SELECTED ASPECTS IN AFRICAN RELIGIOUS HERITAGE

African concept of God, Spirits and Ancestors
1.  God

  • All African communities believe in a supreme being who is the origin and sustainer of all things.
  • He is the creator of the universe and all that it contains.
  • All Africans agree that nobody has ever seen God.

 Attributes of God as understood by African people

  1. God is the creator of the universe and everything in it.
  2. God is a provider.  He provides and sustains his creation.
  3. God is merciful.  He removes suffering from communities.
  4. God is all powerful / omnipotent.  He has power over all creation and controls nature.
  5. God is holy/ pure seen from the nature of sacrifices and the purity of the people involved in sacrificing.
  6. God is all-knowing /omniscient.  He knows and sees everything e.g. Zulu of South Africa refer to him as the “wise one”.
  7. God is everywhere/ omnipresent in the universe e.g. when a person is on a journey, members of the family ask God to be with the person.
  8. God is immanent because he is not limited to space and time.  He is both very far and very near.
  9. God is transcendent.  He is beyond human description/beyond human comprehension and cannot be limited.
  10. God is self-existent.  He exists on his own and existed before creation.  He continues to exist.
  11. God is a spirit.  He has no physical form and is invisible.
  12. God is everlasting/eternal. He is immortal and lives for ever.
  13. God is good. He is not evil and did not create evil.

2.   African concept of spirits

  • They are invisible beings second in Seniority in the hierarchy of beings.
  • Some spirits are believed to have been created by God as spirits/ divinities.
  • Others are spirits of people who died long ago and are no longer remembered by the living.
  • Spirits are subordinate to God and depend on him for survival.
  • God uses them to perform certain things such as causing floods and lightening.
  • They can be reborn among the living.

1. Sky and Nature Spirits

They are of two types

  • Spirits of the sky
    They are associated with the sun, moon, stars, thunder and lightning.
  • Spirits of nature
    Are associated with natural phenomena such as hills, mountains, rocks, forests, lakes, rivers, animals and insects.
    They are believed to control the force of nature
    Some may be manipulated by human being for good or evil purposes.

2. The human spirits

They are of two categories

  • Ghost spirits
    Belonging to those who died long ago and whose names cannot be remembered.
  • Ancestral spirits/ living dead
    These are dead people whose identities are still alive in the memories of people

3. The divinities
Communities in Africa e.g. the Ashanti of Ghana believe in a category of spirits between God and the spirits.
They are believed to have been created by God.

4. The ancestors

  • They are founders of African clans and tribes.
  • They are people who died and whose names and identities are still remembered by their relative
  • As spirits, they are concerned with the people’s welfare and are close to them.
  • They speak the language of human beings when they appear to them in dreams or visions.
  • They participate in the activities of the living relatives.

THE AFRICAN UNDERSTANDING OF THE HIERARCHY OF BEINGS

Hierarchy of beings
The Africans understand the universe to consist of two parts.

  • The visible/ earth.
  • The invisible/ sky which is regarded as the home of God.

The universe has a specific order of created beings, with God the creator occupying the highest rank.
This ordering is what is referred to as the hierarchy of beings.
It can be divided into seven categories as follows;

  1.  GOD (Supreme being responsible for the existence and sustenance of human beings and all other beings).
  2. DIVINITIES (Are spirits created by God).
  3. SPIRITS (Belonging to people who died a long time ago).
  4. LIVING DEAD/ ANCESTORS (Act as intermediaries between human beings who are alive and the spirit world).
  5. HUMAN BEINGS (Include those who are physically alive and those yet to be born).
  6. PLANTS & ANIMALS (They are used by human beings in their natural and religious life as food and sacrifice).
  7. NON-LIVING THINGS (Natural and artificial beings e.g. rain, rivers, mountains, rocks and all other lifeless bodies).

Inter-relationship of all things, living and non-living

  • According to the African view of the universe, all created things depend on each other and God.
  • The universe is viewed in totality of existence.
  • It is also viewed in a religious context.

