East African Religions: An Overview

views updated


East African religions do not form a single coherent body of beliefs and practices. They show great diversity in myths and cosmologies and in beliefs about the nature of spiritual powers; in kinds and authority of ritual experts; in the situations when ritual is performed; and in responses to the advent of Islam and Christianity. This diversity is consistent with the ethnic, geographical, and historical diversity of the region. Our knowledge of East African religions is very uneven, and this may also contribute to the seeming diversity.

The total population of the Eastern African region in 2003 was about 263 million people. The population comprises some two hundred more or less distinct societies, each defined by its own language and sense of identity, its own traditional territory and political structure, and its own system of family relations, marriage, and religious belief and practice. These groups are distributed very unevenly in areas of high and low population densities.

East Africa contains several clearly defined geographical and cultural areas, with an immense variety of societies, languages, and religions. It has been the meeting place of several main language groupings, and its peoples are remarkably diverse in their cultures and forms of economic, political, and familial organizations.

In the northern part of the region live peoples representing several main language families and groups: Semitic and Hamitic (Cushitic), mainly in Ethiopia and Somalia, and three subgroups of the Chari-Nile group of the Nilo-Saharan familySudanic, in the far northwest corner, Nilotic in the upper Nile Valley, and Para-Nilotic (Eastern Nilotic or Nilo-Hamitic) mainly in the Rift Valley region. To the south are many people speaking Bantu languages (of the Niger-Congo family). There are small pockets of speakers of other language families (such as Khoisan, or click, languages in northern Tanzania), and there are of course speakers of intrusive languages such as Arabic and English. In most parts of the region Swahili has long been used as a lingua franca, although in a debased form rather than in its proper form as spoken along the Indian Ocean coast. However, there appears to be no direct relationship between language and religious belief and practice.

The situation is different as regards economic, political, and familial types, and belief and practice are more obviously linked to them. Although there are a few hunting and gathering peoples, such as the Hadza of Tanzania and the Okiek of Kenya, the vast majority of the population consists of mixed farmers, growing grains and keeping some livestock, and pastoralist livestock herders.

A century of European colonial rule over the entire region and the long Arab colonial overrule along the coast have brought about degrees of unity and interaction. Trade and wars have also often linked peoples together in varying ways and degrees. Although East African peoples are traditionally farmers and livestock herders, large towns and urban centers exist throughout the region, from the ancient cities of Mombasa, Mogadishu, and Zanzibar on the coast to the modern cities of Nairobi, Addis Ababa, Kampala, and Dar es-Salaam. Scattered are many lesser towns that have attracted mixed immigrant populations from the countryside and from which modern Christian and syncretist movements have spread out into the rural areas. Today there are virtually no peoples in the region who are unaffected by Christianity or Islam (although the depth of influence of these faiths varies widely); but traditional local religions remain active in almost every part of the area.

Divinity and Myth

All East African religions have a belief in a high god, the creator. Perhaps the most accurate term to translate this concept here is Deity. As would be expected, even though there are variations, in all of them the Deity is attributed broadly similar characteristics: omnipotence, everlastingness, ubiquity, and being beyond the comprehension and control of ordinary living people. The variations lie in the idioms and symbols used to express these features and abilities. These general characteristics are found in the high gods representing all the cosmologies of the region: Kwoth (Nuer; the name also means breath or spirit), Juok (Shilluk), Nhialic (Dinka), Mbori (Azande), Adroa (Lugbara; the name also means power), Ngai (Kikuyu), Kyala (Nyakyusa), Mungu (Swahili), and so on. The names are different, but the divine nature is the same. Usually the Deity is considered to be spatially unlocalized, but in some religions it is thought to be associated with mountains and other terrestrial features, as among the Kikuyu, who state that Ngai dwells on Mount Kenya and on lesser mountains of the Rift Valley area.

