Making a case for African traditional religion

By Ezinwanne Onwuka

Man generally is given to misconception, especially in the midst of conflicting ideas or contending issues. That is the case concerning issues about Africa and its religious beliefs. Westerners, and even most misinformed Africans, are wont to use derogatory words such as primitive, idolatry, paganism etc. to tag the traditional religion of Africans and believe that Africans should be grateful to the missionaries who revealed God to them. As we shall see, this is borne out of prejudice.
Of several definitions of African Traditional Religion (ATR) that have been put forward by scholars, I have picked two. For Kamara, African Traditional Religion is “the observance of rules of conduct in the way the individual conducts his or her daily life, the practice of rituals, and the recognition of the ever presence of the living-dead (ancestors) to allow the person to coexist in harmony with other members of the community in order to please God.” (Kamara, 2000). In the same vein, Awulalu explained it as “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 practiced today in a variety of shades and intensities by a very great number 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 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 or old.” (Awulalu, 1976).
The above definitions elucidate ATR as encompassing beliefs and practices that originate from Africa and have existed since the beginning of Africa’s known history. Thus, ATR is embedded in the African world view as well as in the norms and values of the people.
One major feature of ATR is that religion is a way of life for Africans. Africans’ modi operandi are inextricably intertwined with their religions. The only slight distinction one can notice is between the more religious and the less religious individuals in terms of the frequency of their visits to the shrines and temples, or lack thereof, to consult with the diviners, perform rituals, or transmit messages to the ancestors.
However, in the era of burgeoning Pentecostal and charismatic churches in Africa, ATR have been under relentless assault and bastardization. There is no doubt about the fact that ATR can be said to be one faith that has suffered abuses in terms of its nature and meaning at the hands of people who claim to be scholars in the field, particularly the “armchair” scholars (Westerners and Africans, alike). Consequently, ATR, the spirituality of a descent race has been described in highly objectionable, obnoxious, derogatory and pejorative terms such as: paganism, idolatrous, fetishism, animism, polytheism, juju, heathenism, native religion, etc.
For example, Baker, believing that ATR is a crude/primitive religion, argued in 1867 (in Evans-Pritchard, 1965) that “without any exception, they [Africans] are without a belief in a Supreme Being, neither have they any form of worship or idolatry; nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition. The mind is as stagnant as the morass which forms its puny world”. Similarly, Sir Richard Burton (quoted in Evans-Pritchard, 1965) propagated the idea that “the negro is still at that rude dawn of faith – fetishism – and he [sic] has barely advanced to idolatry….He has never grasped the idea of a personal Deity, a duty in life, a moral code or a shame of lying…”
ATR has been misconceived as a form of idolatry. Idolatry is derived from the Greek word eidoloatria meaning worship of idol. In a religious sense, it is the worship of the creature instead of the Creator. This is where African religious practice is misunderstood. But the truth is when an African prays before a statue, he is not talking to or worshipping the stone in question but the divinity (the Supernatural Being) symbolically represented by that stone. This is equally one of the religious practices of the Roman Catholic Church – praying before Virgin Mary‘s statue, dead saints’ statues, etc. Will Roman Catholics accept that they are worshipping idols? I do not think so! It is prejudice, therefore, to accept and embrace the Roman Catholic Church’s ‘Idolatry’ and discredit ATR as being idolatrous.
ATR has also being described as animism. From the Latin anima – life, breadth, soul, animism is the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena. It means that all things, animate and inanimate alike possesses a spirit or soul. Most people often think of ATR when they think of animism, but the fact is that all major religions have some animistic beliefs. For instance, Roman Catholics belief that Jesus Christ is present in the Holy Communion. In Judaism, it is believed that Yahweh inhabited Mount Horeb. In Islam, Muslims venerate the Sacred Stone, the Kaaba in Mecca when they go for pilgrimage. Even among the Hindus and Jains, it is believed that spirits inhabit natural objects. Again, it is erroneous to consider ATR as animism while overlooking the animistic beliefs in other religions.
Another is the idea of fetishism which ATR has been referred to by both anthropologists and missionaries. This word is said to be derived from the Portuguese word feitico meaning charm. It is the worship of an inanimate object for it’s supposed magical powers or because it is considered to be inhabited by a spirit. This practice, however, is not peculiar to ATR.
Roman Catholic Christians wear medas or put it inside their vehicles to be saved from accident; they also use rosaries, crucifix among others for protection. Pentecostals use anointing oil, stickers, even aprons. These are all charms. But we would only believe that the use of charms is predominant in ATR and therefore discredit it while we embrace the fetish beliefs of other religions sheepishly.
Another problem comes from the definition given to ATR as any type of religion practiced in Africa before the arrival of Islam and Christianity. This definition creates the false impression that Africans did not know God before the coming of the missionaries and that the missionaries came to introduce God to Africans. Emil Ludwig, for instance, said: “How can the untutored Africans conceive God?… How can this be?… Deity is a philosophical concept which savages are incapable of framing” (cited in Smith 1950). Lending credence to this, Mary Kingsley proffered, “When I say juju or fetish, I mean the religion of the native of West Africa” (cited in Opoku 1978).
Notwithstanding these misjudgements, the truth is that Africans have had the knowledge of God as a Creator before the arrival of Christianity and Islam. Africans have known God to be all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving who is greater than the works of man‘s hand. These misconceptions are borne out of prejudice or probably out of impatience of the researchers to look at the universal meaning of the terms they use to describe the religious life of the African people.
If the above terminologies are not appropriate descriptions of African Traditional Religion, what then is African Traditional Religion? Besides the definitions given, African Traditional Religion, properly understood, involves the belief and worship of the Supreme Being known and revered all over Africa as Nyame in Akan (Ghana), Mawu in Ewe (Ghana), Oludumare in Yoruba (Nigeria), Chineke in Igbo (Nigeria), Abasi Ibom in Efik (Nigeria), Jalang in Bamera (Mali), Iwek or Jok in Acholi (Uganda), Nkoo-Bot in Bulu (Cameroon), Ngewo in Mande (Sierra Leone) etc. If the concept of God is expressed in all the African cultures, it means that religion forms parts of African culture.
The few names for God in the different ethnic groups are a proof that Africa practices monotheism. Just like Christians and Muslims, Africans believe that God is one and has no equal. He is known as the most perfect being above everything He has created. This implies that polytheism is an imposition on Africans. The worship of the Supreme Being can be direct but is mostly done indirectly through divine agents like the gods or divinities and the ancestors. African traditional theologians explain that one cannot worship the Supreme Being formally without the agency of the divinities or ancestors just as in Christianity, one cannot directly approach God, the Father without the agency of God, the Son in the person of Jesus Christ and the ordained priests.
Moreover, the fact that ATR is still prevalent in most of the African countries in spite of centuries of Christian and Islamic dominance should call for a deep reflection. Large numbers of Africans actively participate in Christianity or Islam yet also believe in sacrifices to ancestors, traditional religious healers, reincarnation and other elements of ATR. This proves that ATR is part and parcel of our culture in Africa. As Mbiti (1970) states, it starts before birth and does not end after death.

Ezinwanne writes in from Cross River state and can be reached on

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