African Traditional Religion - Here to stay
The colonizers and missionaries labeled Africa a “Dark Continent”, meaning that it had neither philosophy nor religion. But, despite the denial of its existence, African Traditional Religion (ATR) is a strong and dynamic reality in most parts of the continent and enjoys an increasing popularity because it addresses some of the basic spiritual and social needs of the population.
For the last few centuries, since the continent came into contact with the rest of the world, many different images have also emerged to describe Africa. The early visitors from Europe, who were neither anthropologists nor ethnographers, portrayed Africa as a dark continent that had no philosophy at all. Later, other adventurers and tourists came who portrayed Africans as barbaric and warriors, followed by the colonizers and missionaries describing Africans as uncivilized and uneducated pagans who had no religion and spirituality. Modern media and different writings classify African practices as animist, satanic, primitive, witchcraft and backward, which have no place in modern life.
According to Magesa, the obvious prejudice of nineteenth century scholarship tainted by Darwinism, slave trading and colonial mentality, is a reason behind attitudes toward African traditional religion.
Trevor Roper, an Oxford professor of history, once wrote: “There is no history in Africa; there is only the history of Europeans in Africa. The rest is darkness and Darkness is not a subject of history”.
Sindano’s reaction to this is that history is an account of man’s past activities whether written or not. Most African societies recorded their history in the form of rock paintings, sculptures, statues, material culture, oral literature, and so on. Myths, legends, fables and folktales were passed from one generation to another by word of mouth. The fact that many Africans were not literate does not mean they did not have a history.
Westerners know very well what they did to Africa by robbing people of their historical wealth, like slave trade, stealing of artifacts, brain washing, etc.
If Africa had no history why should the West get interested in their material culture which are symbols of their heritage? Is this not ironical to make Africans feel worthless while west countries are stealing their spirituality?
Because of the above attitudes, many people have not yet comfortably accepted the status of ATR as a religion among others. Magesa comments that the tendency of some philosophers, theologians and students of comparative religion is still to regard ATR as a “primal” or”ethnic” religion thus robbing it of its universal character.
ATR came into existence from what people think of the universe and how they solve the mysteries of nature. Fritz confirms that from the sayings and adages in all African languages one can conclude that there always existed philosophy and a system of thoughts in Africa.
An article in Nairobi’s Sunday Nation, December 3, 2006, highlighted the discovery of the oldest religion which has changed history. It is said that archeologists had found what seem to be the remains of the world’s earliest religious site of worship in the remote Ngamiland region of Botswana, in the sacred Tsodilo Hills, where Africans performed advanced rituals some 70 000 years ago.
This finding by the University of Oslo not only strengthens Africa’s position as the cradle of modern man but also confirms that Africans have always been notoriously religious.
Religion and life
I salute the many scholars who are vigorously lauding the ATR. When Mbiti (1975) says that the African is a notorious religious person, he implies that Africans have deep inherent spirituality. He adds that: “Wherever the African is, there is his religion which he carries to the field where he is sowing seeds or harvesting a new crop; he takes it with him to the beer party or to the examination room at school or at the university. If he is a politician, he takes it to the parliament.” In Africa, community life is religious; being part of the society is practicing their religion and not doing so is to be cut out from the kinship and roots. Magesa wrote that being excommunicated from the community is like being sent to the Christian hell. He added that for an African religion is far more than ‘a believing way of life’ or an ‘approach to life’ directed by a book. It is a ‘way of life’ or life itself, where a distinction or separation is not made between religion and other areas of human existence, to mean that religion is found in the people’s lives. For an African, religion is life and life is religion.
It will be wrong to think that it is the white man who brought God to Africans. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Leopold II the King of Belgium was quoted warning the colonizers (missionaries) not to emphasize on teaching God because the Congolese already knew him as “Nzambe”.
This is very much true because other communities, such as the Agikuyu of central Kenya, knew him and called him Ngai even before the coming of the missionaries. For the Maasai God is called Enkai; the Luo call him Nyakalaga; the Abaluhya call him Nyasae; the Abashi of DR Congo call him Nnamahaanga; while the Yoruba of Nigeria call him Oledumare; the Baganda of Uganda call him Katonda; in Rwanda he is Imana and most Bantu call him Mulungu.
It shows the closeness between man and God, as they referred to him as the giver of life, owner of the universe or a great ancestor, etc. They worship him and offer him sacrifices. They invoke him during meals and different community activities.
