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Various traditional religions found in Africa are based on belief in one Supreme Being, while others embrace Earth deities, secret societies, and possession cults. Christianity and Islam, commonly practiced, came to Africa in the first centuries CE and the eighth century, respectively. Modern religion in Africa is a distinct blend and balance of traditional beliefs and new religious systems.
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Africa is home to numerous “traditional” religions as well as various forms of Islam and Christianity and various more recent religious developments. There are certain religious characteristics that can be found in African spirituality that transcend any particular religion. Examining a sampling of traditional religions and Islamic and Christian denominations provides an insight into those overarching African spiritual characteristics.
Secret societies, common among certain African peoples found mainly in West Africa, especially those among whom age-determined groups are not common, often have religious functions. They also unite people in different residence areas without kinship ties.
The religious or ritual knowledge of the secret society is not revealed to nonmembers. Allowing only members to know the secret—and, perhaps, only those members of a certain rank—adds to a secret society’s mystery. Moreover, membership is limited to people of a given category. Categories can be as broad as all married women or all initiated men. There are categories for fishermen, hunters, craftsmen of all types, and market women, among others.
The Poro and Sande societies (for men and women, respectively) in Liberia have long interested anthropologists because these societies are major forces aiding government and facilitating social change. The Kpelle tribe opens a Sande bush school (which performs an initiation ceremony) every three or four years. Women of the Sande society are in complete control of the ceremony and school. Members of the initiation class are all girls between nine and fifteen years of age. They learn all they need to know to be Kpelle women from Sande members during the school session, which lasts from six weeks to three months.
During this period, Sande members perform cliterodectomy operations (cliterodectomies and circumcisions are common rites of passage in Africa), which are part of the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Sande members then perform rituals for those who have completed the bush school, marking their entrance into Kpelle society as women. Men of the Poro society dress in ritual regalia to welcome the women back into society.
A Supreme Deity
Most traditional African religions acknowledge one Supreme Being, though that creator god is often thought to have removed himself from the human sphere after creation, so that more focus is placed on lesser deities. In Sudan, for example, shrines exist in great numbers to lesser spirits but not to the creator god. The Yoruba of Nigeria acknowledge a Supreme Being, Olorun, but it is the host of secondary deities, or orisha, that is the focus of Yoruba attention. Mulungu, the Supreme Being of the peoples of the great lakes region of East Africa, is only turned to in prayer after all other prayers have failed. But numerous African scholars and scholars of Africa dispute the interpretation that the creator god is viewed as remote. These scholars argue that the creator god is not remote, and rather that people can and do approach this god quite frequently. They indicate that there is a parallel with Christianity and its hierarchy of angels and saints.
In Sudanic religions, people are said to consult with the Creator before their birth, telling him what they want to do in life. The Creator gives each person what is needed to accomplish his or her fate. If a person fails, then he or she is said to be struggling against his or her chosen fate. Luck is focused in the head, so a person who has been lucky in life is said to have a good head.
In general, Africans deem that powers come from the Supreme Being. The Dogon of Mali, for instance, believe that the vital force of their Supreme Being, Amma, circulates throughout the universe. They name that vital force nyama. Other groups have similar beliefs. These forces control the weather and are associated with the forces of nature, directly or through the high god’s servants.
There are Earth goddess cults in a number of societies. The Ibo of the lower Niger River area have the goddess Ala, and the goddess Asase Ya has devotees among the Ashante peoples of Ghana. The presence of a deity linked to a certain phenomenon or natural feature reflects the importance of that phenomenon or natural feature in daily life; hence the fact that the Yoruba worship Ogun, the god of iron, reflects the people’s sense, from the days when iron first began to be used, of its importance.
Storm gods are in some way related to the Supreme Being. Storm gods generally command their own priests, temples, and ritual ceremonies. The Yoruba and Ibo have a full storm pantheon of gods of storm, lightning, and thunderbolt. Shango is the Yoruba lightning and thunder god; he is worshipped along with his wives, who are river gods, and the rainbow and thunderclap, which are his servants.
