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26.07.2014 Feature Article

African Traditional Religion: Examining The Derogatory Names Used For Describing The Religion Of Africans

African Traditional Religion: Examining The Derogatory Names Used For Describing The Religion Of Africans
LISTEN JUL 26, 2014

African Traditional Religion (ATR) refers to the indigenous religious beliefs and practices of Africans. ATR affects the way of life of most Africans. African Traditional Religion, African Indigenous Religion and African Traditional Religions are all common terms used to discuss the faiths found within of Africa. Each term is debated among scholars and some challenge the word 'Traditional and prefer 'Indigenous' since traditional means the religion is outmoded.

J. Omosade Awolalu, in his work 'Sin and its Removal in African Traditional Religion' writes;

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 (1976: 275).

African religion is traditional for the following reasons:

(I). It is a religion that evolved from the personal experiences of the peoples of Africa.

(II). It is a religion that links the people who now live it and practice it with their forebears.

(III). It is regarded as traditional because it originated from the peoples‟ environment and on their soil (Awolalu and Dopamu, 1979: 28).

(IV). African Traditional Religion is traditional because Africans were not converted into it like Christianity or Islam and others. It was not imported into Africa neither was it preached to Africans rather 'each person in Africa was born into it, lives it, practices, and is proud to make it his own' (Awolalu and Dopamu, 1979: 28). The word Traditional is therefore meant to distinguish it from other religions that came into Africa through missionary zeal and propagation.

Bolaji Idowu (Olodumare, 1962: 137-202) has enunciated five component elements of African Traditional Religion. These five elements he called the structures of African Traditional Religion, while Awolalu and Dopamu see them as the features of West African Traditional Religion (1979: 32-35). In this work we shall look at these five elements as the philosophical foundation of African Traditional Religion. These five features are belief in God, belief in divinities, belief in spirits, belief in the ancestors and belief in the practice of magic and medicine.

These five features are the philosophical pillars on which the study of African Traditional Religion rest. Apart from the study of the nature of the religions of Africa, these five elements form the central tenets of African religion and philosophy.

Misleading terms used by the Western media and scholars to belittle ATR

While we commend the effort of the foreign investigators and media for committing to writing their Investigations about African Traditional Religion, we need to point out that a great number of them used are misleading and derogatory term in describing the African beliefs. Among such terms are; primitive, savage, fetishism, juju, heathenism, paganism, animism, idolatry, and polytheism. We need to examine some of these words and bring out their connotations.

(I) Primitive: The New Webster Encylopedic Dictionary defines primitive as 'pertaining to the beginning or origin; original; first; old fashioned; characterized by the simplicity of old times'. It should be obvious from the dictionary meaning that this word cannot be appropriate in describing the religion of Africa or those who practise that religion. In what sense can we describe the people as old fashioned or describe their religion as simple?

The idea behind the use of such an expression is engendered by racial pride. The Western scholars and media often use this term to distinguish between their society (which is regarded as civilized) and the African society which they consider as uncivilized and old-fashioned-just because African society does not have or adopt the same norm as that of theirs. Anthropologists and Sociologists like to justify their use of the word on the ground that the culture is adjudged to be that which is original in the history of the human race.

African Traditional Religion has been evolving; there is in it the element of continuity as well as discontinuity. Since it is a religion practised by living persons today, changes are to be expected. Thus, strictly speaking, religion in its pristine form is no longer in existence. Every aspect of it cannot be described as original. Whatever happens, the use of the word primitive by Western scholars is derogatory and, therefore, obnoxious.

(II) Savage: The dictionary meaning is: 'pertaining to the forest or wilderness; wild; uncultured; untamed violent; brutal; uncivilized; untaught; rude; barbarous; inhuman'. In one word, savagery is the opposite of civilization. Our remarks are the same as we indicated under primitive. We should also add that there is an element of savagery in every one of us and it should not be made the exclusive trait of a particular people. One should not forget that Africa is the cradle of civilization. Civilization started from this part of the world. Dr and Mrs. Leakey discovered a wealth of early human fossils in the Odulvai Gorge in northern Tanzania in 1959 and this established that Africa is the provenance of life on earth, in other words, Africa is the source of Humanity and Civilization.

