Africa is a huge continent with a population of 1.28 billion people (estimated in 2018). It is enormously varied, culturally, racially, and in its kaleidoscope of religions both indigenous and introduced. 

There are various estimates of how many people follow the various religions. A survey of sub-Saharan Africa in 2010 found that 63% identified as Christians, 30% as Muslims and 3% as followers of traditional religions. The rest followed Eastern religions or did not identify with any at all.

However, the more likely truth is that most African people have beliefs grounded in traditional religions, or, at least, have some element of their lives which are touched by traditional religious beliefs.

Although it is difficult to generalize there are certain features of traditional belief in common all over Africa.

Spirit and Matter

Religion is a Way of Life: Religion is really the wrong word! African traditional religious beliefs are really more a way of life. The spiritual world is not segregated from the physical world the way it is in Western society. There is no emphasis on dogma or scripture or prescribed days for worship. Religion is a lifestyle in a similar fashion to the beliefs of the Australian Aboriginal peoples. Self-realization in the African belief arises through a web-work of relationships laid down by the divine and realized through everyday life to keep a harmony and normality. Rituals, music, and prayers are not really much to do with theology but more to do with sustaining balance and normality in everyday life and between the spirit and physical worlds.  There is always a dualism of opposing forces threatening this harmony which must be kept in balance.

Spirit and Matter: The Universe is composed of two aspects or realms – the physical and spiritual realms which are in constant interchange with one another and what happens in one realm can have an impact in the other. The invisible is a constant and real presence. All things are connected and have an impact on each other. Negative experiences are here to teach us that something is out of balance and we have to set it right through ritual, consultation with religious practitioners, and changes in our behaviour.

Supreme and Lesser Gods

There is a universal belief in a Supreme Being and a pyramid of forces emanating from this God. There are hierarchies of lesser Gods to whom the Supreme God delegates powers over various aspects of nature, sky, water etc.

The Supreme always remains in heaven and the lesser gods are the ones who interact with humanity and to these African traditionalists pray and sacrifice. If the High God comes too close to humanity it can cause a lot of problems for people.

This hierarchy of Gods is reflected in the human hierarchy of government. Each divinity has their own priest or priestess with their own rituals and practices. The deities are honoured through libation or sacrifice. The will of God is sought through consultation with oracular deities.

Cyclical Existence: Reincarnation

Everything created is never lost, it just changes its form. Living people stand between their ancestors of the past and unborn future generations.

This means that there is widespread belief in reincarnation in African religions. Belief in rebirth has been reported amongst peoples scattered the length and breadth of the mighty continent: Akamba (Kenya), Akan (Ghana), Lango (Uganda), Luo (Zambia), Ndebele (Zimbabwe), Sebei (Uganda), Yoruba (Nigeria), Shona (Zimbabwe), Nupe (Nigeria), Illa (Zambia), and many others.

There is, of course, a wide variation in understanding of the processes of rebirth: beliefs range from that in a “partial” reincarnation of an ancestor in one or several individuals strictly within the same family, to that in an endless cycle of rebirths linked to a notion of cleansing and refinement of the inner nature.

As there are endless shades of understanding, reincarnation is known by many names:

Amongst the Yorubas of Nigeria rebirth is referred to in various ways, including Yiya omo, translated as the “shooting forth of a branch” or “turning to be child,” and A-tun-wa, “another coming.”

The Aboh-speaking peoples of the Ibo family of nations in Nigeria speak of Inua u’we or “returning to life,” as they believe death is an end to one life only and a gateway to another; man must be reborn, for reincarnation is a spiritual necessity.

Reverence for Nature

In African tradition the entire universe is alive, every part is interconnected and this includes Humanity who must also help in maintaining the harmony of the universe and so as their ceremonies follow the seasons the Africans pray for the renewal and well-being of all life forms.

It is thus not surprising that Nature is considered to be divine and worthy of veneration across the continent and African communities spread across many parts of the world. 

