Published on: Jul 10, 2006
Type: Opinions

Over the years, African traditional institutions have thrived on religion. Religion serves as the structure around which all other activities, such as cultural, economic, political and social organizations are built. In order to understand the people of Africa fully, an in-depth study of the religious beliefs of its people must be carried out. To the people of Africa, religion is literally life and life is religion. Although there are some similarities in the religions of most African communities because they all believe in God as the supreme being, the existence of man, the universe, life and life after death, the power of deities, the idea of sacrifice, rights of passage from childhood to adulthood and ancestral ties; there are, however, numerous differences in their beliefs and religious activities since most are tribal or clan based. Therefore, there is no single African traditional religion that can be seen as a generalized representation of the religious and cultural beliefs of the people of Africa. Africans recognize eternity, omniscience, omnipresence, holiness, justice, mercy, faithfulness and transcendence of God although perceptions of God’s attributes vary from one place to another.

Another important aspect of African traditional religion is the presence of spirits. In the African world, spirits are everywhere--in persons, trees, rivers, animals, rocks, mountains, and even in automobiles and other personal effects. The presence of these spirits in the African society offers a serious challenge to the behavior patterns of the people on the continent and elsewhere because traditional religious practices permeate every aspect of life on the continent. These spirits in many ways act as moral entrepreneurs of the African society. They abhor crimes like adultery, stealing, cheating, and suicide. These spirits communicate their wishes, demands and prescriptions to the larger society through the traditional priests. These traditional priests are able to satisfy their clients through the performance of rituals. On the African continent, every major event has its own ritual, a ritual that may never be overlooked for any reason. The rituals are often performed through a dance, music, libation or art. In the presence of other religious practices on the continent, these rituals have survived in one form or another.

The practice of medicine and magic is also important in most African societies. They engage in fetishism, in which they believe that certain objects, mostly man-made, have supernatural powers in them. Magic or sorcery refers to the influencing of events and physical phenomena by supernatural, mystical, or paranormal means. They are complexes of beliefs and practices that believers can resort to in order to wield this supernatural influence, and are similar to cultural complexes that seek to explain various events and phenomena by supernatural means. The roles of certain religious functionaries is also important. They have native doctors/physicians, diviners, witch doctors, and traditional birth attendants. All these people have important roles to play in the traditional African society.

The beliefs and practices of African traditional religion and society are based upon the faith of the ancient indigenous people who are referred to as ancestors. This is why it is qualified as traditional, traditional comes from the Latin verb "tradere" which means to hand down doctrines, customs etc., from generation to generation. The belief in ancestors is an important element of African traditional religions. The belief occupies an important place in the understanding of the role of the traditional religion in inculcating the ideals of culture and religion among African peoples. The ancestors are believed to be disembodied spirits of people who lived upright lives here on earth, died 'good' and natural deaths, that is at a ripe old age, and received the acknowledged funerary rites. They could be men or women. This means that not all who die become ancestors, but there are conditions which must be fulfilled while the person is alive.

Traditional Africans hold the ancestors as the closest link between the physical and spirit worlds. "The living-dead are bilingual; they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until 'recently', and they speak the language of the spirits and of God .They are the spirits with which African peoples are most concerned: it is through the living-dead that the spirit world becomes personal to men. They are still part of their human families, and people have personal memories of them". Africans believe that the ancestors are essentially benevolent spirits. They return to their human families from time to time and share meals with them, however, symbolically. They know and have interest in what is going on in their families. These ancestors are seen as guardians to the family often reincarnating through new born babies. So it is suffice to say that for the most part, African traditional religion depends very much on the spirit world.

The people of Africa also possess important sacred institutions with significant religious dimensions. They include sacred kingship institution, public shrines and sacred groves, divination and masquerades. Each one of them generally implies important religious beliefs, supernatural powers and authority, and serves as a vital channel for inculcating and promoting the ideal of harmonious living in society by the people. For traditional groups that have sacred kings, such kings are not simply political heads; they are more importantly sacred personages. They possess spiritual and mystical powers which enable them to confer benefits on their people. In most cases, they are regarded as descendants or incarnations of divine beings, a mythical ancestor, or divinity. Such is the OOni of Ife among the Yoruba, the Asantehene of the Ashanti kingdom and the Queen of the Lovedu in South Africa. The society is usually organized around the system of chieftaincy, with the King occupying the central position.

