Traditional African religion
The indigenous religious beliefs and practices of African peoples include various traditional religions. While generalizations of these religions are difficult, due to the diversity of African cultures, they do have some characteristics in common. Generally, they are oral rather than scriptural, include belief in a supreme being, belief in spirits and other divinities, veneration of ancestors, use of magic, and traditional medicine. The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural.
Traditional African religions have been passed down from one generation to another orally and can be found through art, rituals and festivals, beliefs and customs, names of people and places, songs and dances, proverbs, and myths.
While adherence to traditional religion in Africa is hard to estimate, due to syncretism with Christianity and Islam, practitioners are estimated to number 100 million, or 10% of the population of the continent. They are also practiced in the Americas such as the Candomble, Umbanda, Macumba in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba and the United States and Vodou in Haiti and the United States.
- 1 Religious traditions of Africa
- 2 Classification and statistics
- 3 Ceremonies
- 4 Deities
- 5 Practices and rituals
- 6 Duality of Divinities
- 7 Virtue and vice
- 8 Holy places and headquarters of religious activities
- 9 Mythology
- 10 Religious persecution
- 11 Traditions by region
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 Further reading
- 15 Notes
- 16 External links
Religious traditions of Africa
Afro-Asiatic religious tradition
According to linguist Christopher Ehret, traditional religion among Afro-Asiatic-speaking peoples was originally henotheistic in nature. In this sense, each clan gave allegiance to the community's own god while still accepting that other gods exist. Each Afrasan clan community was headed by a hereditary ritual leader. With regard to major groupings of the Erythraite peoples and the Cushites, Ehret refers to this ritual priest as the '*wap'er'. The '*wap'er' carried out the traditional spiritual rites for each group, but was by no means a political chief or accorded significant political authority. Rather, the role of the clan *wap'er was to preside over the community rituals directed toward that deity and to act for the community as the intercessor and interpreter of the deity. Ehret states that in the founding Afro-Asiatic spiritual tradition, evil was seen as being caused by petty or demonic 'spirits' that dwelled among humans.
Nilo-Saharan religious traditions I
Ehret characterizes Nilo-Saharan proto-religion as follows:
The early Nilo-Saharan communities, it is thought, held to a nontheistic belief system, similar to that known among a few modern-day Nilo-Saharan peoples, such as the Uduk, whose languages belong to the Koman branch of that family. In this religion spiritual power and spiritual danger do not reside in a deity but are expressed by an animating force. In the modern Uduk language, this force is called 'arum'. It is a force, concentrating in their livers, that makes us and animals alive; it is also the source of our anger, our fears, and our affections. Human beings restrain the 'arum' within themselves through their receptive consciousness, called by the Uduk 'kashira', which is understood to reside in the stomachs. In the modern-day Uduk version of this belief system, there also exists disembodied 'arum.' the residue of lives, animal and human, that have been lived in the past. The 'arum' of people properly buried is reconstituted safely in communities underground. But there are also wandering 'arum', the residuum of people lost in the wild and never properly buried, and of animals killed by hunters. This animating force in its disembodied aspect, when not dealt with through ritual and religious observances, can be the source of danger and harm to people. Its effects, in other words, explain the problem of evil.
Nilo-Saharan religious traditions II
According to Ehret, there was a marked change in the religion of one part of Nilo-Saharan peoples to what he calls the Sudanic Religion.
The Northern Sudanians developed religious ideas strikingly different from the nontheistic beliefs we attributed (in chapter 2) to their ancestors in the earlier Middle Nile Tradition. Their Sudanic religion, as we will term it here, was monotheistic. At the core of the belief system was a single Divinity, or God. Divinity was identified metaphorically with the sky, and the power of Divinity was often symolized by lightning. There was no other category of spirits or deities. (...) The sudanic belief viewd evil as a Divine judgment or retribution for the wrong that a person, or a person's forebears, had don in life. The ancestors passed after death into some kind of vaguely conceived afterlife, but the had no functional role in religious observanc or ritual.
In part of the Sudanic peoples, a tradition of sacral kingship or chiefship developed in which the position of the king was justified by a divine law given by Divinity. This aspect of the Sudanic religion entailed the sending of servants into the afterlife along with the deceased chief. This aspect of Sudanic civilization had a strong influence on Egypt. The roots of the later Egyptian "divine" kingship lay in this Sudanic innovation.
According to Ehret, the Sudanic religion also began having a strong influence on the original Afrasan religion of the Cushites after the seventh millennium BCE.
Niger-Congo religious tradition
Niger-Congo's spiritual tradition indicates that it centers around 'spirit' as manifested in various aspects of nature, deities and/or ancestors. This is evident in the following quote:
Niger-Congo religion recognized a series of levels of spirit. At the apex of the system, but of little direct consequence in everyday religion, there was God as a distant figure, who was the First Cause or Creator...A second kind of spirit dwelled within a particular territory and was believed able to influence events there...But the really crucial spirits for religious observance and ritual belonged to a third category. These were the ancestors.
