Southern African Religions: An Overview

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There is a basic similarity in religious practice, symbols, and ideas throughout southern Africa, from Uganda to the southern sea, from the east coast to Cameroon. This is the area in which Bantu languages are spoken, and there is a link, though no absolute coincidence, between language family and religious symbolism. Some of the religious symbols of Africa also occur in Europe: The divine king of the Ganda, the Bemba, the Nyakyusa, and the Zulu appeared in the Grove of Nemi in ancient Italy and in Stuart England; but there are many other symbols of more limited provenance, such as fire, symbol of lordship or authority, and blowing out water, or "spitting," a symbol of the confession of anger and the act of forgiveness and goodwill.

Religious belief in southern Africa can best be understood through its symbolism, for religion here is expressed more through drama and poetry than through dogma or theological speculation. The invisible is embodied in tangible symbols which are bent to human purposes. Hence attention must focus on the rituals celebrated.

Among any one people there are likely to be dominant symbols which recur in one ritual after another, and full understanding of them depends upon analysis of the whole ritual cycle. Examples of such symbols are the mudyi tree (with a milky latex), which among the Ndembu represents matriliny, motherhood, and womanhood, and the plantain and sweet bananathe leaves, flowers, fruit, succoring stemwhich among the Nyakyusa represent male and female respectively. These symbols are as obvious to a Nyakyusa as the skirt and trousers used to differentiate gender on washroom signs are to a European or an American.

The present tense is used for observations made during the twentieth century (with some references to earlier observers); but since rapid change is going on throughout Africa and since traditional African practice exists side by side with, and interacts with, modern Christian and Islamic practice, this article should be read in conjunction with others in the encyclopedia. What is described here is but a fragment of current religious practice in southern Africa: The symbolic systems and institutions discussed here indeed still exist widely but are not the sole beliefs or practice of whole populations.

Concepts of God

Throughout southern Africa there is an apprehension of God as a numinous being associated with light, brightness, and sheen. God may be represented by a high mountain glittering with snow, a tree symbolizing the mountain, or a sacred grove. There is a lively belief in the survival of the dead and in their power over the living, a power closely akin to that which living senior kinsmen have over their juniors. There is a belief in medicinesmaterial substances which can be manipulated for good or ill, healing or murder, and which include poisons put in food as well as ointments which are rubbed on the body to make a hunter's aim true, a warrior "slippery," a candidate successful in examinations, or a choir or rugby team victorious in competition. Everywhere the power of evil is feareda power thought to be incarnate in certain persons or familiars they control, which is called witchcraft. The notion of witchcraft involves the personification of anger, hate, jealousy, envy, lust, and greedthe negative feelings which people observe in themselves and in their neighbors. All these beliefs are general, but they appear in infinite variety, modified by kinship and political structure, by economy, and by poetic imagination, and they have changed through time.

How clearly God is distinguished from the first human, or from the founding heroes of a particular lineage, also varies with place and time. Among some peoples, at least, the distinction became clearer as outside contacts extended and the known world was no longer confined within a frame of kinship. Over many centuries Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic ideas of God, with their symbolism of monotheism and of God on high, have impinged on other ideas in Africa, notably the association of the dead with the earth; in some places a process of change may be traced over the past hundred years.

Throughout southern Africa God has been remote, approached only by exceptional priests or by the "elders." The dead are regarded as alive, and it is the shades, or ancestors, the senior dead kin, who are the mediators between humanity and divinity, communicating human needs to the divine. Prayer or direct offerings to God himself rarely occur in traditional practice, but awe of God is constantly manifested, as fear of contamination, as a distancing of humanity from God, and avoidance of such emblems of sacred power as the thunderbolt, the tree struck by lightning, and the python in the grove. One does not speak readily of God, and one speaks of him not at all if he is near. Once, when this writer was at school in London, a fellow student (later a head of state in Africa) started in his seat when this writer was so rash as to discuss lightning on a day when the Lord was muttering overhead. Unusual fecundity, such as twin birth, is also of God and fearful, hence twins and their parents are isolated from the normal village community and, because of their divine connection, they function as "herds" to drive off storms.

Gabriel M. Setiloane, himself a Methodist minister, argues cogently in The Image of God among the Sotho-Tswana (Rotterdam, 1976) that the first missionary to the Tswana, Robert Moffat (the father-in-law of David Livingstone), misunderstood the Tswana language (into which he translated the New Testament) and hence the Tswana experience of God. But it is John V. Taylor who shows, in The Primal Vision, that in Africa God is both there and not there, that he is both sought and rejected. Bishop Taylor fastens upon the "significance of this ambivalence," saying that humans have been aware of the numinous and their dependence upon it but have sought to separate themselves from it.


