African Religions

views updated Jun 27 2018



This entry presents a brief, general picture of Africa's traditional religious heritage, focusing on the major beliefs because these underlie the general attitudes of individuals and society and shape their worldview. Various terms are used to refer to the indigenous religious heritage, including African religion, African traditional religions, African indigenous religions, and African religious traditions. This entry makes use of the most current term, "African religion." It is clear that in such a vast continent, there are diversities of religious life and concepts, but there are also similarities that make it possible to give a general picture.

After a brief word on the origin of African religion, this entry considers it in terms of belief in God and other spiritual beings, mystical power, and the continuation of human life after death. It describes how human beings are seen to be at the center of the world, and traces the journey of individual life from birth to death and beyond. Moral and ethical values are shown to regulate people's relationships with one another, nature, and God. African peoples give health and related problems much attention, for both their physical and their spiritual welfare. Religions originating outside of Africa, together with the influences of "modern" life, also have an impact upon the traditional religious heritage.

Origin and Sources of African Religion

African Religion evolved gradually as people experienced different life situations, raising questions and reflecting on such mysteries of life as birth and death, joy and suffering, the forces of nature, and the purpose of life. Its history is bound up with the history of each people or tribe, and goes back to prehistoric times. Some elements distinguish it from Christianity and Islam, the other major religions of Africa, while other elements resemble them. African religion is practiced in the early twenty-first century mostly in the southern two-thirds of Africa, including Madagascar, where Christianity is statistically dominant. In the northern one-third, dominated by Islam, African religion exists beneath the surface, among indigenous peoples, despite their having been subjugated and dominated by Arab immigrants for many centuries.

African religion is found primarily in oral sources, including stories, myths, proverbs, prayers, ritual incantations, songs, names of people and places, and the specialized and carefully guarded knowledge of religious personages. Other sources are art and language; ceremonies and rituals; religious objects and places like shrines, altars, and ceremonial symbols; and magical objects and practices. It also emerges among Christians and Muslims in times of crisis like severe illness or death, disputes, political and sports competitions, examinations, and the search for employment. Since the nineteenth century these sources have increasingly been recorded in writing, and since the second half of the twentieth century, on film and on audiotapes and videotapes.

African religion spread to the western hemisphere through African peoples who were forcibly transplanted to the West Indies and the Americas by the slave trade. It settled there and survived in a mixture with Christianity, despite the influence of other cultures and environments. For example, the spirit possessions that abound among people of African descent in Brazil and the West Indies have their origins in Africa. Voodoo in the Caribbean and macumba in Brazil are remnants of African religion that have been modified to suit local practice. Some names of people in Jamaica, like Cudjoe, Acheampong, Kwaku, and Obi are originally African, but these are said to be disappearing. After careful study of the American scene, Gayraud Wilmore concludes that "an essential ingredient of Afro-American Christianity prior to the Civil War was the creative residuum of the African Religions," characterized by a spirituality of response to the reality of the spirit world and its reaction with objective reality (1983, p. 26).

Major Beliefs in African Religion

As an all-embracing worldview, African religion has a number of beliefs held in common by the community. Individuals cannot reject a particular belief, since beliefs are part and parcel of the wider community. The term "community" is used here to refer to a grouping of persons in a particular area who lead a fairly similar cultural life, within a given people or in a town.

BELIEF IN GOD. Belief in God is found among all African peoples. The Creator and Preserver of all things, God is invisible, but the ongoing work of creation points to God's existence and involvement in the world. There are no atheists in African traditional society; belief in God is part of the common knowledge of everyone, including children. There are no pictorial or other representations of God by African peoples. Oral appellations of God include Father, Mother, Parent, Friend, Savior, Protector, Giver of Children, Giver of Rain, the Shining One, the Kind One, and the Everlasting One. God is good, compassionate, just, and loving to all people. The overall picture of God is of one who is above gender classification, neither male nor female, since God is Spirit. To grasp some aspects of God, people find anthropomorphic concepts useful and, according to the situation, may speak of God in male or female terms for that purpose. Furthermore, many African languages do not distinguish gender grammatically. People express their belief in and awareness of God through prayers, invocations, sacrifices and offerings, praise songs, and dedication of children to God. In some areas priests and priestesses officiate at religious ceremonies, pray on behalf of their communities, and pass on the theological, philosophical, and practical knowledge of their religion. They are, or should be, morally upright. In Nigeria and Uganda, priestesses regard themselves as "married" (i.e., wholly dedicated) to God for a given period of time in their life, but later marry human husbands.

BELIEF IN OTHER SPIRITUAL BEINGS. There is widespread belief in the existence of other spiritual beings created by and subject to God. The spirits can be considered in two categories: those associated with nature and those that are remnants of human beings after death. Nature spirits are personifications of heavenly or earthly objects and phenomena: the stars, the sun, thunder, rain and storms, mountains, earthquakes, lakes, waterfalls, and caves.

