RELIGION IN AFRICA AND THE DIASPORA
This page was created to foster understanding between diverse religious communities. Religious intolerance and bigotry are totally incompatible with a Pan-African future. And this generation will stamp it out.
All spiritual systems and beliefs practiced traditionally by Africans, whether native or mainstream, are organized religions. The rituals of Voodoo, Orisha, Serer, etc are all highly organized, and without exception function in a communal setting. They all have degrees of a priest class, ceremony, sacrifice, libation, religious holidays, creation stories, saints, divine systems of punishment and reward.
Religion is a fundamental, perhaps the most important, influence in the life of most Africans. — J. O. Awolalu
Nowhere in Africa is there a “spirituality” outside of a culture to contain it and govern its application to a community. And most have vehicles (symbols, arts, etc) for institutionalizing beliefs for posterity. The key difference is most native faiths are usually ethno-specific and generally lack a written tradition, and a prophet. (Awolalu) Like Judaism, are less into proselytizing compared to Islam and Christianity. Beyond this, even Indigenous belief systems share elements in common with each other (Baldick), as well as with the Abrahamic faiths and other indigenous belief systems around the world. The religious/spiritual fabric of Africa is a subjective discourse, and those looking to see ideological homology will discard difference in their political outlook.
The Eurocentric anthropological grouping titled “African Traditional Religion” is a misnomer, but some acknowledge this while still drawing arguments from it. It assumes a unitary portrait of the religions of African people, as well as denying that “world religions” can form “traditions” in African lives; especially when Islam and Christianity in Africa pre-date many modern ATRs. The more accurate label is Indigenous African Religions (IAR), to reflect the plurality within the continent’s religious landscape. (Olademo)/(Booth,1977)/(Mbiti,1969). And it must be overstated that this term is only a box for discussing the subject, not the name of a belief system.
One pervasive misconception is that native faiths are all polytheistic. Religions in Africa may behenotheistic (Uduk), nontheistic (Khoi Khoi), or monotheistic. For example the OvaHimba, like the Masai, are a monotheistic people who worship one god. And this error is ironic since the concept of monotheism had its genesis in Africa (see Akhenaten). In many belief systems there is still one creator with different energies that are revered are aspects of the divine force, which can be found in nature. It is not that different to what Muslims call the 99 names of Allah, which are attributes of the one God (in Arabic Allah).Another erroneous idea is that all Africans had/have one religion at some point in time. There is no “original” genetically related religion for an entire continent of people, which is static over 60,000 years of African history. What agent would create that sameness? Diffusion? But there is no evidence of this. Africa is home to more language and genetic diversity than any other continent, what is subjectively seen as “commonality” or a centralized structure of rituals and beliefs running the length and breadth of Africa can be argued, with equal vigor, to be existent in most folk religions across the entire globe. (Campbell)
There is no gene, which can create uniformity in belief and religions all over the world are invariable tied to lifestyle so as people move from nomadic to sedentary, from chiefdoms to city state, from hunters to agriculturist—religion evolved to suit. And if there is language variation in Africa, and deep cultural and genetic diversity what process would make an entire continent—at any junction—share one anything? Maybe 500 years ago until now, Africans share the same problems, but that is the limits of it. And we should remember for 1000’s of years most Africans did not know their neighbors beyond 1000km, especially prior to Bantu expansion.
Religion in Africa, as with everywhere else, has a profound relationship to culture, and more often than not, cultures are not destroyed by new faiths but modified to accommodate the tenants of the new religion. We see this in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The greater the cultural agency of the group, the more they Africanize the incoming faiths into their political-cultural domain.
The beauty of diversity is what is missing in one system, might be in another system; and we can all learn from each other, by knowing each other. But we have to start with tolerance and understanding
African spirituality is the essences of the divine connection African people (pan-African) have as a diverse group. It is just as varied from Ethiopia to South Africa, as it is varied from Sudan to outside Africa in India. There is no essentialist quality or genetic relationship that binds all African religions; no unique exclusive spiritual appreciation that holds “African spirituality” into one empirically definable block. The term “African” in the context used here, is the theater of study; with no suggestion of a monolith or exclusivity, bound by some phantom forces to the skin color of Africans, or the geography of Africa. That religious or spiritual experience is locked to culture, and culture is locked to identity, and where one varies— so to does the other.
It is not the name of your religion, or the name of the rituals that matter; but the name of your ethics; hospitality, tolerance, wisdom, compassion, temperance. Makes no difference what you call your faith if these things are missing–‘Alik Shahadah
African spirituality” is therefore the spirituality of African people, independent of the naming systems given to the cultures/rituals of those spiritual beliefs: it is not a denomination, African spirituality lives inside of Islam (e.g. Tijāniyyah), Judaism (e.g. Hebrew Israelite), Christianity (e.g. Tewahedo) as much as it does inside of Vodon, or Odinani. And Outside of the Abrahamic faiths, and faiths found in the African Diasporas, many African religions are inseparable from the ethnic identity and culture. So the religion of the Serer is historically part of Serer identity; the religion of the Masai is part of Maasai cultural identity.
Throughout African history, God, Creator, Chuckwi, Allah, Yahweh, Modimo, Mudzimu, etc, in various configuration has been a central aspect of identity. (2002 Pew survey) There is no concept of an African atheist in antiquity. There is also no concept of a “personal religion.” It is an oxymoron and removed from all African paradigms. It is Eurocentric to allow man to replace divinity as the highest authority. This sense of belief in God is a key aspect of African identity, and is contrasted from other continents, such as Asia, by the high function divinity plays in ordinary life.
While generalizations are difficult due to the diversity of African native religions, some do share some common features: a belief in a supreme deity above a host of lesser gods or semi-divine figures; a belief in the power and intercession of ancestral spirits; the idea of sacrifice or libation, to ensure divine protection and generosity; the need to undergo rites of passage to move from the different stages of life (childhood to adulthood, from life to death). Many African religions have a creation stories which speak of the framework for the self-identity of these communities in a universal context. The role of humanity is generally seen as a harmonizing relationship between nature and the supernatural forces.
Some of these elements are cultural traditions misidentified as religion. The Dagomba dance of the Zulu found its way into many of their Christian faiths, this is not syncretism, because it is culture– not an alternate to the Christian tenants. There has also been an overemphasis on syncretizing, which seems to paint Africa’s own orthodoxies as not pure; discounting that Africa can produce them. But when it comes to Europe syncretizing is just called Catholic Church. Indigenous faiths (globally) have always been part of the core ideology behind the Abrahamic faiths. I.e. Abrahamic faiths are the product of mixing with local “Middle Eastern” traditions with African traditions. (Black God, 1994)
After the Jews left Egypt (according to the Torah) they took with them the African systems to the Levant. Even in Islam the African “saint” Bilal referred to Islam as the “old religion” he knew in Africa. Per the same Qur’an God created man out of “black” mud, and a chapter (sura) in the Qur’an goes on to describe the African prophet Luqman as the wisest man to ever live. Parts of Africa, the Middle East, were in a constant state of influence and cross-fertilization.
Africans are a deeply spiritual people, that is perhaps the most unifying trait, so even when there is an academic debate spiritually is factored-in, and the spiritual component is not divorced from analysis. There is therefore no dichotomy in how the two worlds coexist: There is no natural competing objectives between science and spirituality. Beyond the titles people put on their faiths we must first understand religions are always a set of traditions (like wisdom) from old used as templates to instruct humanities moral direction: Its ultimate purpose is to keep people on track by preserving culture, ethos and ethics.
Islam is also a traditional African religion (Mbiti, Mazuri)  in many parts of North, East and West Africa, while not indigenous, but because of its long coexistence within the last 1434 years of African history, far older as a contained religion than much of the 11th and 15th century native religions that came with the Bantu expansion into Southern Africa and West Africa. And so would Christianity and Judaism in Ethiopia. Islam in Africa is diverse and made up of two processes; the Islamization of African people, and African people’s Africanization of Islam. Both forces create a diverse reading of Islam with its own plethora of “orthodoxies.” A discrete study of components of the various faiths of Africa (native and introduced) vs. the faiths of the broader world prove that there is not one single identifiable characteristic, or rituals exclusive to Africa.
Animism is not a religion, it is a way of describing a characteristic inside of a religion; or across religions. ‘Ancestor worship’ is also not a religion, it is a theological aspect of a religion; just like monotheism is not a religion. These categories exist due to A. a lazy Eurocentric anthropological tradition inherited by many African scholars, B. a lack of historical record, which gives way to guesswork and romance. Moreover in most ATR Ancestors are not “worshiped” they are venerated. This is the legacy of misunderstanding of Western anthropologist, which has created deeply erroneous notions based on subtle misunderstandings.