Among southern African peoples shades are of two categories: the dead senior kin (male and female) of each family or lineage and the founding heroes. Family shades are relevant only for their junior kin who celebrate "rituals of kinship"; founding heroes (male or female) have relevance for political units, that is, chiefdoms, groups of chiefdoms, or regions which honor a hero and his or her descendants in "communal rituals." The ancestors of a ruling lineage, where one exists, commonly claim descent from the founding hero; or the hero may be thought of as a benefactor or prophet who left no descendants but who is celebrated in some grove or cave by a lineage or priests. The ancestors of a chief, it is believed, retain power over the country they once ruled, so in addition to rituals for founding heroes there may be a series of offerings to past chiefs.

Like God, the shades are associated with brightness, light, radiance, and whiteness. Among the Zulu and Xhosa a gray-leafed helichrysum, whose leaves and pale gold flowers both reflect light, is linked with the shades; in Pondoland "the medicine of the home" is a small, yellow-flowered senecio which gleams in the veld. The beads offered to shades and worn by a diviner, novice, or pregnant bride are white, and when an animal is slaughtered and offered to the shades, the officiants wipe their hands in the chyme, a strong bleaching agent. But again, as with God, contact with the shades is seen to be somehow contaminating. A shade must be "pushed away a little"; it must be kept from continually "brooding" over humans as a hen broods over its chicks. The dead must be separated from the living and then "brought home," that is, transformed.

Although they are numinous, the shades are held in far less awe than is God himself. To many Africans the shades are constantly about the homestead, evident in a tiny spiral of dust blowing across the yard or through the banana grove, or in the rustling of banana leaves; thought to be sheltering near the byre or in the shade of a tree, or sipping beer left overnight at the back of the great house. Their presence is so real in Pondoland that (into the twentieth century) a wife of the homestead carefully avoids the yard and the byre where men sit, even at night, lest the shades be there, and as she walks through a river associated with her husband's clan she lets her skirts trail in the water, for to tuck up her skirts would insult his shades.

The living and the dead are so closely associated in southern Africa that it is common for a man's heir (a brother, son, or sister's son) and a woman's heir (a sister, daughter, or brother's daughter) to take the property, the name, the social position, and the responsibilities of the deceased. Hence one may be told that the holder of some officea priest, chief, king, or senior kinsmanis "Mswati the third" (or tenth, as the case may be). A founding hero frequently has a living representative in this sense, a "divine king," that is, a ruler or priest on whose health and virility the health and fertility of men, cattle, and land are thought to depend. Even into the twentieth century, a divine king who was ailing or feeble would be smotheredhe must "die for the people"and then be replaced.

Founding heroes typically are associated with a bed of reeds, from which the first man is said to have sprung; with a river source along the watershed between the Zambezi and Kongo rivers; with a pool in one of the rushing rivers of the south; with a hole in the ground (from which men and cattle emerged) on the dry edge of the Kalahari Desert; or with a grove of trees. Like family shades, heroes are of the earth and water, not of the sky. The place of celebration has moved as groups of kinsmen have moved, as chiefs have been installed and later buried, and as trees planted as boundary marks or on graves have spread into thickets.

Ritual Life

Communal rituals are of various sorts, including offerings to the founding heroes, their living representatives, and chiefly descendants. Such offerings are celebrated by the leading men of the region, chiefdom, or village. The common people know little of the details; they are aware only that a celebration has taken place.

But there is also a type of purification ritual that concerns everyone. Sometimes it is linked to a celebration of first fruits; at other times it is accompanied by a military review. At the break of the rains in tropical Africa, or at the summer solstice farther south, and in any general emergency such as plague or war, the people may be called upon to purify themselves, to sweep the homesteads, throw out the old ash from hearths, and rekindle new fire. Among at least some peoples everyone is expected to "speak out," that is, to confess anger and grudges held against neighbors and kin, or against fellow priests and leading men. It is a spring-cleaning of hearts and minds as well as homesteads.