Some communities, especially in West Africa, have "divinities," spirit functionaries prominent in the life of the community. This particularly reflects the political structure, with the queen or king at the top and various chieftains or ministers below. Some "divinities" are said to have assisted God in the ordering of the world; others, to be in charge of aspects of nature like the weather, earthquakes, and epidemics. But many African peoples do not have divinities in their cosmology.

Most of the human spirits are those of people who died more than five generations ago; the others are of persons who are remembered by name and known collectively as the "living dead," since they are regarded as part of the family. When they "appear" to the living, either directly or through a medium, they are recognized by name, and what they communicate, in the form of requests, instructions, or warnings, is taken very seriously by their families. However, the spirits of the departed generally have little or no place in the beliefs of nomadic peoples, probably because they do not remain for years on the land where they bury their dead.

Spirits of the unknown dead are sometimes called upon or otherwise used in divination and medical practice, but otherwise they have no personal family ties to the living. They are said to possess people or animals, and are often featured in folk stories in which they perform great feats, although sometimes they are depicted as stupid or as fearful of the living. Many stories are told about spirits, resulting in an integration of their world into the world of living human beings.

HUMANITY AT THE CENTER OF THE WORLD. African religion places humans at the center of the world. It is believed throughout Africa that God created human beings, and thousands of stories and myths visualize how this happened. According to some, humans were created at the end of the primal creation, formed from clay as husband and wife (or as two pairs), or created in heaven (sky) and lowered to the earth. Others say that husband and wife were created in a vessel, in water, or in the fruit of a tree. Creation stories relate that the original state of humanity was one of bliss, in which people were endowed with immortality, rejuvenation (if they became old), or resurrection (if they died). The earth was directly linked to heaven (the sky); God and humans lived close to each other, as a family. For various reasons these gifts were lost; death, disease, and suffering appeared, as well as the separation between heaven and earth, between God and humans. However, God did not abandon humans, but he endowed them with various abilities and knowledge, so that they could survive. Through sacrifices and prayers humans still have access to God at any time. Through prayers people praise and thank God, and solicit God's help in the fight against disease, suffering, danger, and death.

A strong feature of African cosmology is the recognition of the world as comprising two interlinked realities: the visible and the invisible, the physical and the spiritual. Both are bound together in a primordial unity. They interact, and Africans do not make a strong distinction between the two. This helps to explain African awareness of and insights into the spiritual realm, an awareness at both shallow and deep levels ranging from visions, dreams involving spiritual objects or beings or messages, contact with the living dead and spirits, and divination to concepts about and experiences of God.

The life journey of the individual is marked with rites, particularly at birth, initiation, marriage, and death. Birth and name-giving ceremonies express joy in the family and gratitude to God for the child. Children are the symbol and actualization of immortality; they counteract death with new life, and old age with rejuvenation. At adolescence, initiation ceremonies are performed, often followed by a period of seclusion for the initiated, during which they learn matters pertaining to adult life. Initiation ceremonies serve, among other things, to give the individual an identity as a member of the community to which he or she is thereby mystically bound. The most dramatic involve circumcision for boys and clitoridectomy for girls. The personal shedding of blood forges mystical links to the ground, to the land.

Marriage is a religious duty that, under normal circumstances, everyone is obliged or expected to fulfill. The bearing of children is the central part of marriage, and no efforts are spared to ensure that there are children in each marriage; otherwise, the couple fails to become a family. In effect the family never dies; only its members do. If, for example, the husband is impotent, his "brother" (in the wider sense of kinship ties) will (must) sleep with his wife so that she will bear him children. If the wife is barren, her husband will marry another wife, who will be expected to bear children for both wives. Polygamy is an accepted and respected form of marriage in about 15 percent of African families. Children knit the community into a vast network of relationships: brothers, sisters, cousins, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and many distant relatives. The basic philosophy says "I am because we are, and since we are therefore I am."

Burial and funeral rites serve, among other things, to send the departed in peace to the spirit world, and to express condolences to the bereaved. Various symbols and acts speak of death and the continuation of life: normal activities are stopped for a day following a death or funeral; hair on the head is shaved; the house of the departed is closed or even abandoned; clothes of colors that symbolize bereavement (white, black, or red) are worn; the bodies of surviving members of the family are smeared with mud or white chalk; cattle are driven away from the homestead of the departed; people fast; and fires in the home are extinguished. Some societies bury a few personal belongings with the dead, such as spears, cooking pots, ornaments, money, and clothes. Among other groups the property of the deceased is distributed—by force if need be—among relatives or clan members.