Answer to real needs
This is a pure indication that the ATR is still in fashion among the so-called believers of other religions, even though not allowed in Christianity. Dr. Murikwa, of Daystar University in Nairobi, explains this phenomenon when he talks about ATR and Christianity. According to him, the major reason behind the increasing popularity of the ATR is that the established denominations are not meeting some of the basic spiritual and social needs of their African members. Historically, Africans believe in the wisdom of the elders (aged) who are the custodians of the African heritage. They also obey ancestors who guide and solve the community’s problems. What Christianity missed, was ‘eldership’. “It is not a cultural thing in Africa for the young people to lead the old. It is almost an insult,” he says.
Because of emphasizing on the “book knowledge”, in the area of leadership, the church ignored the virtues that were very important in the old times, like the character of a person. With the western education, the church overlooks men who have great wisdom which only comes with age and experience. They also ignored the perceived need for protection from the spirit world.
He adds that many ATR beliefs include the offering of sacrifices and the pouring of libations to appease the spirits so they will not become angry. They used to ‘bribe’ them because they feared spirits were going to do harmful things to them. Not only Christians found themselves in this dilemma. In Mali, even in the city of Bamako, I met people divining in the open air, in their compounds. Many still put rings intended to have protection powers from evil despite their Islamic beliefs. Research has also revealed that most Africans still use traditional medicine. It is estimated that thousands of kilograms of medicinal plants are collected and used everyday by traditional healers and mothers at home across Africa. While modern medicine concentrates on the physical dimension of the human being, with strict diagnostic and therapeutic procedures being applied, the approach taken by traditional medicine is global and incorporates physical, moral, social, cultural and religious dimensions.
According to the World Health Organization, at least 80% of the population in the developing world depends on herbal medicine in their primary health care needs. Europeans now refer to African traditional medicine as “alternative medicine”. If our ancestors have used herbal medicine for thousand of centuries, I wonder which one should be the “alternative medicine”. Is this not trying to undermine African heritage?
Those traditional practices are not only performed during disputes but are also used to restore harmony between the visible and the invisible world. We have many such cases that explain the practices of ATR in modern day in Africa.
Among the Luo of Kenya, for example, rituals are very imperative during burials, harvesting, before moving into a new house, etc. A Luo person who dies in Nairobi will definitively be taken to Luoland as required by culture. Upon completion of the building of a new house, Luo parents have to do sex in their new dwelling before the family can move in.
Every practice by Africans has a meaning, and these rituals are believed to play a psychotherapeutic role, because failure to perform them will disturb peace in the community. Here rituals become imperative to purify or cleanse the individual (despite the age or social status) or the whole community.
The late Dr Garang, leader of the Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) and President of the autonomous government of Southern Sudan, was seen jumping a slaughtered white bull during a welcoming home ceremony. The tem (shedding of blood) is a ritual done for a person who has stayed away from home for long. In the ATR, white is associated with God, purity, holiness, and cleanness. Among the Sudanese Pastoral communities, it symbolizes peace and good health.
In the ATR, the world of spirits is very powerful, and conflicting with them require a cleansing in order to survive. Without a cleansing ceremony, the concerned person or the community is exposed to death.
Many non-Africans today have started to believe in the power of the rituals and the spirituality embedded in them because they are capable of healing and changing mankind.
In Mozambique, after war, there was a need to get the child soldiers back into community life. Because of the strong belief that ancestral spirits control reality, purification was performed to ease the return of their boys soldiers to their communities and to civilian life. Support programs walked side by side with the traditional healers and the community leaders. Jean Claude le Grand, head of emergencies to UNICEF Maputo says that traditional purification rituals have tremendous impact on healing the child, mobilizing the community around him and providing support.
All these practices are explained by the fact that the world of spirits still controls the living. A recent scenario speaks louder, when in Kenya eight men taking a body to a mortuary got a rude shock. They failed to lift it off the vehicle’s floor. The body have been removed from a Nakuru mortuary for burial in Migori, but on the way, the vehicle transporting it was involved in an accident in which two people died. Police put the three bodies in an ambulance to the district hospital mortuary. The two bodies in the accident were easily removed but that of Omondi Magendi got firmly stuck to the vehicle’s floor, people shaking their heads in disbelief when eight strong men are unable to lift the body.
An elderly man in the swelling crowd at the mortuary said: “The ancestor’s spirits could not allow the body to return to the mortuary since they are waiting for him in the grave.” The ambulance driver had no choice other than driving to the resting-place of the deceased in Awendo, Migori.
