East African Religions: Northeast Bantu Religions

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The northeastern Bantu-speaking peoples of East Africa include the Ganda, Nyoro, Nkore, Soga, and Gisu of Uganda; the Kikuyu and Kamba of Kenya; and the Gogo and Kaguru of Tanzania. Although these societies are united by their common usage of Bantu languages, they differ considerably in political, social, and economic organization and in religious ideas and practices.

In most of these societies the creator god is regarded as a remote and distant figure, except among the Kikuyu where he is thought to be involved in the major events of personal and community life and is the object of ritual activity. The Nyoro and Nkore say that the creator god, Ruhanga, made the world and everything needed for human life on earth. He also established the three classes of Nyoro and Nkore society: the agriculturalists, the rulers (or royal clan), and the cattle herders. Each class is descended from one of Ruhanga's sons, whom Ruhanga tested before assigning them their social role. The Nyoro say that Ruhanga disinherited his fourth son, Kantu, and that he became the source of evil in the world and eventually corrupted the people. For this reason, say the Nyoro, Ruhanga withdrew to the sky and later sent disease and death into the world to punish the people. Because of his remoteness, Ruhanga does not play any role in Nyoro and Nkore ritual.

Among the Ganda, the creator god, Katonda, had a small temple and a medium who gave oracles at night. Katonda was known as the Owner of Heaven and the Master of Life, and it is said that every morning the heads of families would pray to him for the protection of their households. Although Katonda was important to everyone's personal destiny, offerings were not often made to him, and he appears to have had less ritual significance than most of the other gods; today he has no shrine or medium. According to Ganda mythology, it was the culture hero, Kintu, who established the world, populated the country, and founded the kingdom of Buganda. Death also came into the world as a result of the misdeeds of Kintu and his wife, Nambi, and their children, who allowed Nambi's brother, Death (Walumbe), to come to earth with them. After Death started killing people and was chased into the underworld, Kintu solemnly declared that Death would never kill all the people.

The Gisu say that the creator, Were, is a distant deity who allots each person his life span. Were has no shrines, and no sacrifices are made directly to him, although there is a vague belief that he is the recipient of sacrifices made to the ancestors and nature spirits. Were is regarded as being invisible and present everywhere like the wind.

The Kikuyu say that the creator, Ngai, dwells on certain prominent mountains in western Kenya, including Mount Kenya. His presence is also said to be manifested in such natural phenomena as the sun, moon, stars, rain, rainbows, lightning, and thunder; he is also present in sacred fig trees, where sacrifices are made to him. According to Kikuyu tradition, Ngai gave the land to the ancestors, Kikuyu and Muumbi, and he told them to call upon him in times of need. Sacrifices are offered to Ngai in times of drought, famine, and epidemic and also during the agricultural cycle. The Kikuyu also pray to Ngai at the major stages of life: at birth, initiation, marriage, and death. On less important occasions, offerings and prayers are made to the ancestors.

The relationship between Ngai and the people is unilateral, while their relationship with the ancestors is reciprocal. People beseech Ngai for his blessings, which he may choose to give or to withhold, whereas they pour out beer and slaughter animals for the ancestors, who are expected to respond favorably. The shrines to Ngai are fig trees that are both publicly and privately owned. A diviner communicates with Ngai in his dreams and determines when it is appropriate to offer sacrifice. After a sheep is killed, its intestines are tied around a tree and a portion of meat is placed at the foot. Prayers are offered to Ngai while facing Mount Kenya and the other mountains at each of the cardinal points. Two days later a solemn beer-drinking ceremony may be held and prayers offered again to Ngai for rain, health, prosperity, and children.

