Prior to the advent of Islam and Christianity, most Africans practiced traditional African religion. Christians and Muslims were in the minority. Africa has its own cultural belief systems that are deeply rooted in the extended family system. Traditional African religion is part of African culture. Even after 1900 when Christian and Muslim expansion reached its peak, traditional African religion still maintained relevance. Very much misunderstood, the religion has been called all kinds of derogatory names, from animism to paganism. Traditional African religion is much more than Westerners give it credit for. It is a global framework of life, encompassing every human situation and governing the whole society. It is the bedrock of African cultural values and moral tradition. Over 100 million Africans or 10% of the population still practice the religion full time.
Unlike other religions, African religions have no sacred texts or creed comparable to the Torah, Bible or the Koran. Their expressions are found in oral traditions, rituals, myths, festivals, symbols and shrines. The primary role of Traditional African religion is to provide for human well being in the present, as opposed to offering salvation in a future world. Though beliefs and practices differ and vary across ethnic groups and regions, they have unifying themes. One single faith with local differences. For example, the Igbos of Southeastern Nigeria worship differently from the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. The Akans of Ghana worship differently from the Dioula of the Ivory Coast. But they all believe in one super god, lesser divinities and in honoring the ancestors.
In a nutshell, traditional African religion is characterized by belief in a supreme being, who created and ordered the world, but is often experienced as distant and unreachable. Therefore, lesser divinities who are more accessible act as intermediaries with the super god. Violations of taboos or social norms are widely believed to result in hardships or illness for individuals or communities and must be countered by ritual acts to reestablish order, harmony and well being.
Believers of the religion hold that ancestors sometimes act as emissaries between living beings and the divine, helping to maintain social order and withdrawing their support if the living behave wrongly. If there are infractions, the oraculists are called upon to discern what is wrong and make recommendations on how to resolve it.
It is very significant, that most Africans who adhere to Islam or Christianity also incorporate elements of indigenous African religion into their daily lives. Most Africans still believe in the power of Jujus to protect them. Most Christians and Muslims in Africa still consult traditional religious healers when someone is sick, and participate in ceremonies to honor their ancestors. In short, Christianity and Islam coexist harmoniously with traditional African religion. The reason for this harmony is because of the capacity of traditional African religions to tolerate and accommodate alternative religious cultures. This accommodation and tolerance is because African traditional religion is not export oriented, non hegemonic and non proselytizing. Unlike Christianity and Islam, these traditional African religions did not have the ambition to conquer the world. It was a domestic religion for Africans and Africans only. Therefore, it was not in competition with Christianity or Islam in the marketplace of creeds and souls, thereby avoiding conflicts and tensions.
One of the contributions of traditional African religion to the continent is the preservation of the African languages. Unlike Islam and Christianity that came with foreign languages, indigenous African religion is conducted in the ethnic or regional language language where it is practiced, thereby strengthening the various languages. Moreover, it is the guardian of African moral traditions, through which moral sanctions flow. In most parts of Africa, people are more terrified of moral sanctions, than criminal sanctions.
Traditional African religion also followed African slaves to their new destinations. When African slaves came to the Americas, they carried their religious practices and beliefs with them. These beliefs evolved into Voodoo in Haiti and Santeria in Cuba. In the Brazilian cities of Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife, Porto and Alegre, indigenous African religion is still practiced.
*Dr. Leonard Madu is President of the African Caribbean Institute and African Chamber of Commerce. He is also a Fox TV foreign affairs analyst and writes from Nashville, TN.