The Earth itself is a prominent Deity and imaged as female corresponding to the function of creating life (children) and providing for their needs (breastfeeding). Amongst the Akans (Ghana), she is revered as Asaase Yaa (Mother Earth), Ani for the Igbos (Nigeria) and Maa-ndoo (Wife of God) amongst the Mende of Sierra Leone.

Male and Female in Nature

Like the ancient European pre-Christian religion of Wicca (Witchcraft) Nature is configured as Male and Female in cooperation – ‘the ‘Lord and Lady’.

Amongst the Akans it is Nyankopon (Male) and Asaase Yaa (Female). For the Fon (Benin and Nigeria) Mawu-Lisa embodies the dual nature of the Supreme Being and is still retained in Haitian Voodoo in the Caribbean as the two serpents; Damballah-Wedo and his ‘wife’ Aida-Wedo.

The idea the dual nature of the creator recognizes that it is necessary to have the male and female for reproduction to occur. The masculine principle is usually held to be the unseen aspect of creation whereas the female is the visible aspect. This is why the spirit of the child is assigned to the father whilst the body is to the mother.

Veneration for Ancestors

Traditional societies such as the Australian aborigines and African communities across both continents have a strong sense of the importance of ancestors in their lives. This is because an ancestor is seen to be important not just because they lived a long time ago, are part of our family or community and then they died, but rather they are revered for their level of attainment as good human beings and subsequent example of behaviour they have left to their communities.

To be an ancestor and be remembered for it, is to be someone who lived a good life and who exhibited personality traits that warrant emulation. People would look at such a person and say that they lived an inspiring life, that they helped their communities and were caring people in every way that we should copy today.

So, what were the meritorious ancestral characteristics that should be followed even now centuries later? Australian Aboriginal and African culture alike stress that we should live life in the best manner we can. We should attempt to master and develop ourselves till we get to the point where we could be emulated by others as an example to be lived by.  In African traditional religion, ancestors are venerated as such exemplars rather than objects of prayer in themselves. This is often misunderstood by Westerners. Some examples from African traditional societies:

  • Nigeria: amongst the Yoruba people the concept of Iwa-pale, meaning a balance of good character in alignment with one’s own, Ori, or Divine Self. Be a better person and consider the best interests of others.
  • Ghana: the Akan people speak of Obra Pa, meaning, living a life of beneficence and developing a good character.
  • South Africa: the concept ofUbuntu,or ‘I am because we are’, that we are all part of humanity and we have a universal bond of sharing because of our shared consciousness. An authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world This puts the burden of responsibility on us to live up to the best of ourselves and to overlook differences between people to achieve the common goal of peaceful co-existence. This concept is found in most African societies called by different names.

Composite Nature of Man

Many African peoples have beliefs in the composite nature of man remarkably similar to the more familiar religious teachings of the East and Near East:

The ancient Egyptians held man to be a composite of nine parts ranging from the physical body khat to the habitation of the spiritual nature, the sahu.

The ancient Jewish teachings of the Qabbalah speak of man as a tenfold entity, and the esoteric traditions of India, which provide much of the terminology of modern theosophy, teach variously of four, five, or seven aspects or parts.

All of these traditions agree that it is only the deathless essence of man’s nature which continues eternally, while the more material “bodies” fall apart at death, when the life force is withdrawn.

The chart below compares the traditions of five African peoples with theosophical doctrines concerning the composite nature of man, remarkable parallels are immediately apparent.

All envisage a spiritual body (a life essence or “vital breath”) at one extreme, with gradations through heart-soul, mental body, or will, and life principle, to the “shadow” and physical body as the lower vehicles.

In all five examples the reincarnating entity is held to be the spiritual essence which abides in its own spheres of existence after death, and animates the more material “bodies” during earth life.

Divination

There are many forms of Divination across African communities world-wide but all with the same objectives: uncovering important information that has happened or is likely to happen and what supernatural forces are involved. Many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. Counsellors/diviners charge money for their services and for their knowledge of herbal medicines.

The range of divinatory methods varies:

Zulus (South Africa): use bones and stones thrown down and interpreted.

Dogon (Mali, West Africa): use markings in sand said to be in alignment with cosmic bodies.