The Deity is usually considered remote and otiose: after creating the world it retired, leaving men and women on earth ultimately dependent upon it but pursuing their own ways cut off from divine truth and perfection and with a memory of a primeval paradise that might one day be reached again with the help of prophetic leaders. Perhaps all peoples of the region have myths to explain the separation, often couched in terms of a Tower of Babel story in which a rope or a tree between heaven and earth was destroyed either by human foolishness or divine displeasure. (There is not the least reason to suppose that these separation myths are in any way due to diffusion from Christian sources.) There is considerable variation in the degree to which it is held that the Deity interferes in the everyday affairs of the living, beyond being responsible for death, and in beliefs held about the relationship between its creation of the world and the later formation of human societies. There is also much variation in its relationships with the many lesser deities that are found in all East African cosmologies.

These aspects and relations are stated in myth, each society having its own corpus of myth that tells of the creation of the world, the relationship between humankind and the Deity, and the formation of society. A typical example is that of the cosmogony of the Nilotic Shilluk of the upper Nile. Their myths tell of the creation of the world by Juok and of the later formation of the Shilluk kingdom by the culture hero or mediator, Nyikang. The mythical cooperation of creator and hero is a feature of many East African myths, their two activities being distinct in time and usually in place also. Nyikang, whose parentage is usually given as a father of heavenly provenance and a mother who was a creature of the River Nile with the attributes of the crocodile, is thus associated with sky, river, and earth; he separated the Shilluk from their neighbors and united his people as their first king. All later kings have been embodiments of Nyikang, and the installation of a new king is a dramatic representation of both the social diversity and the unity of the Shilluk as well as their mystical link with the Nile, on which they are ecologically dependent. The king, as Nyikang in immanent form, represents the ideal and true order of the world within himself. Godfrey Lienhardt has written about the Shilluk proverb that says "the Shilluk only believe what they see," pointing out that it is through their human king that they are also able to see what they believe.

Other than the distinction between the creation of the world and the formation of the particular society, the most widespread mythopoeic feature of the many and varied myths of the region would seem to be the attribution of reverse or inverted characteristics and behavior to the originally created inhabitants. They may be portrayed as incestuous or as being ignorant of kinship, the idiom used by most East African societies to express and validate everyday social relationships; they may be given close identification with animal species, the natural and the social thereby being brought into a single conceptual system; they may be said to have dwelt outside the present homeland in a state of primeval timelessness, their travels and adventures representing those of past migrations and final settlement into the present habitat; they construct a cosmic topography in which the particular society is set in both space and time as a moral community within an asocial and amoral wilderness.

With creation myths are found myths that tell of such matters as the relationships between people and wild and domesticated animals, between men and women, and between peoples of different societies and races; the origins of and reasons for death; the origins of fire and cooking, linked with the making of settlements and the exchange of primeval hunting for farming; and the nature and validation of the ties, rights, and obligations of descent, age, sex, and rank. It is frequently difficult to draw any meaningful distinction between what may be considered by outside observers to be myths and folk tales that tell of these and similar problems. As with myths, most folk tales are concerned with paradoxes and logical contradictions in the experience of the particular culture concerned. Perhaps the great majority of East African folk tales are told about agents who are animals or humans in the guise of animals; their adventures refer essentially and by implication to human behavior. Proverbs and riddles, many with similar implications, are found throughout the region.

In Ethiopia and the Swahili and Somali coasts, the areas with long-standing literacy and forms of writing, accounts of the formation of the world and society and their history may also be in written forms. They may profess to be historical chronicles of particular towns, peoples, or dynasties, but nonetheless they partake of the general nature of mythopoeic statements, using the same idioms as spoken myth.

Lesser Deities and Their Relations with the Living

The Deity usually communicates with the living only indirectly, through refractions of its power in the forms of lesser deities, spirits, gods, powers, and ancestors, ghosts, or shades (almost every writer has his or her own terminology, which has led to a good deal of definitional confusion). These mystical entities may float freely or they may be attached to social groups (lineages, clans, neighborhoods, and others) by having localized shrines established for them. The relations of communication are complex, but essentially the deities may control or constrain the living by possessing them and making them sick, and the living may contact the deities by sacrifice, prayer, and self-induced trance. Both parties are seen as interdependent, even if the living may not understand the full nature and motivation of the deities; but if contact ceases, the deities cease to have power and to "exist" in the awareness of the living at all.

