Spirit Possession: a return to wholeness?

Sarkin Rafi during a Bori performance in Zaria. Source: (Okagbue, 2008)

This article continues the exploration of spirits in Hausa Animism which was shared in a previous article titled ‘Spirits (Bori/Iskoki) in Hausa Animism‘. In the previous article, we learned that the Hausas believe that spirits were at one point humans who were then condemned to live as spirits, in the unseen world, by god.

The god-made division between the spirit and human siblings had consequences, especially for the human siblings who have to spend much of their lives appeasing their spirit-siblings. The spirit-siblings, according to Sullivan (2005), have had to rely on two main mediums of expressions, “the language of malady, which expresses their displeasure at being ignored or defiled” and “the language of the adept’s body, in which [the] spirits can manifest their otherwise ethereal presence in corporeal form.” Sullivan (2005) argues that spirit possession, or Bori, is a reintegration between the long-separated siblings, which brings about a balance (wholeness) in the wellbeing of the humans who would otherwise be doomed to suffer afflictions.

This piece is an attempt to uncover if and how other belief systems across the continent are similar to Hausa Animism in the belief that humans need to foster relationships with spirits for the sake of their wellbeing and wholeness.

Ngoma: Swahili ( Tanzania)

In Tanzania, spirit possession ceremonies are called Ngoma but, beyond possession rites, they are avenues for the veneration and propitiation of spirits to obtain healing, protection and help to ward off the influence of evil spirits and witchcraft (Giles, 2018). The term Ngoma also refers to various “performance(s), drumming, dancing, celebration, and ritual therapy” (Janzen, 1992). A simple search of the term Ngoma will bring up many results, most of which fail to state that Ngoma is, in fact, first a healing/possession ceremony (Ngoma za kutibu) out of which emerged the now better known and purely entertaining form of the ceremony (Janzen, 1992).

As Janzen (1992) shows in great detail, Ngomas are often an avenue for healing. The typical scenario is this: an individual suffers an ailment of unknown causes, and after a series of consultations with traditional medicine people, it is determined that a specific spirit is responsible for the sickness. At this point, a ceremony holds to appease the spirit. In many cases, the individual becomes an initiate into the cult of the spirit responsible for their ailment.

Ngoma cults have been referred to as “cults of affliction” (Janzen, 1992), perhaps because most new adherents join after being healed from their afflictions. It is worth noting that not all members of these cults suffered ailments before they joined. Both Janzen (1992) and Giles (2018) go into detail about the differences in Ngoma cults across Tanzania. Each region has various spirits they recognize, and in many cases, these spirits are often categorized based on their location (e.g. land and water spirits), their origins (e.g. Kiarabu or spirits of Arab origins, and Kipemba spirits or native Swahili spirits), e.t.c.

So while Ngoma might, in the modern-day, be a form of entertainment, its origins emphasized the role of spirits who are responsible for afflictions from which humans sought healing.

Holle Hori: Songhay (Niger)

The belief in spirits is a central feature in the religious system of the Songhay in Niger. Similar to Swahili, they also have characterizations of spirits based on their origins and some times, race. The more contact they had with foreigners, the more their pantheon of spirits expanded. For instance, the Genji Kwari, or white spirits, were included as they interacted with the Tuareg, who at the time were Islamic dispute arbitrators. Similarly, Hausa spirits (of sickness and death), were included in the Songhay pantheon in the nineteenth century (Stoller, 2010).

The existence of these spirits necessitated a cult of worshippers and possession troupes which often included priests, mediums, singers, and instrumentalists who launched spirit possession ceremonies or Holle Hori and staged rites that allowed the interaction between spirits and humans (Stoller, 2010).

Like in Tanzania, initiates of a particular spirit cult are typically those who have suffered ailments believed to be caused and healed by the spirit a cult is dedicated to. Similarly, and in many cases, it is only after being initiated that the spirit grants reprieve from the afflictions and the new devotee can live in harmony with the spirit. New members into spirit cults are said to “devote a large part of their lives to their spirits; they wear clothes associated with them, make sacrifices to them, and attend possession ceremonies” dedicated to these spirits (Berliner, 2009).

