African Traditional Beliefs and Development
WCIU Journal: Area Studies Topic
Apr 23, 2018
by Chris Ampadu,
The African lives in a religious universe. Religious tradition influences thoughts and actions, determining practically every aspect of life, including moral behavior (Gyekye 1996, 3-4). In this religious environment there is no distinction between the sacred and secular. Traditional Africans think of the universe as having basically two realms, the visible and the invisible. Within these are three worlds: heaven above (inhabited by the Supreme Being and other special divinities), the world below (inhabited by the ancestors, other divinities, and unnamed spirits), and the physical world of human beings. Although human beings are less powerful, our world is the focus of the spirit world’s attention. In traditional belief, humans are responsible to “maintain the delicate balance in the universe. This is what assures the happiness and prosperity of individuals and the community” (Mentan 2014, 421).
Belief in God and the Deities
Pioneering anthropologists and missionaries often denied that Africans had any awareness or perception of God. But African scholars have firmly established that Africans do have a concept, perception, or awareness of a universal God and Creator (Idowu 1962; Mbiti 1970, 1975). According to tradition, the Creator (known as Olodumare among the Yoruba ) “created everything that exists and set everything in its place” (African Traditions Online Encyclopedia, s.v. “African Traditional Religions and the Promotion of Community-Living in Africa,” http://traditions-afripedia.wikia.com/wiki/AFRICAN_TRADITIONAL_RELIGIONS_AND_THE_PROMOTION_OF_COMMUNITY-LIVING_IN_AFRICA [accessed April 11, 2018]).
However, traditional Africans do not actively worship this Supreme Being who is above the lesser divinities and the hierarchy of beings. This, of course, gives rise to additional questions of why the Supreme Being is not worshiped directly, and who or what takes the role that other religious traditions ascribe to such a Supreme Being in the daily affairs of man.
“Diffused monotheism” is the description given of Yoruba traditional religion by Bolaji Idowu, leader of the Methodist Church Nigeria from from 1972 to 1984 (Idowu 1962). This means that the Yoruba were originally monotheistic, but over the centuries a growing number of lesser divinities replaced the earlier monotheistic beliefs and practices (Turaki 2000). African divinities and ancestors, who are lesser spirit beings, dominate the everyday religious life of traditional Africans. The ancestors receive the sacrifices, offerings, and prayers offered by traditional Africans. In some parts of Africa, the Supreme Being is, however, usually mentioned in prayers, songs, and some religious ceremonies (Turaki 2000). The Supreme Being who is above the lesser gods seems “not to be intimately involved or concerned with man’s affairs and world. Instead, men seek out the lesser powers to meet their desires” (Steyne 1989, 35). This leads people to turn to impersonal powers, divinities, ancestors, and spirit beings for help. God is only mentioned, remembered, or approached occasionally (Turaki 2000).
Belief in the Ancestors
Belief in and reverence for ancestors is an important element of African Traditional Religion—an essential part of the cultural ideal of harmonious living among African peoples. For traditional Africans, community includes both the visible and invisible worlds.
The invisible members, especially ancestors and spiritual beings, are powerful and by far superior to human beings. Their reality and presence in the community are duly acknowledged and honoured among various traditional African groups” (African Traditions Online Encyclopedia, s.v. “African Traditional Religions and the Promotion of Community-Living in Africa,” http://traditions-afripedia.wikia.com/wiki/AFRICAN_TRADITIONAL_RELIGIONS_AND_THE_PROMOTION_OF_COMMUNITY-LIVING_IN_AFRICA (accessed April 11, 2018).
Traditional Africans believe the ancestors, or the living-dead, as John Mbiti calls them (Mbiti 1990, 83), are the spirits of people who lived good lives here on earth, died at a ripe old age, and received the proper funeral rites. These rites are believed to transform the deceased person into an ancestor who then joins the other ancestors in the spirit world (Mentan 2014, 424), while also remaining an important presence in the community, and serving as a link to the rest of the spirit world.
African Leaders: Kings and Chiefs
African society is communal in nature, at both the physical and spirit world levels (Ukagba, Obi, and Nwankwor 2013, 561). Like the hierarchy of divinities in the spirit world, the African traditional physical world has a system of leaders who are meant to help the community achieve its ideal of harmonious living together. “For traditional groups that have sacred kings, such kings are not simply political heads, they are more importantly sacred personages. They possess spiritual and mystical powers which enable them to confer benefits on their people or subjects” (Kalu 2011, 135).
However, just as the spirit world has beings that act against the well-being of people, so it is true with many African leaders. “In Nigeria,” three Nigerian scholars claim, “most of our leaders oppress the very people they vow to uplift. The law makers enact laws that widen the gap between the rich and the poor” (Ukagba, Obi, and Nwankwor 2013, 157).
Implications for Development
“Leadership plays a central role in the maintenance of social order in any society” these scholars go on to say (Ukagba, Obi, and Nwankwor 2013, 157). It is worth noting some observations made by students of African religious traditions about their implications for development. African indigenous cultures and traditions have generally not promoted scientific inquiry and investigation. Instead, the traditional orientation is towards mystical and spiritual explanations. Similarly, though indigenous technologies have existed in Africa, the various societies have generally not promoted the development and adaptation of new technologies. Because African cultures tend to emphasize communalism, the people have a hard time accumulating enough wealth to build large enterprises. This is because their cultural value calls for those who do well financially to share their wealth for the benefit of the family (Gyekye 1997, 276, 287). In addition, Gyekye laments that too much attention is given in African cultures to ancestors, with people looking to them for advice and favors instead of looking progressively to the future (Gyekye 1997, 257).
Gyekye, Kwame. 1996. African Cultural Values: An Introduction. Ghana: Sankofa Publishing.
Idowu, Bolaji. 1962. Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. Ikeja: Longman Nigeria.
Kalu, Hyacinth. 2011. Essays on World Religious Thoughts: A Comparative Study. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse.
Mbiti, John. 1990. African Religions and Philosophy. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Mentan, Tatah. 2014. Africa: Facing Human Security Challenges in the 21st Century. Bamenda, Camaroon: Langaa Research & Publishign Common Initiative Group.
Steyne, P. M. 1999. Gods of Power: A Study of the Beliefs and Practices of Animists. Houston: Touch.
Turaki, Yusufu. 1991. Culture and Modernization in Africa. In Cultural Diversity in Africa; Embarrassment or Opportunity? edited by B. J. Van der Walt, 123-44. Potchefstroom: IRS.
Ukagba, George Uzoma, Des O. Obi, and Iks J. Nwankwor. 2013. The KPim of Social Order: A Season of Social Uprising. USA: Patrick E. Iroegbu/Father Pantaleon Foundation.