There are many kinds of these deities found in East African religions, but they may conveniently be divided into the categories of spirits and ancestors, each comprising many subtypes. Spirits are considered as different from the transcendent and otiose Deity (even though the same word may be used for both, as is kwoth among the Nuer). They are immanent, more dynamic, and more immediately demanding; they are usually regarded as so numerous as to be beyond counting. Whereas the Deity is only rarely localized in shrines (as among the Kikuyu, who recognize certain fig trees as shrines for Ngai), many kinds of shrines, temples, and images are built for the spirits where they may be contacted by the living. Since spirits are invisible and unknowable, being of a different order than human beings, they need some locus where the living may contact them.

A spirit may be considered as a representation of some aspect of human experience whose power is thought to be outside the immediate community and beyond the everyday knowledge or control of ordinary people, until it exercises some form of power over a living person by possession or sickness. This experience may be that of nature, as with the smallpox and other disease gods of the Ganda or the earthquake and lightning spirits of the Lugbara; it may be experience of outside historical events, as with the airplane and Polish (refugee) spirits of the Nyoro; or it may be the individual experience of inner psychological states such as guilt and fear, as with the sky divinities of the Dinka. The possession of a living person by a spirit places him or her into direct and palpable contact with the particular experience: divination identifies the spirit, and sacrifice removes it from the possessed victim and restores the proper status quo.

Another aspect of spirit possession is that the victim is thereby singled out and acquires a new or additional mystical and personal status. In East Africa women appear more usually to be possessed by spirits; it has been suggested that this is so because women suffer from a greater sense of cultural deprivation and ambiguity of role than do men. Women's roles are less clearly defined than those of men, with the exception of the role of mother. When a woman is barren, therefore, her role is wanting and ambiguous: she may acquire a more definite one, largely independent and less under the control of husband or brother, by becoming the adherent and communicant of a spirit and so linking herself to other women who have been possessed. In some societies, for example the Lugbara, these women acquire a degree of personal independence and clearly defined identity but no more. In others, such as the Swahili, they become members of spirit cults and so of socially recognized groupings that stress their joint identity as against that of the men, who are seen as affiliated to a particular mosque in which women are never full members. The Swahili spirits are localized in particular places, each of which is associated with a particular cult group under the control of a spirit priest who has the powers of mediumship and divination. The women thus form a kind of mirror organization to that of the men. Something very similar is found in the zār cult of much of Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Muslim Sudan. Women are possessed, healed by an exorcist-medium, and then considered as cult adherents. The high incidence of this possession would seem to be linked to the particular problems, both social and psychological, of women in these largely Muslim societies.

The other main category of deity in East African religions is that of the dead, who, unlike spirits, are of the same order of existence as the living and so more easily understood and approached. There are many kinds and levels of ancestral worship, corresponding to the various kinds of ancestors: those of the direct line of descent, those of submerged descent lines, and those of other kin. They may be considered as individual ancestors, remembered by their personal names, or as collectivities of unnamed ancestral kin who are of less importance in living memory. As they are like the living, they may easily be worshiped by sacrifice in which they are given food, which is shared between them and the living as it is among kin, each category of ancestors representing a particular group or constellation of living kin that comes into contact with the dead on particular occasions. Also, as might be expected, the ancestors may themselves act as senior kin and initiate communication by sending sickness or trouble to the living and so draw attention to themselves.

Sacrifice is made typically to remove sickness or as a response of gratitude for removal of sickness, to avoid sickness and other troubles, and at times on regular occasions of group or individual purification. Each kin or lineage group makes its own sacrifices (since ancestors of other groups are of no interest to it). In centralized societies the royal ancestors may be offered sacrifice on state occasions by the ruler and his priests on behalf of the entire kingdom.