Two Halves of a Whole

Across the spiritual traditions discussed here, we see that humans and spirits seem to have a symbiotic relationship—where the existence of one depends on the other. A thread that connects Bori, Ngoma, and Halle Hori is the belief that humans are each born with an accompanying spirit, who might inflict an affliction on individuals if and when neglected. Any form of healing or respite comes after the spirit has been sought out and appeased. In many cases, these offerings are also initiation rites for the afflicted individual who then becomes a part of the cult dedicated to the spirit that had caused their ailment.

Belief in spirits, as observed in these traditions, have broad implications including. One implication is the conviction that there are forces beyond what human senses can perceive, and that these forces have a locus of influence spanning across every aspect of existence on Earth. As expressed by the fact that most aspects of the natural world have governing spirits, from rain, ailments, trees, animals, rocks and mountains, etc.

In Bori, for instance, we see that totem animals and certain sites (rivers, mountains, hills, trees) are venerated and protected because of their spiritual significance to adherents. As a result of the value placed on these animals and sites, they are often not allowed to be hunted or killed, and the sites are protected because they are holy (Danfulani, 1999).

Another implication of the belief in spirits would be the need to preserve the natural environment while being mindful that the existence of other living things enriches human existence. As seen with Bori, certain animals were sacred because they were totemic spirits, while parts of nature were holy sites because spirits resided there (Danfulani, 1999). Likewise, in Tanzania, we see distinctions between land and water spirits (Janzen, 1992). As a result, it is safe to assume that the behaviour of any people who hold such beliefs would aim at maintaining a balanced relationship with their immediate natural environment because they believe that spirits can and often do, lash out when not propitiated.

Naturally, these implications lead to more questions like, what explanations can be we find in African belief systems for the current state of the world? How would they explain global warming, or the COVID-19 outbreak, or mental health crises, for that matter? Should we be looking to these systems for redemption?

Refrences

Dale, G. (1920). The Peoples of Zanzibar: Their Customs and Religious Beliefs. Universities’ Mission to Central Africa.

Danfulani, U. H. D. (1999). Factors Contributing to the Survival of The Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria. Numen, 46(4), 412–447. https://doi.org/10.1163/1568527991201437

Giles, L. L. (1999). Spirit Possession & the Symbolic Construction of Swahili Society. In H. Heike & U. Luig (Eds.),   Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Power in Africa  . The University of Wisconsin Press.

Giles, L. L. (2018). Translocal Interconnections within the Swahili Spirit World. In F. Declich (Ed.), Translocal Connections across the Indian Ocean Swahili Speaking Networks on the Move. Brill.

Janzen, J. M. (1992). Ngoma Discourses of Healing in Central and Southern Africa. University of California Press. https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft3779n8vf&chunk.id=d0e440&toc.depth=100&toc.id=d0e440&brand=ucpress

Luig, U. (1999). Constructing Local Worlds: Spirit Possession in the Gwembe Valley, Zambia. In H. Behrend & U. Luig (Eds.), Spirit Possession, Modernity, and Power in Africa. The University of Wisconsin Press.

Okagbue, O. (2008). Deviants and Outcasts: Power and Politics in Hausa Bori Performances. New Theatre Quarterly, 24(3), 270–280. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0266464x08000328

Stoller, P. (2010). Fusion of the Worlds. University of Chicago Press.

Sullivan, J. (2005). Exploring Bori as a Site of Myth in Hausa Culture. Journal of African Cultural Studies, 17(2), 271–282. https://doi.org/10.1080/13696850500448378

Skin as Canvas; the cultural relevance of scarification

Sudanese Toposa tribe woman refugee with scarifications on her body, Omo Valley, Kangate, Ethiopia

Finding traces of the earliest humans who modified their skins is tough. The reason being that human flesh, unlike bones and teeth, erodes when buried. Still, pieces of evidence of body modifications have been discovered in parts of the African Continent. An example is the traces of plain-ink tattoos found on mummified corpses of women dating back to about 2000 BCE in Egypt (Winters, 2021). Further south of the Continent, a shred of similar evidence – dating about 12,000 years – of a man with modifications to his lips and cheeks were found and thus revealing one of the earliest pieces of evidence of facial piercings on the Continent (Osborne, 2020).