The oldest term for the Niger-Congo creation god that can be reconstructed is "*Nyambe" (cognate with the Akan word Nyame). This can be derived from a verbal root "*-amb-" meaning to begin.
Evil in this tradition, Ehret states, originated with "witchcraft" executed upon targeted people by other individuals. Tempels supports Ehret's analysis in his assertions (which are also based upon linguistic analysis) that the unifying ideological characteristic of the Bantu language subgroup of Niger-Congo, is the concept of 'force'. This 'force', he asserts, is identical to 'spirit,' 'being,' and/or 'existence' such that it comprises all human-perceived reality.
An intra-cultural analysis of the Akan version of the Niger-Congo religion can be found in. Wiredu's analyzis shows that the Niger-Congo religion is monotheistic, a view supported by Ehret. Both the ancestral spirits and the local spirits are part of the created world and do not have the status of gods.
The concept of 'force' or 'spirit' is also iterated by Karade and Doumbia and Doumbia in reference to the Sudanic (i.e. areas west of Cameroon and south of the Sahara) Niger-Congo peoples. Karade holds that, in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, 'force' is called 'ashe'. He asserts that the task of a Yoruba practitioner is to contemplate and/or ceremonially embody the various deities and/or ancestral energies in ways analogous to how chakras are contemplated in kundalini yoga. In other words, the deities represent energies, attitudes, or potential ways to approach life. The goal is to elevate awareness while either in or contemplating any of these states of mind such that one can transmute negative or wasteful aspects of their energy into conduct and mindsets that serve as wholesome, virtuous examples for oneself and the greater community. Doumbia and Doumbia  echo this sentiment for the Mande tradition of Senegal, Mali, and many other regions of westernmost Africa. Here however, the 'force' concept is represented by the term 'nyama' rather than 'ashe'.
Divination also tends to play a major role in the process of transmuting negative or confused feelings/thoughts into more ordered and productive ones. Specifically, this process serves as a way to provide frames of reference such that those who are uncertain as to how to begin an undertaking and/or solve a problem can get their barrings and open a dialectic with their highest selves concerning their options on their paths.
Niger-Congo religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies and/or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by 'force' (or 'ashe', 'nyama', etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic/mantric drumming and/or singing. In this state, depending upon the types of drumming or instrumental rhythms played by respected musicians (each of which is unique to a given deity/ancestor), participants embody a deity/ancestor, energy and/or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements/dances that further enhance their elevated consciousness, or, in Eastern terms, excite the kundalini to a specific level of awareness and/or circulate chi in a specific way within the body.  When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, culturally educated observers are privy to a way of contemplating the pure/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/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. Further, this practice can also give rise to those in these trances uttering words that, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate/diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions that the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goals.
Khoisan religious tradition
The Khoisan, like the earliest Nilo-Saharans, adhered to a nontheistic religious outlook. Their beliefs recognized the existence of an impersonal condition of spirit, a force that existed outside human beings as well as in some animals. In the thought of the particular Khoisan peoples who have lived in southern Africa since 5,000 BCE, this force could be tapped by means of the trance-dance and used to heal sickness and to relieve social and individual stress and conflict. In this procedure, a person recognized for special religious talents, a kind of shaman whom we may call a trance-healer, dances until he or she goes into a state of trance, which might last for many hours. The trance healers were not full-time specialists... If no trance dance was being performed, and that means the great majority of the time, the healer held no special position and engaged in the usual pursuits like anyone else.
Classification and statistics
Adherents.com lists African Traditional & Diasporic as a major religious group, estimating some 100 million adherents. They justify this combined listing of traditional African and African diasporic religions, and the separation from the generic primal-indigenous category by pointing out that:
the "primal-indigenous" religions are primarily tribal and composed of pre-colonization peoples. While there is certainly overlap between this category and non-African primal-indigenous religious adherents, there are reasons for separating the two, best illustrated by focusing specifically on Yoruba, which is probably the largest African traditional religious/tribal complex. Yoruba was the religion of the vast Yoruba nation states which existed before European colonialism and its practitioners today – certainly those in the Caribbean, South America and the U.S. - are integrated into a technological, industrial society, yet still proclaim affiliation to this African-based religious system. Cohesive rituals, beliefs and organization were spread throughout the world of Yoruba (and other major African religious/tribal groups such as Fon), to an extent characteristic of nations and many organized religions, not simply tribes.
Practitioners of traditional religions in sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries, and were estimated to number about 90 million, with the largest religions in Africa being Christianity and Islam.