An example of lineage sacrifice is that of the Lugbara of Uganda. Here the most important and frequent sacrifices are made to the ghosts, those dead of the patrilineal lineage who have left sons behind them. They are believed to send sickness to their living descendants to teach them if the latter have denied respect to the living elders, who may invoke the dead to do this as part of an elder's duty. When the sickness has gone, the lineage elder sacrifices an animal to thank the dead and so cleanse the home of sin. People may also sacrifice to their matrilateral ghosts for broadly similar reasons and to the collectivity of dead who left no children. Similar sacrifices are reported from the Nyakyusa of southern Tanzania, but besides their being made by lineages to their own ancestors they are also made on behalf of all the members of neighborhoods and chiefdoms.

The relationship between ancestor and spirit worship is essentially that ancestors are linked to, and typically localized in, a shrine established by their descendants, whereas spirits are freer and if localized are tied to neighborhoods and wider settlements instead of to descent groups. The identity of the group concerned is clearly of central importance.

Sacrifice is typically made by ritual representatives of living groups. They are of two kinds: priests who are regarded as having special spiritual characteristics and skills, and ordinary senior people (elders) who sacrifice by virtue of genealogical position rather than special skills as such (although by being nearer to the dead than juniors they do have greater spiritual authority). It is true that in most East African societies priests may also be appointed on genealogical grounds, but in those cases they come from priestly lines, as the office is not open to members of other groups. Priests are repositories of divine knowledge and power that are usually considered to be vested in a descent line, so that there are myths that explain how this line was originally selected by the Deity for this task. Examples are the Masters of the Fishing Spear among the Dinka, the Nuer Leopard-skin priests, the Mugwe of the Meru of Kenya, the rainmakers of the Lugbara, the laibons of the Maasai and their Para-Nilotic neighbors, the members of the most senior age-sets among the Kikuyu.

The priests who have these specialized duties are uniformly given aspects of sacredness and so set apart from ordinary people. For example, the Dinka Masters of the Fishing Spear carry life within themselves for their people and so may not die a natural death; when they feel their powers wane they ask to be buried alive so that the life remains for the community. At a politically higher level, the king of the Shilluk is smothered for the same reasons. The Lugbara rainmakers are considered almost as living ancestors, being symbolically buried at their initation as rainmakers, and they are buried at their real death later in ways that are the exact opposite of those of ordinary funerals.

Another universally found ritual expert is the diviner, a person, male or female, believed able to discover the mystical causes of sickness and other misfortunes in the everyday world of the living. Methods of divination used in East Africa are many, including the use of oracles (more or less mechanical devices believed to be beyond the physical control of the operators), trance and mediumship (often while possessed by a spirit associated with mediumship), the consultation of omens, and formerly, before colonial rule stopped the practices, the administration of ordeals and oaths. Diviners are usually also healers, treating both the material and the mystical aspects of sickness by the use of medicines and by divination.

In brief, sacrifice to spirits and ancestors removes sickness and guilt for the commission of sin (defined variously but essentially as an act against the will of the Deity and the proper order of authority within social groups) by the immolation of a victim identified with the sick person, thereby removing the experience that has disturbed or affected the local group and the moral role of the guilty person within it. Other rites are found throughout the region: those of tradition or transformation of status. The most widespread are rites of initiation at puberty and at death.

Initiation rites, more generally for boys than for girls, although these take place, are most elaborate in those societies in which age-sets and generation-sets provide the basis for political and military action and also regulate marriage. The best-known examples are the Para-Nilotic pastoralist societies such as the Maasai, Samburu, Nandi, Karamojong, and their related neighbors; some southern Ethiopian groups such as the Galla; and others such as the Nyakyusa of southern Tanzania, who also have age systems of political importance and complex initiation rites. These rites, as with all rites of transition, begin with a rite in which the initiates are separated symbolically (and often physically) from their families and is followed by a series of rites that takes place in seclusion or secret from the remainder of society. Finally there are the rites of reaggregation of the new person into society with his or her new role as an adult able to have sexual relations, marry, act as a warrior, and so on. In some cases, as traditionally among the Kikuyu, the period of seclusion might take many months and would finish with the elaborate symbolic rebirth of the new young man. But today initiation rites have lost much of their former importance and are performed somewhat perfunctorily in most of the region.