Akans (Ghana): use a process of staring into water or mirrors.

Yoruba Ifa system (Nigeria): there is a wooden board (Opon Ifa) on which is placed wood shavings from a termites mound on which markings are made after each throw of a necklace that forms an ‘Odu’ or story of what has happened.

A trained shaman has to undergo years of training. Amongst the Ifa people, Diviners (Babalawos) a minimum of 30-40 years to be considered adept at this craft!

Forms of Veneration: Shrines and Altars

Shrines: are everywhere in African villages serving the needs of the local community. It is officiated by a shaman and can include many objects with invoked forces that serve as guardians of the community. It is also a place, like a church where communities gather for rituals on behalf of the community.

Altars: are usually found in private homes with pictures of ancestors, cups for libations, and offerings to the spirits. It is the gateway to the spiritual world within the home where prayers are offered and messages received from the spirit world.

Sacrifices

Animal sacrifice: is a feature of African traditional belief. Sacrifices are used to resolve spiritual issues and it is the Life Force in these animals that is utilized in the appeasement and resolution of these matters. It is harnessed to activate the required outcome and must be done by the most highly trained shaman or certainly under their guidance.

Human sacrifice: has occurred in the past, eg amongst the Asantes (Ghana) to accompany the spirit of a deceased king. This practice has been stopped by all African governments. Some such sacrifices still occur amongst practitioners of black magic and are mentioned from time to time in the African press in many countries. The latest instances I know of being in Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi where politicians and rich businessmen seek advantage through magical practices involving human sacrifice of children.

Libation, Offerings, Singing and Dancing

Libation: a form of payer that involves pouring liquid, usually water or an alcoholic drink, on the ground accompanied by a speech. It is a symbolic action quenching the thirst of Spirit Beings’ to whom the drink is offered before asking a question of them.

Offerings: are symbolic gestures to provide nourishment to the Forces from whom we ask a favour or information. Offerings are left at crossroads, in nature, on an altar or shrine, even in coffins of the dead.

Singing: sound is used to open portals with the spirit world and call the spirit beings. Singing is accompanied by drumming, shakers, maracas or cow-bells.

Dancing: used for communication with the spirit world and is tailored to the requirements of contacting specific beings and forces. The dancer becomes the channel for the spirit to communicate to the community. Often there are specialists who stand by to translate what the dance movements mean as the dancer is in a trance. It is a feature of all African traditions including those overseas.

Drumming and Meditation

Drumming:  holds a sacred place in African tradition. Drums are viewed as animated beings endowed with vital force conveying the voice of God through the drummer. Used in healing and to communicate with the invisible worlds using the power of vibration. In every African village you will hear drumming in the evening. In some African societies drummers were trained for decades, eg Akan (Ghana) where they were trained for 40 years before being allowed to play publicly as playing the wrong rhythms was punishable with death in some ceremonies!

Meditation: is practised in many African traditional societies eg. Sitting for long periods in silence staring at a calabash full of water or at a flame. In South Africa the Zulu speak of the Umbilini energy which is like the Kundalini developed after long periods sitting in silence.

Rituals, Possession and Trance

Rituals: The means by which people communicate with the spiritual world when awake is through rituals so ritual is an essential feature of African life. Communal and family rituals celebrate important events like the harvest, weddings, etc. Individual rituals are geared towards acquiring what you want in life, love, money, job, etc… or to dispel negative forces, illness, etc.

Possession and Trance: a high value is placed on them compared to Europe where they are looked upon to be demonic, illness or mental illness.  Trance and Possession are very common and they reflect the view that transcendental forces are in a delicate balance more powerful than the average human forces to control and therefore we need to propitiate such forces. There are three types of possession: 1/ wild behaviour indicating possession by an unknown spirit 2/ stereotyped possession after training and possession by a known spirit usually an ancestor who is supportive of the community 3/ arbitrary selection of a medium for communications with spirits controlling the universe. The possession/trance is used for divination to find out who has caused illness or misfortune. Usually there are diviners who interpret the signs to understand events in peoples’ lives. Possession is a common and highly desirable condition in Voodoo, Candomble and other religions where African slaves founded new religions in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. Devotees are regularly possessed by their favourite deity when in trance induced by music, dancing, and ritual ceremonies.