All these practices represent the strong spirituality of the ATR in Africa, mainly because it is so holistic and links all the forces of life, such as: the Supreme Being (God), the elders (community), blood relations (kinship), ancestors (living dead), and the environment (animals, rivers, rocks, mountains and the sacred trees). Once all the forces of life are combined, they conform a strong spirituality, which an African cannot do without.
A pastor had to seek protection from the police after he was threatened with death by villagers for leading his followers in cutting down and burning a sacred tree in Kenya. The preacher was later condemned and cursed by the elders through traditional chants. They also warned their wives and children not to come to church.
ATR is the foundation of humanness in African society. An old man told me that, before Christianity, Africans were very united and assisted one another, but today the society is divided and people have become selfish. Indeed, you cannot talk about religion in Africa, without mentioning community life.
Because morality or ethic is of the very nature of religion, Africans strive to promote life and enhance kinship and lineage through different ways, like marriage (polygamy, ghost marriage), adoption and other social norms as dictated by the society.
Hospitality and generosity are imperative for each member of a society. All people are brought up with an altruist spirit. All this is framed in the ATR, which does not conceive man/woman as an individual, but one who makes a part of the totality. Mbiti argues that for an African to be human is to belong to the beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and festivals of the community.
The ATR is inculcated in the children at a tender age. Children are taught how to sit decently, how to say ‘thank you’ and how to greet people. The ATR shapes the people’s behavior and teaches good manners and how to relate as social beings, so as to build personhood.
A greeting is so spiritual and religious in Africa not because of the doxology, but because of the peace and personhood, which are confirmed by handshaking. When a guest arrives in a home, he shakes hands with everyone in the house, including the tiny baby. Handshaking is a sign that the other person is recognized.
Nkoyoyo adds that a greeting puts us in touch with the very origins of human religion. As we recognize the existence of ‘other’, we please God who gives life. Sharing of food is one of the ways of worshiping God and enhancing life that is sacred.
Food is spiritual. Shenk adds that the sharing of food is a profound existence in community. He compared the washing of hands as a spiritual cleansing, as one gets ready for Holy Communion (sharing food together). Remember, in Africa people eat from one common dish, hands reaching forward into one dish to partake of the food together. If a stranger passes by, he must be compelled to share in the meal, because he/she is a sign of God’s blessing. He/she must join in the meal, share in the communal mysticism of the meal and a refusal to share is a sign of a curse.
Community life still exists and influences people in Africa today. Although urban duelers have been confronted by modernism, they are aware that the heart of Africa beats in the village. They have been trying to bring the village to town because they miss that kind of fellowship. They meet and organize cultural nights, where they socialize while dancing in the traditional style, eat indigenous food and drink local brew.
The eagerness to return to our roots is very much sensed in these days. Professor Wangare, the Kenyan Nobel peace Prize laureate, received seedlings instead of a bouquet usually offered to high-placed guests. This is a way of reclaiming our culture through attachment to trees rather than flowers, which represent no spirituality in Africa.
If Africans have a culture, then, they must also be having a spirituality and a religion. Denying them recognition of their religion is an insult and also ignorance on the part of those who perpetuate these prejudices. Of course, African traditional religion is not animist, fetishism, paganism or witchcraft. ATR is very different from other religions, a thing Europeans did not understand. It is not inferior to any other and it is universal.
Africans are notoriously religious. They know God by name and consider him as the great ancestor. The obedience and submission to him is obvious.
Despite the opposition against ATR, Africans observe its manifestations from womb to tomb, as they go through their daily cultural routines.
There are many facts about the vibrant works of ATR today as people practice their culture, undergoing rituals, and maintaining peace in the communities. The power behind the community life and humanness in Africa resides in the ATR, the axis in shaping behavior. Even though the West has besmirched the image of Africa, it is encouraging to see African scholars rewriting their history. Many initiatives are being lauded to recall African Traditional Religion in order to counter the many problems that affect our communities today. We cannot expect to achieve peace and development in this continent without revisiting the African heritage. African traditional religion is a springboard for any religious dialogue with Africans.
Modernism is deeply damaging African traditional religion exposing the people to a slow but sure moral death. It is only the ATR, which can still rebuild the moral uprightness in Africa because of teaching responsibility, accountability and humanness. A Swahili proverb says: “Muacha mila ni mtumwa” (he who abandons his traditions remains a slave).
We should always remember that if the ATR is annihilated, neither modern education nor other beliefs would replace the values embedded in it. We must preserve and document it, least we wallow in ignorance and bedevil our moral values.
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