Ngonidzashe Munemo, IB Extended Essay, 1994.
I grew up in a society in which the majority of young persons of my age believe that the Christian faith destroyed traditional African religion. My first idea was to write an essay showing how this is though to have happened and perhaps to give reasons why this occurred. However, from my present research I found that this belief of Christianity having destroyed traditional African religion is naive. This view is held partly because in most cases the Christian faith is associated with colonialism but fails to look at the traditional religion in terms of what it gave to the Africans and to ask whether the Christian faith does the same for the African Christian. It also does not take into consideration whether the belief of the traditional African was changed by the Christian faith nor what happened to their traditional religion.
What I hope to do in this essay is to show that the Christian faith did not destroy traditional African religion. It may have changed the traditional religion of the Africans but to say it destroyed traditional African religion would be to ignore what happened to the traditional religion of the Africans. I shall also argue that traditional African religion became insufficient for the Africans given the social structure in which the Africans now lived. That is, it now failed to fulfil the role that it used to in the past. The Africans could no longer turn to the traditional beliefs for answers to the questions that the new way of life had brought to them. I shall argue further that the Africans did not just unconsciously embrace the Christian faith but the faith went through an assimilative process, in that the Africans picked up parts of the Christian faith and at the same time dropped parts of their own religion that were no longer able to fulfil their purpose, and this in the end led to a form of Christianity that is African.
In my attempt to make my argument clear I shall start by giving an account of traditional religion in Southern Africa, with reference to the Shona and the Ndebele in Zimbabwe and on some cases the Zulu of South Africa, the beliefs, rituals and lastly symbolism. I shall move on to why I think the Africans embraced the Christian faith. This, I hope, will explain why I think that Christianity did not destroy Traditional African religion; Africans have not merely embraced the Christian faith, but have gone further in changing aspects of that religion to fit their African cosmologies.
Aspects of Traditional African Religion
Information on traditional African religion is at times difficult to access as no written records had been made of it until the Europeans came to the continent. Religion was passed down the generations through word of mouth. This means that there could have been some distortion in its documentation as this in many cases was eventually done from a non-African perspective, usually by missionaries. However, some of the information I shall use in this essay is based on books and a substantial amount of it is based on the knowledge I have the religion as a result of my upbringing. This of course creates a problem of bias in the information and I have tried to be as objective as possible.
In African traditional religion there was a very strong belief in many gods. These took the form of the vadzimu (plural,) the ‘living-dead’ in English. The living-dead were the sprits of those who had passed the physical state of existence and had moved to a spiritual state. The living-dead were believed by the Africans to be their link with the supreme God, mwari in Shona, unkulunkulu in Ndebele. The living-dead had a very important role in traditional religion, it was they the people were in close contact with, and they were consulted in times of trouble. Apart from the living-dead, who were the ancestors of the people, there was a belief in a regional deity. This deity was worshipped by all the people of that region through each individual’s mudzimu (singular.) The living-dead acted as intermediaries. In cases where the living-dead was not able to help the individual, he turned to the regional deity for help. This meant that each region had its own regional deity. There was also a belief in a supreme God who was further away from the daily activities of the people.
In traditional African religion there existed a very strong belief in the supernatural. There were powers associated with all aspects of life and nature. For example, a large tree or massive rock had powers associated with it. Coupled with this was the belief in witchcraft and sorcery. The Africans believed that if supernatural evil, witchcraft and sorcery were absent, then all would be well. This supernatural evil was everything that destroyed life, strength, health, fertility and prosperity. ”Africans saw evil as all that detracts from or destroys life, illness, infertility, pestilence, famine and sudden or inexplicable death.”  They believed that the evil came about when there had been a failure by the people to respect the living-dead, a regional deity or the supreme God. Envy, hatred, adultery or the disestablishment of the social categories among the people could invoke the evil powers. The evil powers did not just attack those who had done wrong but the whole society incurred their wrath. The Africans believed that through ritual and sacrifice to their living-dead they would be forgiven for their wrong-doing. There was a belief that the wearing of charms and amulets, mazango, would protect them from the work of witchcraft and sorcery. Also there was a belief that the burning of herbs, mushonga, in the home protected the household from the evil of witches and sorceresses.