LIFE AFTER DEATH. Belief in the continuation of life after death is held all over Africa. The next world is pictured as being like the present one, inhabited by spirits and located in thick forests, desert places, underground, or on mountains. There is neither reward for a good life on earth nor punishment for an evil life. The departed retain their human characteristics and the living dead are still part of their earthly families, to whom they appear in dreams, in waking, or through divination, particularly if there is a major family event.

The living show remembrance of the departed through such acts of affection as naming new children after them, taking care of their graves, and pouring libations of beer, wine, milk, or tea and placing bits of food on the floor, on the graves, or in a family altar. People who die without children are considered most unfortunate, since they have no descendants to "remember" them, something that the extended family only rarely does. In some societies people invoke departed members of the family, especially parents and grandparents, and ask them to relay their requests further, until they reach God. There is thus a unity and a line of communication between the living, the departed, and God. Harmony is necessary to maintain this unity in a healthy spiritual condition.

BELIEF IN MYSTICAL POWER. There is a deeply rooted belief in a mystical power or force in the universe that derives from God. This power is used in medical practice, divination, protecting people and property, predicting where to find lost articles, and foretelling the outcome of an under-taking. It is also employed in the practice of magic, sorcery, and witchcraft. Diviners, traditional doctors, and witches know better than others how to employ it. The belief in and practice of magic causes much fear in African life, which leads to accusations, quarrels, fights, and countermeasures in families and communities. The positive use of this mystical power is cherished and plays a major role in regulating ethical relations in the community and in supplying answers to questions about the causes of good luck and misfortune.

SACRED PLACES AND OBJECTS. Sacred places and objects—including mountains, caves, waterfalls, rocks, trees, rainmaking stones, and certain animals, as well as altars, sacrificial pots, masks, drums, and colors—are set aside for religious activities. Some places are kept as sanctuaries in which no human beings or animals may be killed, and where no trees may be felled. Some homesteads have family altars or graves that serve as sacred spots where prayers, offerings, and small sacrifices are made. Nature is often personalized in order that humans may communicate and live in harmony with it. If humans hurt nature, nature hurts them. Humans are the priests of nature, indeed of the universe; this is a sacred trust given to them by God, who endowed them with more abilities than other creatures on earth.

ETHICS AND MORALS. The ethics and morals of African religion are embedded in values, customs, traditional laws, and taboos. God is ultimately the giver of morality. Moral offenses include disrespect toward elderly people, sexual transgressions (incest, rape, intercourse with children, adultery, and homosexual intercourse), murder, stealing, robbery, telling lies, deliberately causing bodily harm, and the use of sorcery and witchcraft. Such acts are punished by making the offender and his or her family feel shame or ostracism, or pay a fine; sometimes the offender is beaten or stoned to death.

On the other hand, kindness, friendliness, truthfulness, politeness, generosity, hospitality, hard work, caring for elderly parents, respect for elderly people and the weak and retarded, and protection of children and women are virtues that earn praise and admiration in the community. Women are regarded and treated as full moral agents; they are also protected against maltreatment by men, since they are considered to be less able or equipped to defend themselves physically, especially when they are pregnant or aged. Society rewards the good and punishes the evil. The spirits of the living dead maintain interest in the morals of their descendants, and may punish offenders by causing failure in undertakings, sickness, and bad dreams as warnings or deterrents. God is ultimately watching over the moral life of the community, society, and humankind. From time to time, if moral order is severely broken, God may punish the wider society or give warnings through calamities, epidemics, drought, war, and famine.

The home and the community convey moral teaching, generally from the older to the younger members, through word and example. Initiation ceremonies (some of which may last several years) are the formal communal occasions for instilling moral values in young people. Stories, proverbs, and taboos are employed in the teaching of morals. Where the basic philosophy of life is "I am because we are," it is extremely important that the two dimensions of "I am" and "We are" be carefully observed and maintained for the survival of all, through moral values. The individual is very much exposed to the community, and anonymity is virtually out of the question.

African religion affirms and celebrates life. Laughter is heard even in the most difficult situations. Communal festivals filled with rejoicing—laughter, eating, dancing, singing, and drumming—renew and strengthen community ties. Even sad occasions like funerals are communal events that bring many people together to share in mourning, and thus lighten the burden of bereavement.

Health and Medicine

Life in African communities is often a struggle against forces of destruction: illness, disease, accidents, childlessness, suffering, misfortune, spirit possession, quarrels, war, and death. Natural threats such as drought, earthquakes, epidemics, famines, and locust invasions affect the whole community. When these forces of destruction strike the individual or the family, people ask "who" has caused it to happen. Even if there are physical explanations of how an accident has occurred, or how a disease like malaria or AIDS is caused, human agents are believed to be behind it. These agents are said to use mystical power—magic, witchcraft, sorcery, the spell, the curse, or broken taboos—following quarrels, acting out of jealousy, hatred, greed, or evil intentions. Health is seen as a fundamentally ethical question pointing to relationships in the family, in the community, and between people and nature.