In the Swazi kingdom todayas formerly in other Nguni kingdoms and chiefdoms on the southeastern coast of Africaall the men of the country, and many women also, gather at the time of the summer solstice to celebrate the first fruits and strengthen their king, while regiments dance and demonstrate their loyalty. The Zulu form of this ritual was powerfully interpreted by Max Gluckman (1954) as a "ritual of rebellion," but it now seems that this early analysis was based on a mistranslation. According to Harriet Ngubane (1977), a Zulu anthropologist, the key phrase used in the ritual expresses a rejection of pollution: "What the king breaks to pieces and tramples upon is a gourd that symbolizes the evil of the past year." This exactly parallels rituals farther north for "cleansing the country" in which the population of entire regions "throw out the rubbish," especially ashes from all the hearths, and distribute newly kindled fire. The Ngonde (Malawi) chant: "Let us dance, let us fight that the homesteads may be peaceful. Let us throw out the ashes that death may leave the homesteads and they be at peace." Close analysis shows that such rituals symbolically cast out the anger in people's hearts. The Taita of Kenya celebrate a similar rite of casting out anger, as Grace Harris (1978) has shown.

These cleansing rites speak repeatedly of ridding the people of "the dirt" of the past year. The similarity to ancient Hebrew rituals is obvious, although published reports from southern Africa make no mention of any symbolism having to do with driving out a scapegoat. Rather, the symbols which recur here are those of heat and coolness. Heat is associated with pollution, which in turn is closely associated with anger and sexual activity; coolness is associated with rain, tranquility, and purification. These symbols are familiar to all Sotho-Tswana-speaking peoples and to others also.

Throughout southern Africa communal rituals have to do with rain, especially the dramatic "break of the rains," so eagerly awaited after the dry season. Local rituals celebrate seedtime and harvest; the firing of pasture to destroy unpalatable grass and bush which harbor tsetse flies; game drives or a fishing battue; murrain or plague; war and peace; the coronation of a chief and/or the handing over of power from one generation to the next. Details of such celebrations vary both with economy and with political structure. Regional rituals may involve the distribution of once-scarce goods, such as salt and iron tools, which in former times were brought to the shrine from beyond the boundaries of the political unit. The priests who brought the goods were sacred people: Among the Nyakyusa these priests traveled in safety, announcing their status by drumbeat. Other rituals may be connected with the growth of chiefdoms. J. Matthew Schoffeleers has written about the spread of the Mbona cult with the development of Mangʾanga chiefdoms in Malawi.

Kinship Rituals

Unless they concern a royal family, the rituals of kinship have no political overtones. They are celebrated on the great occasions of a person's life: at birth and death, at maturity and marriage. In southern Africa each family or lineage directs its celebrations to its own dead senior kinsmen, who are not sharply distinguished from living seniors. The living may indeed be referred to by the term for a shade as they grow old. In 1931 in Pondoland this writer heard the word itongo ("a shade") used in reference to an elderly father's living sister. Living as well as dead seniors are thought to bring sickness, sterility, and other misfortuneseven failure to secure a job or a residence passon insolent, quarrelsome, or neglectful juniors.

Family rituals vary with the economy, for the place of the shrine and the form of the offering depend upon the staple foods. Among a pastoral people the altar is the byre, the offering milk or a slaughtered animal. If the people cultivate, beer is added. Among banana-eating peoples the altar is set in a plantain grove, at the base of a succoring stem which represents the patrilineage; among hunting peoples it may be a tree or branch on which are placed trophies of the chase. To the Lele, who live on the southern edge of the equatorial forest belt, the forest is holy and is associated with men; the grassland, where villages are built, has no prestige and is associated with women. Among other peoples the cleavage is between the open pastureland or bush (the veld) and the village; or, within the village itself, between the byre and its gateway-where prayer and offerings are made and men gatherand the great hut occupied by the senior woman of the homestead. But everywhere the hearth and house, especially the doorway of the house, are sacred also, for among some peoples explicitly, and probably for all implicitly, the house represents the mother, the hearth stands for the marriage, and the doorway is the passage through which children are born. Taboos surrounding the hearth, the fire, and the whole reproductive process may be seen as an expression of the holiness of normal fertility and procreation, processes which are thought to be controlled by the shades.

Offerings to the shades consist of staple foods, especially choice foods such as a tender cut of beef eaten by the one on whose behalf prayer is made (the same cut from the right foreleg is used by peoples from Tanzania to the southern coast of Africa); a libation of fermented milk or beer; a sprinkling of flour or porridge; seeds of pulses, cucurbits, and grains. A strongly pastoral people will cling to the symbolism of slaughtering an animalshedding bloodeven when they live in a city. White goats may yet be seen grazing on the outskirts of the African quarters of Cape Town, or one may see them being led along a country road or wandering about on some modern farm where African laborers are employed. They are there to be used as offerings at times of birth or death, sickness or initiation, when meat from the butcher will not suffice; at such times informed authority turns a blind eye. The beer poured out may be made of sorghum, millet, bananas, bamboo, or even maize or cassava, which reached the coasts of Africa only in the sixteenth century and parts of the interior only in the nineteenth century.