(III) Fetishism: Linguists claim that the word is of Portuguese origin. The early Portuguese who came to Africa saw that the Africans used to wear charms and amulets and so they gave the name feitico to such things forgetting that they themselves wore Rosary, crucifix and such like. This is the same word as the French fetiche. The dictionary meaning of fetish is any object, animate or inanimate, natural or artificial, regarded by some 'uncivilized' races with a feeling of awe, as having mysterious power residing in it or as being the representative or habitation of a deity'; hence fetishism is the worship of, or emotional attachment to, inanimate objects.

But Rattray corrected this wrong notion of the early investigators when he said: Fetishes may form part of an emblem of god, but fetish and god are in themselves distinct, and are so regarded by the Ashanti; the main power, or the most important spirit in a god comes directly or indirectly from 'Nyame', the Supreme God, whereas the power or spirit in a fetish comes from plants or trees, and sometimes directly or indirectly from fairies, forest monsters, witches, or from some sort of unholy contact with death; a god is the god of the many, the Family, the Clan, or the Nation. A fetish is generally personal to its owner. We see, then, that it would be quite wrong and racial to describe the religion of Africa as fetishism. There may be an element of this in the day-to-day life of the Africans, but it is incorrect to describe it all as fetishism. Many writers used the word indiscriminately.

Prayers said during worship by Africans have been described as fetish prayers instead of Traditional prayer; the functionaries of a cult have been described as fetish priests instead of Traditional priests; herbs prepared by African priests have been labelled fetish herbs, and not medical preparations, though these herbs are effective and taking an oath has been described as undergoing fetish. This is ludicrous. Parrinder has remarked that the word fetish is a most ambiguous word, and the time has come for all serious writers and speakers to abandon it completely and finally.

(IV). Juju: The word juju is French in origin and it means a little 'doll or toy'. Its application to African deities has been perpetuated by English writers. For example, P. A. Talbot in his Life in Southern Nigeria devoted three chapters to Juju among the Ibibio people and discussed the various divinities among them. How can divinities, however minor, be described as toys? Africans are not as low in intelligence as to be incapable of distinguishing between an emblem or symbol of worship and a doll or toy. Juju is, therefore, one of the misleading and derogatory terms used by investigators out of either sheer prejudice or ignorance.

(v) Paganism and Heathenism: We choose to treat Paganism and Heathenism together because the meanings applied to them are similar, if not identical. The word pagan is from the Latin word paganus meaning peasant, village or country district; it also means one who worships false god; a heathen. The question is which God is the false God? When the meaning is stretched further, it means someone who is neither a Christian, a Jew nor a Muslim.

Heath, on the other hand, is a vast track of land; and a heathen is one who inhabits a heath or possesses the characteristics of a heath dweller. A heathen, according to the New Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary, is a pagan; one who worships idols or does not acknowledge the true God; a rude, barbarous and irreligious person. these words are not correct in describing the indigenous religion of Africa because the people are religious and they do believe in the Supreme Being which is the true God.

If the only religious people are the adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, then the other entire world religions become either heathen or pagan, and so, uncivilized! Are all Europeans and Americans religious? Presumably these terms are used in an attempt to distinguish between enlightenment and barbarity. What has this to do with religion? We think such terms are more sociological and racial than religious.

(VI). Animism: Western media like BBC often use this term in their media. A news article entitled 'Sudan foes sign wealth deal' goes on to state that ' sets out how they will share the revenues, mostly from oil, after 20-year civil war between Muslim north and Christian and animist south..'( ).N/B: Animist was even spelt with small 'a' in the news article. The great advocate of the theory of animism was E. B. Tylor in his work Primitive Culture.

Many writers still describe the African Traditional Religion as animistic. This means attributing a living soul to inanimate objects and natural phenomena. From our own study of the African Traditional Religion, we find there are unmistakably elements of animism. For example, the Odum tree is not an ordinary tree; it is believed to be inhabited by a spirit; the Volta lake (in Ghana) is believed to be more than an ordinary river because the spirit dwells in it and this makes the river efficacious in many respects, especially during barrenness.

Lightning and thunder are manifestations of the thunder god. But when we have said this, we also need to add that it would be wrong to categorize the whole religion as 'animism'. Every religion has some belief in the existence of the spirit i.e. Holy spirit in Christianity, kami in Shinto and even Christianity sees 'God as Spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and truth'( John 4:24). In other words, animism is a part definition of every 'religion' and not ATR alone. But to say that the African Traditional Religion is animistic would be incorrect and racial.

