University of Cambridge

Traditional African Religions

After Asia, Africa is the largest, most populous continent containing approximately 11.7 million square miles of land.  Encompassing over one billion people in its 61 territories, Africa has a vast number of religions.  Christianity takes first place with Islam finishing second.  Traditional religions that are indigenous to Africa have been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth rather than through the typical biblical style of written scriptures.  Imagine a mother or father sitting beside their children’s bed on Christmas Eve.  They’re reading the night before Christmas to them as they doze off to sleep.  This is similar to the teachings of traditional African Religion.  Holding the beliefs of your faith within your heart, rather than holding a book within your hand is the method traditional African religious individuals chose.  Although there are obvious differences between African religions, there are also many similarities:

  • Sacrificing or libation.
  • Rites of passage – transformation from one stage of existence to another.
  • Divine protection and generosity.
  • Ancestral spiritual power.
  • The belief of a supreme being.

Benin is a country in Western Africa where the Celestial Church of Christ, an African initiated church exists with a congregation of approximately one half of a million members.  Reverend Samuel Bilehou Joseph Oschoffa founded the church on September 29, 1947 in Porto-Novo Benin, Africa.  The churches are mainly located in Benin and near by Nigeria.  The origination of the church is a result of The Aladura religion movement of 1922-1930 in West Nigeria.  The movement was influenced and driven by approximately one million strong worldwide.  The Aladura religion is based on the belief system of the power of prayer, faith healing, and other faith tools in relation with Pentecostalism. 

Christopher Ehret, a writer and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, has published in the neighborhood of eight books and numerous articles worldwide.  His expertise is in the areas of anthropology, linguistics, and history.  He wrote on the topics of African history and African historical linguistics, with emphasis on linguistic taxonomy and archeological record reconstruction. 

With regards to Ehret’s research on African studies, he recognizes five ethno-linguistic religious traditions of Africa.  Two monotheistic religious traditions are Sudanic and Niger-Congo.  Koman and Khoisan are considered to be Nontheistic practicing religions.  Lastly, Afro-Asiatic is henotheistic. 

Yoruba is arguably the largest traditional African religious complex.  The Yoruban people spread throughout the globe and pre-date the Egyptian Dynasties.  The religion originated in southwestern Nigeria, which borders Benin and Togo.  Itan, sums up Yoruba’s religious beliefs.  Itan is collectively, the history, the stories, the culture, and all the myths of Yoruba that exist.  Conclusively, the Yoruban religion believes that all human beings are in possession of their “ayanmo”, otherwise known as, fate or destiny.  All are to become in sync with their spirit and “Olodumare”, otherwise known as the creator, the divine one, and the source of all energy that exists.  There are many people throughout the corners of the world in various cultures and industries that voice their affiliation of this religion today. 

Zangbeto are the voodoo guardians of the night according to the Yoruban religion.  The Zangbeto are also known as the “Nightwatchmen”.  They are referred to as the unofficial police that watch over the good people of Yoruba and guard them while they sleep.  They keep an eye out for criminal elements of their communities and protect the Yoruba people.  They are men who wear haystack costumes, however they are said to be in a trance of some sort.  These trances enable the men to acquire knowledge and are possessed by spirits that submit punishment to the criminal elements of the night.  Legend states that there are no men under the haystack costumes, spirits of the night fill the haystacks and protect Yoruba. 

Throughout western Africa, there are religious practices that utilize music (drums), singing and dancing to fulfill their rituals.  While partaking in the ceremonies, the spirits of the congregation if you will, are lifted above the physical plain while enhancing their consciousness.  This trance allows the members to develop and maintain a positive state of mind.  While in this ceremonial trance induced state, members speak of the surrounding community issues and how to rectify or go about accomplishing their goals.