Whatever the material used, the intention of the offering is the same: The shades are called to feast, and what is offered is a communion meal for living and dead kinsmen. If an ox has been slaughtered or much beer brewed, friends and neighbors will be asked to gather with the kinsmen, but they do not share in the sacred portions set aside for kin, who first eat and drink in a place set slightly apart from the main gathering. At an offering to the shades it is essential that kinsmen be presentthe range of kin summoned depending upon the gravity of the occasionand that they be loving and charitable to one another. Any quarrels must be admitted and resolved. This writer has heard the officiant at such a ritual urging all the kinsmen present to "drink up and speak out." Sometimes a funeral feast, or a feast celebrating the return of a prodigal son to his father, may seem like a cursing match as one after another participant admits "anger in the heart," a grudge against kinsmen. This writer heard individual women complain that they had not been received with due respect by a brother's wife when they visited and the brother's wife reply that her sister-in-law had been seen picking and stealing, taking green food from the garden as she passed through, and so forth. Unspoken anger, festering in the heart, is thought both to be the root of witchcraft and to invalidate an offering to the shades, for quarreling between kinsmen infuriates the shades.

When an offering is made, an officiant, usually the senior man of the lineage, or occasionally a dead father's sister or a grandmother of the homestead, addresses the shades, calling them by name, explaining why the offering has been madethat is, what is troubling the homesteadand requesting help. The calling of ancestors by name is in itself a form of praise, and the manner of speech is that used in the presence of a senior kinsman, or (as among the Nguni) that used to honor a chief. Prayer and praise are here barely distinguishable.

The occasions of family rituals are constant throughout the area: death and birth, especially abnormal birth such as that of twins; maturity, whether physically or socially defined; marriage; misfortune and serious illness; reconciliation after a quarrel; and the first fruits that the family celebrates after the national or regional ritual. Thanksgiving rituals also occur, particularly after escape from danger in war or hunting, or on the return home of a migrant laborer or a person released from imprisonment; and there are rituals invoking blessing for an important new tool such as a plough, but these are less general than the rituals of life crises. Everywhere the death rituals persist through time and are adapted to the new economy. In the south funeral parlors with facilities for keeping a corpse exist even in some country districts, and funerals are delayed until close kin, scattered at work centers, can gather. Sometimes the corpse of a town worker who has not visited the country for years is brought "home" to the country to be buried. Great numbers of people come to mourn, and, relative to the family's earnings, enormous sums are spent on traveling, funeral expenses, and food for guests. Many guests bring a contribution of money, but even so the family may be crippled financially. Whether a man has been buried in a Johannesburg township or a remote village, as of 1982 family status still depended on lavish expenditure just as it did among the Nyakyusa in 1935, when a hundred cattle might be slaughtered on the death of a rich chief.

Although funerals have been adapted to the new economy, they include certain traditional rites, notably a washing and purification rite after the burial and a lifting of mourning after about a year. Among the Nguni peoples of the southeast coast a commemoration dinner may replace the rite of "bringing home" the shade and implies an awareness of the continuing existence of the dead which is much greater than that experienced by many contemporary Europeans and Americans. Setiloane describes the vitality of such rites in Sotho-Tswana families of professing Christians.

All the kinship rituals, but especially funerals, are an affirmation of kinship and the unity of the extended family, and the efficacy of the ritual depends upon the presence, in love and charity, of a network of kin. Exactly who is involved varies both with the peoplebe they Ndembu, Bemba, Zulu, or Sothoand with the occasion. The celebrations are a strong conservative force, for the health and well-being of the whole kinship group is thought to depend on "following the customs of the ancestors" in observing the ritual. This is evident even in a city.

Maturity rituals have many aspects; the extent to which any one aspect is stressed varies from one society to another. This article has classed maturity rituals as religious, since they are explicitly concerned with fertility, which in turn is controlled by the shades; often they involve an offering and invocation to the shades, whose blessings are sought. Frequently, perhaps always, there is a symbolic death, a period of seclusion when the novice must observe taboos associated with the world of the dead, which is followed by a rebirth after which he or she returns to ordinary life. The rituals are viewed as a proper prelude to, if not a condition of, marriage and procreation. Rituals of maturity for boys often (but not invariably) involve circumcision: Those for girls may or may not involve clitoridectomy or some lesser operation.

Circumcision is most often celebrated for a group, and those who have endured this rite together share a bond for life. The boys' group may become a unit in the army, and in areas where the political structure is based on age, its members may graduate together as elders holding legal and administrative office, and finally, as old men, share ritual functions. Where there are chiefs, a royal youth is sought to lead each circumcision group, and those circumcised with him become his closest followers. The circumcision school draws a youth out of the immediate network of kin and establishes links with scattered contemporaries and political authority, links sometimes expressed in an esoteric language known only to those initiated.