Another erroneously canard is the concept of organized religions, which was another way of Eurocentrism assigning primitive and savagery to so-called pagan religions. Yet despite its racist origins and purpose some African scholars actively embrace this canard. The minute you have a religion you also have organization; the two concepts are inseparable, and one creates the other: Organized rituals makes culture, organized spirituality makes religion. But this categorization has been found just another outcrop of demonizing “the other.” The argument Eurocentrism presents is that nothing in any African religion could be seen in the context of being sophisticated, organized, or with a structured process and a creed.
“Through the ages the African appears to have evolved no organized religious creed, and though some tribes appear to believe in a deity, the religious sense seldom rises above pantheistic animalism and seems more often to take the form of a vague dread of the supernatural” –Lord Frederick John Dealty Lugard, The Dual Mandate, pg.70 (1926)
Only by a paradigm shift can we begin a holistic discourse on native African religions. Traditionally the study by African scholars has been defensive, reactive and to focused on differentiating and explaining “Africa” by external criteria. The focuse was measuring African faiths against what they saw as foreign: definitions from negation, without any substance. Very little work has been done to compare native African faiths to the other folk religions across the globe. And as such comparisons have often been dictated by politics, desperation but very rarely dialectics.
RELIGION AND AFRICANS
Some scientist believe it was religion, and not agriculture, that gave rise to civilization. That centralized rituals gave rise to centralized societies, and then centralized political organizations and economies along with centralized identities. These centralized identities mean centralized values and laws over large groups of what would have been otherwise disparate peoples. The commonalities allow greater cooperation and collective objectives.
A lot of debate centers around the role of religion (especially Christianity) in the making of the New World Slave, this debate often neglects the other side of the story; a more spiritual dimension. Religion kept the sanity of African people through the worse days of slavery, apartheid and colonialism. We cannot in any serious debate flush this factor down the drain. Entire struggles have unified people in the Americas due to religious alliance Nation of Islam being one as well as many notable African American abolitionist and resistance fighters. All keep alive by their religious beliefs. In the last 200 years a war took place against slavery in Bahia Brazil. In Somalia and Sudan wars against Colonialism went on under the banner of “jihad“, and in Algeria the same is true. It was a religious cohesion in Ethiopia that allowed Menelik to amass an Army at Adwa and crush the Italians. It was that same “religious identity” that Ezna used to create the might Abyssinian Empire. It was the Islamic character of West Africa, under legends like Malik Sy, and the campaigns of Nasir ul-Din’s (Tubenan movement) anti-slavery and Western imposition galvanized Africans in the region in the late 17th century. In all African faiths, Vodon etc, religion was the foundation of identity and resistance.
Long before any imperialistic designs in the form of Arab slavery or the European run Atlantic system, Africans had ancient trade relationships, and via these conduits, ideologies, names, religion, cultures were exchanged across ethnic lines, differing polities, and geographical barriers. This relationship is evident in Ancient Egypt and its relationship with not only Nubia but also Greece. However, much of that historical record is lost so the details of what is really native and what is introduced is forgotten. In any event, “purist history” is not history, but politics. Nuanced history rejects binary history, which is a product of Eurocentric orientalism. All the research now shows that Africans as a diverse group formed complex alliances (friends and foes) for a multifaceted set of reasons.
These relationships did not follow modern binary black vs. white, or native vs. foreign. In Ethiopia Ezana used Christian to create the great united Ethiopian Empire Abyssinia. In West Africa (Western Sudan) legends like Askia and Sunni Ber used Islam to unite large areas of Africa to produce the largest empire in African history. Other ethnic and ideological interest formed polities along their own political interest, and sometimes these ideologies clashed, sometimes they did not. Those polities with the greatest mechanisms of unity became dominant. In Ethiopia Christianity gave an advantage, In the rest of Africa Islam gave advantage because it was non-ethnocentric (one reason) and had a sophisticated political creed. Both Christians and Muslims also had the advantage of greater political partnerships with non-African states bearing those faiths: Africa – Arabia (Swahili, and Somalia) and Ethiopia – Christian Europe and Middle East (including Judaism in Israel modern and ancient).
Both Christianity and Islam modulated the customs and cultures of the places they reached. And for every step Islamization made, a powerful Africanizing force also took place. Cultures merged and where the spirits of the old ways joined with Islamic precepts new spiritual theologies emerged (spirit of Bori and Zar transfered over to the concept of Jinns in Islam). There is this notion that what my ancestors did make something valid and desirable. Ancestors of some Congo people (Mobangi )were Cannibals, in Southern Sudan there was a practice of killing the king when the rains failed. Muti culture in Southern Africa has also created a lot of negative social ills. (while some of them are contemporary). This is not to justify missionary work, which often used occurrence of cannibalism to demonize African people. (despite cannibalism being very rare in Africa). The aim is to remind people that not everything in someone’s culture is valid just because it has a history.
The question is why with such an abundance of information on the old world do we still get regressive debates around “White man’s and Arab religion”, which have not moved on since the late 70’s. It is due to lack of a true Pan-African understanding of our world. We see our history as what happened after the slave ships left West Africa. What about Mali, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt? So the logic of why do Africans embrace Islam and Christianity is far more complex than “religions of oppressors.” Especially when 95% of the Atlantic slave system was conducted between non-Abrahamic Africans and Europeans. And a similar situation in East Africa. It was also ATR that traded with Muslim Africans, in the North, for the Trans-Saharan slave system.
A selection from different peoples
|Igbo||Chuikwu or Chukwu||Nigeria|
TODAY – COMPETITION
Things change, not only for Africa, but for the entire World. There was a time when Greek gods dominated Greece, and Chinese native religions dominated China. There was also a time that Arabic gods were everywhere in Arabia until they were replaced with Islam in the 7th century, which was perceived as alien to Arab culture by many Arab tribes. The dominance of Persian religions like Zoroastrianism, the “pagan” religions of the Celtic people of England, all are long diminished: This is the way of the world.
But you will find what was different in many places was the agency. so in China the coming of Buddhism was met with Chinese making Buddha Chinese, the coming of Christianity to the Roman Empire was met with the Catholic Church. Same happened in Ethiopia/Sudan and West Africa, it did not happen much in the rest of Africa.
Due to degrees of syncretism it is hard to estimate how many people adhere to ATRs but estimates range around 70 million, or 10% of Africa. Today, native faiths are in direct competition with both Islam and Christianity for adherents–as well as with each other. It is a tug of war, which is seeing a decline in native beliefs. The advantage both Islam and Christianity has goes beyond mere economic, proselytizing personality, physical or political strength. And due to “political correctness” many shy from discussing a discourse of ‘ highly organized religions vs. less organized religions.’ The greater degree of institutionalization, the better an ideology or culture has at retaining its shape in adverse conditions. It can be argued that this factor of lack of sophistication, was the reason these native faiths could not become successful in modernity. Islam by contrast has systems of governance, system of hygiene, systems of fiqh and a very high degree of complexity which sharply defined its cultural-religious identity. It also has knitted into its ideology a “divine” message to resist anything that tries to alter its personality. So the Hijab, the art, the halal symbols, the architecture all scream “This is Islam.”
Superstition and witchcraft still hold many of our people in a cycle of fear and wasted time and resources. It contributes to a huge waste of money and effort and abuse by the people who purport themselves to have the powers to help others to attain their wicked goals or the powers to fend off spiritual attacks by the wicked.–Boadi
It would be even more accurate to say ignorance and misunderstanding are flaws of most religions. And what is often neglected is that within native systems there is an “internal” oppression. And it has remained hidden because of the paradigms of treating all native religions within the same block. Encroaching Bantu in West Africa and beyond were antagonistic to the gods of the Aka or the Mbuti, seeing the people and their spirituality as inferior.There has also been an Anti-ATR sentiment inside of Islam and Christianity. In the case of Islam it has become more profound in recent years with the influence of Saudi Wahaabism (a modern radical Arabized Islam). Historically, Islam and ATR lived side by side with great tolerance and accommodation. Asante locates this tolerance as due to the commonalities Islam and ATR share. Fundamentalist intolerance in both Islam and Christianity has led to the practice of demonizing elements of ATRs in Africa. The taboo of “paganism” has caused much persecution, and dismissal of valid aspects of African culture. More so because of the cultural imposition from Europe (in the case of Christianity) than the actual Christian religion.