1. Human Beings and God
Many African myths of creation point to the fact that human beings are dependent on God e.g.

  • They depend on God for the most essential requirements of life e.g. rain, air and sunshine.
  • Are less powerful than God.
  • Must obey God’s laws and commandments.
  • Failure to heed these regulations may lead to punishment.  Those who obey prosper.
  • Must offer sacrifices to God to maintain a good relationship with him.
  • Natural calamities e.g. drought, famine, floods and earthquakes are believed to be controlled by God and are beyond people’s power.

2. Human Beings and animals
Africans believe God gave human beings animals for their use and should handle them responsibly.
The following are the uses of animals to human beings;

  • Domestic animals like cattle, sheep and goats are used for food.
  • Payment of dowry and settlement of disputes.
  • Possession of animals is seen as a sign of prestige and wealth.
  • Skins are used as clothes.
  • Used to make music instruments e.g. drums.
  • Used as sacrifices to God.
  • Used as payment of a fine from an offender to God/ancestors or the offended.
  • Used to predict weather patterns. Some of them are used to communicate the social standards expected of people e.g.

Hyena – Used to discourage cowardice and greed.
Hare    – Used to discourage trickery.
Tortoise – Illustrates the importance of being slow but wise.
Snake  – Not killed by some communities, it is believed to be immortal and that the ancestors may visit the  living from it.

  • Some animals and birds are treated as totems by communities.  Plants and animals are used as a symbol of a family.

3. Human beings and plants
Human beings depend on plants in various ways e.g.

  • Food.
  • Fuel.
  • Construction of buildings.
  • Medicinal purposes.
  • Totems.
  • Pasture.
  • Some trees are used as sacred places of worship.
  • Pasture for their animals.
  • Provision of shelter.

4. Human beings and non-living things

  • Non-living things e.g. rain, rocks, mountains, hills, rivers, moon and sun are given religious significance e.g. rain is a great blessing from God while thunder is seen as God’s movement or voice.
  • Rocks and mountains are viewed as God’s manifestation to humankind and also as dwelling places for the living dead and spirits.  Such places are used for the worship of God and are treated as sacred.
  • Heavenly bodies help human beings to determine times and seasons.
  • Human beings depend on the sun for sunlight during the day and on the moon and stars for light at night.

THE ROLES OF GOD, SPIRITS AND ANCESTORS

1. Roles of God 
Refers to the functions/ roles of God which He plays in the world and peoples’ lives. They include;

  • God cares for his creation and can be invoked in times of need.
  • He is the giver and sustainer of life, provides necessities of life e.g. food, air, water and fire.
  • He protects human beings from evil, e.g. protects the weak and hears the cry of those unjustly treated.
  • He comforts the sorrowful e.g. heals the sick.
  • He is the guardian of moral and ethical order.  He punishes those who do evil.
  • He controls the spirits that are more powerful than humans.
  • He gives order to the universe and controls it.  His activity didn’t end with creation.
  • Gives power to the religious specialists e.g. medicine persons, kings, priests and prophets. He communicates with them through dreams, trances and visions.
  • He answers prayers.

2. The role of Spirits 
Although spirits are invisible, they are believed to play an important role in the lives of the living.  Generally people fear spirits; they are viewed as total strangers to the living. When they appear to humans, people feel disturbed. The roles of spirits include;

  • Some may be manipulated by human beings and cause harm to others e.g. with sickness and death.
  • Spirits can posses religious specialists e.g. medium and diviners and give them important information on how to handle people’s problems.
  • Spirits relay God’s response to human beings.  In return human beings act according to the wishes of God through the spirits.
  • Bad spirits sometimes posses people.
  • Spirits guard sacred places.
  • They intercede for people before God.

3. Roles of ancestors

  • They are believed to appear to the living in various forms e.g. visions/dreams to enquire about the family affairs and to find out what is going on as they’re still part of the family.
  • May cause illnesses or mental disturbances.
  • Give instructions to the family as to what should be done in certain areas affecting it.
  • Rebuke and warn the living of the impending punishment to those who have failed to honour their obligation to them.
  • Request for something like animals to be slaughtered for them.
  • Interact with the living.
  • Act as mediators between the living and God.
  • Inflict punishments on offenders in society.
  • Bless the living members of the family.
  • Avert consequences of curses.
  • Protect human beings against evil.
  • Provide names to new born.
  • Preside over all religious ceremonies in the community.
  • Custodians of African traditional, moral culture and religious values.