Girls' initiation, on the other hand, is most often an individual celebration at the first menstruation, and wider links with contemporaries or political authority are not treated as important. But among a few peoples, notably the Sotho-Tswana and the neighboring Venda in precolonial times, girls' initiation was a group affair with political implications; a women's regiment was linked to a men's regiment, and, like its male counterpart, it might be called out for public service.

Maturity rituals are everywhere concerned with inculcating respect for authority: respect for seniors, shades, chiefs, and respect of a wife for her husband. A man must learn to keep secrets and never reveal the affairs of his chief or the secrets of the lodge. A woman likewise must learn to hold her tongue; she must not create conflict through gossip or reveal the affairs of her husband. Often there are taboo words and riddles with a set answer, knowledge of which are taken as proof of initiation. In Chisungu Audrey I. Richards (1956) admirably demonstrates the use of songs, mimes, designs, and models to inculcate in a Bemba girl the proper behavior of a wife. Always the rituals instruct the novice in the behavior required of an adult man or woman, and a transformation from childish behavior to responsible behavior is expected.

The rituals assert the authority of a senior generation over a junior: The initiated secure the young novice's submission through the pain of an operation, beating, scolding, and threats, or by playing upon the novice's fear of the unseen and longing to become an honored and fertile man or woman. The ritual creates a fraternity or sorority of those who have undergone the ordeal: Those who have not undergone it are outsiders, but all who have endured are free to participate in the admonition of their juniors. A determination to use circumcision rites to bolster civil authority was made explicit in October 1981 when the Ciskei, later an "independent state" on the border of the Republic of South Africa, passed legislation empowering a chief to compel a young man to be circumcised, on the ground that "it is well known that circumcision causes irresponsible youths to behave in a responsible manner." This happened at a time when opposition by school boys and students to Ciskeian political authority was intense.

Why maturity rituals have survived among some peoples but not others, or for one sex but not the other, in fast-changing societies can only be demonstrated by analyzing historical events in particular areas. What is certain is that in some areas changes in practice have occurred since the eighteenth century, rites spreading or being abandoned; but there is also eyewitness evidence from survivors of wrecks on the southeastern coast of Africa which suggests minimal change in circumcision rites among Xhosa and Thembu peoples over three centuries.

Cults of Affliction, Spirit Possession, and Divination

Besides the cycle of rituals associated with families and the birth, maturity, and death of individuals, and the cycle celebrated for a chiefdom or region, there is a cycle of rituals for those individuals "called" by their shades to become diviners, or for sufferers whose sickness has been relieved by what Victor Turner has called a "ritual of affliction." Cults or guilds are formed of those who have suffered a particular travail and been cured by a particular ritual. Their experience entitles them to participate in any celebration for a sufferer of the same category. Rituals for diviners who have been called (as opposed to herbalists who learn certain medicines) and rituals of affliction are much less widespread than those for birth, maturity, and death, or those for a chiefdom or region. They are not contained within the frame of kinship or locality and seem to have proliferated with trade and travel, but of that process not much is yet known. What is certain is that among some isolated peoples (such as the Nyakyusa) these rituals do not occur at all, and among peoples with a long tradition of distant trade, such as the Shona and Tsonga, possession is often interpreted as being the work of an outsider, not that of a family shade. This phenomenon has appeared recently among the Zulu, as Harriet Ngubane (1977) has shown, and, according to John Beattie (1969), it exists among the Nyoro of Uganda as well.

Diviners are thought to be in a peculiarly close relationship with their shades, who reveal themselves in dreams and trances. Communication with the shades is fostered by cleansing and purging, observance of taboos (including sexual abstinence), fasting, isolation in the bush, offerings to the shades, and dancing to clapping or drums. The emotion is often intense when, with an insistent beat of clapping provided by a packed crowd, a novice speaks of what she has seen in dreams. In Western society the closest analogue to the diviner in this respect is the medium, and among some peoplesnotably the Shona of Zimbabwea state of trance undoubtedly occurs. Even though it may be a stranger spirit who possesses the medium, she remains in close contact with her family shades.