Despite this impact from the Abrahamic faiths and demonization by colonial interest, and Muslim and Christian advocates, elements do survive in pockets in Africa; as the popular saying goes “Jesus in the morning, Vodon in the night.” Like Christianity, one problem compounding many native faiths is corruption, exploitation and commercialization. In Cuba Santeria, and so-called Muti in South Africa, have become a quick way to earn a buck. Superstition and witchcraft associated with many native faiths still hold many people in a cycle of fear and wasted time and resources. They have a destructive and counterproductive impact on the lives of million, despite the fact that these charms only have power if you believe they do. That is how they work, by channeling your own energy to work against you. So they trick your mind, and soul to embodying negative energy rather than they themselves transmitting negative energy or negative/positive consequences directly. Tourism has further trivialized many aspects of these rituals. (Shahadah – African culture)
AFRICAN FAITHS V. ISLAM AND CHRISTIANITY
If religion consist in deifying one character and crusading around the world to make him acceptable to all mankind, then the African has no religion. But if religion means doing, rather than talking then the African has a religion–Mbonu Ojike
Joseph Awolalu states that African native faiths are peculiar, and thus genetically grouped together with harmony and commonality into observable patterns:
[Native Faiths are] religion that is based mainly on oral transmission. It is not written on paper but in peoples’ hearts, minds, oral history, rituals, shrines and religious functions… has no founders or reformers like Gautama the Buddha, Asoka, Christ, or Muhammad. It is not the religion of one hero. It has no missionaries, or even the desire to propagate the religion, or to proselytise. — Joseph Awolalu
We could also add; most African religions recognized a variety of supernatural beings who expressed both good and bad virtues. And that religious practice focused on contact between this world and the other world, typically through augury, divination, prophecy, and spirit mediumship.
Reverence for nature features highly in these systems. This is a good statement to applaud, as well as critique, because it sums up succinctly the most critical connections between native African faiths. But it has a few vital flaws. The first one is what Awolalu is describing is not a connection between African faiths, but a connection between ideological beliefs of bands, tribes, and kingships. Versus the ideologies created by nations and empires. You will find equal connections in the native faiths of Arabia, India (Hinduism), China, Mesoamerica, New Guinean etc. (J Campbell, 1972) Also this type of argument suffers from the notion that Ancient Egypt is atypical of Africa, and maybe it is, but it is still part of native Africa. Akhenaten created a monotheistic religion called Atenism, long before Muhammad and Islam, Paul and Christianity. It must also be added for all the religion in KMT they did not even have a name for “religion.” While some will read into this, the Ancient Egyptians also did not have a word for administration–despite being masters of it. African religions and many religions saw no need to label what must have been obvious. Names become more relevant in a globalized space. (See African identity).
As for proselytizing, only Christianity and Islam actually do that, most world religions do so in subjective degrees. Since we see the spread of religions such as Vodon, Santeria, outside of one ethnic group, we can assume it did so by some degree of persuasion. Again the more politically centralized a society, the greater the chances for proselytizing.
As for religious heroes, again we see a generalization about African religions. In brief religion and culture are intertwined, so deeply separation is next to impossible. Many African religions have heroes who become divine, therefore the statement of “no heroes” is also not valid. The first Masai, the Isis and Osiris story, as well as Lamane Jegan Joof of the Serer people. Also Awolalu is forgetting history has a blind spot, it is possible that many started out with founders, but were that knowledge was lost because of oral tradition. It is therefore very likely that this “lack of heroes” is a by-product of oral tradition, rather than African identity. Just as the lack of a “Holy Book” is due to the lack of a proliferation of scripts.
Islam has sharia, which sees religion and governance and inseparable. But in IAR (ATR) this is also not an alien concept:
In traditional African society the sacred and the secular are inseparable. There is no compartmentalization of life. What religion forbids or condemns society also forbids and condemns, and similarly society approves those things which religion approves or and sanctions. An offence against God is an offence against man, and in like manner an offence against man is an offence against God, since man is a creature of God. Either offence is criminal–S.A. Adewale 
What we come away with is the trend in mainstream religions started in Ancient Egypt. It then became a formula for nation building beyond the boundaries of the tribal and chiefdom political formations. And the failure of any ideology to apply this universal format (not linked to Europe, Arabia, China, but to human beings) makes those ideologies seriously disadvantaged.
Odinani, the traditional religion/philosophy of the Igbo people of Nigeria, is a theocentric belief system with the Supreme Being, Chi ukwu or Chukwu “God of Creation” at it’s head. In Igbo language God may also be called Chineke “God who Creates” or “God and the Creator” (expressing a dual deity), depending on perspective.
Though Chukwu/Chineke has no known physical form, it is believed to indirectly impact the affairs of the human world. Chineke/Chukwu manifests to our world in many forms but it is anchored in the sanctity of the Earth Deity (Mother Earth) called Ani or Ala (land), which is the physical manifestation of Ani. In fact, Odinani means literally, “It is anchored on the Earth Deity”. Therefore, the Igbo sacred sciences are socio-environmental as well as metaphysical.The Igbo believe that Chukwu/Chineke is the infinitely powerful, indefinable supreme deity, represented by the sun (the eye of light) from which all other aspects of our existence spring. Unlike God in Euro-Christianity, but similar to Islam and Judaism; Chineke/Chukwu is not humanized by the Igbo. Chukwu/Chineke is the creator of the world and everything good in it as well as the evil forces that intrude into our lives. It is believed that all of this has been done for definite reasons and to coexist in harmony and evolve.
Many similarities and familiar threads between ancient religion as well as more modern concepts can be found in Odinani. For instance, similar to the Orish in Yoruba, the Igbo divide the Cosmos into distinct constituents (4 in the case of the Igbo):
- Okike (Creation)
- Alusi (Supernatural Forces or Deities)
- Mmuo (Spirit)
- Uwa (World)
Each of these are further divided into lessor deities or controls, each responsible for a specific aspect of nature or abstract concept with their own special purpose, existing only as long as their purpose does. Examples include;
- Ifejioku or Ahiajoku (“the yam force”)
- Idemmiri (“the water force”)
- Okeofia or Agwu-Ofia (“the forest force)
Similar to the Egyptian Sun God, Ra, the Igbo acknowledge the manifestation of Chineke as the sun through Anyanwu (Anya means “eye” Anwu means “light”) who makes the rules and metaphysically represents the unity of the people and/or Amadioaha who enforces the rules and metaphysically represents the will of the people. The Chi, or godly guardian resembles the guardian angel in western Christianity and it is believed that no man can rise past the greatness of his or her own Chi. Chi is considered the lower force of Chukwu and the only means to get connected to it since “no one reaches Chukwu directly or gets favor directly from the Supreme Force except through Chi” this is similar to the Christian belief in Jesus’ saying that “no one comes to the Father, but through me” John 14:6. Also, like Eshu among the Yoruba, Satan in Christianity and Iblis in Islam, the Igbo also acknowledge a spiritual force which places itself opposite of Chukwu/Chineke called Ekwensu. Studies of old shrines by anthropologists suggest that Ekwensu may have been a “trickster God”. Other similarities include a fastidious adherence to “the golden rule” expressed in Igbo as “egbe bere ugo bere” (“let the eagle perch, let the hawk perch” or live and let live) and what appears to be a belief similar to karma in Buddahism and the law of reciprocity in ancient Egypt called ogu-na-ofo.
In Igbo religion, a stark contrast is drawn between Chukwu/Chineke (the Almighty God to whom we owe praise and thanks) and ndiichie (ancestor spirits), Alusi and other spiritual forces. The term ‘worship’ does not readily appear in Igbo divine wisdom and is in fact a colonial concept introduced by Euro-Christianity. Through kola nut communion, one is able to enter into communication with his/her destiny, personal providence, godly guardian or Chi to clear the road to Chukwu and create an increase in spiritual consciousness as you negotiate your spiritual journey. Though Igbo people believe that the will of Chukwu/Chineke cannot be manipulated in any way, the Igbo placate or negotiate (not worship) with the many divine spirits/deities of Chineke/Chukwu through clay alters and shrines of their deities believing that these forces can be manipulated in divination in order to yield good effects toward their Chi. The process of entering into pacts with these forces to take into their benevolence is called igommuo. This is also the process by which the Igbo maintain a special relationship with their ancestor spirits or ndiichie by offering sacrifices to please their souls and working hard for the good of the lineage. The desire to placate the Gods in some cases was taken too far by ancient Igbo. One instance which this can be observed is prior to the rise of Christianity in the late 19th century when twins and multiple births were seen as an abomination and were either killed instantly or by abandonment in the evil forest after which the mother was cleansed through purification rituals. This practice has long since died.
Fundamentally, Odinani is a culture, tradition and philosophy centered on peace, harmony, knowledge, wisdom, justice and oneness with creation and the creator. It teaches us about following the dictates of our personal divine order or Chi and doing the right thing. Failure to do so allows evil forces to take over our lives and we keep running in circles meeting bad spirits and even Ekwensu. But when we are at peace with our Chi, we are on our way to our destiny.