The practice of body modifications is as perhaps as old as humankind itself. The word tattoo comes from the name for the ancient practice of body modification that prevailed in Polynesia, known as tatu or tatau (Oxford University Press, 2008). While tattoos, piercings, and other lesser-known forms of body modifications, such as scarring, are now practised in modern settings for aesthetics, this has not always been the rationale for them.

Social Skin

Besides the general confusion that once prevailed about the differences between tattooing and scarring (Keefer, 2013), there was a misconception that body modification among indigenous societies was merely a matter of aesthetics and beautification. In his seminal work titled Social Skin, anthropologist Terrence Turner posited that the skin, “as the common frontier of society, the social self, and the psycho-biological individual,” is the “symbolic stage upon which the drama of socialization is enacted” and thus all forms of body modifications are the languages through which this drama [aka, socialization] is expressed (Turner, 1980).

Through Turner’s work, it became clearer that body modification practices held deep cultural and spiritual significance across most societies where they prevailed. It is worth stressing that body modification practices as carried out across various African cultures, and indeed other aboriginal cultures across the world did not necessarily reflect a preoccupation with beauty.

Scarification

Scarring, rather than tattoos, was a more common form of body modification in Africa, particularly in the sub-Saharan region. Anthropologists have rationalized that this was the case because the pigments in tattoos were not as visible on darker skin as they were on lighter skin. Additionally, the formation of keloids on the surface of darker skin after being cut made scarring the preferred method of body modification, even though other forms, such as tattoos, were still being practised in sub-Saharan Africa (Garve et al., 2017).

Across Africa, cultures often have similar practices, yet the beliefs that give these practices meaning tend to differ from each other. Tattoos in southern Mozambique, for instance, were used to define clan and ethnic identity. They later became an act of resistance against colonialists and missionaries (Vaughan, 2007). In northern Nigeria, and specifically among the Ga’anda people of modern-day Adamawa State, women were often the most scarred members of the community. Scars were a rite of passage into womanhood which often began when a girl was about five years old and continued through puberty, eventually culminating when the young woman wedded. The Ga’anda also used scars to communicate with and preserve the spirits of dead relatives (Lathrop, 2018).

Among the Tiv in modern-day Benue State, the practice of scarring is explained using the “non-adaptive sexually selected character” theory. This theory explains that scars were “intended to stimulate and attract potential sexual partners” (Garve et al., 2017). So far, there seems to be a dearth of resources that provide an alternative explanation to the extensive scarring practices observed in Benue. It is worth considering that Tiv scars might have served other mythic and spiritual purposes because the objects inscribed on the skin were often animals (scorpions, birds, chameleons etc.) revered for specific characteristics (Bohannan, 1956).  

An Endangered Language

Like languages spoken and written across the Continent, the practice of scarring, and other forms of modification were a means of communication that required symbols to be etched to the surface of the skin. Of course, only the members of an ethnic group could understand the symbolism behind the marks they placed on their bodies. As Schildkrout puts it, “to understand it [body art], one needs to know the vocabulary, including the shared symbols, myths, and social values that are written on the body.”

Among the Ga’anda, it was easy to tell, without necessarily being told, the phase of development girls had reached based on the extent of their scars. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Luba women were revered as spirit mediums and those among them who had had children were considered strong enough to be possessed. For this reason, many Luba women received scars so that they could be identified as mediums or potential mediums waiting to be possessed (Pitt Rivers Museum Body Arts, 2011). Scars were thus symbols that communicated to spirits that a woman was willing and ready to be possessed. Similarly, the Luluwa people of the DRC used scars to communicate their desire to be bound to this world. For the Luluwa, scars beautified the body and beautifying the body was a person’s signal to their soul that they were willing to remain bound to earth and their physical body (Lathrop, 2018).

While scarring practices were important aspects of culture in various parts of the Continent, they have gradually declined. This can largely be attributed to Western influence across African societies. The pressure to modernize, which is connected to colonization and missionary expeditions across the Continent, has largely influenced the decline in body modification practices (Vaughan, 2007). Early European observers and those who took part in the transatlantic slave trade were also responsible for modifying the meanings of the scars and their perception as primitive (Vaughan, 2007).  