Most mediums deal with the domestic problems and health of clients who come to consult them. Occasionally, however, a medium may influence public events, as did Nongqause, the Xhosa girl who in 1856 urged all Xhosa on the eastern frontier of the Cape of Good Hope to kill their cattle and destroy their grain, prophesying that when they did so the dead would rise up and sweep the whites into the sea, or the Shona medium who in 1898 urged resistance against whites in what is now Zimbabwe. During the colonial period old prophecies of the coming of whites were repeatedly recorded, and these may be seen partly as a reconciliation of old and new. To at least some Nyakyusa Christians, such prophecies were evidence of the reality"the truth"of ancient institutions, the prescience of past prophets. Had not the prophecy been fulfilled?


In southern African belief, evil does not come from the shades, who are essentially good. They discipline erring descendants, sending sickness or sterility if they have been starved (for in a real sense the shades partake of the communion mealthat is, the beer and fleshand are satisfied by it) or neglected, not informed of a marriage, or affronted by the quarrels of their juniors. But they are concerned about the welfare of their children and are held to be the source of blessing. Rather, evil comes from another source: witchcraft. It is thought to be embodied in a serpenta "python in the belly" (Nyakyusa), a "snake of the women" (Pondo); or it takes the form of a baboon, or a fabulous hairy being with exaggerated sexual organs (Xhosa), and so forth. Such creatures are as real in imagination as was the pitchfork-wielding Devil to the medieval European, and like him they walk the earth seeking those whom they may devour. The witch familiars (and witchcraft generally) personify the evil recognized as existing in all humans, specifically, anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, lust, greed. Even sloth appears, in the belief that certain evil people have raised others from the dead to work their fields for them.

The form of witch belief varies with the social structure, as does the relationship of victim and accused, for the points of friction in a society vary with the form of residence and economic cooperation (i.e., who lives and works together), the occasions of competition, and the location of authority. Injury is thought to come from those with whom one has quarreled: a co-wife, mother-in-law, half sibling, fellow employee, rival claimant for inheritance, affine claiming marriage cattle, litigant in court against whom judgment has been given, or fellow priest. In some societies it is mostly women, poor men, and juniors who are accused; but in societies where egalitarian values are stressed the rich man is suspect, as is the successful grower of cash crops who is thought to have attracted the fertility of his neighbors' fields to his own. The one legitimately greater than the commoner (i.e., the chief) may covet the cattle of a wealthy stock owner, who is then accused of some wrongdoingor so outsiders have thought.

Again and again during the colonial period, "witch-finding" movements arose when some prophet would call on his people to reject evil, to purge themselves of witchcraft and medicines used for sorcery. Over large regions people in fact complied, bringing out horns of medicines or other objects to throw publicly on a pyre and implicitly or explicitly admitting evil in themselves and expressing goodwill to all. The bamucapi movement which swept through what are now Zambia, Malawi, and parts of Zimbabwe and Tanzania in 1934 was followed by a somewhat similar movement in much the same area (but with greatest influence in what is now Tanzania) between 1956 and 1964. Long before these movements arose, the Xhosa of the eastern Cape frontier had repeatedly been urged to purify themselves and reject witchcraft. In 1856 Nongqause, a sixteen-year-old medium, reported to the noted diviner Mhlakaza, her father's brother, that the shades had told her they would come to the rescue of their Xhosa descendants in their long war with whites over land on the eastern frontier, on condition that the living purify themselves and kill all their cattle. In the famine that ensued, twenty thousand people died. There is no evidence that such revivalist movements began in the colonial period: They may well have happened periodically before that, although certain characteristics of movements in colonial times, notably millennialism, were related to Christian missionary teaching.

People are known to confess to the practice of witchcraft, usually following an accusation and pressure to confess. One young mother in Pondoland explained to this writer that her baby had at first refused to nurse because she had had a witch-lover (who appeared in the form of a young man she named). The mother had then confessed, complying with the instructions of the midwives and giving her account precisely in terms of current beliefs; she was now being cleansed, and the baby was nursing all right. In some areas confessions have at times been extracted forcibly (through a poison ordeal or torture), since the recovery of the victim is held to depend upon the witch's confession and subsequent expression of goodwill toward the victim.

Ritual, Order, and the Religious Experience

Analysis of ritual is important in any study of religion, for ritual enshrines the dogma and values of participants. There is always a gap between the values expressed and everyday practice, but ideals and ideas of ultimate reality are embodied in ritual action. In southern Africa there is constant emphasis on fertilityof human beings, stock, and fields; on health; on goodwill between kinsmen and neighbors; on amity among the ruling men of the region; on respect of juniors for seniors and the responsibility of seniors toward their dependents; on the continuation of life after death.