Similar to many traditional religious belief systems, the sacred sciences of Serer people called Fat Rog (“Path of God” or “Way of the Divine”) centers around one supreme deity, in Serer called Rog or Rog Sine. Rog is neither god nor goddess and is the embodiment of faith. Though Rog sees’ hears and knows everything, he does not interfere with the land of the living. Pangool (the spirit of the ancestors) as well as a multitude of lesser gods and goddesses act on behalf of Rog in the physical world, and are the intermediaries between the divine and the living world. Serer religion is polytheistic. There are multiple deities i.e. Tiurakh (god of wealth), Takhar (god of justice or vengeance), Kumba Njaay. Therefore any ordinary Serer must address their prayers to them in the same way some Christians go via Jesus or some Muslims in West Africa ask God via Saints. Using ancient poems, songs, ancient charts, astronomy, cosmology, initiation rites and practices, medicine and herbalism, as well as veneration and offerings to the gods, goddesses, saints and Pangool; Fat Rog helps its followers to gain a deeper understanding of life, death, space and time. It is through sacrificial offerings of sheep, goats, chicken, buffalo or crops to Pangool that a Serer orthodox acknowledges the sanctity of his life because of their intercession. These offerings are made at the base of trees such as the boabab (sacred tree), the sea Sine (sacred river) at home and in community shrines.
Saltigue are esoteric spiritual elders and custodians of indigenous knowledge who have the power and knowledge to organize their thoughts into one cohesive unit. This position as a soothsayer and healer is traditionally inherited at birth through paternal lineage and according to religious doctrine, these High Priests and Priestesses must be initiated. Rog is inaccessible except by Saltigue.
Roog Sene sees, knows and hears everything, but does not interfere in the day-to-day affairs of the living world. Instead, lesser gods and goddesses act as Roog’s assistants in the physical world. Individuals have the free will to either live a good and spiritually fulfilled life in accordance with Serer religious doctrines or waver from such doctrines by living an unsanctified lifestyle in the physical world. Those who live their lives contrary to the teachings will be rightfully in the afterlife.
Traditional followers of Serer faith are governed by a code of honor called Gorie. Similar to Abrahamic faiths, individuals have free will to live a good spiritual life in accordance with divine doctrine, or not; and will be properly rewarded or judged as appropriate in the afterlife. To live a life of purity on Earth enables Pangoola to be canonized at death as saints, to gain the power to intercede between the living and the divine and have the opportunity to reincarnate. This is considered the highest level of spirituality and is reserved only for those who led pure lives. Acceptance of a soul into the realm of the ancestors is similar to the Christian concept of heaven/paradise while rejected souls are condemned to wander lost similar to the Christian concept of hell/purgatory.
Serer people hold each other accountable for immoral actions and justice for breaking societal rules is adverse. This is can be observed in the case of adultery where the man and the woman are humiliated by the people in different ways. The husband of the adulterous wife can hang her lovers undergarments out on his house to show that the man has broken custom by committing adultery. In Serer society, the adulterous man is then sneered at, no family will want to marry into his family, and as the most hated man in society he can be ex-communicated. The woman, because they are held in high esteem and given respect, will not have her undergarments displayed. However, her relatives will unplait her hair from the special style in which it is worn as a status symbol and sign of honor only among married women. It is not uncommon for a man or woman to commit suicide rather than face the shame in their community because they could not bear it. Protection is given to the wronged spouse regardless of gender and he/she has the option to forgive the adulterers if she/he chooses. This is done by bringing the adulterers and their respective families to gather the compound of the king, chief or elder to seek forgiveness formally. Because societal rules were broken, the community is in attendance as well and it is up to the wronged spouse to forgive.
In the case of murder, the victims family again has a choice to forgive or seek vengeance. The murderer will wait at a local center or palace while an authority figure such as Chief or King along with the murderers family and the community looks on. An assassin nominated by the family and armed with a spear with a piece of cooked lamb or beef and taking instruction from the victim’s family runs toward the murderer who waits with his mouth open awaiting his judgment. If the assassin kills the murderer with his spear, that is vengeance and from that day forward the families are strangers to each other. If the assassin stops short and instead feeds the murderer with the meat from his spear, this signals forgiveness and the community and the two families will enjoy a meal prepared by the murderers family. The families are now sealed as one and may even marry their children to each other.
In Serer society, it is acceptable to court a bride, however the woman is to be held in high esteem and never dishonored. As in Islam and Christianity a woman’s virginity is sacred and she is not to engage in a physical relationship until after she is married. In the case where a man and woman are found engaged in sexual relations prior to marriage, they are both exiled in order to avoid bringing shame upon the families (similar to the African Hebrew Israelite custom). To express interest in a woman, a man gives gifts. Once the woman and her family agree, it becomes an implied contract and she should not accept the courtship or gifts of another man. Interestingly the great ancestor of rap music can be found in Tassu (also spelled Tassou) tradition which originated from the Serer people. This is when the people would sing and interweave religious verses by chanting with Tassu. The griots of Senegambia still use it for important ceremonies such as naming, and marriages as well as singing praises of their patrons.
Before humans existed, there were three stages in the creation of the Universe and each of these steps followed a consistent order. The first phase was the first three elements : air, earth and water. The myhical words of Roog (or Kooh) found in A nax, led to the formation of the heavens, earth and the sea. The second phase of the creation was the primordial trees (i.e. Somb, Nqaul, Nquƭ, etc.,). The third phase was the creation of the animal world : the jackal and “Mbocor” (which means : “The Mother”) – mother of all animals except the jackal. In each of these phases, and before the creation of the first human couple, the supreme deity did not directly create each species, but only the primogenitors who then went on to populate the world with all the species of plant and animal life.
There is no heaven or hell in the Serer religion, just like in Judaism. Acceptance by the ancestors who have the ability to intercede with the Divine is as close to heaven after one passes over. Rejection by the ancestors and becoming a lost and wondering soul is as close to hell in Serer Religion.
NUBIAN CREATION MYTHOLOGY
According to Kushite (Nubian) beliefs, before creation, the world was all covered with water. Then a mound of earth has risen out of the water. On top of this mound, Atum the first god on earth, was born. Atum then gave birth to Shu, the first man on earth, and Tefnut, the first woman goddess. Shu and Tefnu married and gave birth to Geb (the god of Earth) and Nut (god of the Skies).
Geb and Nut then were responsible for giving birth to the most important gods in Nubia, Osiris (god of the pharaohs) and Seth (god of devastation), and Isis (god of motherhood) and Nephthys (protector of the dead). Atum signified the concept of creation. Atum was also believed to have created the heavens and earth. He was portrayed as an old man and sometimes with a ram head in connection to Amon.
Re was the most publicly worshiped form of Atum, though the cult of Re emerged as a universal god. The symbol of Re is a sun disk, which is found to be pictured on chapels of pyramids as well as on temples.
THE SWAZI RELIGION
(By Jillian Nyakane)
The Creator, the Great Spirit, God Himself, is known as “The One Who Came First” – Mvelincanti. The One Who Came First pre- existed creation. He is so great and creation so insignificant that He cannot enter into it.
It has been suggested by some that religion and culture practised in Swaziland is a form of Sabaeanism. While there are certain statements about this ancient religion generally having evolved into idol worshipping, this is not necessarily the case as there may be pockets of adherents in the world who have held more firmly to some of the monotheistic teachings. There is some evidence of a possible link or historical influence from Islam in that coastal sailing traders had contact with the tribes along the eastern seaboard. Ethiopian Christianity or perhaps a combination of Indian and Persian influences may also have played an role.
Glass beads from India have been traded deep into Africa and there is linguistic evidence of trading contact. Significantly, Greco-Roman polytheism undermines the belief current among religious
The name given to God’s messenger in Swaziland is “Mlentegamunye”(18). There is only one Messenger and He returns from time to time. His name is really a title, not a personal name. Mlentegamunye means “the One Legged Man”. Our interpretation is that it means “the Man who stands in only one place”, not with one foot here and another one there. He appears in the high mountains and comes surrounded by clouds and mist. He can only be seen by the young and the old. His messages are invariably beneficial and He does not take communications back to God, He only delivers messages from God.
ABSENCE OF CLERGY
There is no formal priesthood in Swazi traditional religion, and anyone who claims there are “high priests” and “spiritual leaders” is projecting European understanding onto this culture. There are respected people who are known to have well developed spiritual capacities, but this does not confer any clerical or interpretive status. The highest spiritual position one can have is that of being the oldest person living at a homestead, whether male or female. The oldest male also has certain religious responsibilities, even if there is an older female living in the kraal. Between the head of an extended family homestead and all things in and of the next world, there is no one.
SWAZI SOCIETY’S LEVEL OF UNITY
Swazi traditional society is organized on the family unit. Its level of social organization, or level of unity, is no higher than the family. At this time there are political problems related to this because, in the final analysis, Swazi citizens are basically people who have agreed to live under the Dlamini (19) chieftainship. In a sense they have become members of the family, though their status hovers between family and tribal member. This is a simpler level of unity than that attained by the tribe of Abraham or the city-state of Rome. It is perhaps another indicator of a very early beginning as we would expect from a Sabaean-derived culture.