West African religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies and/or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by force (or ashe, nyama, etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic or mantric drumming and/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 types of 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 and/or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements or dances which further enhance their elevated consciousness, or, in Eastern terms, excite the kundalini to a specific level of awareness and/or circulate chi in a specific way within the body. When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, culturally educated observers 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. Further, 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.
Followers of traditional African religions pray to various secondary deities (Ogoun, Da, Agwu, Esu, Mbari, Thiorak, etc.) as well as to their ancestors. These divinities serve as intermediaries between humans and God. Most indigenous African societies believe in a single creator God (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.). Some recognize a dual or complementary twin Divinity such as Mawu-Lisa. For example, in one of the Yoruba creation myths, Olodumare, the 'Supreme', is said to have created Obatala, as Arch-divinity, who then created humans on earth. Olodumare then infused those human creations with life. Each divinity has their own priest or priestess."
Practices and rituals
There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions. Often, God is worshiped through consultation or communion with lesser deities and ancestral spirits. The deities and spirits are honored through libation, sacrifice (of animals, vegetables, or precious metals). The will of God is sought by the believer also through consultation of oracular deities, 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.
One of the most traditional methods of telling fortunes in Africa is called casting (or throwing) the bones. Because Africa is a large continent with many tribes and cultures, there is not one single technique. Not all of the so-called bones are actually bones, small objects may include 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) and they fall into one of two categories:
- Casting marked bones, flat pieces of wood, shells, or leather strips and numerically counting up how they fall – either according to their markings or whether they do or do not touch one another – with mathematically based readings delivered as memorized results based on the chosen criteria.
- Casting a special set of symbolic bones or an array of selected symbolic articles, e.g. a bird's wing bone to symbolize travel, a round stone to symbolize a pregnant womb, and a bird's foot to symbolize feeling.
In African society, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are generally no prohibitions against the practice. Those who tell fortunes for a living are also sought out for their wisdom as counselors and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.
Duality of Divinities
Most indigenous African religions have a dualistic concept of the person. In the Igbo language, a person is said to be composed of a body and a soul. In the Yoruba language, however, there seems to be a tripartite concept: in addition to body and soul, there is said to exist a spirit or an ori, an independent entity which mediates or otherwise interacts between the body and the soul.
Some religious systems have a specific devil-like figure (e.g. Ekwensu) who is believed to be the opposite of God.
Virtue and vice
Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with 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 Mbiti, God, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience. But so could the Devil and its messengers. In indigenous 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 the God or the Devil.
Holy places and headquarters of religious activities
While there are man made holy places (e.g. altars, shrines, temples, tombs, etc.), very often sacred space is located in nature (e.g. trees, groves, rocks, hills, mountains, caves, etc.).
Many indigenous religions, like most religions, have elaborate stories that explain how the world was created, how culture and civilization came about, or what happens when a person dies (e.g. Kalunga Line). Other mythologies are meant to explain or enforce social conventions on issues relating to age, gender, class, or religious rituals. Myths are popular methods of education; they communicate religious knowledge and morality while amusing or frightening those who hear or read them. Examples of religions with elaborate mythologies include the native religions of the Yoruba (see Yoruba mythology) and Serer people (see Serer creation myth).
Adherents of traditional African religions have been persecuted, e.g. practitioners of the Bwiti religion by Christian missionaries and French colonial authorities, as well as some members of the present Gabon government. Countering this, the Republic of Benin holds international Vodun conferences annually.
Traditions by region
This list is not exhaustive, and is limited to a few well-known traditions.
- Akan religion (Ghana)
- Dahomey (Fon) mythology
- Efik mythology (Nigeria, Cameroon)
- Odinani of the Igbo people (Nigeria, Cameroon)
- Serer religion (Senegal, Gambia)
- Yoruba religion (Nigeria, Benin)
- Akamba mythology (East Kenya)
- Dinka religion (South Sudan)
- Lotuko mythology (South Sudan)
- Masai mythology (Kenya, Tanzania)
- Malagasy mythology (Madagascar)
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According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 480,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham, (A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.) is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture (see Amadu Jacky Kaba). The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, June 2005. Discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopedium, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
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- Swiderski, Stanislaw. La religion bouiti, Volumes 1 à 2. "The persecutions of the Bwiti, organized by the Catholic Church and the colonial government, or even by certain members of the present government, have reinforced the "racial" and religious consciousness of the Bwiti,"
- African Religious Beliefs
- Afrika world.com A website with extensive links and information about traditional African religions
- Asomdwee Fie, Shrine of the Abosom and Nsamanafo A Traditional Akan Spiritual Shrine
- Baba Alawoye.com Baba'Awo Awoyinfa Ifaloju, showcasing Ifa using web media 2.0 (blogs, podcasting, video & photocasting)
- Roots and Rooted For those that love traditional African Religion