Medicine women and men (traditional doctors) are found in every village. Their work is highly appreciated and in constant demand. They undergo long training and apprenticeship to acquire knowledge of herbs, roots, fruits, shells, insects, and juices, especially of their medicinal properties. They learn to diagnose illnesses and complaints that affect not only human beings but also animals and fields. They use divination to communicate with the invisible world at the psychic level of consciousness. They perform healing rituals and invocations. Their "medicine" is directed not only against the disease or misfortune in question but also to the removal and prevention of its mystical cause, such as witchcraft. The human or spirit agent "behind" the problem is usually named, and part of the healing process involves coming to terms with the "diagnosed offender." The process of diagnosis, cure, and preventive measures is often carried out in the presence of the family or community, which thus participates in the healing.

African society generally shows great care toward handicapped and retarded people. Part of this special treatment comes from the fear that if you mistreat or fail to help the handicapped, you or members of your family will become similarly handicapped. Likewise, the issue of abortion is partly undergirded by the fear that a major misfortune, such as the failure to bear more children, will befall the family of a woman who has an abortion. Furthermore, the high rate of infant mortality has probably contributed to the great value that people attach to children and their consequent abhorrence of abortion. There are extremely few written references to abortion, and in some societies a woman who has had one is killed by the community or a curse is placed on her. There are, however, areas where twins were traditionally considered to bring misfortune, and consequently one or both children would be killed for the protection of the community. On the other hand, in certain areas twins were (and still are) considered to be special people, bearers of blessings or extraordinary abilities, and even called "children of God." Written information on so-called mercy killing is scanty, but suicide and homicide occur in many areas. From time to time the community is provoked beyond endurance and a mob kills by stoning, beating, or burning an offender, such as someone accused of stealing and robbery (nearly always men), practicing witchcraft (nearly always women), or committing sexual offenses like incest, intercourse with children, or rape (only men). In such cases the community undergoes a healing process, physically and ethically. The life and dignity of the community are thereby placed above the lives of individual members who do not maintain its values and order.

"Medicine" is also used to bring good fortune (health, success, loving relations, protection against danger). In their practice, traditional doctors hold that it is God who heals or brings about good results, and some of them regularly invoke God for healing and the welfare of the individuals and community. These doctors are upright, trustworthy, and respected members of their community, the symbols of its welfare and health. Through them, folk medical knowledge and practice have been passed on through many generations. Since modern or Western medicine and its wonders are too expensive for most Africans, the traditional doctors continue to respond to the health needs of many people, and complement or even replace the services of modern medicine. As in other spheres of religious life, women are very active in health matters and are believed to show deeper sensitivities than men, especially since they carry human life in their own bodies and are more attuned to the spiritual dimension of health. In many communities female traditional doctors outnumber their male counterparts, and nearly all mediums are women.


African religion has encountered other religions, notably Christianity and Islam, and other cultures, especially Western. Many of its adherents convert to Christianity or Islam. But conversion does not mean abandoning the world of traditional religiosity. On the contrary, many Christians derive rich spirituality from African religion. Translations of the Bible into some seven hundred African languages (as of 1992) use religious terms and concepts of African religion. But while it seems to find ways of surviving and of accommodating to contemporary life, there are changes in social, political, educational, technological, and scientific life for which it has not prepared itself.

In the nineteenth century African religion was studied almost exclusively by foreigners: missionaries, anthropologists, colonial rulers, and self-styled African experts. On the whole it was presented negatively, often interpreted falsely, and ridiculed by those with racist attitudes. However, since about the middle of the twentieth century, a more objective approach has gained ground not only in Africa but also in the New World, where peoples of African descent find in it a meaningful part of their heritage. The African religious heritage in North America provided the cultural, social, and spiritual setting for modeling Christianity among African Americans—for example, the place of the church as a focal point of community life, the dynamic worship tradition, and the assimilation of African cultural traits. In Latin America, especially in Brazil, African religion has blended firmly with Roman Catholicism, so much so that many people do not know where to draw the line (if need be). Some of the healing practices called folk medicine are traceable to those of traditional doctors in Africa. Gayraud Wilmore (1983), Roger Bastide (1978), and Leonard Barrett (1976), among others, have documented the survival and strong impact of African religion in the New World.