The Kamba, who are neighbors of the Kikuyu, say that the creator god, Molungu, made all things, including men and animals; thus the Kamba call him Mombi, the molder of all creatures. First, Molungu created the ancestors, then he made man and woman and sent them down from heaven. Later, another couple came up through the ant holes in the earth, and their children married those of the sky couple. As time passed, the people multiplied and their livestock increased and their crops prospered. However, one year the people failed to offer sacrifice to Molungu and he became angry and refused to send the rains, and there was great famine. Many of the original clans migrated to distant places, and these people are now the neighbors of the Kamba: the Kikuyu, Maasai, Meru, and others.

Originally, Molungu intended to endow human beings with immortality. He sent a chameleon with a message of eternal life to the people. When the slow-moving chameleon finally arrived, he began to deliver his message, saying, "I was ordered to I was ordered to." But before he could finish, he was interrupted by the swift-flying weaverbird that had been sent by Molungu with a new message that the people would die. The bird delivered his message quickly and concisely, and since that day mankind has been mortal. According to another version, the chameleon was interrupted by a clever and agile hare who had overheard the message that Molungu gave to the chameleon, only he heard incorrectly and delivered the message that people would die.

Molungu is said to dwell beyond the skies and to observe mankind from the tops of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya. He is thought to be well disposed to human beings and to intervene in human affairs when people act against the moral principles of society, but no sacrifices are offered directly to him. His dealings with the Kamba are mediated entirely by the spirits of the ancestors. In times of drought, flood, or epidemic, women gather and a goat is sacrificed. The women ask the ancestors to intercede with Molungu on behalf of the people. The sacrifice is intended to remove the ills and sins committed by the people during the year. The sacrificial animal is burned and the women call out all the offenses done by people in the community in order to purify it and to ward off Molungu's punishment. Occasionally, the Kamba pray to Molungu at other times, for example, to give thanks for the birth of a child or to ask that initiated children turn out well. The prayers to Molungu are brief and general in nature, reflecting his distance and impersonal character.

Among the Ganda, Soga, Nyoro, and Nkore, the primary focus of the traditional religion is upon the hero gods, the lubaale (Ganda), misimbwa (Soga), and cwezi (Nyoro and Nkore). These deities are thought to have been human beings who died and became gods. Some of the cwezi, for example, are said to have been ancient kings while others are described as having once been their royal servants. Each god has several shrines and priests throughout the country. In Buganda the most important gods were also in the service of the kingship. In precolonial times the king consulted them about matters of state, while the common people consulted them about personal misfortunes. These gods are still active today, and they are consulted about a variety of personal troubles, such as illness, crop failure, loss of money, barrenness, and loss of employment. To discover the cause of the problem, a person goes to a medium and pays a token fee (often described as a kind of gift) and, under probing by the diviner, states the nature of the problem. The medium then goes into a trance and tells the client (in the voice of the god) the remedy for the difficulty and also the additional cost involved in order to make the remedy effective. The diviner may tell his client to use certain medicines, usually obtained at the marketplace, and/or to make a sacrifice. The diviner usually gives some practical advice about the client's behavior as well. Sometimes the remedy requires the client to become initiated into the cult of the god so that persistent troubles will cease. This entails some expense and a lifelong relationship with the deity and his shrine.

Ghosts of the dead may also be diagnosed as the cause of personal misfortune, though not as frequently as the gods. Like the gods, the ghosts are communicated with through spirit possession and mediumship. But unlike the gods, the ghosts may be destroyed or rendered harmless by being placed in a pot that is then burned or buried in the ground.

The Gisu place shrines for the spirits of the dead in the compounds of important men or in special groves. These groves, which contain a number of fig trees, are sacred to the ancestors. The shrines in the homesteads are shaped like small huts, with forked branches extending through the roof so that offerings of meat may be hung upon them. Sacrifices take place at these shrines on important family occasions, such as the naming of a child, the circumcision of a boy, or personal misfortune. The central act is the offering of beer and an animal (e.g., cow, goat, or fowl) with an invocation. During the invocation, all the names of the dead must be recited lest a spirit feel slighted and cause trouble. Beer is sprayed over the participants as a blessing; red clay, signifying the renewal of health, may also be rubbed on them.

