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 Classification and statistics
- 2 Ceremonies
- 3 Deities
- 4 Practices and rituals
- 5 Duality of Divinities
- 6 Virtue and vice
- 7 Holy places and headquarters of religious activities
- 8 Mythology
- 9 Religious persecution
- 10 Traditions by region
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Further reading
- 14 Notes
- 15 External links
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)
- Bushongo mythology (Congo)
- Mbuti (Pygmy) mythology (Congo)
- Lugbara mythology (Congo)
- Dinka religion (South Sudan)
- Lotuko mythology (South Sudan)
- Information presented here was gleaned from World Eras Encyclopaedia, Volume 10, edited by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure (New York: Thomson-Gale, 2003), in particular pp. 275–314.
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- Herbert Cole, Mbari: Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo (Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1982).
- J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, second edition (London: Cass, 1968).
- Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dietterlen, Le Mythe Cosmogonique (Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, 1965).
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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.
- Anthony Appiah, Kwame; Louis Gates, Henry (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. ISBN 0195337700.
- "Major Religions Ranked by Size: African Traditional & African Diasporic Religions". adherents.com. Retrieved 15 November 2012.
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- Roger S. Gottlieb. The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology, p261. Published by Oxford Handbooks Online, 2006. ISBN 0-19-517872-6
- Henry Gravrand. La Civilisation Sereer Pangool,p21, 152. Published by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, 1990. ISBN 2-7236-1055-1
- Simone Kalis, Médecine Traditionnelle, Religion et Divination Chez les Seereer Siin du Sénégal. La Coonaissance de la Nuit. L'Harmattan, 1997. ISBN 2-7384-5196-9
- 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