We are in a much better position to understand African religion academically at the beginning of the twenty-first century than at the beginning of the twentieth century. Just as it has survived since prehistoric times and has done so in new social and cultural environments across the oceans, we may presume that it will survive in new forms in the coming generations.

john s. mbiti (1995)

SEE ALSO: Circumcision; Islam, Bioethics in; Environmental Ethics; Medical Ethics, History of: Africa; Medicine, Anthropology of; Minorities as Research Subjects; Population Ethics: Religious Traditions, Islamic Perspectives


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African Religions

views updated May 08 2018

African Religions

In the religions of Africa, life does not end with death, but continues in another realm. The concepts of "life" and "death" are not mutually exclusive concepts, and there are no clear dividing lines between them. Human existence is a dynamic process involving the increase or decrease of "power" or "life force," of "living" and "dying," and there are different levels of life and death. Many African languages express the fact that things are not going well, such as when there is sickness, in the words "we are living a little," meaning that the level of life is very low. The African religions scholar Placide Tempels describes every misfortune that Africans encounter as "a diminution of vital force." Illness and death result from some outside agent, a person, thing, or circumstance that weakens people because the agent contains a greater life force. Death does not alter or end the life or the personality of an individual, but only causes a change in its conditions. This is expressed in the concept of "ancestors," people who have died but who continue to "live" in the community and communicate with their families.

This entry traces those ideas that are, or have been, approximately similar across sub-Saharan Africa. The concepts described within in many cases have been altered in the twentieth century through the widespread influence of Christianity or Islam, and some of the customs relating to burials are disappearing. Nevertheless, many religious concepts and practices continue to persist.

The African Concept of Death

Death, although a dreaded event, is perceived as the beginning of a person's deeper relationship with all of creation, the complementing of life and the beginning of the communication between the visible and the invisible worlds. The goal of life is to become an ancestor after death. This is why every person who dies must be given a "correct" funeral, supported by a number of religious ceremonies. If this is not done, the dead person may become a wandering ghost, unable to "live" properly after death and therefore a danger to those who remain alive. It might be argued that "proper" death rites are more a guarantee of protection for the living than to secure a safe passage for the dying. There is ambivalence about attitudes to the recent dead, which fluctuate between love and respect on the one hand and dread and despair on the other, particularly because it is believed that the dead have power over the living.

Many African peoples have a custom of removing a dead body through a hole in the wall of a house, and not through the door. The reason for this seems to be that this will make it difficult (or even impossible) for the dead person to remember the way back to the living, as the hole in the wall is immediately closed. Sometimes the corpse is removed feet first, symbolically pointing away from the former place of residence. A zigzag path may be taken to the burial site, or thorns strewn along the way, or a barrier erected at the grave itself because the dead are also believed to strengthen the living. Many other peoples take special pains to ensure that the dead are easily able to return to their homes, and some people are even buried under or next to their homes.

Many people believe that death is the loss of a soul, or souls. Although there is recognition of the difference between the physical person that is buried and the nonphysical person who lives on, this must not be confused with a Western dualism that separates "physical" from "spiritual." When a person dies, there is not some "part" of that person that lives onit is the whole person who continues to live in the spirit world, receiving a new body identical to the earthly body, but with enhanced powers to move about as an ancestor. The death of children is regarded as a particularly grievous evil event, and many peoples give special names to their children to try to ward off the reoccurrence of untimely death.

There are many different ideas about the "place" the departed go to, a "land" which in most cases seems to be a replica of this world. For some it is under the earth, in groves, near or in the homes of earthly families, or on the other side of a deep river. In most cases it is an extension of what is known at present, although for some peoples it is a much better place without pain or hunger. The Kenyan scholar John Mbiti writes that a belief in the continuation of life after death for African peoples "does not constitute a hope for a future and better life. To live here and now is the most important concern of African religious activities and beliefs. . . . Even life in the hereafter is conceived in materialistic and physical terms. There is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter" (Mbiti 1969, pp. 45).

The African Concept of the Afterlife

Nearly all African peoples have a belief in a singular supreme being, the creator of the earth. Although the dead are believed to be somehow nearer to the supreme being than the living, the original state of bliss in the distant past expressed in creation myths is not restored in the afterlife. The separation between the supreme being and humankind remains unavoidable and natural in the place of the departed, even though the dead are able to rest there and be safe. Most African peoples believe that rewards and punishments come to people in this life and not in the hereafter. In the land of the departed, what happens there happens automatically, irrespective of a person's earthly behavior, provided the correct burial rites have been observed. But if a person is a wizard, a murderer, a thief, one who has broken the community code or taboos, or one who has had an unnatural death or an improper burial, then such a person may be doomed to punishment in the afterlife as a wandering ghost, and may be beaten and expelled by the ancestors or subjected to a period of torture according to the seriousness of their misdeeds, much like the Catholic concept of purgatory. Among many African peoples is the widespread belief that witches and sorcerers are not admitted to the spirit world, and therefore they are refused proper burialsometimes their bodies are subjected to actions that would make such burial impossible, such as burning, chopping up, and feeding them to hyenas. Among the Africans, to be cut off from the community of the ancestors in death is the nearest equivalent of hell.

