The Global Congress World's Religions Proceedings 1980-1982 Edited by Henry O. Thompson

V. The Religions of Africa by Jan Knappert

London School of African Studies

Africans are very religious people. Neither the early explorers and merchants nor even the early missionaries realized this. They were all too much wrapped up in their own thinking, and following their own purposes, to notice other people's feelings. They described Africans as savages, barbarians and heathen idolaters. Yet it is true, as Willoughby pointed out in 1928, that in Africa "life is essentially religious. The relation of the individual to the family, the clan and the tribe -- politics, ethics, law, war, status, social amenities, festivals,-all that is good and much that is grounded in religion. Religion pervades the life of the people." Since those days many things have changed in many parts of Africa, as a result of Eastern and Western influence, and much, probably most, of the old African religions has been lost. My purpose here is not to follow this process of Islamization, Christianization, industrialization, secularization etc., but to try and trace the original forms of some of the autochthonous religions of Africa. This is possible only in a few cases, for many religions are lost even to the memory of the people as a result of displacement by conversion of their adherents, dislocation of the societies, and destruction of their holy places. At one time there may have been as many as a thousand different religions in Africa, many of which have now been replaced by Islam, Christianity, socialism, or communism. The figure -- which is purely an estimation -- is based on the fact that there are over a thousand distinct languages (not counting dialects) in Africa, and as many tribes. The term 'tribe' is here used without, of course, any prejudicial notions, to indicate an ethnic group, i.e. a group of people, tied together by (often unproven) ties of kinship, preferably a common ancestor, who worship the same god or gods, speak the same language and share a common culture, way of life and social organization. A tribe may number between a few dozen (i.e. an extended family or clan) and in some cases a million or more. In these latter cases we ought to speak of small nations, such as the Zulu who with 4 million are more numerous than the Welsh (2.8 million of whom almost 800,000 speak Welsh). In the Roman Empire the term, nation or nation indicated a people who worshipped their own gods, which shows that for the Romans there were two major criteria for assigning a person to a 'nation': birth and religion. These two concepts formed were the definition of the concept nation which means 'birth'. Compare this concept to the modern European redesignation of national boundaries on the basis of language: Slovenes, Hungarians and Rumanians have been defined by their language.

In Africa however, and also amongst Asian peoples, religion defines a nation: e.g. Pakistan and Bangla Desh were carved out of British India along the frontiers of Islam. In Egypt the Copts, the only survivors of the ancient Egyptians, are defined by their Christianity. In prehistorical times, we find the entire inhabited world occupied by tribes. In many parts of Africa that situation is still prevalent except where tribes have been forcibly moved from their traditional habitat to locations prepared by the government as happened in the Belgian Congo and still happens in Tanzania. Apart from common gods and common ancestors, a tribe was defined by a common territory (as a nation is today) which was more or less agreed by other tribes and was jealously guarded against intruders, by what we now call the territorial imperative. Nomadising tribes also had, and still have, their territory where they can graze their animals and make use of the wells, usually excluding other tribes from that use. Land traditionally owned by a certain tribe will be sacred to it, because the ancestors lie buried in it, and the gods have their shrines and other holy places there, such as wells, (as in Delphi), mountains (Mount Kilimanjaro is the home of a god), rivers (the Nile was a god for the ancient Egyptians), forests (as in Yorubaland) and of course, the sea. Tradition grows were peace reigns. Wars will invariably disrupt existing traditions, while not allowing any institutions to become traditions. Similarly, floods and diseases, pests, drought and famine, will break the fragile network of traditions and cause people to revert to their animal habits. Indeed, all the tribes of man know that tradition is what distinguishes us from the animals, because animals neither speak nor sing, nor worship God, neither can they refrain from food or sex when the urge and opportunity are there. Of all these tradition -- sanctified human activities, it is universally agreed that worshipful service of the spiritual powers is the most sublime. Religion is the supreme expression of the human mind.