Subsequently, the emergence of governments that tended to replicate those in imperialist states further urged the decline in scarring practices and body modifications. In Nigeria, for instance, the Child’s Rights Act (2003), which prohibits the permanent marking and tattooing of children, is the justification for the refusal to scar children (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2013). Furthermore, arguments that body modification practices were unsafe and often resulted in infectious diseases, such as hepatitis and HIV, were also made and used to discourage the practice (Garve et al., 2017).

A Glimpse of Hope

Although scarification is no longer as widely practised as it was, it persists among some groups on the Continent. In Nigeria, for instance, scarring and other body modification practices are still prevalent among communities in rural and remote areas of the country where it is hard to enforce government laws (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2013). Similarly, across the border from Nigeria, in the Benin Republic, to be precise, the practice of scarification persists among a small group in Ouidah who are keen on preserving their cultural heritage (BBC, 2014).

Further east of the Continent, between Sudan and Ethiopia, parts of Tanzania, and Uganda, there are groups of peoples (Surma, Bodi, Afar, Nuer, Karrayyu, Menit, Datoga, etc.) who continue to practice scarification extensively. The scars and process of scarification of some of these groups have been recently documented by the French photographer Eric Lafforgue, whose work can be found here.


Work Cited

BBC. (2014, June 16). Why Some People Want Facial Scars. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-27412311

Bohannan, P. (1956). Beauty and Scarification Amongst the Tiv. Man, 56, 117–121. 10.2307/2794969

Garve, R., Garve, M., Türp, J. C., Fobil, J. N., & Meyer, C. G. (2017). Scarification in sub-Saharan Africa: social skin, remedy and medical import. Trop Med Int Health, 22(6), 708–715. 10.1111/tmi.12878

Keefer, K. H. B. (2013). Scarification and identity in the liberated Africans department register, 1814–1815. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne Des Études Africaines, 47(3), 537–553. 10.1080/00083968.2013.832337

Lafforgue, E. (n.d.). Scary Scars. Eric Lafforgue. Retrieved August 28, 2021, from http://www.ericlafforgue.com/storage/files/pages/Scarifications.pdf

Lathrop, C. (2018, November). Scarification, Femininity, and the Decline of the Mark of Civilizations. https://africanreligions.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/c0a69-scarification2cfemininity2candthedeclineofthemarkofcivilizations.pdf

Osborne, H. (2020, January 29). Earliest Evidence Of Facial Piercing In Africa Discovered In 12,000-year-old Skeleton. Newsweek ; Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/earliest-facial-piercing-africa-ancient-skeleton-1484600

Oxford University Press. (2008, March 19). Traditional Polynesian Tattooing | OUPblog. OUPblog. https://blog.oup.com/2008/03/polynesian_tattoo/

Pitt Rivers Museum Body Arts. (2011). Scarification In The Congo Region. http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/index.php/permanent-body-arts/scarification/178-scarification-in-the-congo-region.html

Turner, T. S. (1980). The Social Skin. In R. Lewin (Ed.), Not Work Alone: A Cross-cultural View of Activities Superfluous to Survival (pp. 112–140). Temple Smith. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.14318/hau2.2.026

United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). (2013, December 30). Refworld | Nigeria: The Practice Of Tribal Markings On Male Children, Including Groups That Engage In The Practice; Whether The Parents Of A Child Can Refuse To Have The Practice Carried Out, Including Consequences Of Such A Refusal; State Protection Available (2012-2013). Refworld. https://www.refworld.org/docid/546dc28a4.html

Vaughan, M. (2007). Scarification in Africa. Cultural and Social History, 4(3), 385–400. 10.2752/147800407×219269

Winters, J. (2021, February 8). A Brief History Of African Body Markings. Amplify Africa. https://www.amplifyafrica.org/post/a-brief-history-of-african-body-markings

Moon as Mother

Symbol of Nyame Amowia

Many well-known myths across the world attest that the creation of the universe was undertaken by a singular supreme being who often is male or has been largely characterized as having male attributes. In many of these creation stories, the sun is often considered the physical representation of the genitor god and creator of the universe (Diop, 2019). However, in some lesser-known origin stories, the creator of the Universe is believed to be feminine and her physical representation is in the world is the moon.