Order exists in the universe, and the natural and social orders are felt to be interrelated: As in King Lear, disharmony in the world of humans is reflected both in the world of physical elements and in the tempest within a person's mindin madness. If the divine king breaks a taboo, drought or flood may follow; if the ritual for a widow or a nubile girl is neglected, she may become distraught. Right order is expressed in traditional custom, and in their essence, ritualswhether positive action or negative avoidanceexpress the sacredness both of physiological processes, that is, menstruation, coition, parturition, and death, and of the approved relationships of men and women, old and young, leaders and followers. Both family and communal rituals are occasions of emotion, and the celebrations themselves arouse emotion, as is obvious to any observer who listens to the drumbeat and watches the dancing. Rituals, then, channel emotion and teach the mourner, the adolescent, or the parent what it is proper to feel. Nyakyusa mourners were required to express the passion of grief and fear to the men "fighting death" in the war dance and to widows, mothers, and sisters weeping violently and smearing themselves with ash and mud; but the rituals reveal little of the actual experience of the individual.

Any understanding of religious experience must come primarily from what individuals report of their own lives. Firsthand accounts are meager, but there is evidence that an awareness of the numinous exists. The talk of priests hints at their fear of a grove in which a founding hero or chief has been buried; at a communion meal of living and dead kinsmen, there is a sense that the shades are present and that the participants find satisfaction in their company; people speak of the comfort felt in a moment of danger when a man or woman has called on the shade of a parent or grandparent and sensed its presence; the fear aroused by a nightmare may be interpreted as the attack of a witch. Dreams are indeed the most common experience of the unseen, and so real that in recording the experiences of southern Africans I often had to ask, "Were you asleep or awake when this happened?" Those closest to their shades, and hence most aware of the numinous, are the hereditary priests, or rainmakers, and diviners who have been "called" and who practice as mediums.

See Also

Affliction, article on African Cults of Affliction; Bemba Religion; Central Bantu Religions; Interlacustrine Bantu Religions; Khoi and San Religion; Kongo Religion; Luba Religion; Mbona; Ndembu Religion; Nyakyusa Religion; Shona Religion; Swazi Religion; Tswana Religion; Witchcraft, article on African Witchcraft; Zulu Religion.


To supplement the relatively few works cited in the text, the works listed herein range over all parts of the enormous area of southern Africa. Many of the books cited here were written by missionaries, who provided most of the early published evidence of the traditions of peoples in the area.

Beattie, John, and John Middleton, eds. Spirit Mediumship and Society in Africa. London, 1969. Firsthand accounts by trained observers of spirit mediums in thirteen African societies, with a comparative introduction.

Berglund, Axel-Ivar. Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. London, 1976. By far the best study of the symbolism of an Nguni people (on the southeast coast), written by a missionary who grew up speaking Zulu as a second language.

Bernardi, Bernardo. The Mugwe: A Failing Prophet. London, 1959. A competent account of a hereditary priest in Meru, Kenya, written by a Consolata priest who was a missionary in the area.

Callaway, Henry. The Religious System of the Amazulu (1870). Reprint, Cape Town, 1970. Contains valuable statements of belief by Zulu. Includes Zulu texts and English translations, with notes, by the Reverend Canon Callaway, a Zulu-speaking missionary who sought to understand traditional ideas.

Colson, Elizabeth. The Plateau Tonga of Northern Rhodesia. Manchester, 1962. One volume of a longterm study by an anthropologist; gives an account of ancestral spirits and rain shrines.

Crawford, James R. Witchcraft and Sorcery in Rhodesia. London, 1967. Based on records of court cases.

Douglas, Mary. The Lele of the Kasai. London, 1963. A brilliant essay on Lele symbolism, first published in African Worlds, edited by Daryll Forde (London, 1954).

Douglas, Mary. Natural Symbols. New York, 1970. Discusses the relationship between symbols and inner experience.

Douglas, Mary, ed. Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations. New York, 1970. Sets witch beliefs in comparative perspective.

Fortes, Meyer, and Germaine Dieterlen. African Systems of Thought. London, 1965.

Gluckman, Max. Rituals of Rebellion in Southeast Africa. Manchester, 1954.

Hammond-Tooke, W. David. Boundaries and Belief: The Structure of a Sotho World View. Johannesburg, 1981.

Harris, Grace Gredys. Casting Out Anger: Religion among the Taita of Kenya. Cambridge, 1978. A discussion of rejection of anger, through spraying out water or beer, as the central religious act among the Taita.

Junod, Henri A. The Life of a South African Tribe. 2d ed., rev. & enl. 2 vols. London, 1927. A classic by a missionary; first published as Les Ba-Ronga (1898; reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1962).

Kenyatta, Jomo. Facing Mount Kenya (1938; New York, 1962). A valuable firsthand account of Kikuyu ritual and belief.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. New York, 1969.