At one time then, every African people had a religion, all men believed in a spiritual reality. A brief discussion of the concept "religion" is here necessary, because African religions are so completely different from the great world religions. The word 'religion' is usually associated with the word religere meaning 'to make a connection, tie, bind, i.e. especially to create ties of mutual obligation'; in other words to make a covenant. In both the Roman and Hebrew religions we read about the vows people made to the deity thereby creating obligations. The fulfillment of these they hoped would move the deity to reward them with progeny, prosperity, long life, and the prevention or removal of evil such as a disease. In many African religions, the obligations are created by the tradition of ritual, so that if certain ceremonies are neglected, the deities will strike mankind with disease or disaster. Further rituals are then necessary to remove evil and restore the good order. We must therefore widen our concept of religion to include all forms of contact, good or evil, between man and the invisible forces of what we will call the spiritual world. These forces are usually superior, i.e. more powerful than people, but some persons in many cases after special training, are believed to possess specific powers that enable them to cope with those invisible forces; such persons are called priests, prophets, witch doctors, sorcerers, magicians, media, faith healers, exorcists, diviners, dream interpreters and shamans.

Secondly we have to define our method. I will endeavor to approach the religion of a given people from the inside. Most anthropologists study behavior and so they approach the people they work amongst from the outside. The special method for the study of religion called phenomenology tries to reconstruct the world as it appears when seen with the eye of the believer, it tries to recreate the sky with its gods and the world under the earth with its ghosts, the desert with its demons, the sea with its monsters. Only when seen from this central point of view will the cosmology of the religion one studies, make sense. It will be clear now that we need to introduce a positive concept to replace the negative terms that are customary for the description of these phenomena such as unseen, invisible, metaphysical, supernatural, all of which mean simply 'outside our (Western) horizon of perception.' I shall use the word spirit.

It will soon become clear that the single concept "spirit" helps to explain a very complex system of beliefs that exists among any group of people in Africa. The term spirit as used here will mean nothing more than: the unseen power that causes inexplicable events. There are many many such events in the lives of Africans. A man will hurt his foot, caught under a root on his path. Who has placed this root there on his usual way to his field from his house? Surely only his enemy can have put it there in the middle of the night. But how, since no one saw him or heard him? He must have done it by magical means. He probably took a piece of wood, put a spell on it and sent it off. It flew by itself from his house to the path of the innocent victim, where it caught the latter's foot. The wood has a spirit in it, and that spirit obeys the wicked sorcerer. "In it" is perhaps not a correct way of representing the effect of the sorcerer's incantations, yet that is the way it is expressed in African languages. We should take the word 'spirit' in the meaning of 'energy' rather than in the meaning of 'invisible but consciously thinking being.' It is precisely that ancient concept of animation which fits so well with what Africans have told me and other anthropologists, concerning what is often called animism. Though much abused, this term will have to serve as the name of the cosmology that prevails in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. "The belief that all things have a soul," is one of the best known definitions of animism, but a misleading definition. It implies firstly, by using the word belief, that animism is a sort of superstition, whereas I would rather describe it as a philosophy (following Temples). Secondly, 'soul' implies something comparable to a human soul, i.e. a spiritual being, individual and unique, possessing memory and the capacity to feel pity or repentance, as well as responsibility. The spirit that "lives in" all things in Africa is less anthropomorphic. It is in its simplest form just a nucleus of energy, a spark of lingering life. A tree that sprouts fresh leaves after a long drought is said to still have "the old spirit," in the sense of "the will to live."

It is precisely this primeval "will to live" which, in Africa, is the basis of all philosophy. On it are founded the distinction between good and evil, the actions of the ancestors and many other essential principles of African philosophy, which will be discussed presently. Animism is simply the "will to live," which Africans observe in many phenomena, and not only those which we call "living beings" such as plants and animals. The sun and the moon can be seen to return to life, when they rise after an absence of a night or a few days. Rivers have their periods of being Tow', when the water does not flow cheerfully but stagnates in muddy pools or disappears altogether. After such a period of 'being dead', the river may come back, and with it, the plants will come back to life, and the frogs and fishes will reappear out of nowhere. The frogs are considered in certain parts of Africa to possess the mysterious power of revival for after the first rains their croaking announces the magic touch of water that brings nature back to life. The rock from which the well springs which gives fresh water even in the times of drought must possess a powerful magic which provides life for all who drink from it. The ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans also regarded wells and rivers as living, even divine, beings, to whom offerings were brought. This is a conception that we find in many parts of Africa, (and at least vestigially everywhere else). The earth herself, as well as the ever-moving ocean, are obviously alive, if one accepts this philosophy of life. However, there is more: the drum which functions prominently in all African communities, has a voice and a personality all its own. The king's drums may only be struck at the king's command, and never after his death. A boat too, is a person, on whom the fishermen depend for safety and good luck. Manufacturing boats and drums is an art, associated with religious observances in many parts of Africa. Weapons may have names, like Arthur's sword, like boats, rivers and mountains. In its most primitive form, 'spirit' is 'only' energy. Then life itself, the will to live, and in the more advanced forms of existence, will, becomes personality, i.e. anima identity.