Masquerades are another highly symbolic public institution and performance among traditional African groups that play a major role in the religious beliefs of African societies. African masquerades are generally public performance troupes that evoke a wide variety of significant ideas and values concerning the social, occupational, political and religious aspects of life of traditional peoples. It is believed that these masquerades are spirits who are messengers of the gods appearing in physical form. They are seen as sacred symbols with a rich religious significance and they also serve to reinforce the spiritual authority that eradicates social evils.

Using the Akan people as an example, they believe that the universe was created by a Supreme Being. Akan religious thought is essentially theocentric and theistic, with the Supreme Being, God at the center of it all. From this perspective, the Akan use their cultural symbols to portray their beliefs about God, their attitudes towards God and His creation, and the Akan relation to God and His creation. It is also the belief of the Akan that the ancestors bring peace and harmony to the society though their monarch's upright and spiritual rule. They believe that the success and fertility of the people and their land and animals is influenced by the fertility and good tidings of the king. In their own opinion the land on which they live is owned by their ancestors. The Akan believe that the power of the ancestors are derived from God and also that since the ancestors have power and authority their requests and injunctions must not be refused or disobeyed.

The administration of their community centers on the chiefs and their elders. The Akan believe that the chief is the custodian of the land as empowered by the ancestors, and so he is responsible for the fair distribution, proper utilization and care of the land. In the religion of the people of Akan, evil powers are also believed to be in existence aside the ancestors who do well. They are beings who are inimical to human beings; they frighten people, cause disasters, afflictions, and deaths. They also have the ability to influence people to do evil. In view of this, Africans do not see events happening without some involvements of the spirits. The Akan believe that there is no mere natural explanation for any occurrence; all mishaps are to be investigated to find out how and why they occur.

In the Akan situation, there are some functionaries who serve as traditional healers. The herbalist or physician is the person who uses traditional herbal remedies to help people. They are usually knowledgeable about the medicinal properties of various plant parts, birds and animals. Their job also has a religious significance because they share a belief the spiritual universe and they know that all issues have spiritual dimensions. The diviners are the ones that diagnose by helping to consult the gods, so that mysteries will be unveiled. They convey the message of the gods to the people, and also serve as counselors and mediators in disputes. The witch doctors are believed to be able to give charms and amulets that will protect people from witches. The Akan believe that these exorcists have the power to catch witches.

Denigration of Africans and their religious traditions was a common feature of colonialism. The Europeans felt that the people of African were “primitive" and "backward”. They brought Christianity and commercialization. The Europeans destroyed the much revered African chieftaincy system through a ruse. They were able to forcibly manipulate the chiefs, thereby weakening their authority. They therefore became aliens to the people they were meant to rule. A good example of the predicament of the African traditional society and religion after the coming of the Europeans can be seen in the experience of the Akan. The attitude of the people to ancestors and their other beliefs were referred to as idolatry, fetish and superstitious. They claimed that the Akan were evil. They believed that the people who believed and benefited from these religious practices were heathen and they were considered lost and eternally doomed.

The Europeans, through administrators and missionaries, carried out massive attacks on various religious rites, such as funeral, widow rites, bride wealth and polygamy. Their perception was that African were pagans and every form of paganism was to be done away with. They thought that the rescuing of people from African traditions and religious worships was necessary because they were saving them from inhumanity and barbarism. The issues of polygamy, drumming and dancing, puberty and nobility rites were said to be immoral. The missionaries said all these must be stopped because they believed and termed them as un-Christian, obscene and things that were not compatible with the Christian religion. The actions of the European in regards to the elimination and modernization of the African traditional society and religion is still the subject of several discussions and debate to date. While some people feel the role of the Europeans served a good purpose, others view it otherwise.

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