The concept of reincarnation is found among many peoples. Reincarnation refers to the soul of a dead person being reborn in the body of another. There is a close relationship between birth and death. African beliefs in reincarnation differ from those of major Asian religions (especially Hinduism) in a number of important ways. Hinduism is "world-renouncing," conceiving of a cycle of rebirth in a world of suffering and illusion from which people wish to escapeonly by great effortand there is a system of rewards and punishments whereby one is reborn into a higher or lower station in life (from whence the caste system arose). These ideas that view reincarnation as something to be feared and avoided are completely lacking in African religions. Instead, Africans are "world-affirming," and welcome reincarnation. The world is a light, warm, and living place to which the dead are only too glad to return from the darkness and coldness of the grave. The dead return to their communities, except for those unfortunate ones previously mentioned, and there are no limits set to the number of possible reincarnationsan ancestor may be reincarnated in more than one person at a time. Some African myths say that the number of souls and bodies is limited. It is important for Africans to discover which ancestor is reborn in a child, for this is a reason for deep thankfulness. The destiny of a community is fulfilled through both successive and simultaneous multiple reincarnations.

Transmigration (also called metempsychosis) denotes the changing of a person into an animal. The most common form of this idea relates to a witch or sorcerer who is believed to be able to transform into an animal in order to perform evil deeds. Africans also believe that people may inhabit particular animals after death, especially snakes, which are treated with great respect. Some African rulers reappear as lions. Some peoples believe that the dead will reappear in the form of the totem animal of that ethnic group, and these totems are fearsome (such as lions, leopards, or crocodiles). They symbolize the terrible punishments the dead can inflict if the moral values of the community are not upheld.

Burial and Mourning Customs

Death in African religions is one of the last transitional stages of life requiring passage rites, and this too takes a long time to complete. The deceased must be "detached" from the living and make as smooth a transition to the next life as possible because the journey to the world of the dead has many interruptions. If the correct funeral rites are not observed, the deceased may come back to trouble the living relatives. Usually an animal is killed in ritual, although this also serves the practical purpose of providing food for the many guests. Personal belongings are often buried with the deceased to assist in the journey. Various other rituals follow the funeral itself. Some kill an ox at the burial to accompany the deceased. Others kill another animal some time after the funeral (three months to two years and even longer is the period observed). The Nguni in southern Africa call the slaying of the ox "the returning ox," because the beast accompanies the deceased back home to his or her family and enables the deceased to act as a protecting ancestor. The "home bringing" rite is a common African ceremony. Only when a deceased person's surviving relatives have gone, and there is no one left to remember him or her, can the person be said to have really "died." At that point the deceased passes into the "graveyard" of time, losing individuality and becoming one of the unknown multitude of immortals.

Many African burial rites begin with the sending away of the departed with a request that they do not bring trouble to the living, and they end with a plea for the strengthening of life on the earth and all that favors it. According to the Tanzanian theologian Laurenti Magesa, funeral rites simultaneously mourn for the dead and celebrate life in all its abundance. Funerals are a time for the community to be in solidarity and to regain its identity. In some communities this may include dancing and merriment for all but the immediate family, thus limiting or even denying the destructive powers of death and providing the deceased with "light feet" for the journey to the other world.

Ancient customs are adapted in many South African urban funerals. When someone has died in a house, all the windows are smeared with ash, all pictures in the house turned around and all mirrors and televisions and any other reflective objects covered. The beds are removed from the deceased's room, and the bereaved women sit on the floor, usually on a mattress. During the time preceding the funeralusually from seven to thirteen daysvisits are paid by people in the community to comfort the bereaved family. In the case of Christians, consolatory services are held at the bereaved home. The day before the funeral the corpse is brought home before sunset and placed in the bedroom. A night vigil then takes place, often lasting until the morning. The night vigil is a time for pastoral care, to comfort and encourage the bereaved. A ritual killing is sometimes made for the ancestors, as it is believed that blood must be shed at this time to avoid further misfortune. Some peoples use the hide of the slaughtered beast to cover the corpse or place it on top of the coffin as a "blanket" for the deceased. Traditionally, the funeral takes place in the early morning (often before sunrise) and not late in the afternoon, as it is believed that sorcerers move around in the afternoons looking for corpses to use for their evil purposes. Because sorcerers are asleep in the early morning, this is a good time to bury the dead.

