Ancestor Worship and the Elderly

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Ancestor Worship and the Elderly


Ancestor Worship. The oldest religion in West Africa is the worship of the ancestors, who were generally regarded as the link between the living and the universal being that existed outside of the realm of human understanding. The separation of earth and heaven, as in modern Christian dogmas, was most definitely foreign to African thinking. It was not unusual for a family compound or household to have a shrine containing a effigy of an ancestor who had passed away. As recognition of this forebear’s continuing existence, rites and rituals were often performed daily to appease him or her. Even with the acceptance of foreign religions such as Islam and Christianity, many Africans still consider ancestor worship their central religion. Even today in the southern part of modern Nigeria, it is not unusual for pastors or imams (Muslim prayer leaders) to employ the services of native doctors (juju men) in matters they consider outside the scope of their belief. Among the Ewe in modern-day Ghana and the Vai in Senegambia, fetishism or ancestor worship is important in social and familial relations. With the settlement of Europeans during the later part of the nineteenth century, however, ancestor worship was wrongly characterized as evil worship (voodoo), and such worship was declared illegal.

Gerontocracy. Respect for one’s ancestors carried over into the realm of the living. The elders were considered the link between living clan members and the world of the spirit, so they were usually treated with great reverence. Authority patterns within the family were based on age, creating a social structure known as gerontocracy. The authority of the elders was pervasive in private and public life. Any person who disobeyed the elders was considered condemned to a life of suffering in the other world, ostracized from society, and deprived of standing among his or her age group. Ranking by age was more important than factors such as economic status or gender. At village assemblies, the oldest member of the clan presided over the proceedings, consulted with the other elders, and then had the final say in whatever decision was made. In some tribes, such as the Yoruba of southwestern Nigeria and the Ewe of modern-day Ghana, parallel assemblies were held for men and for women. When joint assemblies were held, the elder of the two leaders, regardless of sex, presided over the proceedings. Seating arrangements also followed the rule of gerontocracy. Older men and women were normally seated in the front rows while younger people were seated according to age in the rows behind the elders. Upwardly mobile individuals still had to show respect to older members of the clan and give them kola nuts during public ceremonies to acknowledge their role in binding together the clan. Talking in front of elders or looking elders straight in the face was often considered disrespect, and one who did either was likely to be disciplined immediately. When one was allowed to speak in front of the elders, one had to do so with decorum and with ultimate respect for those present.

Care for the Elderly. When elderly men and women could no longer work, the clan was required to look after them. The members of the family took turns providing for the needs of the elderly, who were given priority in the distribution of food. On the death of an elder the entire family was responsible for giving the dead the proper funeral rites.


George B. N. Ayittey, Indigenous African Institutions (Ardsley-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational, 1991).

Yaya Diallo and Mitchell Hall, The Healing Drum: African Wisdom Teachings (Rochester, Vt.: Destiny Books, 1989).

Jack Goody, Comparative Studies in Kinship (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1969).

Goody, ed., The Character of Kinship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973).

F. Ivan Nye and Felix Berardo, The Family: Its Structure and Interactions (London: Macmillan, 1973).

W. N. Stephens, The Family in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1963).

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Ancestor Worship and the Elderly

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