Wednesday, 12 August 2015

What is African Traditional Religion?

RELIGION is a fundamental, perhaps the most important, influence in the life of most Africans, yet it’s essential principles are too often unknown to foreigners who make themselves constantly liable to misunderstand the African worldview and beliefs, to the extent of some thinking traditional beliefs, social values, customs, and rituals were and still is considered to be nothing more than pagan values and superstitions. Religion enters into every aspect of the life of the Africans and it cannot be studied in isolation. Its study has to go hand-in- hand with the study of the people who practise the religion.
When we speak of African Traditional Religion, we mean the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of the Africans. It is the religion which resulted from the sustaining faith held by the forebears of the present Africans, and which is being practised today in various forms and various shades and intensities by a very large number of Africans, including individuals who claim to be Muslims or Christians.
We need to explain the word „traditional‟. This word means indigenous, that which is aboriginal or foundational, handed down from generation to generation, upheld and practised by Africans today. This is a heritage from the past, but treated not as a thing of the past but as that which connects the past with the present and the present with eternity. This is not a thing of the past or a dead religion 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 people’s 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 unlike Islam and Christianity and no missionaries. Hance no special times for worship, for everyday and every hour is worship time. It is a religion that has no zeal for membership drive, yet it offers persistent fascination for Africans, young or old. And
Through modern changes, the traditional religion cannot remain intact but it is by no means extinct. The declared adherents of the indigenous religion are very conservative, resisting the influence of modernism heralded by the colonial era, including the introduction of Islam, Christianity, Western education and improved medical facilities. They cherish their tradition, they worship with sincerity because their worship is quite meaningful to them, they hold tenaciously to their covenant that binds them together.
We speak of religion in the singular. This is deliberate. We are not unconscious of the fact that Africa is a large continent with multitudes of nations who have complex cultures, innumerable languages and myriads of dialects. But in spite of all these differences, there are many basic similarities in the religious systems—everywhere there is the concept of God (called by different names); there is also the concept of divinities and/or spirits as well as beliefs in the ancestral cult. Every locality may and does have its own local deities, its own festivals, its own name or names for the Supreme Being, but in essence the pattern is the same. There is that noticeable “Africanness” in the whole pattern.
African Taditional Religion are around 20% of the total population of Africa. It is a religion that is co-terminus with the African people and their society.
 The religion of these natives [Africans] is their existence and their existence is their religion. It supplies the principle on which their law is dispensed and morality adjudicated. The entire organization of their common life is so interwoven with it that they cannot get away from it. Like the Hindus they eat religiously, drink religiously and sing religiously.
Culture after all is the way of life developed by people as they cope with survival. True culture then must include the traditional beliefs and spiritualism. The introduction of European Christianity, Islam and their values separated the indigenous Africans from their traditional ancient spiritual roots as well as their traditional identity as a spiritual people.
Traditional beliefs recognize there is a higher God. The higher God is not directly worshipped as it is usually remote from daily religious life. More important are the lesser Gods, believed to be within the nature that surrounds us like streams, rivers, trees, thunder and mountains. Ancestors are also recognized as part of the spiritual order. However, the Europeans who spread Christianity and Islam in Africa never understood or properly appreciated the African's own conception of the Great Creator. They saw no similarity between the God they preached and the African's own belief in the One Supreme God and creator who was, king, Omnipotent, Omniscient, the Great Judge, Compassionate, Holy and Invisible, Immortal and Transcendent. The traditional African belief is that the Great One brought the divinities into being. He therefore is the maker and everything in heaven and on earth owes their origin to Him alone. He is the Great king above all Kings and cannot be compared in majesty. He dwells everywhere. Thus He is omnipotent because He is able to do all things and nothing can be done nor created apart from Him. He is behind all achievements. He alone can speak and accomplish his words. Therefore there is no room for failure. He is Absolute, all wise Omniscient, all seeing, and all Knowing. He knows all things and so no secrets are hid from Him. If there is rain it is God who wills it and if the fish do not run it is by His will. This Great Creator is the final Judge of all things, but he is able to be compassionate and merciful. He can look kindly and most mercifully on the suffering of men and women and is able to smooth the rough roads through his divine priests and the spirits of the ancestors. The God of the African Traditional Religion is also a Holy God both ritually and ethically. He is complete and absolute since He is never involved in any wrong or immorality. Traditionally Africans believe that since God's holiness blinds He therefore cannot be approached by mere mortals. He is a spirit and thus must be approached by spirits invisible to mere humans. How is this God to be approached then? He is to be approached directly and indirectly only through his chosen priests. Libations or prayers are the only supplications acceptable. And they are made by his chosen priests in traditional rituals and ceremonies at appropriate times and places. The priest becomes the keeper of the welfare of the people and subsequently is entrusted with the sacred rituals of worship. The African therefore does not need to prove the existence of God to anyone. God is self-existing and needs no proof. His existence is self-evident and even children are taught from birth that the Great One exists. There is a Ga Language proverb that says, "No one points out the Great One to a child." This God then is given regular and direct worship at regular intervals and the calendar is kept by dedicated priests. However, there is continuous indirect worship on a daily basis through the divinities and ancestors at all times during the day by each family and individual. The ritual altars in the African villages are the indigenous peoples' way of reaching out and praising the Great Creator. To the Africans they are the boundary between heaven and earth, between life and death, between the ordinary and the world of the spirit. The constant pouring of drink, food and sacrificial animal blood makes them sacred and no one would dare abuse them. Some altars are simple; especially the ones in homes, but some communities and villages have communal altars for the entire village as vehicles for channelling the positive forces from the Great one and the ancestors to the whole community.
The African traditional religious life has always considered all life to be the sphere of the Almighty, the powerful (the Otumfoo), the Omnipotent (Gye Nyame). He is wise, and all seeing and all knowing. He is the Great Spider (Ananse Kokroko), and the Ancient of Days (Odomankoma).
In spite of the declining numbers of the followers of African Traditional Religion, there seem to be reasons to conclude that African Traditional Religion will continue to be a living religion in many years to come. Some of these reasons are the following: African Traditional Religion continues to be the source of meaning, direction and security of the lives of many Africans, including followers of other well established religious traditions. Africans are proud of being its heirs and consider it their duty and right to pass it on to the next generation.


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