In those societies where ancestral cults are important, mortuary rites are likewise important; an example comes from the Lugbara of Uganda, where mortuary rites, especially for senior men, are long, drawn out affairs that involve the participation of kin over great distances. The disposal of the corpse is of little moment, but the symbolic destruction of the deceased's social identity, the restructuring of kin ties that were centered on him, and the rites of redomestication of the soul as a ghost in its new shrine are all of the greatest importance and elaboration. In societies where ancestral cults are lacking, such as the technologically simple hunting and gathering Hadza of Tanzania, these rites are of virtually no importance.

Explanations of and Responses to Evil and Misfortune

All East African religions have a concept of evil. Explanations of evil and responses to it are typically expressed in beliefs in witchcraft and sorcery, which are thus integral parts of any system of religion. The first fully adequate study of witchcraftone which has not as yet been surpassedconcerns witchcraft beliefs among the Azande people of southwestern Sudan. The Azande distinguish between witchcraft (an innate mystical ability to harm others merely by wishing or thinking to do so) and sorcery (the use of material substances to do the same). Although this distinction is widespread in East Africa, it is not universal, and many societies refer merely to evildoers who use either or both means of harming others.

These beliefs are found throughout the region, although each culture has its own peculiarities of idiom in which to express the ideology of evil; in all of them, however, the ideology of a witch is that he or she is in some way a reverse of a full and properly behaving member of a community. The basic principles of the system of explaining coincidence, unexpected failure, disaster, or sickness are similar everywhere. It is consistent with the basic, small-scale, and personal relationships of everyday life in these societies that explanations of the unexpected and immediately inexplicable in technical terms should be sought in personal relations, as the activities of evil-intentioned persons. Their motivation is held to be hatred, envy, and jealousy against those who are more fortunate or successful. These emotions are felt toward others who are already known; it is extremely rare that such feelings are provoked by strangers. Their identity depends largely on the composition of the more important groups whose members should regard themselves as a community. Witchcraft is a kind of treachery, a perversion for ignoble ends of proper authority, obligation, and affection. Thus where the basic local group is a kinship one, witches are held to be kin of their victims and sorcerers thought to harm unrelated persons. Where such kin groups are unimportant, the distinction between witches and sorcerers may not be made.

These beliefs are linked to knowledge of technical causation. A belief in witchcraft regards the activities of witches as "the second spear," in the Zande phrase. It is clear that a man is gored by a buffalo: the belief in witchcraft is used to explain not that he was gored as such but why he was gored by a particular animal at that particular time and place. The identity of the witch is discovered by divination, and demands for reparation, vengeance, punishment, or other socially approved action can be taken by the community so as to restore proper relations between the concerned parties. The whole is an effective jural process once the premises are accepted.

Radical social change has occurred in almost all parts of East Africa during and since colonial times. Change leads to increases in disputes and tensions as traditional social roles break down and alter, and this is often expressed in terms of suspicions and fears of witchcraft and sorcery. These evildoers are traitors, coming symbolically from the outside of the community, and efforts are made to cleanse whole communities of them by mass purificatory religious movements led by prophets and healers, both Christian and non-Christian.

Religious Change and Prophetic Movements

East African societies have never been static, and at times in their history change has been rapid and radical. A usual response to the sense of confusion about the present, uncertainty about the future, and in some cases virtual breakdown of the social order has been and is the recourse to prophetic leaders. It is often held that East African prophets are a modern phenomena, but this is extremely unlikely; although historical records are few it may be safely assumed that they have always been a feature of the region.

If we omit here the famous Sudanese Mahdi Mu-ammad Amad who led his adherents to capture Khartoum in 1885 and established a theocracy there, the earliest cases for which reasonably reliable records are available include those from the southern Sudan and from what is now Tanzania (earlier prophets have been recorded from the Lake Nyasa region to the south).