A few traditional African belief systems fall under this lesser-known group that attribute the creation of the Universe to a feminine deity. This article shares some these creation stories from West Africa where the creation of the universe is attributed to a genitrix deity.

Nyame Amowia (Akan, Ghana)

The story of Nyame Amowia was introduced in a previous article where her role as the giver of life (souls) was emphasized. However, Nyame Amowia is also the creator of the entire Universe and everything in it. This genitrix deity is also known by different names, most of which indicate some of her attributes, including Amosu, “Giver of Rain”; Amowia, “Giver of the Sun”, and Amaomee “Giver of Plenitude” (Atlanta University Center, 2020). Nyame has been referred to as “the great deity of the Akan; a self-begotten, self-produced, and self-born, [who is] at once both male and female, the Supreme Being” (Danquah, 1952).

According to Danquah (1952), Nyame Amowia separated her masculine and feminine aspects and “crystallized” her spiritual power in her soul which bears her masculine side and is represented by the sun, also known to the Akan as the deity Nyankopon. Nyame herself is personified by the moon and represented on earth by the queen-mother (Danquah, 1952). While there are accounts that stress that Nyame is in fact a male deity, it was worth noting that the belief that Nyame is female gives credence to the fact that the Akan is a matrilineal society.

Nana Bukulu (Fon, Benin)

Nana Buluku is the deity and Supreme Being of the Fon people in who from the modern-day Benin Republic. However, Nana Buluku is not directly involved with the affairs of human beings. She is believed to have created the Universe and put it under the charge of her two progenitors, Mawu and Lisa both of whom are said to have absorbed the nature of the Nana Buluku. Often referred to as “MawuLisa,” these two children of Nana Bukulu lead a pantheon of sky deities with Mawu, embodied as the moon and possessing female attributes, and Lisa, embodied as the sun with male attributes. (Ikenga-Metuh, 1982).

Mawu, the female counterpart of the sky deities, is believed to embody other attributes including fertility, motherhood, gentleness, forgiveness, rest, and joy. It is also this deity who the Fon believe was tasked with creating the world, a task Mawu seems to have carried out singlehandedly. In the narration of the creation myth as described by Ikenga-Metuh (1982), it was Mawu who formed the first human beings from clay and water, however, after creation humans were blind and helpless so Mawu sent Lisa (the sun) to give light to the earth (Ikenga-Metuh, 1982).

Across borders in Ghana, Mawu was once worshipped as the supreme deity among the Ewe people. Mawu was known by herself in this region without her accompanying sibling, Lisa, as was known to the Fon. According to Greene (2002), Mawu’s significance as the supreme being had waned significantly by the 19th century largely because the economic activity shifted from the Ewe region where Mawu reigned as supreme being to other regions of the Gold Coast (Greene, 2002).

Woyengi (Ijaw, Nigeria)

The Ijaw people of modern-day southern Nigeria believe that Woyengi – a name that translates to “great mother” – is the sole creator of the earth. While she is the only deity presented here who has not been associated with the moon,  Woyengi is believed to have descended on earth through a bolt of lightning. It is said that she stood on the edge of the universe and observed Earth filled with animals and vegetation but without humans. Using the mud from the earth, Woyengi is said to have created human dolls who were neither male nor female and afterwards, she filled their lungs with the breath of life (Asante & Mazama, 2009).

The Ijaw believe that each doll Wonyegi created was given a chance to choose their gender (male or female), the kind of blessings they wished to receive, and their occupations. Woyengi did not give a chance for the humans she created to change their minds after they chose genders, professions, and material blessings. For this reason, she came to be known as the goddess of destiny (Asante & Mazama, 2009).

Moon as a Symbol of Femininity

The analogy between women (femininity) and the moon is a feature of many cultures across the world. This connection is perhaps prevalent because of how the menstrual cycle often imitates the lunar cycle (Diop, 2019). There is another school of thought that connects the feminization of the moon to various gods of water who are often described as passive and continuous (Diop, 2019). While the latter assessment of feminine gods as passive may hold in some cultures, it is worth noting that there is nothing passive about the feminine deities whose stories have been narrated here. These deities are quite non-passive such that their adherents attribute the creation of the entire world to them.

