Traditional African Religions

The traditional African religions (or traditional beliefs and practices of African people) are a set of highly diverse beliefs that include various ethnic religions. Generally, these traditions are oral rather than scriptural, include belief in a supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of the dead, use of magic and traditional African medicine. The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonising nature with the supernatural. According to Lugira,

“it is the only religion that can claim to have originated in Africa. Other religions found in Africa have their origins in other parts of the world.”

Bakongo masks from the Kongo Central

Bakongo masks from the Kongo Central

Spread

Adherents of traditional religions in Sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries and are estimated to number over 100 million.

Although the majority of Africans are adherents of Christianity or Islam, African people often combine the practice of their traditional belief with the practice of Abrahamic religions. The two Abrahamic religions are widespread across Africa, though mostly concentrated in different areas. They have replaced indigenous African religions, but are often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems.

Ceremonies

An Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

An Egungun masquerade dance garment in the permanent collection of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

West and Central African religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by force (or ashenyama, etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic or driving drumming or singing. One religious ceremony practiced in Gabon and Cameroon is the Okuyi, practiced by several Bantu ethnic groups. In this state, depending upon the region, drumming or instrumental rhythms played by respected musicians (each of which is unique to a given deity or ancestor), participants embody a deity or ancestor, energy or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements or dances which further enhance their elevated consciousness.

When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, adherents are privy to a way of contemplating the pure or symbolic embodiment of a particular mindset or frame of reference. This builds skills at separating the feelings elicited by this mindset from their situational manifestations in daily life. Such separation and subsequent contemplation of the nature and sources of pure energy or feelings serves to help participants manage and accept them when they arise in mundane contexts. This facilitates better control and transformation of these energies into positive, culturally appropriate behavior, thought, and speech. Also, this practice can also give rise to those in these trances uttering words which, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate or diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions which the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goal.

Spirits

Main article: List of African mythological figures

Followers of traditional African religions pray to various spirits as well as to their ancestors. These secondary spirits serve as intermediaries between humans and the primary God, also referred to as the Supreme Deity. Most African societies believe in a single Supreme being (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.). Some recognize a dual God and Goddess such as Mawu-Lisa.

Practices and rituals

Traditional healer of South Africa performing a divination by reading the bones

Traditional healer of South Africa performing a divination by reading the bones

There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions. Often, the supreme Deity is worshiped through consultation or communion with lesser deities and ancestral spirits. The deities and spirits are honored through libation or sacrifice (of animals, vegetables, cooked food, flowers, semi-precious stones and precious metals). The will of the Supreme Deity is sought by the believer also through consultation of divinities or divination. In many traditional African religions, there is a belief in a cyclical nature of reality. The living stand between their ancestors and the unborn. Traditional African religions embrace natural phenomena – ebb and tide, waxing and waning moon, rain and drought – and the rhythmic pattern of agriculture. According to Gottlieb and Mbiti:

The environment and nature are infused in every aspect of traditional African religions and culture. This is largely because cosmology and beliefs are intricately intertwined with the natural phenomena and environment. All aspects of weather, thunder, lightning, rain, day, moon, sun, stars, and so on may become amenable to control through the cosmology of African people. Natural phenomena are responsible for providing people with their daily needs.

For example, in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir (the Star of Sirius). With a long farming tradition, the Serer high priests and priestesses (Saltigue) deliver yearly sermons at the Xoy Ceremony (divination ceremony) in Fatick before Yoonir’s phase in order to predict winter months and enable farmers to start planting.

Traditional healers are common in most areas, and their practices include a religious element to varying degrees.

Divination

Main article: African divination
See also: Divination

Early-20th-century Yoruba divination board

Early-20th-century Yoruba divination board

Since Africa is a large continent with many ethnic groups and cultures, there is not one single technique of casting divination. The practice of casting may be done with small objects, such as bones, cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood.

Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood or performed on the ground (often within a circle).

In traditional African societies, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are generally no prohibitions against the practice. Diviner (also known as priest) are also sought for their wisdom as counselors in life and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.

Virtue and vice

Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with carrying out obligations of the communal aspect of life. Examples include social behaviors such as the respect for parents and elders, raising children appropriately, providing hospitality, and being honest, trustworthy, and courageous.

In some traditional African religions, morality is associated with obedience or disobedience to God regarding the way a person or a community lives. For the Kikuyu, according to their primary supreme creator, Ngai, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one’s conscience. Traditionally, as now, the Kikuyu were monotheists, believing in a unique and omnipotent God whom they called Ngai. The word, is related to the Maasai word Enkai, and was borrowed by both the Kikuyu and Kamba. God is also known as Mungu, Murungu, or Mulungu (a variant of a word meaning God, which is found as far south as the Zambesi of Zambia), and is sometimes given the title Mwathani or Mwathi (the greatest ruler), which comes from the word gwatha, meaning to rule or reign with authority.

Ngai is the creator and giver of all things, ‘the Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature’. He gave birth to the human community, created the first Kikuyu communities, and provided them with all the resources necessary for life: land, rain, plants and animals. He – for Ngai is male – cannot be seen, but is manifest in the sun, moon, stars, comets and meteors, thunder and lightning, rain, in rainbows and in the great fig trees (mugùmò) that served as places of worship and sacrifice, and which marked the spot at Mukurue wa Gathanga where Gikuyu and Mumbi – the ancestors of the Kikuyu in the oral legend – first settled.

Yet Ngai is not the distant God that we know in the West. He had human characteristics, and although some say that he lives in the sky or in the clouds, they also say that he comes to earth from time to time to inspect it, bestow blessings and mete out punishment. When he comes he rests on Mount Kenya and four other sacred mountains. Thunder is interpreted to be the movement of God, and lightning is God’s weapon by means of which he clears the way when moving from one sacred place to another. Other people believed that Ngai’s abode was on Mount Kenya, or else ‘beyond’ its peaks. Ngai, says one legend, made the mountain his resting place while on an inspection tour of earth. He then took the first man, Gikuyu, to the top to point out the beauty of the land he was giving him.In traditional African religions, such as the Azande religion, a person is said to have a good or bad conscience, depending on whether he does the bidding of God or malevolent spirits.

In many cases, Africans who have converted to other religions have still kept up their traditional customs and practices, combining them in a syncretic way.

Sacred places

Some sacred or holy locations for traditional religions include Nri-Igbo, the Point of SangomarYaboyaboFatickIfeOyo, DahomeyBenin CityOuidahNsukkaKanem-BornuIgbo-Ukwu, and Tulwap Kipsigis, among others.

Religious persecution

Main article: Persecution of traditional African religion

Traditions by region

This list is limited to a few well-known traditions.

Central Africa

East African

Southern Africa

West Africa

African Diaspora

Main article: Afro-American religion

North Africa

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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