Prophets have been a marked feature of the Nuer and Dinka of the Nilotic Sudan. At the end of the nineteenth century the Nuer prophet Ngundeng, claiming inspiration from a Dinka sky divinity and spending much time fasting and living in the wilderness, was able to bring together large, normally autonomous groupings to raid neighboring peoples and to stand together against Arab slavers and, later, British colonial rule. He built an earthen pyramid from which he would prophesy. After his death his son Gwek succeeded him, refusing cooperation with the government. A deformed man, Gwek would stand on top of the pyramid in a state of possession, uttering prophecies that foretold the end of colonial rule. He was killed and the pyramid destroyed some years later. Among the neighboring Dinka, Arianhdit was perhaps the greatest prophet, flourishing at the time of the First World War; he died in 1948. Dinka prophets were Masters of the Fishing Spear as well as Men of Divinity, thus being both priests and prophets with powers additional to those of ordinary priests. The main Dinka prophets may well have influenced the prophetic water cults that arose in Uganda at the time of the Uganda Mutiny, marked by the drinking of divine water that would remove the Europeans and their weapons.

Among the Lugbara, to the south, a water cult known as Yakan emerged about the turn of the century in response to human and cattle epidemics and to the intrusion of Arabs and Europeans, which seriously affected local life. The disturbance of a traditionally ordered society led the people to seek a famed prophet, Rembe, from the Kakwa people to the north. At first they obtained sacred water from him; later they invited him to enter their country to restore their damaged society. Rembe dispensed water that was imbued with divine power to his adherents, promising that drinking it would ensure the return of dead livestock and people (and so destroy the traditional ancestral cult), drive away disease and foreign newcomers, and make the drinkers immune to bullets. Adherents were regarded as equal, men and women, old and young, irrespective of clan differences, thereby symbolizing a primeval egalitarian society as portrayed in myth. The cult collapsed at his arrest in 1917, although the spirit Yakan who inspired him is to this day believed to be a wandering spirit. Like almost all prophets, Rembe tried to reconstruct society as it was thought to have been at the beginning of time, the utopia of the future being the same as the paradise of the mythical past.

The communal drinking of divine water was also found in southeastern and central Tanganyika during the Maji Maji rebellion (maji is Swahili for water) against the German colonial government in 19051907. It was begun by a diviner or prophet called Kinjikitile, who was possessed by a local spirit as well as by a panethnic deity called Hongo. Those who drank Kinjikitile's water would be immune to bullets and would drive the Germans into the sea. The movement turned beyond his control politically; he was hanged, but the revolt was put down only after as many as a quarter of a million Africans had died.

There were many other prophet-led movements of the time, such as the Giriama (a Mijikenda group of the Kenya coast) movement of 1914, led by prophetesses, and the Nyabingi movement in southwestern Uganda during the first quarter of the century and later, also led largely by women. Both of these began as religious responses to colonial rule and later became increasingly political in aim until they were put down by the colonial governments.

Many accounts of changes in East Africa have set conversion to Christianity apart from more traditional and pre-Christian prophetic movements (except in Ethiopia, the political center of which has been Christian since the fourth centurybut Ethiopian Christianity has had no influence on other parts of the region, being physically so separate). This reflects the outsiders' distinction between true and false religions, but from the point of view of the local societies themselves the distinction is largely meaningless. Outside observers also distinguish between traditional and world religions, but here the differences are more significant. Christianity and Islam are parts of international networks of economic and political as well as religious relations, so that their adherents may become part of extrasocietal and extra-African groupings that are significant in the lives of educated and elite people. They are also literate religions and as such open up temporal and spatial visions and areas of knowledge of a wider world that are less accessible to traditional worldviews based upon particular local societies.

