By Michael McKenny, 12–20 August 2002
INTRODUCTION TO AFRICAN RELIGION, John S. Mbiti,
Praeger, New York, 1975.
This is a high school text book, and, as such, a very good basic introduction to the topic of traditional African religion.
The book begins with a reference to the richness, variety and influence of African heritage. It defines culture:
The word culture covers many things, such as the way people live, behave and act, and their physical as well as their intellectual achievements. Culture shows itself in art and literature, dance, music and drama, in the styles of building houses and of people’s clothing, in social organizations and political systems, in religion, ethics, morals and philosophy, in the customs and institutions of the people, in their values and laws, and in their economic life. p. 7
It mentions the diversity of African cultures, and some widespread aspects: polygamy, round houses, herding, growing yams, bananas, millets, Stories, proverbs, riddles, myths and legends, (p. 7) music and crafts. It introduces the five elements of religion: beliefs, ceremonies, sacred items and places, values, and holy people. It states the absence of a founder, or of sacred scripture for African religion. It then challenges the simplistic use of attributive terms as definitions of African religion: hence, the author rejects calling African religion ancestor worship, fetishism, and animism, although ancestors are honoured, fetishes used and spirits perceived in natural features.
Chapter Three, Where African Religion is Found (pp. 19-30), lists rituals, sacred places, art and symbol, proverbs, names, myths and customs and then mentions Africa south of the Saharah where, even among converts to Islam or Christianity, may be found elements of traditional African spirituality.
For example, in Nigeria the name Babatunde means ‘father returns’. It is given to a male child born immediately after the death of his grandfather. For a girl it is Yetunde, ‘mother returns’. The meaning of these names shows the belief that death is not the end of life, and that the departed return to be ‘born’ in their family p. 25
Some shrines belong to a family, such as those connected with departed members of the family or their graves. Others belong to the community and these are often in groves, rocks, caves, hills, mountains, under certain trees and similar places. People respect such places, and in some societies no bird, animal or human being may be killed if it or he or she is hiding in such places. p. 19
Chapter Four, African Views of the Universe (pp. 31-39), begins with humans’ long observation of the natural world, the forming and sharing of ideas and their complexity and diversity. It mentions creation, sky and earth, unending natural cycles, order and the importance of man.
Chapter Five, Belief in God (pp. 40-53), begins by stating all Africans are theists, possibly from considering creation, from realizing human limitation and from observing natural forces, especially storms, lightning and thunder. There is a page long list of names for God. It examines God as creator, as sustainer, as provider and as ruler. It sees him as father and as friend. Such attributes as just, merciful, good, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, etc. are stated.
Chapter Six, How God is Approached by People (pp. 54-64), looks at worship, prayers and sacrifices.
African traditional prayers generally include praise, thanksgiving, a declaration of the state of affairs in which the prayers are offered, and requests. Such prayers always have concrete intentions and people do not ‘beat about the bush’ when saying their prayers. They request such things as: good health, healing, protection from danger, safety in travelling or some other undertaking, security, prosperity, preservation of life, peace and various benefits for individuals. For the community at large, prayer may ask for rain, peace, the cessation of epidemics and dangers to the nation, success in war or raids, the acceptance of sacrifices and offerings, and fertility for people, animals and crops. pp. 55-56
Sacrifices are defined as blood offerings. There is mention of sacrificing in time of need an animal of one colour, belonging to an upright person. What has been sacrificed may be consumed by priests, by participants in the ritual, left at the ritual site, or returned to the owner. There are intermediaries, gods and spirits, between God and humans.
Chapter Seven, The Spirits (pp. 65-76), begins with the two kinds of spirits, nature spirits and human spirits. Nature spirits are associated with the sky (weather, celestial objects, etc.) and the earth (natural features, including those dealing with water). Human spirits are those departed recently (four or five generations) and those who died earlier than that. The ones who died a long time ago (outside of prominent and known personages) are generally met with distrust and apprehension. It is different for those who have died more recently.