RESPONSIBILITY OF THE LIVING TOWARDS GOD, SPIRITS AND ANCESTORS

  • Take care of God’s creation.
  • Obey God’s instructions.
  • Set aside specific places for worship of God.
  • Respect sacred places of worship.
  • Appreciate God’s blessing.
  • Make their request known to God.
  • Worship God.
  • Give their children names of God.
  • Had a duty to share God’s given resources with fellow human beings.

SPIRITS

  • Respect places like shrines which are associated with spiritual manifestation.
  • Appease the spirits by pouring libation to them.
  • Respect and honour the spirits.
  • Protect sacred places.
  • Consult spirits on spiritual matters.
  • Obey the will of the spirits.

ANCESTORS

  • Show respect to them.
  • Address them by their proper names and titles.
  • Pour libation to them.
  • Offer sacrifices to them and give them offerings to appease them.
  • Obey their commands and wishes.
  • Name their children after their ancestors.
  • Build shrines for them.
  • Pray to God through them.
  • Invite them to social functions.
  • Teach their children about their ancestors.
  • Consult them through diviners and medicine people.
  • Praise them through song.

TRADITIONAL AFRICAN WAYS OF WORSHIPING GOD

  • Worship is the means through which human beings communicate with God.
  • Worship may be public or private, formal or informal, communal or individual and direct or indirect.

Places where worship is conducted in African traditional society

  • Under sacred trees e.g. Mugumo tree.
  • On hilltops and rocks.
  • In caves.
  • At riverbanks and on the shores.
  • In the sacred forests.
  • In graveyards
  • At crossroads.
  • In the homes of some religious specialists.

God is worshipped through the following ways;

  • Through sacrifices
  • Through offerings
  • Through singing and dancing
  • Through prayers.
  1. Sacrifices
  1. An animal is slaughtered in honour of God.
  2. It involves the shedding of blood of human beings, animals or birds.
  3. Sacrifices are carefully selected, since they are offered to the creator of the universe.
  4. Animals offered have to be of one color e.g.
  • Black.
  • White.
  • Brown.

They are given back to God as a sign of appreciation of what God has provided for them.

Why sacrifices are made to God, spirits and ancestors

  • To appreciate God as the source of life.
  • To thank God for the blessings to the people.
  • To appease God for the wrongs done.
  • To petition God for help during difficult times.
  • To invite God to participate in family and community functions.
  • To maintain a good relationship
  • To avert evil e.g. drought, famine, floods or epidemics.

Occasions when sacrifices where offered

  1. During rites of passage i.e.
  2. Birth and naming.
  3. Initiation.
  4. Marriage.
  5. Death.
  6. During disasters.
  7. After a good harvest.
  8. During installation of leaders.
  9. During cleansing ceremonies.
  10. During reconciliation ceremonies.
  11. Before going to war.

Note

  • Sacrifices are offered by heads of families, priests, medicine persons.
  • Prayers accompany sacrifices.
  • They are acts of humility before their creator.
  1. Offerings
  • It is another way of worshipping God.
  • It involves the taking of foodstuffs e.g. milk, water or honey and giving them to God.
  • Offerings are carefully selected.
  1. Singing and dancing in worship
  • Songs and dances are performed during communal worship.
  • They are used in praising and thanking God.
  • Songs and dances make the worshipers emotionally connected with God.
  • Songs and dances are accompanied by clapping of hands, drumming and playing musical instruments.
  • They also promote solidarity among the worshippers.
  1. Prayers.
  • They are verbal communications with God.
  • Prayers are mostly short and to the point.
  • Prayers are offered during important religious occasions. They pray in different ways e.g.
    • Kneeling.
    • Standing.
    • Prostrating.
    • Bowing.
    • Facing certain directions.
    • Raising hands.
  1. Invocations – Short formal prayers e.g. “Help me, O God!” or  “O Great God”.
  2. Blessings – Blessings by an elder constitute acts of prayer.  It is believed that the person blessing is doing so on behalf of God.
  3. Salutations – e.g. “Dear God”.