The matrilineal Kaguru offer annual beer and animal sacrifices to the ghosts of the dead at clan ritual sites. These sites contain the graves of the founding female ancestor of the clan and those of her closest descendants. The graves are cleared of growth, and beer and flour are poured onto the gravestones. The blood of animal victims is also poured out. Often a miniature shelter for the ghosts is built on the site. The dead are said to gain nourishment from the offerings and to be made cool and quiet and therefore unlikely to bother the living. The fertility of the land depends upon such annual rites, for the spirits of the dead guarantee the productivity of the land. Cultivation and other work on the land is thought mystically to wear down the earth; and the misdeeds of the people, especially of the clan elders who live near the site, are also thought to disturb the ghost ancestors. The Kaguru believe that if such rituals were not performed, the land would be less fertile, the annual rains less favorable, and illness and misfortune more frequent.

Although the Kaguru do not believe in reincarnation, they say that newborn children come from the land of the dead, where, it is said, the ghosts have villages and live as do people on earth. The difference is that life and death in the land of the ghosts is the reverse of that on earth. The ghosts mourn when one of their number dies and is born on earth, and they rejoice when a person dies on earth and is born in their land. Hence, an infant's hold on life is precarious because the jealous ghosts wish to take it back, and many rites are performed for the ghosts in order to protect the child's life.

Gogo rituals are also concerned primarily with the ancestors, for they are believed to control the fertility of the land and the welfare of the clans who live on it. Cattle and beer are the chief offerings. These bridge the gap between human beings and the spirits because they belong both to the world of men and to the world of nature, as do the ancestor spirits themselves. The semipastoralist Gogo sacrifice cattle, their most valuable possession, to the ancestors for rain and good crops and to obtain their blessings at crucial stages in the life cycle. Beer is poured out around a post that is considered to be the architectural and ritual center of the household. Called the nose of the homestead, the post is the locus of contact between the world of the living and the world of the dead in the domestic rituals. Beer may also be poured onto the gravestones of the dead, which also link the living to the world of the spirits.

Among the northeastern Bantu-speaking peoples, certain rites, or aspects of rites, are not aimed at the gods or spirits but at impersonal mystical forces that affect the welfare of human society. By means of ritual action bad forces may be removed and society purified and thereby spiritually renewed. The Gogo distinguish between good and bad ritual states. For things to go well, a good or auspicious ritual state must be created. When things do not go well (for instance, if a woman miscarries or has a difficult childbirth or if cattle become diseased), a bad ritual state is said to prevail. In these circumstances it is assumed that the male ritual leaders have failed. Women must take over and act and dress like men and effect a ritual cure through dancing. The women's violent, masculine dancing is a reversal of normal female domesticity and a parody of the male's violent role in Gogo society. In this reversal of sex roles, the ritual state of society is turned around. The inauspicious ritual state is taken to the boundary of the ritual area and thrown down into a swamp or pool, and the area is thus purified and a good ritual state regained.

Divination is central to all East African religions. The Kikuyu say that a diviner, called a man of God (mundu mugu ), is chosen by Ngai through dreams. "A father may teach, but it is God [Ngai] who chooses the [diviner]. He talks to him in the night: it comes into his head." Divination is performed by spilling out small counters (beans and stones) from a gourd that reveals the will of Ngai or, more frequently, the will of the ancestor spirits. The result of the inquiry is determined by the odd or even number of counters that are spilled out together with other small objects that have symbolic significance. Kamba diviners use the same technique. A few Kikuyu diviners are also inspired in dreams directed by the creator god, who gives long-range prophecies about future events. During the colonial period in Kenya, such prophecies about colonial intrusion helped to legitimate the Mau Mau cause against British rule. The Mau Mau, a pro-independence armed revolt led by the Kikuyu in the 1950s, was an attempt to establish traditional land rights and ways of governance.