As hinted in the previous section, many of the traditional rituals involved sacrifices of one for or another to the living-dead. The sacrifices were usually of animals, cows, goats, hens, but in some extreme cases humans. The animals might be given to the living-dead as offering when wrong had been done. At other times it was to ask the living-dead to help in the alleviation of suffering from famine and drought. It was usually in such cases that a human sacrifice was made, and in most cases a young virgin woman was given as a sacrifice to the living-dead. After such sacrifices it became the duty of the living-dead to relay the request of the people to the regional or supreme God. There were also offerings of different kinds of grain and produce, and when there had been hunting, parts of the animal caught were also given to the living-dead, to thank them for having granted the animals to the hunters.
Some rituals involved the use of herbs, charms and amulets in the safe-guarding of the people from evil. All the people of a homestead would gather, beer would be brewed, there would be singing and dancing as the people implored their ancestors to pour their power into the herbs, charms and amulets. Once the living-dead had given a sign to the people, usually through their taking possession of a member of the clan who would serve to explain the manner in which the herbs, charms and amulets were to be made, then people would give their thanks to the living-dead by sacrificing a large ox or goat.
Perhaps the most striking ritual of traditional religion was the burial of the dead. This is an account of how the Ndebele buried their dead, which was similar to the Shona’s traditioan. When a male member of the family had died, there would be a gathering of all the other members of the immediate and extended family. The body of the deceased was wrapped in an animal skin and before being placed in the grave, facing the south, the eldest son of the deceased threw a spear into the grave. After the burial, the family would return home, where an ox would be killed and the meat eaten with no salt. When all the meat had been eaten, the bones from the beast would be burnt and their ash used to make medicine, which was given to all present. The people would then go to the river and wash themselves after taking the medicine. The following morning, the eldest son and the brother of the deceased would go and visit the grave to see if it had been disturbed overnight. If it had been disturbed, then the person had died an unnatural death and they would consult the medicine man.
Three months after the deceased had been buried, there would be a ceremony at which beer was brewed and with that beer the implements used in the digging of the grave would we washed. The last ceremony in a funeral by the Ndebele was performed a year after the burial; at this ceremony, beer would again be brewed and another ox killedl; all the restrictions on the family would be lifted, and from then on the widow of the deceased was be free to remarry. At this ceremony there would be singing and dancing in the homestead. The beer brewed would be from grain grown after the man’s death, and from outside the homestead. This was a ceremony of calling back the deceased’s spirit to the homestead, and it was only performed for people who had children by whom they could be remembered.
In traditional religion many activities had a symbolic meaning to the Africans. Most of the rituals I have mentioned involved music and dance, which were symbols expressing the inner being of the individual. To the Africans the playing of drums and the negomo nehosho, maracas, was a spiritual thing and doing so symbolised a unification of the player and his living-dead. Coupled with this was the dancing, which was also a symbol of being at one with one’s living-dead, and it was through his dancing that the living-dead usually took possession of that individual. ”Africans believe working with the body in ritual releases spiritual forces which ensure natural and social harmony.” 
We also find a number of symbols in the funeral rites. The spear was a symbol of defence and protection, throwing it into the grave was a way of clearing the way for the dead as they pass into the new life. The killing of the animal was a symbolic way of expressing that the departed had not gone alone and also to ensure that they would have enough to eat in the hereafter. Drinking the medicine was a symbol of the unification of the deceased with the living. When they washed in the river, in was the cleansing from the pollution that the Africans associated with death, and this also applied to the washing of the digging implements. The last ceremony was symbol of reviving and reuniting the deceased with his homestead as a member of the living-dead. If this ceremony was not performed, as in the case of someone who had died childless, then that person would not become one of the homestead’s living-dead and their spirit would be lost. The eldest son was symbol continued life for the deceased man as would become head of the home and carry on the name of the family.
In a sacrifice of a virgin there were also a number of symbols. Her virginity was symbol of purity and she being young was a symbol of fertility that the community was asking the living-dead to bestow upon them in times of drought, famine and hunger.
