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African Traditional Religion: The People’s Culture and the European Perception Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by ADEBARI ADEOLU, United States Jul 10, 2006
Culture , Media   Opinions


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.


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destiny | Mar 16th, 2010
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Lydia Molatlhegi | Apr 7th, 2012
Good thing that i joined this group would love to learn and know more

BERNARD OMWANDO | Jun 3rd, 2011
I would like to commend highly the one involved in the preparation and presentation of the notes presented above about African Traditional Religion. Thanks.

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