The Swazi homestead is the living quarters for an extended family – a man, one or more wives, their children and possibly grandchildren. Diviners, healers, and herbalists are greatly respected if they have proven abilities, but they have no formal status. Many people fear healers and diviners because of their reputed powers to grant or withhold anything from favours to health and safety. A few claim the ability to “become” one of the ancestors and so provide a means of communicating with the dead.
Knowing as we do, that mankind strives to progress from lower levels of social organization to higher ones, Bahá’ís see society progressing lock-step with spiritual development. The concept of “tribe” as it is understood in Europe is a late arrival projected on them by colonials. The largest social unit is the clan, made up of a group of extended families, each of which has its spiritual leader. The leader of the clan is assumed to have greater spiritual powers, more wisdom and easier access to those in the next world than his or her inferiors, but is not a priest.
What may be surprising to Bahá’ís from outside Africa is the remarkable consistencies the Swazi traditional religion has with what we know to be the structures of a Divinely revealed religion. Their teachings point strongly to a Divine source.
THE KHOISAN RELIGION
(By Jillian Nyakane)
Background | Khoisan (increasingly commonly spelled Khoesan or Khoe-San) is the name for two of the oldest ethnic groups of southern Africa and thus the entire human race. From the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period, hunting and gathering cultures known as the Sangoan occupied southern Africa in areas. Both the San and Khoikhoi (men of men) people resemble the ancient Sangoan skeletal remains.
The Khoisan religion just like their culture and identity has been ostracised and deemed “Stone Age” backwardness. How some people can even think like that is baffling. The Khoisan are diverse people and should not be boxed into one neat package. There are variants in their language, culture, tradition and certainly “religion”.It must be noted that this account of the religion is a brief generalisation. This religion seems to be complex due the diversity and variants found in the people. Yet, their religion is very pragmatic and realistic.
The Khoisan religion is polytheistic although it is believed that there is a Supreme God, N!adima or N!adiba. According to religious anthropologist in Southern Africa Alan Barnard, there are three classes of being. The first is deity (including both male and female gods). Second class is spirits (good, bad and dead) and the last is people (healers, etc). The god of creation and first being is known as Kaggen or Kaang or Cagn who could manifest himself in a form of animal or an ancestor or human being. And it can be seen in Khoisan rock art depicting half animal and half human paintings. It is believed that Kaggen is now in the sky and is sometimes referred to as the god of the sky. There is also a female goddess, wife of Kaggen whom is called Coti.
Many writing on Khoisan religion also mention the importance of the moon and trance rituals. T
he significance of the full moon was observed by the Khoisan for their rituals, it seem to represent a favourable time for the rituals. During the rites a healer goes into a trance, removing the illness from humans and transferring it to a spirit to take it away. There are both female and male rites. Sometimes the healer would be possessed by a spirit that would convey a message of warning or guidance.
The Khoisan religion is not very different to other African ethnic or even other worldwide religions. It has deities both evil and good. There is a supreme God who created all things alive and dead. The deities provide the people with rain, protection, healing, guidance, intelligence, fertility, etc. Just like any deities in the world. Why it should be marginalised is nonsensical, the world is too diverse to be classified into neat ‘acceptable/unacceptable’ categories. If anything as scientific research proves that Khoisans are the eldest race on earth, they should be the ones we look to better understand the ideological path of religion.
* The Antiquity of Man. University of Cape Town.
* Barnard, A. (1992) Hunters and Herders of Southern Africa: A Comparative Ethnography of the Khoisan Peoples.
* Byrnes, R. (1996) South Africa: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress.
(By Jillian Nyakane)
The Maasai (or Masai) are monotheistic, like Judaism and Islam. Enkai, (En-kai, Engai, Eng-ai, Mweai, Mwiai) is the supreme God . Enkai is According to the Kikuyu beliefs, he lives on the holy mountain Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya). According to the Kamba, he lives somewhere in a hiding place and no one knows where.The Maasai of Kenya in their creation narrative recount the origin of humanity to be fashioned by the Creator Enkai from a single tree or leg which split into three pieces. To the first father of the Maasai, he gave a stick.
There are several different versions of the story of how Enkai came to be. They all have common details and ideas. The belief is that Enkai was once a human who owned all the cattle in the world. When the sky and earth split, he sent all the cattle down from the sky along a long bark rope.
The Maasai people received all these cattle. When a jealous group of hunters did not receive any cattle they cut the bark from the sky. This created a gap between the heavens and earth, which stopped the flow of the cattle to the Maasai. This leaves the Maasai with the belief that cattle are a direct link to Enkai and that he intended that all cattle were for the Maasai. Because the Maasai believe that Enkai intended all the cattle in the world for them, they place themselves at the center of the universe as the chosen people of Enkai. They believe that Ngai created three groups of people to roam the earth. The first is the Dorrobo, the hunters and gathers, to whom Enkai sent honey and wild animals. The second group is the Kikuyu, the cultivators; Enkai blessed them with seed and grain. The final group is the Maasai, to whom he gave all the cattle in the world.
(By Jillian Nyakane)
The majority of Dogon practice an animist religion, including the ancestral spirit Nommo, with its festivals and a sect in which Sirius plays an important part. A significant minority of the Dogon practice Islam, another minority practice Christianity. The Dogon name for Sirius B consists of the word for star, tolo, and po, the name of the smallest plant seed they know of. They say that it is “the smallest thing there is” and that it is “the heaviest star” since all earth on it has been replaced with an immensely heavy metal called sagala, and the star is white in color.
In addition, they believe that the star rotates on its axis, and indeed it does. The Dogon also believe that there is a third star in this system, Emma Ya, which means “sorghum female,” and is said to be orbited by a single planet. However, this star has not yet been discovered by astronomers.
Dogon knowledge of the universe does not stop there though, as they are also aware of the facts that Saturn has rings and that Jupiter has four major moons. The Dogon use four calenders, derived from the sun, moon, Sirius, and Venus, and have long believed in a heliocentric universe, in which the planets revolve around the sun.
The Dogon believe that this knowledge comes from the Nommos, amphibious beings sent to earth from the Sirius star system. The name comes from the Dogon word meaning “to drink,” and they also called “the Masters of Water,” “the Monitors,” and “the Instructors.” The Dogon people describe these creatures as “fish-like,” and they are of major importance in their religion.
A major part of Dogon religious worship is the cult of the masks, called Awa. All young men are instructed in the cult of the masks, but women are strictly excluded. This men’s society is characterized by a secret language, a strict etiquette, obligations, and interdicts. In addition, selected young men, called the olubaru, are given additional instruction, and will have the life-long duty of preserving the traditions of the masks.
The olubaru are initiated in a Sigi ceremony, which is celebrated only once every sixty years. The masks perform every year during the four weeks which precede the sowing festival, at the Sigi ceremony, and during the preparation for a dama festival, the ceremony ending the mourning period.
There are three other principle cults among the Dogon. In the public plaza of every village there is an altar of Lebe. The Lebe cult is associated with the agricultural cycle, and its chief priest is the hogon. The hogon is the oldest direct descendant of the founder of the Dogon, and rules over the affairs of the region. He has many regulatory functions as well as many priestly duties.
The cult of Binu, is usually referred to as being totemic; having exogamous totemic clans, the members of the clan having the same name and respecting the same animal or vegetable prohibition. These prohibitions are passed down through the paternal line, and are in keeping with exogamy. The cult of Binu is also associated with the agricultural cycle, and sacrifices are offered at cult altars during this season.
The cult of the ancestors is associated with the gina, the family households of the Dogon. The purpose of the many religious rituals this cult performs is to maintain good relations between the living and the dead. The gina bana is in charge of the ancestor cult. As in most African religions, ancestor worship is very important to the Dogon. The Dogon society is gerontocratic; elders are the intermediaries in the cult of the ancestors, since they are the future ancestors themselves. The Dogon carve many different kinds of statues as a form of worship to the ancestors. Although statues are the concrete expression of ancestor worship, they are carefully hidden away, viewed and handled only by those in the cult of the ancestors.
There are three statues that are of particular importance to the Dogon. The first is the fox, which, according to myth, was punished for “trying to appropriate Nommo’s souls at the time of his sacrifice.” The second is the silure fish, which represents the human fetus. This silure was fish improperly by the ancestor, Dyongou Serou, who wished to place it on the altar he made for his own benefit without the authorization of the revived Nommo, the mythic creator of ma nkind. The last statue is that of Dyongou Serou himself, who was summarily sacrificed to pay for his rash action. This sacrifice made mankind’s development on earth possible. This statue takes the form of an immense serpent called the “Great Mask.” These statues, called bullroarers, are said to speak the words, “I swallow, I swallow, I swallow men, women, children, I swallow all.” They are the evidence of the appearance of death on earth. These statues play invaluable roles in the funeral rites of the Dogon.
