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Traditional African Religion
Diverse traditional beliefs and practices of African people
An early-20th-century Igbo medicine man in Nigeria, West Africa
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 today 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.
Followers of traditional African religions are also found around the world. In recent times, traditional religions, such as the Yoruba religion, are on the rise. The religion of the Yoruba is finding roots in the Islands of the Caribbean and portions of Central and South America. In the United States Vudon is more predominant in the states along the Gulf of Mexico.
Traditional African religions can be broken down into linguistic cultural groups, with common themes. Among Niger-Congo-speakers is a belief in a creator God, force or higher deity, which is considered by some to be a widespread and ancient feature of Niger-Congo-cultures, along with other more specialized deities, ancestor spirits, territorial spirits, and beings, as well as evil caused by human ill will and neglecting ancestor spirits, and priests of territorial spirits. New world religions such as Santería, Vodun, and Candomblé, would be derived from this world. Among Nilo-Saharan speakers is the belief in Divinity; evil is caused by divine judgement and retribution; prophets as middlemen between Divinity and man. Among Afro-Asiatic-speakers is henotheism, the belief in one's own gods but accepting the existence of other gods; evil here is caused by malevolent spirits. The Semitic Abrahamic religion of Judaism is comparable to the latter world view.San religion is generally non-theistic but a belief in a Spirit or Power of existence which can be tapped in a trance-dance; trance-healers.
Some researchers, including historical ethnolinguist Christopher Ehret, suggest that certain monotheistic concepts, such as the belief in a creator god or force (next to other gods, deities and spirits) are ancient and indigenous among peoples of the Niger-Congo ethnolinguistic family (of much of West Africa and Central Africa) and date to the beginning of their history, in a form substantially different from the monotheism found in Abrahamic religions. Traditional Niger-Congo religion also included polytheistic and animistic elements.
Traditional African medicine is also directly linked to traditional African religions. According to Clemmont E. Vontress, the various religious traditions of Africa are united by a basic Animism. According to him, the belief in spirits and ancestors is the most important element of African religions. Gods were either self-created or evolved from spirits or ancestors which got worshiped by the people. He also notes that most modern African folk religions were strongly influenced by non-African religions, mostly Christianity and Islam and thus may differ from the ancient forms.
Nigerian American professor of indigenous African religions at Harvard University, Jacob Olupona summarized the many traditional African religions as complex animistic religious traditions and beliefs of the African people before the Christian and Islamic "colonization" of Africa. Ancestor veneration has always played a "significant" part in the traditional African cultures and may be considered as central to the African worldview. Ancestors (ancestral ghosts/spirits) are an integral part of reality. The ancestors are generally believed to reside in an ancestral realm (spiritworld), while some believe that the ancestors became equal in power to deities.
The defining line between deities and ancestors is often contested, but overall, ancestors are believed to occupy a higher level of existence than living human beings and are believed to be able to bestow either blessings or illness upon their living descendants.
Ancestors can offer advice and bestow good fortune and honor to their living dependents, but they can also make demands, such as insisting that their shrines be properly maintained and propitiated. A belief in ancestors also testifies to the inclusive nature of traditional African spirituality by positing that deceased progenitors still play a role in the lives of their living descendants.
Olupona rejects the western/islamic definition of Monotheism or Polytheism and says that such concepts could not reflect the complex African traditions and are simplistic. While some traditions have a supreme being (next to other deities), others have not. Monotheism does not reflect the multiplicity of ways that the traditional African spirituality has conceived of deities, gods, and spirit beings. He summarizes that traditional African religions are not only religions, but a worldview, a way of life.
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 ashe, nyama, 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.
Followers of traditional African religions pray to various spirits as well as to their ancestors. This includes also nature, elementary and animal spirits. The difference between powerful spirits and gods is often minimal. Most African societies believe in several "high gods" and a large amount of lower gods and spirits. There are also religions with a single Supreme being (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.). Some recognize a dual god and goddess such as Mawu-Lisa.
Traditional African religions generally believe in an afterlife, one or more Spirit worlds, and Ancestor worship is an important basic concept in mostly all African religions. Some African religions adopted different views through the influence of Islam or even Hinduism.
There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions. 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 gods or spirits is sought by the believer also through consultation of divinities or divination. 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 Xooy 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.
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.
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.
^Britannica Book of the Year (2003), Encyclopædia Britannica (2003) ISBN978-0-85229-956-2 p.306 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 (1996) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell PublishersArchived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine 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 encyclopedias, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed on figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized hereArchived March 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, 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.
^Lugira, Aloysius M., African Traditional Religions (New York: Chelsea House, 2009), p. 36 [in] Varghese, Roy Abraham, Christ Connection: How the World Religions Prepared the Way for the Phenomenon of Jesus, Paraclete Press (2011), p. 1935, ISBN9781557258397 (Retrieved 24 March 2019)
^Mbiti, John S (1992). Introduction to African religion. ISBN9780435940027.When Africans are converted to other religions, they often mix their traditional religion with the one to which they are converted. In this way they are not losing something valuable, but are gaining something from both religious customs
^Gottlieb, Roger S (2006-11-09). The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology. ISBN9780195178722.Even in the adopted religions of Islam and Christianity, which on the surface appear to have converted millions of Africans from their traditional religions, many aspect of traditional religions are still manifest
^"US study sheds light on Africa's unique religious mix". AFP.t doesn't seem to be an either-or for many people. They can describe themselves primarily as Muslim or Christian and continue to practice many of the traditions that are characteristic of African traditional religion," Luis Lugo, executive director of the Pew Forum, told AFP.
^Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica Book of the Year 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica, (2003) ISBN9780852299562 p.306. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 376,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham,(A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, Massachusetts: 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. The World Book Encyclopedia has estimated that in 2002 Christians formed 40% of the continent's population, with Muslims forming 45%. It was also estimated in 2002 that Christians form 45% of Africa's population, with Muslims forming 40.6%.