It may well and sensibly be argued that a person adopts a new faith both because he or she accepts, in an intellectual or emotional measure, its theological arguments and because he or she accepts it as a better way of dealing with the tribulations of everyday life than had been offered by the traditional faith. In all traditional East African religions the factor of healing is, and has probably always been, a central one. To this must be added a related factor: when fears and accusations of witchcraft and sorcery reach a critical stage, people turn to prophets who promise to cleanse the land of these evils. East Africa has had many new Christian and Islamic prophetic movements whose leaders promise a new society free of witchcraft, sickness, and poverty; in addition, the Christian message as expressed by missionaries refers, to a large extent, to the problems of physical and moral health and sickness. Another factor has been that of education. Until independence a high proportion of educational services were controlled by mission organizations; thus to acquire a Western education and enter the modern world one had to join a mission and become at least a nominal Christian. This kind of conversion has nothing to do with the individual sincerity of conversion and belief, which is a matter quite outside the competence of any outsider to evaluate.

African Independent Churches without any link to foreign bodies have long been a feature of East Africa. They began largely as responses to what were seen (justifiably or not is not the immediate question at issue) as overbearing colonialist attitudes on the part of the mission churches. These African Independent Churches (AICs) in East Africa seem to have developed rather later than those in other parts of the continent. They have been marked particularly in areas of very high population density, which have been those where, for obvious reasons, colonial efforts and influences were first directed and where the effects of external change and of land shortage and overcrowding have been the most severely felt. The Kikuyu, the Luhya, and the Luo of Kenya, the Chagga of Tanzania, and the Ganda of Uganda are among the most striking examples, and all of them have educated Christian elites and African Independent Churches. These areas also, as a not unrelated consequence, have produced most of the members of modern political and social elites.

Islam has been a feature of East Africa for many centuries. It has been a part of the religious situation in northern Ethiopia, the Sudan, and the Somali and Swahili coasts since the Middle Ages. The advent of Omani colonial rule based on Zanzibar in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries revitalized it, and from the coast Islam penetrated into the interior along the trading and slave routes based on Zanzibar. In some cases whole groups near the coast became Muslim, as did the Yao, for example (often largely to prevent their being enslaved, often to enable them to participate in the slave trade as partners with Arabs and Swahili); in others, individual members of the trading settlements inland, such as Tabora and Ujiji in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), became Muslims. In addition, Muslims from the Indian subcontinent have been in the coastal towns for centuries and spread inland to the more modern colonial towns. In general, however, Islam has had relatively little religious impact on most of East Africa, and once the power of the Zanzibar sultanate was weakened it almost ceased to spread.

If traditional Christian and Muslim prophetic leaders are considered members of a single category of religious experts, it may be seen that there are certain clearly defined phases of these movements in East Africa since the latter part of the nineteenth century. The first phase was that of the earlier effects of colonial rule, with which a link was seen with epidemics and other disasters; here the prophets were ultimately unsuccessful as religious or political leaders (although their inspirational spirits have usually lingered on as free spirits of one kind or another). The second phase was during the second quarter of the twentieth century, when the political aspects were less in evidence and more importance was given to missionization, missionaries being seen as colonial agents and even as betrayers of the Christian message as it affected Africans. The third and fourth phases have been more contemporary but should be distinguished. One comprised the movements led by Christian prophets to reform mission churches and to found syncretist or reformed sects and churches; these continued the process mentioned in the second phase. The other has been the rise of more overtly political leaders during the period of gaining political independence from the colonial powers. The leaders' authority has usually had aspects of messianic and charismatic authority, but no more need be said about them here. The third phase, however, is distinctly relevant and provides a main link between the histories and followings of traditional and world religions, especially Christianity in this particular region of Africa. The acceptance of new faiths, with either the abandonment of the old or a syncretism of the two, does not happen in a historical or social vacuum and cannot be considered in isolation from the traditional religious past. The same people, as individuals, move from traditional to world religions (and often back again): they are not members of separate communities.

See Also

African Religions, articles on Mythic Themes and New Religious Movements; Lugbara Religion; Muammad Amad; Nuer and Dinka Religion; Nyakyusa Religion; Witchcraft, article on African Witchcraft.


