By: Ini-Herit Khalfani
March 20, 2018
“The influence of other religions, especially, Christianity and Islam on African religion cannot be overemphasized. As generation after generation of Africans come under the influence of foreign religions or embrace the foreign religions, one or two things happen: they either cut away completely from the old faith (which may lead to total neglect of the old faith until it gradually disintegrates) or practice the two religions and come out being syncretistic.”
The main objective of this article is to provide a pathway from one school of thought to another by ultimately introducing the reader to Traditional African Religions. Ironically many people demonize African Religions calling them devil worship, pagan, and/or evil. You can easily be called an atheist if you practice anything outside of the state sponsored religions, but our primary focus will be centered around a few key elements in Traditional African Religions. Those elements are ancestor veneration, ancestral worship, altars, and the pouring of libations. The goal is to inform and open a closed-door that has been shut for quite some time with hopes of reuniting the reader with something that rightfully belongs to you!
“Africa, the place of origin of all humankind, is divided into numerous political and cultural regions, reflecting its diverse range of histories, ethnicities, languages, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Its various indigenous spiritual systems, usually called African traditional religions, are many. Every ethnic group in Africa has developed a complex and distinctive set of religious beliefs and practices. Despite their seemingly unrelated aspects, there are common features to these systems, suggesting that African traditional faiths form a cohesive religious tradition.”
Many scholars have drawn parallels between cultural practices from one side of the continent to the other. A lot of this can been due to different migration patterns over the years. “Since there are no sacred books on which to base the study of African traditional religion except on the proverbs, folklores, oral tradition, ethics, and morals of African societies, we shall, in this study, critically analyze some major concepts of African traditional religion in order to establish how Africans reason about the world around them, especially in reference to their religion.”
It is very important to know that in Traditional African Religions science is not separate from spirituality. You’ll hear this saying a lot in Africa “Everything is Everything” or “As above so below,” these saying indicate a perspective to help one understand that we are connected to all which exist or all that once existed.
Africans long ago set out to understand the natural world by any means necessary, and with that understanding grew spiritual systems heavily influenced in that cultural perspective. Centered in this understanding was the fundamental fact that the Ancestors are a crucial part of Traditional African Religions. “The fact that Africans are notoriously religious is no longer an issue for debate among scholars today. This is because various people of Africa own a religious system and a set of beliefs and practices which bind them together to their Ultimate.”
“Ancestors appear more important on a daily basis than the Supreme Deity. It is the ancestors who must be feared, who must be appeased, and to whom appeals must be directed; they are the ones who must be invoked and revered because they are the agents of transformation. In effect, the ancestors know the people; they have lived among them and have a keen insight into the nature of ordinary lives.” In each Traditional African Religion, you’ll see this present and relevant no matter which system it is. Ancestors are venerated some even deified, and becoming an Ancestor had very little to do with age.
“Ancestors are those who once lived in human society and, having fulfilled certain conditions, are now in the realm of the spirits. One becomes an ancestor by living and dying in a particular way. In African religion, to become an ancestor, one must have lived an exemplary life, shown devotion to one’s own ancestors, respected the elders, and had children. Among various ethnic groups, to become an ancestor, one must have died a good death, that is, one’s death must not have been by suicide, accident, or other forms of violence, with the possible exception of heroic deaths on the battlefield.” In the rw nw prt em hrw (The Book of Coming Forth by Day) we can prove that this book is a manual on how to become an Ancestor. “The Ibo of Nigeria believe that the ancestors profoundly influence all actions in society.” All over Africa this interconnectedness is evident when it comes to defining the importance of the Ancestors.
“The veneration of the ancestors is a fundamental part of African religion. There is a clear reason for such veneration. The ancestors are respected and venerated because they are elders and have walked the path that living people will walk. They are predecessors to all of those who are living and are in a spiritual state of existence that gives them power to assist those who are living. People have believed for a long time that the ritualized propitiation and invocation of ancestors could influence the fate of the living. This is a belief and practice that has been brought to a complex and elaborated level by thousands of years of African thinking.”
There are several ways to venerate an Ancestor, and it is very important to honor those that once honored you. In many African Traditions they believe the Ancestors are working just as much or even more in the afterlife as they did in the physical world. You’ll see alters setup specifically dedicated to honoring the Ancestors, or maybe even a mural where one would go to remember, honor, and appreciate the Ancestor or Ancestors.
““We must remember that all civilized people throughout history have venerated their Ancestors. It is what sustained them in times of turmoil. Ancestor veneration is the fabric which holds cultures together. It holds a people together and assists them to become or remain great. With these insights, we will be able to live more fulfilling lives.”