Dogons have different sects:
- The Amma sect: worships the highest creator god Amma.
- Sigui: the most important ceremony of the Dogon. It takes place every 60 years and can take several years
- The Lébé sect: worships the ancestor Lébé Serou, the first mortal human being, who, in Dogon myth, was transformed into a snake.
- The Binou sect: uses totems, common ones for the entire village and individual ones for totem priests. A totem animal is worshipped on a Binou altar.
- The twin sect: the birth of twins is a sign of good luck. The enlarged Dogon families have common rituals during which they evoke all their ancestors till their origin, the ancient pair of twins from the creation of the world belief.
- The Mono sect: the Mono altar is at the entry of every village. Unmarried young men celebrate the Mono sect once a year in January or February. They spend the night around the altar, singing and screaming and waving with fire torches. They hunt for mice that will be sacrificed on the altar at dawn.
Mbuti – Religion
(By Jillian Nyakane)
Everything in the Bambuti life is centered on the forest. They consider the forest to be their great protector and provider and believe that it is a sacred place. They sometimes call the forest “mother” or “father”. An important ritual that impacts the Bambuti’s life is referred to as molimo. After events such as death of an important person, molimo is noisily celebrated to wake the forest, in the belief that if bad things are happening to its children, it must be asleep. As for many Bambuti rituals, the time it takes to complete a molimo is not rigidly set; instead, it is determined by the mood of the group. Food is collected from each hut to feed the molimo, and in the evening the ritual is accompanied by the men dancing and singing around the fire. Women and children must remain in their huts with the doors closed.
Candomble – Religion
(By Kofi Asare Opoku)
The African presence in Brazil that expressed itself in the religious traditions, languages, sacred narratives, music, song and dance, especially in Bahia in the nineteenth century, came to be called Candomble. But while the African traditions were maintained, they were also transformed as a result of their encounter with the Amerindian traditions as well as with Roman Catholicism and Spiritism.
In terms of African religious influences, it was the cosmology of the Yoruba which had the most indelible impact of the religion of the Brazilians of African descent, and the Yoruba Orixas who were existentially and culturally relevant continued to be worshipped in Brazil. Olorun continued to be recognized as Creator and Sustainer of the world, and the Orixas who are in daily contact with their devotees, empowered the enslaved Africans to prevail in their struggles. Ogun, Orixa of iron and warfare, and the remover of obstacles, helped his devotees to vanquish their enemies; Xango, the Orixa of thunder and lightning, personified the indefatigable strength and fighting power of his devotees; Oxoosi, Orisha of the hunt in Yorubaland and extremely well-versed in the knowledge and lore of the forest, provided penetrating intelligence and indefatigable curiosity to his devotees; while the Orisha Yemoja became Iemanja, Orixa of the ocean and patron of fishermen in Brazil and as the symbol of fertility and motherhood, her New Year festival has become a national institution in Brazil.
The Yoruba Orishas found correspondence with the Catholic saints in Brazil. Thus Oxala (Yoruba Orisha-nla) is identified with Jesus Christ; Obaluaiye or Shopona, the Yoruba Orisha of small-pox is identified with St. Lazarus; Xango, with St. Jerome; Iemanja, with Our Lady of the Conception; Ogun with St. Anthony and Iansa, Orixa of winds and storms, with St.Barbara. But these correspondences merely masked the African practices at a time when it was forbidden.
The Orixas continue to be relevant in today’s Brazil and the Casa de Oxum, Houseof Oxum (Oshun) in Salvador, specifically for street girls, was inspired by Oxum’s qualities, which are expected to be a source of inspiration to the girls. At the annual Oxum Ball, a pre-carnival ball, the woman who has played an important role in Brazilian cultural, political or social life is crowned “Oxum of the Year”; and Oxum features in plays, carnival groups, opera, such as “Lidia de Oxum”, novels and music. Oxum is not left out of the campaign against AIDS, and in Sao Paulo Pai Laercio, A High Priest of Oxum, has been educating children about the deadly disease, using a comic book, Odo Ya, and also establishing a center for children infected with the disease. Mae Menininha do Gantois, a famous Oxum priestess, raised the spiritual and cultural profile of Candomble to world-wide attention and thousands of people came from all over the world to seek her blessings and wise counsel. All these clearly demonstrate that the African traditions are alive and well and Candomble, like traditional religion in Africa, concerns itself with making human life here livable and tolerable, rather than concentrating on a life yet to come and has thus a powerful appeal not only to Brazilians of African descent but to all Brazilians.
Santeria – Religion
(By Kofi Asare Opoku)
The Way of the Saints, Santeria, or as the descendants of the Afro-Caribbean tradition in Cuba prefer to call it, La Regla de Ocha, the Rule of the Orishas, is a religious tradition developed by the Lucumi (Yoruba descendants in Cuba) to sustain them through their experiences during slavery and freedom and beyond. The Lucumi prefer the name La Regla de Ocha because the name Santeria rather overemphasizes the Catholic elements in the religion, which was essentially an African spiritual path, developed by their ancestors. The crux of La Regla de Ocha involves the development of a profound personal relationship between initiates and the Orishas so that heavenly wisdom and success in this world become attainable and one’s life on earth becomes a true fulfillment of one’s destiny given by Olodumare.
By means of divination during consultation with Babalawos (Fathers of Secrets), and the performance of sacrifices, as well as possession by the Orishas and by following two paths or caminos of initiation into membership: camino de Santo, which leads to the priesthood and camino de Orula, the path of knowledge, which leads one to become a Babalawo, those who are initiated deepen their relationship with their Orishas.
As in Candomble, there are correspondences in La Regla de Ocha with the Orishas. Shopona is identified with St. Lazarus; Eleggua with St. Peter; Chango with St. Barbara; Yemanja with The Virgin of Regla, a suburb of Havana; Oggun with St. John the Baptist and Ochun with the Virgin of Cobre, the Patron Saint of Cuba.
Ochun has played a great role in Cuban history, revealing herself as the Virgin Mary to three copper miners caught in a storm at sea in the seventeenth century and also assisted Cuban soldiers, who sewed portraits of her in their uniforms, during the second war of independence in 1895. The soldiers called themselves Mambises and since then Ochun has been called La Virgen Mambisa, in commemoration of her fierceness in fighting for the independence of Cuba. Castro’s Movement of the 26th July used the colours red and black, which are the colours of Eleggua.
La Regla de Ocha has spread widely in the Americas and especially into the USA since the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and is today one of the fastest growing religions in the Americas. And as in Brazil, the Lucumi in Cuba derived maximum strength from their religion to resist oppression and demonstrated their spiritual prowess over their physical bondage.
Vodoo – Religion
(By Kofi Asare Opoku)
See Vodou for main article
In Vodou, there is one cosmic Principle, Bondye, whose spiritual nature is manifested in humans, and in numerous spirits. The spirits, Lwa, are manifestations of Bondye and they interact with humans and assist them in their daily lives, and the practice of Vodou hinges on the development of a deep personal relationship with the Lwas, the equivalent of the Orishas, and the practitioners of Vodou describe themselves as serving the Lwas. These Lwas can mount their devotees and make their presence felt through spirit possession and inspire them to meet the needs of the people. The Haitian Revolution which was fought with the assistance of Ogou Feray, Lwa of iron and warfare, led to the creation of the independent nation of Haiti. Legba, the Lwa of communication carries messages to and from the Lwa and Damballah, symbolized by the snake, ensures motion and is a cosmic Lwa who is the giver of children. Ezili, the manifestation of Oshun, inHaiti, is the cosmic womb and also giver of children and the symbol of motherhood, and Agoue or Agwe is the Lwa of the ocean.
The Lwa live in the mythological city, Vilokan, and the poto-mitan, which is an axis mundi in the Vodou temple, ounfo, connects the world of the Lwa with the world of humans. The ancestors also watch over the people and serve the people before the Lwas and while the Lwas and the ancestors can possess people, Bondye never manifests himself in the body of humans because of his immense power. This , as in African Traditional Religion, is a reflection of the limitlessness of Bondye.
As in Candomble and Santeria, the Vodou Lwa have their correspondences with Catholic saints. Thus Bondye corresponds with Mawu-Lisa; Legba with St. Peter; Ogou with St. James; Ezili with the virgin Mary and Damballah with St. Patrick.
Vodou is the embodiment of the relationship between humans, spiritual beings and nature and contributes to the strengthening and maintenance of these relationships. It provides the inescapable foundation of Haitian religious and cultural life and has been the source of hope and survival for the Haitian peasantry in the vicissitudes of their lives.
PALO – Religion
(By Kofi Asare Opoku)
Palo [stick] (Mayombe, Briyumba and Kimbisa) are a group of closely related religions or denominations, which developed in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean amongst Central African peoples. The Palo belief system rests on two main pillars:
- 1. The veneration of the spirits of the ancestors.