African traditional religions are centered on nature.  The moon, tide, stars, and other natural aspects of the world are important aspects of their beliefs.  By manipulating the environment, they believe they are able to initiate and terminate rain by burning wood.  In The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology, Gottlieb and Mbiti wrote:

“The environment and nature are infused in every aspect of African traditional religions and culture. This is largely because cosmology and beliefs are intricately intertwined with the natural phenomena and environment. All aspects of weather, thunder, lightening, rain, day, moon, sun, stars, and so on may become amenable to control through the cosmology of African people.”

Roger S. Gottlieb received his PhD. In philosophy in Brandeis University and has written “The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology”. 

John S. Mbiti was educated at The University of Cambridge and is known for his work with African Theology.

Casting of bones or throwing the bones is a traditional method of fortune telling in Africa.  It is also referred to as divination, the act of foreseeing the future.  The bones as they are referred to, are sometimes not authentic bones.  Leather, shells, and wood may also be used as bones.  Sacred divination plates or within a circle on the ground is where the bones are thrown.  Casting is performed in two methods.  One, a mathematical equation sums up the fortune of the individual by casting marked bones, shells, and other materials.  Another method is to utilize special symbolic bones and articles that mean specific aspects of an individual’s life.  For example, a round shaped item may resemble a womb with child. 

An integral part of indigenous African religions is the practice of medicine by Priests.  The scope of a healer is much larger then a traditional western medical doctor.  They treat their patients with respects to physical, mental, legal, spiritual, and other aspects that directly affect their daily lives.  Priests have acquired knowledge of sicknesses, medical procedures, and traditional African medicine (ecological objects, leaves, herbs, and such). 

Throughout the world, the price tags of building churches range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to the millions.  Although Africa has man made buildings such as temples and shrines, more often then not, sacred locations are located within hills, mountains, caves, and other areas that God has created for us to practice our faith.

A popular notion within many faith-based religions is the ideology of Satan or a devil of some sort.  Most indigenous African religions subscribe to this ideology as well.  Ekwensu is believed to be the opposite of God.  Ekwensu is known as a trickster God known for using violence.  He is known as the God of war and ruled over wicked spirits.  Igbo has a dualistic ideology where a person has both a body and soul.  The Igbo people live mainly in southeastern Nigeria.  They are the dominant influential and largest ethnic group of Nigeria.  Yoruba however, has a tripartite belief faith system.  They believe that in addition to the body and soul, an “ori” simultaneously exists as well (ori, a metaphysical concept – spirit). 

Magicians, sorcerers, and witches are known to have talents to bring forth magic or witchcraft between the physical and spiritual worlds.  This manipulation is well known and practiced within traditional African religions.  Those who abuse this gift are looked down upon and condemned within their societies.

There are secret societies within the western African indigenous religions.  These societies are used to bring members of various relationships and regions together.  Two of the most well known societies are the Poro and the Sande secret societies. 

The Poro secret society is male gender specific.  It is known to introduce young men to manhood.  Many facts of this society can’t be verified due to the fact that information can only be past down from member to member.  Seniority is key with direct reference to the secret knowledge and status in the Poro society.  The longer a man has been a member of the society, the more secret knowledge he is privy to and the higher the rank he’s privileged to be granted.  The initiates must pay a fee and the fee is directly related to the rank of the member.  The higher the rank of the member the higher the fee becomes.  Membership is automatic upon the society’s initiation.  Equality is a key concept within the Poro secret society.  Society members are given responsibility to regulate important policies within the local society.  Policies include sexual conduct, social interaction, and politics with regards to the politician’s conduct.  It appears that through further research, I found that initiation occurs once every generation, approximately every 16 to 18 years.

The Sande secret society is female gender specific and has very similar aspects in reference to their societal codes.  Like the Poro society, it is also located within the western African indigenous religion.  All other policies and conduct regulations are identical to the Poro secret society. 

Possession appears to be a common aspect of traditional African religions.  Priests become possessed while performing unique rituals.  They are induced into a trance-like state and some appear to utter in different languages (speaking in tongues).  During possession, drumming, other musical instruments, and dancing occur during the rituals.

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