The Gisu diviner diagnoses his clients' problems by using a small wooden dish with pebbles in it. After invoking his ancestors for assistance, he swings the dish in an arc over his head, calling out the names of spirits who might be responsible for the problem or of people who might be causing it through sorcery or witchcraft. If the pebbles shake and rattle, then the wrong cause has been identified. When the pebbles form a mass and do not move, the correct diagnosis has been reached. The questions that the diviner puts to the test in this fashion are based upon his local knowledge and upon information gained from his client.

In the lacustrine kingdoms of Bunyoro, Nkore, and Buganda, the death, burial, and installation of kings were major ritual events that affected the whole kingdom. The kings were symbolically identified with the country as a whole, and hence their well-being was essential to the well-being of the kingdom. Thus they were surrounded by ritual prohibitions that were intended to keep them in a state of health and ritual purity. In Bunyoro the king's life was also strengthened periodically by the killing of human beings, sometimes in his stead as a mock king. Although the kings were not regarded as divine beings, in Bunyoro and Nkore it was said that the kings were killed when they grew old or ill or were wounded in battle, although there is no evidence that this actually occurred. That the kingship was thought of in this way, however, indicates the symbolic significance of the king as the source of life, peace, and order in his kingdom. In Bunyoro and Buganda there were also shrines for the spirits of the royal ancestors, and in Buganda these shrines were major ritual centers of the kingship. The mediums at the royal shrines conveyed advice from the royal ancestors to the king regarding matters of state, and all of the king's officials went to the shrines to be confirmed in office.

Fundamental to the social systems of the Gisu, Kikuyu, Kamba, Kaguru, and Gogo are rites of puberty and of initiation into adulthood. Their purpose is to transform young boys and girls into adult men and women. In these societies circumcision and clitoridectomy (or labiadectomy) are practiced. These physical operations are regarded as the outward signs of a new social position and of an inner moral change. Among the Gisu and Kikuyu, circumcision is thought of as a form of ordeal that testifies to the strength of character necessary for the change from childhood to adulthood. During the seclusion period, the initiated boys and girls are taught the rules governing sexual relations and the moral principles of society. For the Gisu, such rites are transformational, not merely transitional, "for it is in your heart," and the newly initiated person is said to be "like another person." The emphasis upon self-determination is also important, for a boy chooses when he shall be circumcised. When he does, he presents himself as a fully responsible agent to bear the ordeal and to stick to his resolution. Of the Kikuyu initiation rites, Jomo Kenyatta has said that "the moral code of the tribe is bound up with this custom and it symbolizes the unification of the whole tribal organization." The rites mark the beginning of participation in the various governing groups in Kikuyu society, because age-group membership begins at this time. The history and legends are explained, as are the moral rules of society. Ngai and the ancestors are invoked, the misdeeds of childhood are symbolically cast away, and the initiates take an oath of loyalty and service to the Kikuyu community. Elements of these rites were also used during the Mau Mau oathing ceremonies. The Kaguru say that initiation into adulthood is the most important and impressive experience of their lives, and they conduct themselves in a noticeably different manner after going through it. Afterward, the fully initiated boys and girls can marry and have children, and the boys can own livestock and become warriors and elders in their society.

In precolonial times belief in witchcraft and sorcery was fundamental to East African societies. Although witchcraft and sorcery accusations are illegal under present law, in the past belief in witchcraft and sorcery functioned as an explanation of misfortunes that were not attributed to the gods or ancestors, and the process of finding and punishing witches functioned as a means of controlling socially deviant behavior and of resolving tensions within the local community. Belief in witchcraft and sorcery is based upon the assumption that many of the ills of life, including death, are caused by the evil intentions of human beings: hence the portrayal of witches as human beings whose behavior is the reverse of what is normal for humans. Witches and sorcerers are supposed to walk and dance upside down, to commit incest, to work at night, to travel at fantastic speeds, to go about naked, and to practice cannibalism. In short, witches and sorcerers are thought to confound the rules of society because they are bent upon destroying it. For the most part, witches were thought to be relatives of the people they attacked. The powers of witchcraft were also thought to be inherited and to be operative without a person's being aware of it. Sorcery, by contrast, was regarded as a conscious and deliberate action in which specific magical techniques were used to destroy other people. Witchcraft accusations were generally directed against people who exhibited antisocial characteristicsjealousy, spite, deceitfulness; even physical ugliness and unaccounted wealth were grounds for suspicion. In the past, diviners were employed to identify witches and sorcerers, and the accused were forced to confess and were often executed. Despite the illegality of witchcraft and sorcery accusations in the late twentieth century, belief in witchcraft and sorcery still exists in most of these societies as a way of explaining misfortune, and accusations may still be covertly made and acted upon.