It is also worth noting that across cultures, some feminine deities have been usurped by masculine gods. This has often led to inaccuracies in the documentation of their stories (Diop, 2019). An example is the story of Nyame Amowia, some accounts this deity (see: Edsman, 1955) ascribe masculine attributes to her, however, the fact that the Akan is a matrilineal group might be what gives credibility to the feminine attributes of this deity.

The gender attributes of deities in African Traditional Religions might seem to be trivial when taken at face value, however, gender, as many of us can attest, often determines status in society, among other profound effects. Now, imagine what assigning gender, or even misattributing it, can do for a god its believers.

Sources:

  • Asante, M. K., & Mazama, A. (Eds.). (2009). Encyclopedia of African religion. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE.
  • Atlanta University Center. (2020, July 16). Traditional African Religions: Akan. Atlanta University. Retrieved May 29, 2021, from https://research.auctr.edu/c.php?g=404402&p=2752856
  • Danquah, J. B. (1952). The Culture of Akan. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 22(4), 360–366. Retrieved May 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1156919
  • Diop, I. S. (2019). African Mythology, Femininity, and Maternity. Springer Nature.
  • Edsman, C.-M. (1955). The Sacral Kingship / La Regalità Sacra. Rome, Italy: BRILL.
  • Greene, S. E. (2002). Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter. Indiana University Press.
  • Ikenga-Metuh, E. (1982). Religious Concepts in West African Cosmogonies: A Problem of Interpretation. Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 13 (1982)(1), 11–24. Retrieved May 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581115

The Yoruba Religion Reader

The Yoruba traditional religion is one of few African religious systems that are known worldwide and have adherents outside of the African Continent. Perhaps, as a result of its popularity outside of the Continent, this African religious system has been the subject of many scholarly articles and books. So much has been written about the traditional belief system of the Yorubas that it almost borders on redundancy to attempt to write something new. For this reason, rather than attempt to create something where so much has been said and done, I have chosen instead to share a list of some articles and books which might be useful to anyone who is curious about the Yoruba belief system.

This list will be updated with new material on the subject periodically. Additionally, if there are any books and scholars you would like to see listed here, please send an email to atreligions@gmail.com.

List of Resources

Abimbola, Wande. Ifá: An Exposition of Ifá Literary Corpus. Oxford University Press, 1976.

Beier, Ulli. Yoruba Myths. CUP Archive, 1980.

Epega, David Onadele. The Mystery of Yoruba Gods. Imọlẹ Oluwa Institute, 1931.

Falola, Toyin, and Ann Genova, editors. Orisa: Yoruba Gods and Spiritual Identity in Africa and the Diaspora. Africa World Press, 2005.

Idowu, E. Bolaji. Olódùmarè: God in Yoruba Belief. Longmans, 1962.

Karade, Ifa. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. Weiser Books, 1994.

Olupona, Jacob K. “The Study of Yoruba Religious Tradition in Historical Perspective.” Numen, vol. 40, no. 3, 1993, pp. 240–73. Brill, doi:10.1163/156852793×00176.

Olupona, Jacob K., and Rowland O. Abiodun, Editors. Ifa Divination, Knowledge, Power, and Performance. Indiana University Press, 2016.

Olupona, Jacob K., and Terry Rey, editors. Orisa Devotion as World Religion: The Globalization of Yoruba Religious Culture. University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.

Omosade Awolalu, J. “Yoruba Sacrificial Practice.” J Religion Afr, vol. 5, no. 2, 1973, pp. 81–93. Brill, doi:10.1163/157006673×00069.

Oyèláràn, Ọlásopé O. “Èṣù and Ethics in the Yorùbá World View.” Africa, vol. 90, no. 2, Cambridge University Press (CUP, pp. 377–407, doi:doi: 10.1017/s0001972019001098.

Pemberton, John. “Eshu-Elegba: The Yoruba Trickster God.African Arts, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1975, p. 20. JSTOR, doi:10.2307/3334976.

Staewen, Christoph. Ifa–African Gods Speak: The Oracle of the Yoruba in Nigeria. Edited by Friderun Schönberg, Lit Verlag, 1996.