VENERATING AND COMMUNICATING WITH SPIRITS AND ANCESTORS

Veneration refers to the way in which respect and honour is accorded to the ancestors and spirits.
Ways in which traditional African communities demonstrated their respect to ancestors and spirits

  • Pouring libations.
  • Making sacrifices and giving offerings.
  • Naming children after them.
  • Praying to God through them.
  • Addressing them by their proper names and titles.
  • Inviting them to social functions e.g. birth, initiation, and marriage.
  • Teaching children about them.
  • Building shrines.

Communicating

  • Human beings communicate with spirits for a good or bad cause.
  • People communicate with the spirits through the religious specialists e.g. the diviners and mediums.
  •  The religious specialists link human beings to the living world.
  • Mediums and diviners may become spirit possessed through;
  • Sitting quietly in a place.
  • Singing.
  • Dancing.
  • Clapping of hands.
  • Falling into a trance.  The possessed person looses ones senses and becomes the spirit’s instrument.
  • The spirits speaks through the medium and reveals information on issues like finding lost property.mies in the society
  • The spirit may make certain demands on the living.
  • They may advice and give a warning on impending danger.
  • They may make promises of blessing to a given family or clan.

NB: It is the duty of the living to abide by what the spirits wants.

  • Spirits that possess mediums are not harmful.
  • Evil spirits cause harm to those they posses.
  • People communicate with spirits through the following ways;
    • Through divination.
    • Singing and dancing to them.
    • Recitation/ chanting and invoking their names.
    • By making sacrifices to them.
    • By saying prayers.
    • By giving offerings.
    • By giving sacrifices.
    • Through burning incense.

AFRICAN MORAL AND CULTURAL VALUES
1. The meaning of life and its wholeness in the traditional African society

  • In TAS, God is the source of life.
  • Life is a rhythm which recycles itself.
  • There are several dimensions of life i.e.
  • Physical dimensions.
  • Social dimension.
  • Spiritual dimension.
  • Environmental dimension.
  • Physical dimension of life refers to the material state of human beings.
  • Social dimensions comprises of relation of living with others in a community.
  • Spiritual dimensions link human beings with spiritual power e.g. God, spirits andAncestors.
  • Environmental dimension of life is the relation between the physical environment and humans.
  • Life is enhanced through observance of rituals, taboos and regulations.
  • Life is promoted through transitional stages e.g. birth, initiation, marriage and death.
  • It is perpetuated through marriage for the continuation of the community.
  • Death transforms an individual from physical life to the spiritual one.

2. The African concept of community and kinship system

Meaning of a community

  • A community is a group of people occupying one geographical location and guided by common values.
  •  An African community consists of the living, living-dead and the yet to be born.
  • Each community is governed by specific rules, regulations and traditions.
  • Survival of the community depends on God and other spiritual powers.
  • A community believes that it is God who created the first human being.
  • God gave them a place to settle in and responsibilities to fulfill.
  • Leadership is provided by heads of families, elders and religious specialists.
  • Social structure of the community comprises family units which form a clan, and several clans make a community.
  • Members are expected to show concern for one another and foster the common good.
  • The community promotes a sense of belonging and identity for its members thus making individuals feel secure.

African concept of Kinship

  • Kinship refers to relationship between people through blood, marriage or adoption.
  • Kinship ties are strong bonds that exist among community members.
  • Those related by blood have common ancestors.  They feel a strong bond towards each other because they are tied by kinship relationships to one another.

Importance of kinship ties to TAS

  1. They determine how members relate to one another.
  2. They bond together the entire life of a community i.e. the living, the living dead, the unborn.
  3. They assist the people to live together in peace and harmony.
  4. They provide a sense of security to all members at all times.
  5. They regulate marital customs, rules and regulations.
  6. They give an individual a deep sense of belonging identity.
  7. They enable people to face hardship together.
  8. They safeguard the communities’ traditions and customs.
  9. They enhance unity among community members.
  10. They determine punishment for the offenders.
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