It can be seen that the primary function of traditional African religion was that of fighting evil in society and making life more bearable. Society used religion to address the problems of drought, famine and other disasters. Through sacrifice they thought that the living-dead would help them in their hardships. Traditional African religion did not have shrines where people worshipped. Wherever the African was so was his religion; he took it to the fields when he was working, he went hunting with it in the forest. Worship for the Africans took place wherever and whenever they were in need, either asking for help from the living-dead or giving thanks to them for their help. 
From Traditional Religion to Christianity
Given the religious attitude of traditional Africans, what are the reasons that the Africans embraced the Christian faith? Firstly it is important to note that Africans were not embracing religion in a completely new way when they adopted the Christian faith. The main function of traditional religion had been to give protection to the people from evil. With the coming of Christianity the fight against the forces of evil involved the same approach, and thus to the African the ‘new’ faith retained the functions of their traditional religion. The Christian missionaries with their exorcisms, the use of holy water, the wearing of rosaries, and the use of emblems of Maria to cast out evil were not new to Africans; these things were replacements of their old charms, medicines and amulets.
Although the Africans were being asked to embrace new forms of ‘charms’, the concept behind their use was the same, so I think the Africans did not find it very difficult to change to this type of religious observance. ”Ntiskana  (1760 -1820) saw Christianity not as something totally new and alien, but as something which fulfilled what he already knew.”  The traditional African saw evil as a threat to life, and all his religion was built around the need to eradicate evil from his life. In Christianity, the African saw the same emphasis; with its exorcisms, the Christian faith became attractive as this had the same purpose as the rites of his traditional religion. In Christianity Africans found another way of dealing with their age-old problems of drought, famine, infertility, and the fight against evil.
Christianity also provided Africans with a way of confronting the problem of death that they approached with such fear. The concept of an eternal life for all, regardless of their social position, was more than appealing to Africans. They saw in it a home for their living-dead whom they now perceived to have entered into life eternal. Christianity taught the Africans not to fear death, it brought them a way of seeing death as the means of passing into eternal life that the traditional religion had accorded only to those who had a family to perform the reviving ceremony. This concept brought with it a tremendous amount of freedom for the Africans: ”… the value placed by Christianity on individualism and self-reliance is a fillip to achievement. All of this has opened the door to Christianity and rendered it attractive,”  especially to women who had previously been very restricted in their position. The Christian faith taught the Africans to treat all as equals in the eyes of God. The freedom accorded to women has resulted in there being to this day more women who are Christians on the continent than there are men.
With Christianity also came the concept of one God. This to the Africans was not hard to comprehend. With colonial expansion, the improvements in transport, communication and other facilities meant that the regional boundaries that had been there before were slowly eroded, and with this expanding scale, the Africans, I think, saw that the concept of a single God made sense, given the new environment in which they now lived. In view of this, I think, what Christianity did was to bring the Africans closer to the supreme God that they had always believed in. It took out of their religious observance the need for an intermediary. The Africans retained their concept of the living-dead but no longer went through them but worshipped the supreme God directly. To the monotheist view of God corresponded a similar concept of evil. All that the African had thought evil, and attributed to the work of witchcraft, was not brought together with all other evil as the work of the devil.
In the new faith the Africans saw a new source of power that they could not ignore. ”… Africans perceived that certain benefits might accrue to them from a dalliance with Christianity.”  The power exhibited by the Christian missionaries of healing the ill was so striking to the Africans that they wanted to be part of that new religion. The Africans were drawn in by the new source of power and hoped it would solve their age-old problems of disease, poverty and social control. The Christian faith also enabled the Africans to face the new problems that had been brought in by colonialism.
The Adaptation of Christianity
Another reason that the adoption took place quite easily was that traditional religion itself was tolerant of new ideas. The tolerance of the Africans’ traditional religion enabled them to some extent to take up the Christian faith. The connection between the people’s religious beliefs and the political structure played a role, too. Traditional religion used to change with the coming of a new ruler, so with the arrival of the Europeans the political power shifted to them, and this was followed by a corresponding shift in the religious beliefs of the Africans. But they did not just embrace the Christian faith as it was brought to them, but from the start they picked up certain parts of the it and dropped those parts of the traditional religion that were no longer suited to the new life. Anyone who argues that the Christian faith destroyed traditional religion fails, I think, to see the point that the Africans passed the Christian faith through a filter in which it was selectively adopted and combined with traditional religion.