Islam and Christianity
Islam first came to the savanna areas of Africa through trade and peaceful teachings in the eighth through tenth centuries. The benefits of centralized government under Islamic law were obvious to various chiefs. Under Islamic law rulers were able to unite tribal elements into a coherent whole. The kingdoms of Wagadu (Ghana), Mali, Songhai, Kanem, and Bornu and the Hausa emirates were all centralized states that adopted Islam to their advantage.
The introduction of Islamic government and law also provided an excuse for religiously sanctioned rebellion against rulers who were not living up to the strict tenets of Islam, according to various religious military rulers. In the 1800s, militant Muslims objected to the halfhearted Islamic faith of their rulers and led holy wars against those whom they considered lax in the faith.
These nineteenth-century jihads were common among the Fulani peoples. They upset the balance that had prevailed since around the thirteenth century between local rulers, who adhered to Islam, and their subjects, who continued to practice traditional religions. Although the Fulani tend to be pastoralists, there were a number of settled Fulani who had intermarried with Hausa or other settled peoples. One result of these religious wars was that Fulani rulers replaced local rulers in the areas where the rebellions took place.
Christianity reached Africa in the first centuries CE, before it entered Europe. The Coptic Church (in Egypt), for example, go back to the first century of Christianity and still exists today. It, like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is a Monophysite church; that is, it teaches that Christ had a single nature rather than two distinct (human and divine) natures. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a large hierarchy of saints and angels, many monasteries and convents, and a strong worship of Mary, Gabriel, Michael, and Ethiopia’s patron, St. George. There are many African saints, including Tekle Haimanot and Gabra Manfas Keddus. There is also belief in demons and other evil spirits, as well as in witchcraft and possession.
Possession cults are one feature of traditional African religions that both African Christians and Muslims participate in, although often undercover. Although possession cults can be found in many regions, we will focus on the situation among the Hausa. In a 1975 study, the anthropologist Ralph Faulkingham notes that the Muslim and “pagan” Hausa in the southern Niger village he studied believed in the same spirits. Both believed in the same origin myth for these spirits as well. According to the myth, Allah called Adama (“the woman”) and Adamu (“the man”) to him and bade them to bring all their children. They hid some of their children. When Allah asked them where those children were, they denied that any were missing, whereupon Allah told them that the hidden children would belong to the spirit world. These spirits may, on occasion, take possession of those living in the everyday world.
Indigenous theology linked dead ancestors to the spirits of place in a union that protected claims and relationships to the land. Spirits of place included trees, rock outcroppings, a river, snakes, and other animals and objects. Rituals and prayers directed toward the spirits of family and place reinforced communal norms and the authority of the elders in defending ancient beliefs and practices. In return for these prayers and rituals, the spirits offered protection from misfortune, adjudication, and divination through seers or shamans, who worked with the spirits to ensure good and counteract evil. The Hausa incorporate those beliefs into their Islamic beliefs.
The majority of Muslim Hausa who participate in the spirit possession cult, called the Bori cult, are women and members of the lower classes; as one rises in social standing, one’s practice of Islam tends to become stricter and more orthodox. The Bori rituals among the Hausa appear to be rituals of inversion; that is, traditional societal rules are turned on their heads. People who are possessed may behave in ways that would not be accepted in other circumstances. The Bori cult is widely understood as being a refuge from the strongly patriarchal ideal of Hausa Islam. Thus both women and effeminate males find some respite there. Indeed, the Bori cult provides a niche open to marginal people of all kinds, not simply women or homosexuals. Butchers, night soil workers, musicians, and poor farmers are welcome there. Mentally disturbed people of all classes similarly seek refuge among the Bori devotees.
African Religions Today
The peoples of Africa have been adept at accepting new religious systems while preserving essential features of traditional beliefs, and that approach to religion continues today, when New Age and Evangelical Christian denominations have become popular. An African base adapts new ideas and fits them to a basic pattern of kinship, personal spirits, ancestors, and age grades, seeking to fit all of these into personal networks of relationships.
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