Sorcery and Witchcraft

By far the most common manifestation of religious belief and activity in African communities is belief and activity in sorcery and the negative aspects of witchcraft. Terms such as ‘Juju’ and ‘Obeah’ describe the use of spiritual practice for negative purposes in every sphere of life, politics, economics and personal/family relations. People will commonly consult with religious specialists to initiate or protect themselves from psychic attack and there are many ceremonies for this purpose.

African Religions Outside Africa

Wherever African people have been enslaved or settled around the world they have carried their religious traditions with them. This is especially so in the Caribbean, North and South America where Africans were forced into slavery by Europeans and Arab slave traders from the 16th century onwards. Most slaves came from West Africa and were subject to Catholic missionary activity so the resultant belief systems of these regions are a mixture of Christianity and Yoruba traditional religion from West Africa where most slaves came from. These syncretic religions include:

  • Brazil: Camdomble, Umbanda, Quimbanda.
  • Cuba: Santeria.
  • Caribbean countries: Lucumi.
  • Haiti and New Orleans: Voodoo.

Haitian Voodoo (Vodou)

Let’s take the example of Voodoo which is the best known of the syncretistic religions of African people forced to conform to European life and religious beliefs in the Caribbean slave plantations. The religion developed largely from West African religion mixed with Catholicism. The major centres of Voodoo practice are in Haiti where the religion played a significant role in the war of independence (1791-1804), before spreading via immigration to Cuba and New Orleans. Voodoo was banned by the Haitian government in 1934 when it was categorized as sorcery in the penal code. It was legalized in 1987 when a new constitution came into force and in 2003 it was given equal status with Roman Catholicism which 80% of the people profess but in private probably 50% of the population follows Voodoo to a greater or lesser degree.

The central activity involves possession by a number of African deities called ‘Loas’ in Haiti. In ceremonies led by Houngan or Mambo (male and female priests). Each possessed individual (called a ‘mounted horse’) enacts highly specific ritual performance involving dance, song, and speech appropriate to the specific deity. The purpose of such ceremonies include healing, warding off evil, bringing good or evil fortune. Marriage to a deity provided devotees with an ongoing protective relationship as well as ritual responsibilities.

The Voodoo calendar of ceremonies is associated with various Christian saints. However, the Voodoo gods retain their African identities and have not taken on the characteristics of Christian saints. Christianity seems to have been largely used to mask the beliefs and activities of the African religion as it was dangerous to do otherwise in colonial times. Voodoo provides a powerful religious experience, its practice of animal sacrifice enables believers to relate to the powers of the cosmos as they see them and it has allowed an African identity to continue for formerly enslaved peoples carried against their will far from their original home in West Africa.

African Traditional Religion in the Modern World

In the past few centuries African traditional beliefs have been retreating before Christian and Islamic missionizing although there is plenty of evidence of a renewed interest in traditional belief systems in the 21st century, eg the activities of the Ancestral Voices website which promotes African traditional religious beliefs and pride in African heritage around the world. Their website is at: https://ancestralvoices.co.uk/

Also, an estimated 6,000 new religious movements have arisen in Africa in response to Western colonialism and cultural domination.  Many of these movements reflect the traditional African interest in proverbs and in the rhetorical arts, combining Western and African symbols together. Possession trance is often a feature of these movements.

In sum, traditional practices continue to thrive in African cities. Witchcraft beliefs often flourish in the threatening new world of urban change. Traditional methods of healing are maintained along with Western medicine. Spirit shrines, ancestor veneration, and mediums enhance business ventures, health, love, and personal persuasiveness. 

Most Africans will maintain that there is a mysterious dimension in life that is missed by Western people but is truly understood by traditional wisdom. As an old Zambian lady once told me when we were discussing African traditional religion: “You Wazungu (white people) think you know everything – but you really know nothing!’

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