- 2. The belief in natural (“earth”) powers.
Natural objects, and particularly sticks, are thought to be infused with powers, often linked to the powers of spirits. These objects are known as “nganga” and are the ritual focus of Palo’s magical rites and religious practice.
A certain number of spirits called Kimpungulu (singular: Mpungu) inhabit the Nkisi (sacred objects, also spelled Inquice, Inquise, and Enkisi). Kimpungulu are well known in name and deed, and are venerated as gods. They are powerful entities, but they are ranked below the High God Zambi or Nzambi.
The main practice of Palo focuses upon the religious receptacle or altar known as a Nganga or Prenda. This is a consecrated vessel filled with sacred earth, sticks (palos), human remains, bones and other items. Each Nganga is dedicated to a specific spiritual Nkisi. This religious vessel is also inhabited by a muerto or spirit of the dead (almost never the direct ancestor of the object’s owner), also referred to as “Nfumbe”, who acts as a guide for all religious activities which are performed with the Nganga.
Various divination methods are used in Palo. One, Chamalongos uses shells or disks of various materials, often coconut shells. A more traditional method, Vititi Mensú, is a form of envisioning or scrying, using a sanctified animal horn capped with a mirror.
There are many Ramas that have developed through the ages such as Brillumba – This rama has separated into branches such as Siete Brillumba Congo. The branch born when seven Tata’s from Brillumba combined their ngangas to create an Nsasi Ndoki. This rama has grown through the years and is well known today.
Palo is evolving as its Afro-Cuban roots expand to other cultures. Once a religion practiced under strict secrecy, almost entirely based on oral knowledge, it now finds itself in the 21st century part of a highly advanced and technologically complex world. Palo is now adjusting itself to its new environment and charlatans who see every way to exploit this opportunity are adjusting along with it. Adherents are now more likely to be well educated, mobile and not easily convinced by spurious religious claims. Ignorance, fear, poverty, slavery and persecution are no longer the key elements attracting people to the religion. Therefore it’s imperative that people learn as much as they can before seeking a path in Palo. Palo is not a religion where individuals “self initiate” or give themselves “promotions” to higher levels. Participation in a community of Paleros is critical to growing spiritually and within the religious hierarchy. So any Paleros that claim to be “powerful” or wise and make promises yet have no ties to their elders is likely to be fraudulent. 
SYNCRETISM IN AFRICA
(By Ben Levi Yahweh + ‘Alik Shahadah)
The view that Muslims in (Sub-Saharan) Africa are particularly given to syncretic religious practices and that the Africans conversion to Islam is superficial and incomplete are ideas that were developed in the politically motivated colonial scholarship in Islam–Bangura
Syncretism is a term used to explain the mixing of elements of different religious beliefs. While it is an aspect of Africa it is not unique, not special and certainly not peculiar. It is a worldwide reality from India, to China to Brazil and even in North Africa and Arabia. And technically speaking It is also true for much of Western Christianity, which is plagued with so-called pagan rituals (Xmas, etc). But these phenomena when occurring in European religion are forms of orthodoxies. There is undue weight placed by academics and anthropologist on this phenomenon, and part of this has to do with issues in studying Africa and understanding African agency. Therefore what is Islam in Senegal is African Islam, not Islam with pagan habits. There must be a respect for African agency to create its own Islam and a respect for the native faiths to naturally be part of the shaping of the Africanization of Islam. The final product is still Islamic or Christian because there is no such thing as a pure religion, or there is no standard of normative Islam or Christianity to measure all variants against ( Ferdinando)–as anthropologist are trying to do.
Some of these elements are cultural traditions misidentified as religion. The Dagomba dance of the Zulu found its way into many of their Christian faiths, this is not syncretism, because it is culture– not an alteration to the Christian tenants.
Africa is seen to have fostered no orthodoxies of its own. Therefore any variation in Christianity, Judaism or Islam is seen as semi-orthodox. For example as oppose to treating African Judaism as a type of Judaism, Israeli religious authorities demonized and tried to discount Ethiopian Jewish traditions. And in doing so try to reform them to match their version of Orthodox European Judaism. So for Ethiopians to be considered “Jewish” they had to become “European Jews” and lose millennia of unique Ethiopian Orthodox Judaism-The same is true for Islam. So as oppose accept the unique flavor of African Islam as 100% as Islamic as what is practised in Saudi Arabia, it is demonized as flavored with “paganism.” Eurocentric anthropologist have always struggled to give validity to anything Africanized.
European Anthropologist also have this habit of lumping and misunderstanding African customs. Because unlike the obsession with terms like “religion”, “culture”, “nation,” Africans have a more fluid non-dichotomized worldview. Taking elements of culture into Christianity is not syncretism. The misidentification of every ritual in Africa as “religious” is due to poor understanding of distinctions between religion and culture. So when a Nigerian or Senegalese Muslim goes for treatment at the local herbalist it is associated with religious mixing. Traditional healing while an aspect of native African faiths is also local medicine, faith in the healing powers of the Sangomas is not a violation no more than trusting a Western atheistic doctor. Syncretism according to some definitions is only valid if the elements being mixed are in contradiction or serious compromise the integrity of the faith. For example if a Muslim worships Allah but also the tree God of Lake Hora in Debre Zerit Ethiopia ( Irreechaa holiday ). Attending the festival is no different to a European Christian celebrating Guy Fawkes.
Ethiopian Christians find it taboo to mix with the Oromo rituals, Muslims in Sudan and Nigeria are very hard-line about what they call Bidah(innovation with other religious ideas). And it was Uthman Dan Fodio who waged a jihad against what he saw was contamination of Islam. The same thing happened in Saudi Arabia with the Wahabi movement. Now when culture blends with religion in Europe, Xmas, and all the other day to day inclusions from paganism such as Halloween or Easter bunny (which conflict with Christian beliefi), it is treated completly different to when it occurs in Africa.
In understanding Africa we must understand the dynamics of religion in living and historical Africa. Native African faiths are meet with challenges for their existence but to suggest it is unique to Africa invokes a kind of distortion of reality. It takes away from the validity of native systems as being influential in shaping African orthodoxies and it also tries to “tribalize” African indigenous belief. And since these beliefs are seen to be backward or primitive it is used to suggest a “tribalism” to any influence these faiths have.
Spirituality and Religion
Semantics: Myth of a Dichotomy
Historically, the words religious and spiritual in European languages are synonymous in describing all the various aspects of religious life. Gradually, in Western societies the word spiritual came to be associated with the private realm of thought and experience while the word religious came to be connected with the public realm of membership in a religious institution with official denominational doctrines. We need to trace the origins to this dichotomy and we find it in the counter culture of White liberals. Some think there is a stand-alone spirituality that is “better” than organized religion. So the notion of a private “religion” is a narcissistic nu-age reality brought into recent existence, it has no trans-historical roots in reality. It originates as a serious proposal only in European languages, and a social science study.
The God concept does not survive long outside of the bottle of religion; religion is an institutionalized mechanism which pass on the Godhead package from generation to generation
Spirituality describes the world of super natural interactions—forces outside of traditional science. Like “Power,” it can be contained or expressed in a battery, a power plant, a fuel cell, or a nuclear reaction: It is the essence of energy. Religion is what holds, and defines, or makes “usable” spirituality in terms of functionality; It communicates between that realm and reality.
African spirituality cannot exist as an authentic African paradigm as a standalone construction; it does not float in free space without roots in a specific African culture. The sense of a spiritual connection does not (in Africa) stand outside of an organized religious belief. When people say they are just “spiritual” they are saying they have a belief in divinity, but have no culture; no rituals, no communal responsibility, no structure — how is that being African? It is African elements without the discipline or loyalty to social or cultural structures. For example in Palo, participation in a community of Paleros is critical to growing spiritually and within the religious hierarchy. But some try to take piecemeal elements; ancestors, burning oils, and other cherry picked aspects of African religions and amass them into a heap called African spirituality, as distinct from the religions these elements come from. Despite the good intentions of many of these neo-spiritualist, this paradigm is an out crop of the trivializing and misunderstanding of things African; part of the legacy of Eurocentrism. It is a de facto new religion, without a name.
But it is only a semantic debate; for all intents and purposes, practical and theological, they are the same thing. Because part of any paradigm shift is not to create things that do not actually exist in living Africa. All spiritual elements in Africa are expressed in structured ways, with defined deities, rituals, ceremonies, taboos and practices. Some don’t have actual names, and usually take on the name of the ethnic group; Masai for the faith of the Masai people, Kikuyu for the people and their faith.