Of Cycles, and What Happens When We Die

Owuo Atwedee, the Adrinka symbol known as “ladder of death”, representing man’s mortality

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere just marked the Vernal Equinox. This is the day the Sun crosses the equator and begins traveling towards the Southern part of the globe. Having spent the last six months in darkness (think shorter days, winter), the Vernal Equinox marks the beginning of Spring in the Northern Hemisphere. The keenly observant will notice more hours of sunlight, aka, longer days. 

As one part of the world embraced more light, another part begins to experience its absence. The Southern Hemisphere also just marked the beginning of Autumn, a period which is largely characterized by long nights and shorter days. 

In African traditional thought, it is believed that our lives, and indeed death, are continuous events not unlike the cycles we observe in nature such as the beginning of Spring and Autumn which both occur at the same time but mean and look different depending on which side of the equator one finds themselves. 

Death is perceived not as an ending, rather, as a continuation of a cycle that began before we materialized in this realm and will continue long after our souls have taken flight from it. The beliefs of the Akan, a group now predominantly in modern-day Ghana, put this in perspective. 

From Nyame We Came… 

According to the Akan, our lifeforce (soul) comes from the genitrix deity and creator of the universe, Nyame Amowia, whose physical manifestation is the moon. It is believed that a child is born after it receives the life force, known as Kra, given by the Sun deity, Nyankopon, who acts on behalf of Nyame Amowia. Sometimes a child might receive the Kra of an ancestor who failed in a previous life to be a good human. Nyankopon condemns such a person’s soul to perpetual reincarnation until a descendant reincarnated on earth attains good spiritual standing. It is only then that the soul can once again become one with Nyame’s eternal Kra (Meyerowitz, 1951).

The Kra is often mistaken with a closely related concept known as the Honhom which translates to “breath.” The Akan are known to say “ne honhom ko,” when a person passes away. This translates to, “his breath is gone.” Alternatively, they say “nekra afi ne ho,” translating to “his soul has withdrawn from his body” (Frimpong, 2011). 

…To Nyame We Shall Return

While the statements above are similar, Kra and Honhom are two distinguishable concepts. Honhom, breath, inadvertently symbolizes the presence of Kra in any living human being. Consequently, when a person dies (stops breathing), it is said that the Honhom leaves, and, logically, the Kra is also believed to have departed from the body (Danquah, 1952).

After death, it is said that the Honhom flies back, in the shape of a bird, to the mother and creator of the universe, Nyame. The soul, however, is left to labor up a steep hill until it reaches Nyankopon who will then judge and determine if the soul has to return (reincarnate) to earth, or if it can proceed to become one with the Nyame. 

The Dead are Never Dead

According to Okwu (1979), in African traditional thought, the physical plane of existence where humans inhabit and the spiritual plane are essentially two sides of the same coin. As such, life on earth can be explained as the side of the coin where the soul, “the seed of the creator” is seen to exist in a conscious, physical, and integrated union with the material body. Consequently, across various African belief systems, death is not regarded as the end of existence, rather as the ultimate rite of passage each human being has to go through (Okwu, 1979).

The belief in a spiritual plane of existence – unseen, untouched, and inaccessible to us humans – fuels ancestral veneration, or what many Western scholars have inaccurately referred to as “ancestral worship.” Okwu (1979) states: “the members of the supernatural world are regarded as an integral part of the material world. This implies that in important human social functions, such as marriages, birth and naming ceremonies, initiation, and healing, the opinions and/or approval of the members of the spirit plane are not merely invoked and observed; their participation and benediction are also requested.” (Okwu, 1979). 

John Mbiti, a foremost scholar of African religions, asserts that even the language used when talking about death and dying across various parts of the Continent often implies a sort of home-going for the departed. This is also indicated by various customs and rituals which can be observed during funerals. For example, various groups across the Continent are known for burying their dead with various paraphernalia and household items such as food, stools, tobacco, clothing, etc. These items are believed to be needed on the journey to the next world (Mbiti, 1970).

So What?

Across the Continent, many beliefs are cyclical rather than linear in nature. This means that many cultures hold the belief that life has no end; like the sun, our souls continue to move in a cyclical motion. We are a part of the divine before we are born and when our breath and soul leave our physical bodies, they continue to journey on a path that ultimately leads back to the creator. As Mbiti (1970) says: “death is death and the beginning of a permanent ontological departure of the individual from mankind to spirithood.”