The basic accounts of East African religions are in the form of monographs on the religious systems of particular societies. Most, although by no means all, are by anthropologists, each of whom has lived among the people in question, has learned their language and ways of life, and can set the beliefs and rites firmly into their social, cultural, and historical contexts. They include two books by E. E. Evans-Pritchard. In Nuer Religion (Oxford, 1956), on the Nilotic Nuer of the southern Sudan, he discusses the complex Nuer beliefs of the soul, divinity, sin, sacrifice, and religious symbolism and relates them to the social structure. The other, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande, 2d ed. (Oxford, 1950), is essentially on notions of spiritual causation among a pre-scientific people of the southwestern Sudan. Both these books are classics in the study of African religions. The Dinka, neighbors of the Nuer and closely related to them, are the subject of Godfrey Lienhardt's Divinity and Experience: The Religion of the Dinka (Oxford, 1961, reprinted, 1987), in which the relationships of belief and sacrifice to Dinka efforts to understand and control their experience of the outside world are discussed with insight and subtlety. John Middleton's Lugbara Religion (London, 1960) deals in a more strictly sociological manner with the use made by the Lugbara of Uganda, who are related to the Azande, of ritual in everyday social and political affairs. The two books on the Nyakyusa, a Bantu-speaking people of southern Tanzania, by Monica Wilson, Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa (London, 1957) and Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa (London, 1959), deal in great detail with rituals of many kinds, set in their social context. Bernardo Bernardi's The Mugwe: A Failing Prophet (London, 1959) deals with a particular priestly office among the Meru, an offshoot of the Kikuyu of central Kenya. Abdul Hamid M. el-Zein's The Sacred Meadows (Evanston, Ill., 1974) is concerned with the elaborate beliefs and rites of the Swahili town of Lamu, on the Kenya coast, which has nominally been Muslim for many centuries. Frederick B. Welbourn's East African Rebels (London, 1961) and Frederick B. Welbourn and Bethwell A. Ogot's A Place to Feel at Home (London, 1966) deal in detail and with sympathy with African Independent Church movements in southern Uganda and western Kenya respectively.

The other main category of writings on East African religions are surveys of various kinds in which comparisons are made between several local religions. Benjamin C. Ray's African Religions (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1976) is an excellent introduction to African religions in which those of East Africa feature prominently, in particular the Nuer, Dinka, Shilluk, Ganda, Lugbara, and Kikuyu. Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa, edited by John Middleton and E. H. Winter (London, 1963), and Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa, edited by John Beattie and John Middleton (New York, 1969), contain essays by various authors on these matters among several different peoples. J. Spencer Trimingham's Islam in East Africa (London, 1964) is a useful survey, and John V. Taylor's The Primal Vision (London, 1963) is a valuable short introduction to East African religion from a Christian viewpoint.

New Sources

Anderson, David M., and Douglas H. Johnson. Revealing Prophets: Prophecy in Eastern African History. London, 1995.

Ewel, Manfred. From Ritual to Modern Art: Tradition and Modernity in Tanzanian Sculpture. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 2001.

Hansen, Holger Bernt, and Michael Twaddle, eds. Religion and Politics in East Africa: The Period Since Independence. London, 1995.

Meeker, Michael E. The Pastoral Son and the Spirit of Patriarchy: Religion, Society and Person Among East African Stock Keepers. Madison, Wis., 1989.

Oded, Arye. Religions and Politics in Uganda: A Study of Islam and Judaism. Nairobi, Kenya, 1995.

Omari, Cuthbert Kashingo. God and Worship in Traditional Asu Society. Erlangen, Germany, 1990.

Ray, Benjamin. Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda. New York, 1991.

Spear, Thomas, and Isaria N. Kimanbo. East African Expressions of Christianity. Athens, Ohio, 1999.

Wrigley, Christopher. Kingship and State: The Buganda Dynasty. New York, 1996.

John Middleton (1987)

Revised Bibliography

About this article

East African Religions: An Overview

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article