Throughout the region of the northeastern Bantu-speaking peoples, the modern era has been marked by the increasing interaction of the traditional religions with Islam and Christianity. Although Islam and Christianity had long been present in certain areas of East Africa, it was not until the implementation of colonial rule with its new economic, educational, social, and religious order (or, in the case of Islam, the establishment in 1832 of the Omani Sultanate on Zanzibar and the subsequent development of extensive trading networks) that the introduced religions gained widespread influence.

By the late thirteenth century Islam had spread to the trading ports along the East African coast, and in the fifteenth century Mombasa and Zanzibar had become important centers of Arabic influence; despite this, however, Islam did not penetrate beyond the coastal area until the early nineteenth century. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Muslim teachers and religious leaders followed the Zanzibari traders along the inland routes that conveyed ivory and slaves from Buganda and northern Tanganyika. Through the agency of the kings of Buganda, notably Mutesa I, Islam took hold in Buganda, and Arabic literacy developed among the chiefly class. Despite the fact that Mutesa once martyred several dozen Muslim converts because of the zealousness of their faith and the threat it posed to the exercise of his authority, Buganda became the center of Muslim expansion and later the home of a community of Sudanese Muslims from the north.

Although the Portuguese established Christianity in Mombasa in the early sixteenth century, it vanished when the Portuguese were expelled in 1631. Christians were forced to convert to Islam. In 1844 missionary work began again in the Mombasa area, and in the 1860s missionary activity entered the inland, Bantu-speaking areas with the arrival of the Anglican Church Missionary Society and the French Catholic White Fathers at Mutesa's capital in Buganda. Several years later Mutesa's successor, Mwanga II, killed a number of royal pages for placing their Christian faith above their allegiance to the throne. After a prolonged struggle for power in the kingdom between adherents of Christianity and Islam, the Christian faction (with the support of British forces) was victorious, and Christianity became the established religion of Buganda. Thereafter, Buganda became the center of Christian expansion in the Bantu-speaking areas. One of the aims of missionary work was the suppression of the Arab slave trade, and this motive also contributed to the establishment of colonial governments in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanganyika. During the colonial period, Islam made little headway in the Bantu-speaking areas, especially in parts formerly affected by the slave raids. The original Protestant and Catholic missions in Uganda spread into neighboring Kenya and Tanganyika, and colonial authorities rapidly opened these areas to other missions, such as the African Inland Mission and the missions of the Salvation Army, Scottish Presbyterians, Baptists, German, and Swedish Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, American Mennonites, Moravians, and the Brethren.