They are considered to be still part of their families. They are believed to live close to their homes where they lived when they were human beings. They show interest in their surviving families, and in return their families remember them by pouring out parts of their drinks and leaving bits of food for them from time to time. The living dead may also visit their surviving relatives in dreams or visions, or even openly, and make their wishes known. pp. 72-73
Chapter Eight, The Origin and Early State of Man (pp. 77-81), begins by mentioning the significance of oral tradition, the great number and variety of myths and the sky as the home of the first humans in some myths. Others have man created on earth. In some myths, sky and earth were connected and became separated.
Chapter Nine, Birth and Time of Youth (pp. 82-97), conveys the importance and joy of birth. The mother takes certain measures to ensure the saftety of the expected baby. These include refraining from some kinds of work, dietary observations and wearing charms. There are celebrations and rituals to welcome the baby and to protect it. Charms are often placed around the baby’s arm, waist or neck. There are naming ceremonies and names are taken seriously. A baby can be named for the day of the week on which it was born, for a departed relative, to show the gratitude of its parents, after an animal, even a demeaning word so as to avert harm. As twins have a reduced chance of survival, they are considered an ill-fortune. The shedding of blood in the circumcission initiation ceremony makes one an adult, binds one to the land and includes one in the community. This ceremony can be preceeded by a period months long during which the young person is educated in traditional matters.
Chapter Ten, Marriage and Family Life (pp. 98-109), begins with the obligation of an initiated adult to marry.
Marriage is the meeting-point for the three layers of human life according to African religion. These are the departed, the living and those to be born. The departed come into the picture because they are the roots on whom the living stand. The living are the link between death and life. Those to be born are the buds in the loins of the living, and marriage makes it possible for them to germinate and sprout. p. 98
The author mentions that he has written a book called LOVE AND MARRIAGE IN AFRICA. He mentions the involvement of parents in the selection of marriage partners, visits, gifts, customs conerning the bride’s change of residence, marriage ceremonies and celebrations. The importance of children means a childless couple may take steps to ensure offspring, such as an additional wife or another bed partner for the first wife. Children have errands when young, added to as they age.
When the parents become old and weak it is the duty of the children, especially the heirs or sons, to look after the parents and the affairs of the family. Finally when the parents die it is the duty of their surviving children to bury them properly, to remember them, to look after their graves, to give bits of food and pour libations to them where this is the custom, and to keep a good relationship with their departed parents who are now spirits of the living dead. p. 109
Chapter Eleven, Death and the Hereafter (pp. 110-125), begins with reference to the many and varied myths about the origin of death. The cause of death may appear physical, but usually a spirit or human magic lies at its root. The importance of death means funeral ceremonies are performed attentively.
Generally the disposal of the body takes place the same or the following day. This is mainly because of the tropical heat which makes the body decompose fast. In most parts of Africa burial is the usual means of disposing the body of a dead person. It may take place in the back yard of one of the houses of the village, in a family burial place, or at the original place of birth. The grave may be rectangular, oval, cave-like, or even a big pot made for that purpose. pp. 113-114
Some belongings of the deceased are buried, too, to be of service in the journey to the next world, or after arriving. There are funeral rites, simple or ornate, depending on the person concerned. The funeral is generally followed by feasting. Sometimes white clay is applied by mourners as a sign of grieving. Sometimes some residences may be abandoned.
The next world is often viewed as close to this one, though we cannot see it. For four or five generations, while remembered, the recently dead are included in respectful ways. Afterwards, they may be of aid to diviners or enter into natural features or be the cause of fear among strangers who encounter them.
Chapter Twelve, Rituals and Festivals (pp. 126-140), mentions again the various rituals concerned with the individual’s life cycle. It continues with community rituals related to the cycle of the year agriculturally, which includes seeking or moderating rain consecrating and protecting new fields, as well as accompanying planting and harvesting. There are herding rituals, including for milking. There are rituals for health and healing, for the building of new homes, for hunting, for smithing and for rulers. Nigerian masquerades are mentioned.
Chapter Thirteen, Religious Objects and Places (pp. 141-149), starts with personal items, moves on to items of community ritual, such as costumes, masks and staffs, and touches on sacred colours.