(vii) Idolatry: Idol means false god; and so idolatry is the worshipping of false gods or that which is not real. The word idol is used to describe the object which is an emblem of that which is worshipped by the Africans. The object may be a piece of wood or of iron or a stone. These objects are symbolic. Each of them has a meaning beyond itself, and therefore is not an end in itself. It is only a means to an end.

If, for example, a piece of wood representing Obatala (a Yoruba deity) is eaten by termites, the worshippers of Obatala will not feel that their god has been destroyed by the termites, because the piece of wood is only a symbol, serving as a visible or concrete embodiment of that which is symbolised. Symbolic representation is not peculiar to African Traditional Religion. It is found in most religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Shintoism etc. It is used principally to aid man's perception and concentration and to remind the worshiper of the divine presence.

If this is the object of the symbol, it must be wrong to describe it as an idol. But experience shows that material representation often becomes a danger in religion when the worshippers make the emblems an end in themselves. In this way, the difference between the material object and the reality represented by it becomes obscured. African Traditional Religion is not essentially idolatrous, but it has a tendency to become so if the cult and the symbols of the divinities are so emphasized as to exclude the Supreme Being. The various divinities that are represented are in fact technically representatives or servants of the Supreme Being.

It needs to be emphasized that the Supreme Being cannot be represented like the divinities. We must also point out that, to the Africans, the material has meaning only in terms of the spiritual and not physical. It is the spiritual that gives meaning and importance to the visible material object. The symbols or emblems may fall into disuse or crumble or be replaced, but the spiritual entity represented never changes. See E. B. Tylor, Primitive Cultures, Vols. I and II.

(viii) Polytheism: 'In West Africa,' said Parrinder, 'men believe in great pantheons of gods which are as diverse as the gods of the Greeks or the Hindus. Many of these gods are the expression of the forces of nature, which men fear or try to propitiate: These gods generally have their own temples and priests, and their worshippers cannot justly be called animists, but polytheists, since they worship a variety of gods.

Here, while Parrinder was trying to discourage the use of the term animism in connection with the religion of Africa, he created another problem by suggesting the term polytheism. We can understand what the problems are. In a proper polytheism, the gods are all of the same rank and file. The difference between that type of polytheism and the structure of African Traditional Religion is that in Africa, the Supreme Being is not of the same rank and file of the divinities.

The origin of the divinities can be traced; the divinities can be represented; they are limited in their power; they came into being by the power of the Supreme Being who is unique, wholly other and faultless and who owes His existence to no one. The Africans do not and cannot represent Him in the form of an image as they can do with the divinities. Parrinder made this mistake because in his West African Religion he claimed that the Supreme God or Creator is 'sometimes above the gods, sometimes first among equals'. This is not correct.

The Yoruba, for example, never rank the Supreme Being, Olodimave with the divinities (orisa), neither do the Akan confuse Nyame with the divinities (abosom). The truth of the matter is that Africans hold the Supreme Being as a venerable majesty who has several servants (the divinities) under Him to carry out His desires. He is in a class by Himself. This is why it is not appropriate to describe the African Traditional Religion as polytheistic. Indeed it will be hypocrisy to call the religion of Africans as polytheistic and Christianity as monotheistic since the concept of trinity suggests an existence of three Gods.

In conclusion, after reading this article, one should be careful when using these terms. The name of the religion of Africa is none of the above misleading terms but African Traditional Religion or African Traditional Religions or African Indigenous Religion. Do not think you don't adhere to this religion because that will be a big lie. You adhere to this religion when you celebrate the various Traditional Festivals, when you attend and participate in the Traditional Marriage rites, Naming ceremonies and just to mention few. Our religion can be found in our Culture and therefore respect and uphold it.

level 300
Dept. of Art and Social Science

Awolalu, J. Omosade & Dopamu, P. Adelumo (1979). West African Traditional Religion, Ibadan: Onibonoje,

Idowu, E. Bolaji (1962). Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. London: Longman.

Awolalu, J. O. (spring, 1976).what is African Traditional Religion? Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 10, No. 2,1-10.Retrieved from
For further details see John Mbiti, Concepts of God in Africa, S.P.C.K., 1970.

E. B. Idowu, Olodumare, Longmans, 1962, p.202f.
E. B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion, p.106f.
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Nana Osei Bonsu
Nana Osei Bonsu, © 2014

The author has 4 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: NanaOseiBonsu

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