In Amharic there is no category called religion and then another category called spirituality. This is a Western home-grown debate locked in a individualistic, self-centered and rebellious culture. In Amharic the two terms exist within the same paradigm, and there is no concept of one without the other. In Amharic ሀይማኖት (religion) መንፈስ (spirit) there is no way to construct “I have መንፈስ but notሀይማኖት (religion).” The spirit is an essence, not a self-contained belief system which one declares allegiance to. It is tantamount to say my religion is “emotions” not Vodon. And this is not unique to Amharic, but Amharic is the best example because of the longstanding presents of both Christianity, ATR, and Islam in the region. Thus it eliminates confusion that the word “religion” is being used in some imposed fashion.
For Jesuit priest James Martin, the phrase also hints at something else—egotism:
Being spiritual but not religious can lead to complacency and self-centeredness…If it’s just you and God in your room, and a religious community makes no demands on you, why help the poor? –James Martin
With the recent emergence of spirituality as a distinct concept from religion in both academic circles and common language, a tension has arisen between the two constructs. One possible differentiation among the three constructs religion,religiosity, and spirituality, is to view religion as primarily a social phenomenon while understanding spirituality on an individual level: A personal faith for societies who thrive on forming self-identities away from the group collective– an alien concept in Africa.
Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.–Lillian Daniel
The birthplace of this false dichotomy is exclusively Western and exclusively and only possible in individualistic societies. There is nothing in any part of Africa that is spiritual but divorced from institutionalized rituals which are transmitted in an organized fashion across the generations. It is therefore telling that African people will adopt this “Spiritual” stance in some revolt against what they see as “White man religion” or “oppressive religion” when it stands against some of the most intrinsic African values of community.
Religion is the organization of spirituality into something that became the handmaiden of conquerors. Nearly all religions were brought to people and imposed on people by conquerors, and used as the framework to control their minds – John Henrick Clarke.
There are some fallacies in the Clarke’s rhetoric: Religion is not exclusive to conquerors’ the two are not caused by each other, or dependent upon each other. Clarke is speaking about an African-American experience in Christianity. Most religions in Africa are not imposed on anyone, by anyone. It also ignores and marginalizes the capacity of African people to also formulate religions. A blatant rejection of African agency and this habit of painting Africans as perceptual victims. It also stands in disagreement with the multitude of circumstances around the world where communities select religions they deem beneficial to their interest. (Christian Ethiopia, Islamic Rwanda, etc) It is also very strange to split religion from spirituality when you consider the largest religious structures in the world are found in Africa—the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan.
On the issue of “control their minds” we see another classic misunderstanding. There is no way you create anything, other than a hunter gather society without systems of control. Human are a social group and have imprinting behaviorism (we live in dense societies by socialization which involves group control), that process of imprinting is done by attaching ourselves to group ritual, routine, shared belief, shared governance, leadership—that is how societies function—that is how city states and empires form, and stay formed. The suggestion of control is therefore moot, as no complex society functions without national control, national personalities which are ultimately guided consciously or unconsciously. The issue of control shows that religion is just one tool, it is not the only tool, and certainly not the most effective when dealing with plural populations who have other heavily institutionalized beliefs—like Europeans trying to conquer and colonize Muslims for example. Control therefore uses all systems, habits, traditions, cultures, polities available to exercise its interest. Religion in any configuration cannot be isolated and given some special weight, in an attempt to build a case for some uncontaminated “spirituality” which is exempt from being exploited.
The culture of faith, is not a candy store where you pick and chose from 3000 different incongruous belief systems and them compile into a personal belief system like a greatest hits album called African Spirituality
There is zero interrogation of terms and definitions which hug so much of our ontological self. And we come up broke, short changed, unable to apply these identities in the context of empowerment and creative contribution. Because securing self-interest and having true agency comes from the confidence in the continuity of self-identity in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environment. And if “African spirituality” is an authentic identity–as oppose to a category of many plural and sometimes disparate religious beliefs, then this will never survive against a defined identity.
“I am not Muslim, I am not Jewish, I am not Vodon, I am not Christian, and I want to make that clear to the world what I am not!”
But then what are you?
“I am African Spiritual.”
What is that? Because It is not Islam, it is not Christianity, it is not Vodon, it is also not Serer, it is not the native Oromo religion, it is alien to the Maasai faith, etc etc.
Because nowhere in modern or ancient Africa can you find what they believe in. So it is a patch work of unorganized pick-as-you-go belief system in everything they desire. It is a modern reaction to a world firmly defined. Because for all the African Spirituality, they do not follow most of the traditional rites found in Africa (maybe libation, and drum beating). Its a problem, because it does not ground you in any integrated belief system. It has no theme, not ideological core which is found in every belief system throughout the world. In a nutshell it is an identity by negation.
THE OTHER – BEYOND THE IGNORANCE
Everyone calls everyone else backward, that is human nature, it has nothing to do with religion, but people; it is part of human nature. Because it is very convenient for someone, of any religion, to exclude themselves from “other” politics, while pointing the finger at the “other.” It’s very nature is binary. Human beings have more behaviorisms in common with each other than we care to admit. It has always been political appropriate to seek out why we think we are better than another group. The problem is, the other group has a list just as long about why they are better than you. Everyone does it. Inside of Christianity it is ferociously applied even among members of the exact same denomination. In Islam it is an age old internal fitnah over schools of thought, isnad (hadith studies), you name it, it always used to say we are Ahlus Sunnah wal Jamaah, and you are not.
When you speak to the Masai from Kenya the first thing he tells you is how the Masai in Tanzania are not the real deal, or strayed from culture, not the true inheritors of the cattle from Engai. In South Africa, people are kill because they have one sect of Sangoma’s and not another. Witchcraft and magic, against each other consume valuable time and energy. Romance politics has no idea of the dept of violence and confusion inside of native African faiths. In Cameron, people are persecuted because they are not Bantu, and seen as second class citizens, the inferior other because they have weak gods, and short stature. The Ewe were targeted for slavery because the Ewe did not have the culture or religion of the Akan, they became a slave pool because they were the “other”, had weaker gods: my god is bigger and badder than your god.  So in the native religion, enslaving the other was no problem. Therefore the conquest of the temporal was a mirror of the divine conquest. (Shareef, 2005)
Zulu means “The people of the sky” vs. other people who are less “chosen” and because of that status non-Zulu people were subject to a vicious campaign (mfecane). This all has to be stated to balance the romance history which paints Africa as one big happy tribe with no major issues. But the issues, which we must fix, are the same issues in antiquity. Invasion, modernity, technology have modulated these things, but the core issues still require a sagacious think tank, not binary blame games.
“The Other” is a human problem, fanned by ignorance and binary accusations. We must not single out those we do not like to say “they are like this, but we are not.” Because all humans start creating “the other” by engaging in these types of arguments. If there is to be an “other” it must be an other which really impacts African people, like the influx of Western imports, Western clothing, Chinese products, and liberal values. Because what good is religion if we have the name Vodon, Palo, Candomble but the values of the liberal West?
* Black God: The Afroasiatic Roots of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Religions By Julian
DIamond: Gun, Germs and Steel
Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
Handbook of Research on Development and Religion edited by Matthew Clarke
Notes : This article is a compilation of multi-contributions from various authors/scholars. This work does not represent a particular position of consensus but a collection of comparative. The work of Opku was written as part of the 500 Years Later film and subsequent research, from various sources, compiled much later.
* Judaism does not proselytizes (being traditionally ethno-specific) it therefore shares this non-proselytizing characteristic with native African faiths. Judaism has a relationship between faith and race, where the two co-exist. And this is found in many African societies where being of the faith, traditionally meant being of the religion. Non-Jews, where “the other,”identical to how non-Serer in Serer society, or non-Mursi in Mursi society or non-Surmer are treated in those societies.
* J. O. Awolalu states: We need to explain the word „traditional‟. This word means indigenous, that which is aboriginal or foundational, handed down from generation to generation, upheld and practiced by Africans today. This is a heritage from the past, but treated not as a thing of the past but as that which connects the past with the present and the present with eternity. This is not a “fossil” religion, a thing of the past or a dead religion. It is a religion that is practiced by living men and women. (ref)
This is a contradictory sentence. It is like saying by cold water we are referring to hot water. This is obviously an exaggeration of what he is saying but the point illustrates an issue with language and agency. He goes on to politically, and this is all it is because it is not impartial scholarship, that ALL religions in Africa are essentially the same. It is the reverse direction of plural progressive understanding of the world and back to a time when we had a language for an entire continent called “African.”
* African Religions and Philosophy By John S Mbiti
*Akhenaten is noted for abandoning traditional Egyptian polytheism and introducing worship centered on the Aten, which is sometimes described as monotheistic or henotheistic.
“Both Christianity and Islam are “traditional” and “African” in a historical sense, and it is a pity that they tend to be regarded as “foreign: or “European” and “Arab.” Both Christianity and Islam are “traditional” and “African” in a historical sense, and it is a pity that they tend to be regarded as “foreign: or “European” and “Arab.”