Mbiti, John S. Concepts of God in Africa. London, 1970. Useful on the concept of time in East Africa. Makes clear that ancestors are not worshiped; offerings to them are family celebrations with the "living dead."

McAllister, P. A. "Work, Homestead and the Shades: The Ritual Interpretation of Labour Migration among the Gcaleka." In Black Villagers in an Industrial Society, edited by Philip Mayer, pp. 205253. Cape Town, 1980. Evidence on a very conservative section of Xhosa on the southeast coast.

Middleton, John, and E. H. Winter, eds. Witchcraft and Sorcery in East Africa. London, 1963. Essays based on firsthand observation.

Ngubane, Harriet. Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine. London, 1977. Particularly illuminating on the ancestors and illness, pollution, color symbolism in medicine, and possession by evil spirits. An important work by an observer whose mother tongue is Zulu.

Ranger, T. O., and Isaria N. Kimambo, eds. The Historical Study of African Religion. Berkeley, Calif., 1972.

Richards, Audrey I. "A Modern Movement of Witch-finders." Africa 8 (October 1935): 448461. Describes the bamucapi movement of 1934.

Richards, Audrey I. Chisungu: A Girl's Initiation Ceremony among the Bemba of Northern Rhodesia. London, 1956. The most vivid account yet written on girls' initiation; interprets symbols and explains methods of inculcating certain lessons.

Roscoe, John. The Baganda. London, 1911. Written by a missionary who worked closely with James G. Frazer. Includes an account of founding heroes and rituals at their shrines.

Setiloane, Gabriel M. The Image of God among the Sotho-Tswana. Rotterdam, 1976.

Smith, Edwin W., and Andrew Murray Dale. The Ila-Speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia (1920). 2 vols. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1968. Smith was a missionary, Dale a magistrate, and both were very competent linguists. They lived among the Ila of the Zambezi from 1902 and 1904, respectively, until 1914. The sections on religion are chiefly the work of Smith, who later served as president of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London. The book is a classic of early African ethnography.

Smith, Edwin W., ed. African Ideas of God. London, 1950. A symposium with twelve contributors and an introductory essay by Smith. Five contributors refer to southern Africa.

Swantz, Marja-Liisa. Ritual and Symbol in Transitional Zaramo Society, with Special Reference to Women. Uppsala, 1970. An account of the ritual and symbolism of the Zaramo of the Tanzanian coast. "Every occasion of prayer," Swantz argues, "is a restatement of the position of the family in relation to their elders and to their present leadership and authority."

Taylor, John V. The Primal Vision: Christian Presence amid African Religion. Philadelphia, 1963. A penetrating study based on Taylor's experience in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa.

Turner, Victor. The Forest of Symbols. Ithaca, N.Y., 1967. This volume was followed by Turner's The Drums of Affliction (Oxford, 1968), The Ritual Process (Chicago, 1969), and Revelation and Divination in Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, N.Y., 1975); together they constitute a profound study of Ndembu ritual and symbolism.

Willoughby, William C. The Soul of the Bantu. New York, 1928. Based on the experience in Botswana of a missionary who believed that "ritual is a variety of the vernacular."

Wilson, Monica. Reaction to Conquest. London, 1936. Includes eyewitness accounts of animal offerings and prayers to the shades.

Wilson, Monica. "Witch Beliefs and Social Structure." American Journal of Sociology 56 (January 1951): 307313.

Wilson, Monica. Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa. London, 1957. This work and its companion volume, Communal Rituals of the Nyakyusa (London, 1957), describe the whole cycle celebrated; they quote the texts and describe the situations on which interpretation of symbols is based.

Wilson, Monica. "Co-operation and Conflict." In The Oxford History of South Africa, edited by Monica Wilson and Leonard Thompson, vol. 1. Oxford, 1969. Shows that the Xhosa cattle killing of 1856 was one of a series led by prophets who urged purification from witchcraft and sacrifice to the shades.

Wilson, Monica. Religion and the Transformation of Society. Cambridge, 1971. Discusses the change in traditional religion as the scale of societies in Africa increases.

Wilson, Monica. "Mhlakaza." In Les Africains, edited by Charles-André Julien et al., vol. 5. Paris, 1977. The Xhosa cattle killing has been seen by various writers as a plot of the chiefs to drive the Xhosa to war, as a plot of the whites to destroy the Xhosa, and as a resistance movement. Little attention has been paid to its fundamental religious aspect, which is discussed here. (The text is, alas, marred by many mistakes in the French printing of names.)

Monica Wilson (1987)

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Southern African Religions: An Overview

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Southern African Religions: An Overview