In some communities children and unmarried adults are not allowed to attend the funeral. During the burial itself the immediate family of the deceased is expected to stay together on one side of the grave at a designated place. They are forbidden from speaking or taking any vocal part in the funeral. It is customary to place the deceased's personal property, including eating utensils, walking sticks, blankets, and other useful items, in the grave. After the funeral the people are invited to the deceased's home for the funeral meal. Many people follow a cleansing ritual at the gate of the house, where everyone must wash off the dust of the graveyard before entering the house. Sometimes pieces of cut aloe are placed in the water, and this water is believed to remove bad luck. Churches that use "holy water" sprinkle people to cleanse them from impurity at this time.

In southern Africa the period of strict mourning usually continues for at least a week after the funeral. During this time the bereaved stay at home and do not socialize or have sexual contact. Some wear black clothes or black cloths fastened to their clothes, and shave their hair (including facial hair) from the day after the funeral. Because life is concentrated in the hair, shaving the hair symbolizes death, and its growing again indicates the strengthening of life. People in physical contact with a corpse are often regarded as unclean. The things belonging to the deceased should not be used at this time, such as the eating utensils or the chairs the deceased used. Blankets and anything else in contact with the deceased are all washed. The clothes of the deceased are wrapped up in a bundle and put away for a year or until the extended period of mourning has ended, after which they are distributed to family members or destroyed by burning. After a certain period of time the house and the family must be cleansed from bad luck, from uncleanness and "darkness." The bereaved family members are washed and a ritual killing takes place. The time of the cleansing is usually seven days after the funeral, but some observe a month or even longer. Traditionally, a widow had to remain in mourning for a year after her husband's death and the children of a deceased parent were in mourning for three months.

A practice that seems to be disappearing in African urban areas is the home-bringing ritual, although it is still observed in some parts of Africa. A month or two after the funeral the grieving family slaughters a beast and then goes to the graveyard. They speak to the ancestors to allow the deceased to return home to rest. It is believed that at the graves the spirits are hovering on the earth and are restless until they are brought homean extremely dangerous situation for the family. The family members take some of the earth covering the grave and put it in a bottle. They proceed home with the assurance that the deceased relative is accompanying them to look after the family as an ancestor. Some Christian churches have a night vigil at the home after the home-bringing. The theologian Marthinus Daneel describes the ceremony in some Zimbabwean churches, where the living believers escort the spirit of the deceased relative to heaven through their prayers, after which a mediating role can be attained. The emphasis is on the transformation of the traditional rite, while providing for the consolation of the bereaved family. This example shows how these churches try to eliminate an old practice without neglecting the traditionally conceived need that it has served.

These burial and mourning customs suggest that many practices still prevailing in African Christian funerals are vestiges of the ancestor cult, especially the ritual killings and the home-bringing rites. Because a funeral is preeminently a community affair in which the church is but one of many players, the church does not always determine the form of the funeral. Some of the indigenous rites have indeed been transformed and given Christian meanings, to which both Christians and those with traditional orientation can relate. Sometimes there are signs of confrontation and the changing and discontinuance of old customs to such an extent that they are no longer recognizable in that context.

African funerals are community affairs in which the whole community feels the grief of the bereaved and shares in it. The purpose of the activities preceding the funeral is to comfort, encourage, and heal those who are hurting. Thereafter, the churches see to it that the bereaved make the transition back to normal life as smoothly and as quickly as possible. This transition during the mourning period is sometimes accompanied by cleansing rituals by which the bereaved are assured of their acceptance and protection by God. Because the dominance of Christianity and Islam in Africa has resulted in the rejection of certain mourning customs, the funeral becomes an opportunity to declare faith.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Buddhism; Chinese Beliefs; Hinduism; Immortality; Islam; Mind-Body Problem; Philosophy, Western


Anderson, Allan. Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Tshwane: University of South Africa Press, 2000.

Berglund, Axel-Ivar. Zulu Thought Patterns and Symbolism. London: Hurst, 1976.

Blakely, Thomas, et al., eds. Religion in Africa. London: James Currey, 1994.

Bosch, David J. The Traditional Religions of Africa. Study Guide MSR203. Tshwane: University of South Africa, 1975.

Daneel, Marthinus L. Old and New in Southern Shona Independent Churches, Vol. 2: Church Growth. The Hague: Moulton, 1974.

Idowu, E. Bolaji. African Traditional Religions. London: SCM Press, 1973.

Magesa, Laurenti. African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. New York: Orbis, 1997.

Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann, 1969.

Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion. London: Sheldon, 1962.

Sawyerr, Harry. The Practice of Presence. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

Taylor, John V. The Primal Vision: Christian Presence Amidst African Religions. London: SCM Press, 1963.

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Thorpe, S. A. Primal Religions Worldwide. Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1992.