From this filtering resulted the emergence of an African form of Christianity. Although Africans were being exposed to the Christian faith, their cosmology continued to be based on traditional religion. ”Christianity in Africa was never synonymous with the missionaries’ understanding of the faith, the encounter with Africa involved a process of interaction in which Africa’s distinctive characteristics and contributions have become ever increasingly prominent.”  In picking up the Christian faith, the Africans began to develop a Christianity that was suited to their African needs.
In so doing there has developed a Christianity that is different from that to which the Africans were exposed to start with. On the radical side the continent has seen the rise of the Apostolic Faith Church formed by Jahane Marange in Zimbabwe, the Guta raJehova formed by Mai Chaza, also in Zimbabwe, and a number of Zionist churches. What these have in common is that they are more biased towards the traditional religion in their manner of worship. The singing and dancing at their prayer meetings, accompanied by the and maracas, are not distinguishable from those of traditional religion.
Even in the less radical churches, such as the Methodist and Anglican churches, elements of the traditional religion have found their way in. In these churches too there is singing and dancing, with the playing of drums and maracas; and even the blowing of animal horns, which was once thought of as demonic by the missionaries, has slowly found its way into the worship of God.
As a result of their need, the Africans introduced services during the week. For the Africans it was not enough to embrace a faith that was only active once or twice a week, and which only was held in a church. So Africans, in particular women, started to hold prayer meetings during the week. Wednesday evenings and Thursday afternoons became very common times for these meetings; called kokoredzano, a Shona word that means ”gathering,” they are usually held in the houses of members of the prayer groups. Their role can partly be explained by the fact that with the coming of colonialism the norm of the extended family, which had been very important in the life of the Africans, became difficult to maintain, as many members of the family had to leave in search of work. This left many women without a family to turn to, and in an attempt to address the problem such prayer groups evolved. These groups are very prominent in South Africa, where they even go to the extent of helping members in the burial of their relatives, which formerly had been the responsibility of the extended family. Such groups have brought Africans closer to the Christian faith.
What we have seen is that, in view of what happened, the popular notion that the Christian faith destroyed traditional African religion cannot be maintained. What the Africans have done is that they changed aspects of the Christian faith by combining it with some aspects of traditional religion, and in so doing they have produced a religion that suites the life they now lead. ”…. it is by no means inevitable that Christianity will ever dispose of the central tenets of African religion — change them, yes, but it is doubtful if it can destroy them.”  That popular notion has an underlying assumption, that the Christianity that Africans are at the moment following is not African. This is not true, in that the Africans did not just embrace the Christian faith, but changed and made it suitable for themselves as Africans. The result of this is that Christianity in Africa can no longer be regarded as non-African. The Africans were not forced to take up the new faith but did so because in it they found a religion that would serve the same purpose as the traditional one. ”One can opt for a different form of religion while retaining the same function.” 
So what we find in Africa is a Christian faith that has been made African in its cosmological approach and a religion that the Africans have made for their needs. It is a religion that is a product of the combination of the traditional religion and a Christianity that the Africans were exposed to by the missionaries. It is a faith that the majority of African people now embrace as it has given them a home for their living-dead, and at the same time is helping them to confront the problems that their changed lives have brought.
- Richard Gray, Black Christians and White Missionaries, 1990.
- James Kiernan, ”African and Christian: From Opposition to Mutual Accommodation,” in Martin Prozesky, Christianity Amidst Apartheid.
- For burial and religious shrines, see John Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy, 1990.
- Ntikama was the name of an African chief.
- Louise Pirouet, Christianity Worldwide.
- James Kiernan, op. cit.
- James Kiernan, op. cit.
- Richard Gray, op. cit.
- James Kiernan, op. cit.
- James Kiernan, op. cit.