“Everything in life that matters to the order and harmony of society must be approached through the ancestors. This means that in African religion, there is always ancestral priority, presence, and power. The ancestral spirits are the most intimate divinities and must be consulted on important occasions. This is the reason that Africans regard the ancestors as the keepers of morality.”
“Ancestors are venerated; they are not worshiped. Libation and the offering of food to the ancestral spirits are rituals and rites performed to express the esteem and feelings of hospitality that people hold for their ancestors. These acts reflect the firm belief that Africans generally have in the existence of an unbroken relationship that exists between the living and the Dead.”
The pouring of Libations not only is sacred but very important in Traditional African Religions. The symbolism of honoring an Ancestor holds true to the remembrance of that person and the effect they had on your life. “The person conducting the libation asks for the ancestors’ continued blessings and for protection, prosperity, and happiness for the entire community. The ancestors are offered the reasons for which the meeting has been called and request success for the endeavor.” So, the next time you open a drink of any kind and decide to pour some of it out remember your Ancestors and say their name while in the act of pouring.
“When we speak of African Traditional Religion we mean the indigenous religion of the Africans. It is the religion that has been handed down from generation to generation by the forbears of the present generation of Africans. It is not a fossil religion (a thing of the past) but a religion that Africans today have made theirs by living it and practicing it. This is a religion that has no written literature, yet it is “written” everywhere for those who care to see and read. It is largely written in the peoples‟ myths and folktales, in their songs and dances, in their liturgies and shrines and in their proverbs and pithy sayings. It is a religion whose historical founder is neither known nor worshipped; it is a religion that has no zeal for membership drive, yet it offers persistent fascination for Africans, young and old.”
“In African societies, the object that stands between humans and the divine is often made of wood, clay, stone, or metal. In fact, the altar may also be at the base of an ancient tree or the base of a mountain or giant stone. Of course, most altars are built by humans, that is, they are constructed with the idea of god in mind. The idea is that there is a physical connection between humans and the divine, and the altar serves as a repository of the power of the divine. It is not to be considered the site of god, but rather the place where the power of god can be captured and used for the benefit of the society.”
Altars are a sacred place often hidden from people. “The altar is where the human goes to contact the power of the divine. Thus, a priest or priestess is usually the only person allowed to officiate at the altar. Such altars as exist in traditional African religion are often hidden from the masses. There are occasions when the priest or priestess will go to the altar and then return to the people after having made sacrifices and prayers. Shrines to ancestors located in homes may also serve as altars in some cases. Upon this altar might be the traditional objects that were used by a deceased ancestor.”
Altars or Shrines in the home should be setup in an area away from constant distractions. It is uncommon to set up a shrine in your bedroom. Wherever your altar maybe it should be some place where you can go and call on or pay homage to your Ancestors.
“The need to understand religion in the context of African belief system and culture cannot be under-stressed. Man, from its origin is born to worship God in the way his conscience and ability directs him to do. The study of religion is aimed at understanding the similarities and differences in religion, the truth in religion and its relevance to the human society. Africa with its diverse culture has religion as a factor that helps people to live in harmony and work towards corporate development of the environment and the people. Therefore, an understanding of African Traditional Religion will create room for a clear understanding of the African people contextually within the framework of their belief system.”
For the past few hundred years, the African worldview has been stripped away from us, and our understanding of the world has taken a back seat to the ideals of outside influences. We did not need to convert to Traditional African Religions we embody and exemplify everything that helped us understand our natural world. We have tried everything from one invaders spiritual beliefs to another, and to be honest the wait and see program has not only hindered us it has not solved the problems which we face today. Your God is supposed to serve you not you serve it. Culturally speaking we wonder why our prayers go unanswered maybe it’s because we have been calling on the wrong gods. Now is the perfect time to call on our own!
Sources: Lateju, Fola, and E E Inyang. Introduction to African Traditional Religion. Edited by A Adewale, National University of Nigeria, 2008.
Asante, Molefi Kete, and Ama Mazama. Encyclopedia of African Religion. SAGE, 2009.
Eze, Emmanuel Chukwudi. African Philosophy: an Anthology. Blackwell Publishers, 1998.
“Traditional African Religions.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditional_African_religions.
olupano, jacob k. “African Traditional Religions.” Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, Encyclopedia.com, 2006, www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/african-traditional-religions.
Olaitan, Chief. Ancestor Veneration. Chief Olaitan. p.o. box 198 sheldon, sc 29941
Photo Source: Adegoke, Yomi. “’Jesus Hasn’t Saved Us’: The Young Black Women Returning to Ancestral Religions.” Broadly, Vice, 13 Sept. 2016, broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/bjgxx4/jesus-hasnt-saved-us-young-black-women-returning-ancestral-religions.