African Religions

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African Religions


Traditional Beliefs. Most Africans came to the American colonies as slaves from the western areas and held a variety of religious beliefs. There were some common patterns, however. Africans believed in one High God, who created the world. He was often associated with the sky and remained somewhat uninvolved in the lives of humans. Lesser gods and ancestral spirits, however, were actively involved with the daily lives of individuals and the society. Groups of gods were associated with natural phenomena, such as thunder, earth, and especially water. Gods of nature resided in trees, hills, and animals. They were as kind, cruel, arbitrary, or willful as humans and had individual personalities and preferences. Humans had to maintain proper relationships to them by establishing shrines, wearing certain colors, eating particular foods, and conducting religious ceremonies that pleased them. Ancestral spirits were more varied and personal. Whether they had lived long ago or recently, they were honored as the founders of villages and kinship groups and served as custodians of culture and laws and as mediators between humans and the gods. It was within their power to grant or deny fertility and health to their devotees. They were reincarnated in one of their descendants, but their souls returned to the High God after that human died. Elderly people were revered, in part because they preserved the memory of the dead and in part because they were chronologically closer to the ancestors. Burial rites ensured that the dead entered the spirit world and did not linger in the natural world as restless and malevolent ghosts. Funerals were long affairs. After death the ancestors demanded offerings of food and drink in ceremonies of varying degrees of complexity. Priests served as mediators, able to read the fates of individuals, to divine the wills of gods and ancestral spirits, and to identify all manner of witchcraft. They prescribed the charms and amulets which were charged with magical power to protect and help humans as well as those natural herbs and roots which promoted healing. Priests also conducted the religious ceremonies devoted to the individual gods and ancestral spirits. Interwoven with these rituals was a vibrant pattern of musicdancing, drumming, and singing.

Islam and Christianity. Some Africans were practicing Muslims and Catholics when they came to America. The trade networks of northwest Africa brought the Islam religion, which drew on Judeo-Christian roots but viewed Jesus as only a minor spiritual leader and Mohammed as its greatest prophet. Muslims followed the teachings of the Koran, observing dietary restrictions and praying in the direction of Mecca five times a day. The Portuguese explorers converted some to Catholicism. Many Africans blended these religions into their traditional belief systems. To them, God and Allah were just different names for the High God; Mohammed, Mary, and Jesus served the intermediary function of their lesser gods, and the Catholic saints were uncommonly similar to their ancestor spirits. The importance of water in their religious ceremonies prepared them for the sacrament of baptism. The magical power of charms was easily viewed in the donning of crosses or scraps of Koran parchment to protect oneself in battle.

Conversion. In the American colonies Africans were unevenly dispersed. The relatively small numbers in the northern colonies often blended into households and adopted the variety of Christianity practiced there. Puritans, as might be expected, were particularly anxious to convert their charges and enforce Christian mores, but this concern transcended denominations. The tobacco and rice colonies of the South had more Africans where concerted efforts at proselytizing occurred, particularly in the eighteenth century by the Anglican-supported Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.). It was created to bring salvation to those with the least prior access to the Scriptures. Some slaveholders were reluctant to expose their laborers to a religion that proclaimed the equality of all humans before God, in the fear that those who were baptized would claim that they were now free. One of the most effective missionaries in New York City lost his appointment when he was blamed for a 1712 slave uprising. The S.P.G. established schools to train blacks for the ministry so that they would proselytize among their own people. The most famous of these schools was in South Carolina and lasted over twenty years. Other denominations became more active during the Great Awakening, and Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist evangelicals sought to awaken blacks as well as whites and encourage all of them to found churches. The Presbyterian Samuel Davies was particularly assiduous and successful in Virginia in midcentury.

Blending of Tradition. Africans selectively adopted Christianity by modifying its theology and practices to include elements of their traditional regions. They sought conversion when the spirit of God entered their souls, much as it did during ancestral reincarnations. Satan was just a malevolent lesser god and needed to be held at a safe distance through the use of charms and the intercession of more friendly, ancestral spirits. Enslaved Africans related best to the Old Testament where God remained with his chosen people during their slavery in Egypt and delivered them to freedom. The image of water figured prominently and assumed the near-magical powers assigned to it in Africa. They created families of nonrelated kin to provide protective ancestral spirits and encouraged the fertility that would provide those spirits with human forms for reincarnation; they revered the elderly, and they followed the elaborate funeral rituals and grave offerings that marked religious practices in their homeland. They endured the stilted, silent, and formal services in European churches and then met in separate services at night which were much more participatory. Percussion and musical instruments provided the backdrop for their traditional singing, dancing, and shouting. Preachers from among their ranks performed all of the roles of priests, although some of their duties as root doctors and charm creators passed to others. Not surprisingly, Africans responded to the evangelicals of the Great Awakening, for their practice of extemporaneous praying and preaching, open-air meetings, and verbal participation were much more congenial to the African traditions.


Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975);

Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987);

Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1974).

African Religions

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mythic themes
new religious movements
history of study

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