The commonest ritual colours are black, white and red. These colours signify different things in different parts of Africa. For example, only black animals are sacrificed in certain parts of Uganda, Nigeria, Rhodesia and many other places. Black for such people is the colour of purity and sacredness. On the other hand, elsewhere, black is associated with death, danger and evil. White animals only are sacrificed in other parts of Africa, thus signifying that white is the colour of purity and sacredness for those people. Yet there are parts of Africa where white is the colour associated with death, spirits, and evil. p. 143
There are also ritual numbers, and, for example, the circumambulation of a sacred tree seven times in places. Offerings, including sacrificial offerings, are sacred. There are man-made places (altars, shrines, temples and graves), but most sacred space is natural.
They include groves and forests, trees, waterfalls and rivers, lakes, rocks and mountains. They are symbolically the meeting-point between the heavens or sky and the earth, and therefore of the invisible and visible worlds. People use them for rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices, offerings and praying. Such places are not put to common use; this would desecrate them. Where necessary there are people who look after the general tidiness of these places. In any case there are ritual and religious leaders who take charge of any public use of these places, and see to it that they are kept in order where and when necessary. p. 146
Chapter Fourteen, Religious Leaders (pp. 150-163), begins by underlining the importance of people performing sacred functions, even part time. There are medicine-men (male and female) healing the sick, through physical and spiritual means and providing advice for a broad range of personal perplexities. There are seers divining to discover the unknown. Page 155 has two photos, top showing a Kenyan diviner holding his divination gourd, bottom showing the pebbles and stones of the gourd. The Ifa divination system of Nigeria is mentioned. Mediums, trained in special schools in such countries as Nigeria and Ghana, are possessed by spirits, and communicate in another’s voice what generally requires an associated diviner to interpret.
There are other special people: seers seeing without special training, elders in charge of rituals, rain-makers, traditional rulers, and priests:
Traditional priests are found in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana and other parts of West Africa, where people had or have temples and cults associated with major spirits (or divinities). p. 159
Chapter Fifteen, Magic and Medicine (pp. 164-174), begins with the widespread abhorrence of those who abuse magic. People, conscious of potential magical repercussions, tend to treat others well. Medicine is used to remedy the abuse of magic, and to promote the well-being of the one using medicine.
Whether this medicine functions in every case or not need not matter very much. It is the belief in the efficacy of such medicine which inspires hope in the sick, confidence in the hunter and businessman, courage in the sufferer and the traveller, and a sense of security in the many who feel that they are surrounded by mystical and physical enemies. p. 174
Chapter Sixteen, Morals in African Religion (pp. 175-181), begins with the largely social and community nature of African morality. This includes: respecting parents and elders, bringing up children well, hospitality, honesty, reliability, courage, etc. Natural calamities are often considered punishment for moral failing.
Chapter Seventeen, The Meeting of African Religion and Other Religions (pp. 182-194), begins with early Christianity. Then, it mentions response to Christianity with the arrival of the Portuguese and later Nineteenth and Twentieth Century conversions. Christianity is growing rapidly despite its associations with colonialism.
Another major problem facing Christianity in Africa is the large number of Church divisions, denominations, groups and sects. Many of these were imported from abroad. Many more were started by African Christians themselves, partly because they did not wish to remain indefinitely under the domination of foreign missionaries, partly because of personal wishes for power, partly because of wanting to make Christianity reflect African culture and problems, and for various other reasons. p. 184
The chapter continues with reference to Islam, spread by the sword and facing the present problem of its highly legalistic nature. There is mention of Jews, Hindus, Sikhs with virtually no African converts and of Baha’i. Many African ways have remained even among people converted to other religions.
The last chapter, The Value of Religion (pp 195-202), begins with the time, material resources, even life itself, that many people are prepared to offer religion. It mentions freedom of religion in many lands, religious holidays, spiritual understandings and morality. It notes the communal nature of festivals, the marking of transitions and the celebration of life. It concludes with a mention of the value of religion in conveying a sense of humility to humans.
This is a high school text book, replete with four pages of questions, chapter by chapter, and many appropriate photos. It is an easy to read, sympathetic and good introduction to the topic.