The belief in a god is dependent on the belief in the human soul. One may believe in one's immortal soul without in addition believing that there is a god or even a pantheon of gods. But without the acceptance that a man is more than just matter and that part of him will survive this life, the belief in other, extra-human, spiritual beings, makes no sense and does indeed not occur to my knowledge. Let us look at the ideas of the Bantu, the survival of a person after his death is not in doubt. They believe that they will one day see again those that have gone before, and even think of sending them greetings. The belief that the dead may one day rise again is responsible for the well-known burial posture of a dead person with his or her knees up against his chin. The reason for this is not -- as the psycho-analysts have argued -- the symbolization of an embryonic state, but an attitude from which it is easier to rise up and walk away. It seems to be universally believed that, during his sleep, a man's soul may wander away from his body to see distant places and hear voices from the other world, meet persons who have died, visit the land of the ghosts, and even to take on the appearance of an animal (a hyena), a bird (an owl) or an insect (a butterfly) to travel in. The same or similar beliefs are reported from Indonesia and Central Asia. The ancient Greeks too, believed that what we call a dream is 'in reality' the soul travelling. Many Africans sleep very deeply like logs' and are not easily aroused. Perhaps they dream more than northerners? Perhaps that is the soul wandering around? It does seem that they travel about a great deal at night. During his life a man with a strong spirit may change his appearance and become an animal, not just in his dream but in his waking life. A woman (among the Tsonga and Shona) may turn herself into a hyena when she wishes to go out at night with her coven. After death a man's soul may become an ancestor. Some people remember the names of a dozen ancestors, but it is doubtful whether they believe in immortality for eternity.

There has been some debate regarding the question of polypsyehism, i.e. whether there are African peoples who believe in more than one soul, but this is not a fruitful discussion since in most cases it is even hard to distinguish between 'spirit' as the basic energy that keeps the body alive and healthy, and the 'soul,' the personal conscious carrier of thoughts and feelings that can travel, perceive and remember.

Sometimes a word for 'soul' in one language occurs in other, related languages with the meaning 'heart,' 'life,' 'breath,' 'dream' or even 'shadow' There is usually a separate word for 'discarnate soul' in most Bantu languages, Zimu or Modimo, but sometimes that may also mean 'spirit' (a being that never was human) or 'ghost' (an unfriendly soul). Among the Yao, infants who have not yet been formally introduced to the world are not believed to have developed a soul yet, so their death is not considered of much consequence. In Ghana some people believe that there are wandering souls who will be born as human babies but soon abandon the bodies so that a period of high infant mortality is regarded as a sign of the arrival of a swarm of these wandering spirits. Among the Basuto, when a new-born child dies, it is believed that the spirits of the mother's ancestors have taken it, so she has to be purified by the sacrifice of a black sheep.

Widespread is the belief that the soul exists before, as well as after death, and that the soul of a grandfather or father may after he has died, come back to the body of a son. The cycle of myths of the Nkundo people are entirely based on this conception.

The soul looks like the body. For instance when a person (i.e. his soul) appears to a dreamer, he will look like his physical appearance, wearing the same clothes, speaking with the same voice and with the same scars on his skin. Only, a person's soul-double is smaller, more like a dwarf. There are many stories about these elusive Tittle people' whose behavior is reminiscent of leprechauns, e.g., the famous Ucakijana in Zulu fairy tales.

Some Bantu believe that the soul of the dead look like birds, as did the ancient Egyptians; the Herero say that a dead man will rise from his grave looking like a little dog, but with eyes in the back of his head. Animals too, have souls. For instance: from West Africa the Rev. Nasssan reports that in the Ogowe, a hunter who had killed a female hippopotamus, kneeled inside its carcass and prayed there to her soul or life-spirit, asking her forgiveness for having cut her off from maternity and not to upset his canoe when he would be fishing in the river, in revenge for her death. Spirits of lions, leopards and buffaloes are said to have haunted the hills of Kenya and Uganda, some people having reported they had heard their cattle lowing who had all died of rinderpest. In East Zambia it was said that the lions too, worshipped their ancestral spirits under a musoro tree by offering them the best parts of their quarries.

