditional, by contrast, retain elements of indigenous African beliefs and rituals within the context of Christian practice and teaching. These groups incorporate important aspects of African religious expression, such as the belief in the intervention of ancestral spirits. An example is the Bwiti cult originating with the Fang people of Gabon, which fuses traditional ancestral cults with Christian symbolism, theology, and prophetic leadership by a messiah. These new African churches have tried to sustain a sense of community and continuity within the context of changing rural life and burgeoning, multiethnic urban centers.
Some scholars interpret the new African religions as protest movements within the struggle for political self-determination and the establishment of independent nations. But the persistence and proliferation of indigenous religions suggests to others that these movements exemplify the characteristic openness in Africa to religious experimentation and renewal. The new religions revive traditional cultural and symbolic forms. Stressing unity across ethnic groups, they appear to enable Africans to accommodate the changing needs of their communities.