While the European missionaries were primarily motivated by the teaching of the gospel, they also acted, consciously or unconsciously, as agents of colonialism, racism, and westernization. The establishment of mission schools and hospitals did much to break down African traditional culture, and the missionaries joined colonial officials in attempting to abolish many indigenous practices, such as circumcision rites (especially among girls), polygamy, bridewealth, mourning rites, twin ceremonies, and ancestor rituals. In this fashion the missionaries set about to educate and westernize the next generation of African leaders. The missionaries also taught about human equality and the importance of individuals and thereby helped to foster the seeds of anticolonialism among Africans who were later to take over the governments, schools, and churches of East Africa in the postcolonial period. From the beginning, African preachers and catechists assisted the European missionaries, and they played a major role in spreading Christianity outside the mission stations and in founding new churches. Sometimes the frustrations of European control and the upheavals of colonial and postcolonial life caused African religious leaders to found their own churches, especially in Kenya, where over 150 such churches were established before and after the independence period. These churches combined African and Christian beliefs and rites into indigenized Christian expressions; but many were short-lived, and a few had elements of political protest, such as the Dini ya Msambwa (Religion of the Ancestors) in western Kenya. After independence in the 1960s leadership in the mission churches gradually passed into African hands, and this was accompanied by a significant growth in church membership. At the same time there was a resurgence in traditional religion, especially in the practice of divination and healing, due largely to the absence of colonial repression and to the need for culturally suitable therapeutic techniques not found in Christianity, Islam, or Western hospitals. With the establishment of political parties and nationalist governments, the churches, which had originally shaped the leadership of the new nations, were effectively reduced to a marginal role in the politics of East Africa.

See Also

Interlacustrine Bantu Religions.


Beattie, John. "Spirit Possession in Bunyoro." In Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa, edited by John Beattie and John Middleton. New York, 1969. An excellent ethnographic survey.

Beidelman, T. O. The Kaguru. New York, 1971. Contains a brief but comprehensive account of Kaguru religion.

Heald, Suzette. "The Making of Men." Africa 52 (1982): 1536. A perceptive psychological study of Gisu boys' initiation ceremonies.

Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mount Kenya (1938). New York, 1978. An important interpretation from a Kikuyu point of view.

Lindblom, Gerhard. The Akamba in British East Africa. 2d ed. New York, 1969. A classic ethnography.

Middleton, John, and Greet Kershaw. The Central Tribes of the Northeastern Bantu. Rev. ed. London, 1965. A comprehensive survey and bibliography that includes ethnic groups not covered in the present article.

Ndeti, Kivuto. Elements of Ákámbá Life. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1971. Contains an important interpretation of some Akamba religious ideas and practices.

Oded, Arye. Islam in Uganda. Jerusalem, 1974.

Ray, Benjamin C. "Sacred Space and Royal Shrines in Buganda." History of Religions 16 (May 1977): 363373.

Rigby, Peter. "Some Gogo Rituals of 'Purification.'" In Dialectic in Practical Religion, edited by Edmund Leach, pp. 153179. London, 1968.

Rigby, Peter. "The Symbolic Role of Cattle in Gogo Ritual." In The Translation of Culture, edited by T. O. Beidelman, pp. 257292. New York, 1973. Both of Rigby's articles present substantive interpretations of Gogo rituals.

Roscoe, John. The Baganda. 2d ed. London, 1965. A classic ethnography.

Routledge, W. S., and Katherine Routledge. With a Prehistoric People (1910). London, 1968. A well-informed account of the Kikuyu in the early twentieth century.

Welbourn, F. B. "The Impact of Christianity on East Africa." In History of East Africa, edited by D. A. Low and Alison Smith, vol 3. London, 1976.

New Sources

Barrett, Anthony. Sacrifice and Prophecy in Turkana Cosmology. Nairobi, Kenya, 1998.

Hoehler-Fatton, Cynthia. Women of Fire and Spirit: History, Faith, and Gender in the Roho Religion in Western Kenya. New York, 1996.

Johnson, Douglas Hamilton. Nuer Prophets: A History of Prophecy from the Upper Nile in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. New York, 1994.

Maloba, Wunyabari O. Mau Mau and Kenya: An Analysis of a Peasant Revolt. Bloomington, Ind., 1998.

Ruel, Malcolm. Belief, Ritual and the Securing of Life: Reflexive Essays on a Bantu Religion. Leiden, Netherlands, 1997.

Voshaar, Jan. Maasai: Between the Oreteti-Tree and the Tree of the Cross. Kampen, Netherlands, 1998.

Benjamin C. Ray (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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