Certain Bantu sorcerers are believed to possess the power to call a dead man out of his grave by means of spells and incantations. This can only be done though within a short time after the man's death, before the body has decayed. The body of a deceased chief was 'mummified' in Central Africa, in order to prevent decay; the Shona used to dry it by smoking it over a fire after hanging it between two rocks; the Bemba rub it with boiled maize; the Kaonde apply porridge made from red millet. From along the Congo in Zaire and on the Aruwimi too, we have reports of the smoking of a dead chief, and the same ceremonies have been described in Angola where the dead chief is placed in a pit in the floor of his own house, after which three fires are lit on cow skins placed over his body. Interment may take place a long time later. If on the other hand, there is reason to suspect that the dead man (or woman, if she was a witch) may come back to haunt those who have done him wrong, his body will be destroyed, usually by burning, or by throwing it in the bush for the vultures, or by cutting it up into pieces and scattering them, preferably after burning, while spells are chanted.

Burning the body after execution was also the punishment for witchcraft in Central Zambia and Katanga. When a man had threatened that he would haunt his survivors as a leopard or a lion, his body would be dug up and burnt, as was the lion's carcass. Melland reported from Zambia in 1911 that the people believed some men and women rose from their graves at night to suck the blood of the living. A diviner would be engaged who could identify the grave, whereupon it would be opened and the bones destroyed. If in West Africa at least three of the children of the same mother are born and die in quick succession, it is believed they are 'wanderer souls' and their bodies are destroyed before burial.

Chiefs received a special treatment but commoners were -- in the days long before the colonial period -- simply left in the bush and the children were told, "Grannie has gone on a journey with Mr. Hyena", (reported by Willoughby 1882, p. 27). In some places, for a man who had, before dying, expressed the intention of coming back as a ghost, he was buried in a very deep pit. This may be the origin of the custom of interment. If a man dies far from home, for instance on a hunting expedition, and the corpse is never found, his relatives will slaughter an ox and bury its bones wrapped in the skin together with his possessions, for there is room for fear that he might cause sickness in the village. In most parts of Africa there lingers a belief in the continued presence of the soul near the tomb. The graves are covered with flat stones on which sacrifices may be performed; and these may be the oldest altars. According to A. Cardinall, when the tribe moves to another locality, they take some sand from the graves, presumably taking the souls of the dead with them in the sand. Sand from the tombs of saints is worn as an amulet, sewn in a little bag in North Africa, to protect its owner by means of the saint's spirit. The custom of leaving an opening in the grave through which wine can be poured directly into the dead man's mouth is reported from among the Bateke in Zaire as well as from the Mediterranean countries in antiquity. This proves that many primitive peoples already believed that the soul remained close to the body even in the grave and this is still believed by Muslims. In Nigeria it is believed that especially the skull remains the seat of the soul. In many parts of Africa the dead haunt the place where they died or lie buried until the moment that all the proper funerary ceremonies have been completed. In Zimbabwe and Lesotho when a man has died, the completion of the funerary rites are at the same time a request to his soul to take its place among the spirits of the ancestors. Meat and beer is offered as an offering to the deceased who is now a god. The Zulu used to institute a special ceremony called ukubyisa 'to bring back,' hoping to induce the spirit of a venerated chief or a helpful and dependable father to take up his residence in his own village again, about a year after his death. A goat is killed and its stomach is burned. A similar ceremony is reported from the Mashona and the Vandau further east. Most peoples of Equatorial and southern Africa believe that the soul lingers near its body's grave, and that souls of strong characters will continue to have influence on the lives of their descendants, for which reason good relations must be maintained. In Botswana, a dead man is given an ox's rope and milking utensils, a dead woman a pestle, a winnow, a spoon and a plate before burial. In northwest Zambia an eye-witness of a funeral was struck by the fact that all the relatives acted in a way to show they knew the deceased was alive and present. The Wachagga of northwest Tanganyika would wrap the body of a man in a freshly slaughtered bull's hide and bury him under the floor of his senior wife's cabin. In the banana orchard the following prayer would be recited to the clan's founder: "Great grandfather, our father who guards this village, receive this bull, may you eat it with your fathers. Take this son of your son's son, open for him the door of the village of the ancestors and protect him for ever after. He was taken from our hands." This last sentence implies that the ancestors did not prevent the man's death, so now they are asked to protect him in the next life. 

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