Sources

Danquah, J. B. (1952). The Culture of Akan. Africa22(4), 360–366. 10.2307/1156919

Frimpong, A. D. (2011, December 1). Purity And Impurity: Menstruation And Its Impact On The Role Of Akan Women In The Church. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. https://research.vu.nl/en/publications/purity-and-impurity-menstruation-and-its-impact-on-the-role-of-ak

Mbiti, John. S. (1970). African religions & philosophy. Heinemann.

Meyerowitz, E. L. R. (1951). Concepts of the Soul among the Akan of the Gold Coast. Africa21(1), 24–31. 10.2307/1156155

Okwu, A. S. O. (1979). Life, Death, Reincarnation, and Traditional Healing in Africa. Issue: A Journal of Opinion9(3), 19. 10.2307/1166258

Fang Fire Beliefs, Customs, and Rituals

African fire rituals and customs can be traced as far back as the oldest human ancestors known to man. The San people in South Africa trace their ancestry to at least 20,000 years ago, and their fire rituals can possibly be traced as far back as their ancestors. The San have two main fire rituals: the “great ‘medicine or healing dance” and the “rain dance.” During both ceremonies, dancers would move clockwise around a fire with the men dancing first and the women following after. As the intensity of the dance increased, dancers were believed to transcend into the spirit world where they either interceded for the sick or asked the spirits to send rain. It wasn’t uncommon to see San fire dancers walk through fire without feeling pain or getting burned in their transcended state.

Similarly, elsewhere on the continent, in West Africa precisely, fire dancers are also able to achieve similar feats. In certain Togolese fire ceremonies, participants can be seen placing hot embers in their mouths while others attempt to put out flaming torches with theirs. Very much like the San in the southern African region, the Tem people of Togo mark their fire ceremonies with music and dancing often culminating in a state of trance during which they are also able to achieve unusual feats with fire.

As with all of the elements in our natural environment, fire served and continues to serve, various functions in the customs and practices of many African religions. This piece focuses on the beliefs, customs, and rituals, of fire as it expressed and lived by the Fang people of Western Africa.

Origin of the Fang

The Fang (aka Fãn) are said to have migrated from north-west Africa during the 18th and 19th centuries. They currently inhabit regions in southern Cameroon; mainland Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon. As a result of their movement across wide distances and locations, the traditional practices and beliefs of the Fang evolved from what was largely a single belief and cultural system to diverse cultural systems and languages. There are at least five different languages that have been identified as belonging to the Fang group of languages. As a result, many people could identify as being Fang, however, the languages they speak would differ. 

Fang Fire Symbolisms 

In the Fang belief system, the Sun is regarded as the father (tata) of all heat and thus from whom humans receive fire (Bennett, 1899). Perhaps as a result of this, fire is one of four elements (including the moon, sun, and water) that are venerated among the Fang. These four elements were believed to be represented by specific animals and the animals themselves later became objects of worship alongside the elements in their cults. For instance, the black-backed horned antelope stood for the moon (horned creatures, in any case, were associated with the equatorial crescent moon); the elephant stood for water; the gorilla stood for fire; the cock stood for the sun (Fernandez, 1982). 

Among the Fang, fire is known and used for its cleansing power. Once a year all fires in Fang villages are put out and during that time, the entire village is swept and all the trash is dumped in the forest. Once this is done, the fires are then lit in an act that signals a new beginning for the entire village. 

Another ritual observed among the Fang involves the wives of recently deceased men. After their period of mourning is complete, Fang widows are required to cross burning flames while being flogged. This act is believed to serve two purposes: first, as a method of purifying women after a period of grieving; and secondly,  as an initiation process into a supposedly new path which these women would have to now walk (Bennett, 1899). 

Fang Religious Societies

Religious cults and groups were also a prominent feature in Fang societies and fire played a prominent role in two of them. 

Bwiti

Bwiti has been referred to as a politico-religious society that emerged from Fang religious customs and traditions. It is an animistic religious system based on a belief in spirits and ancestral veneration. The belief system has since syncretized with Christianity and there are now Bwiti churches in Gabon where Christian and traditional Bwiti rituals are performed side-by-side. For example, the use of a spiritual herb and hallucinogenic (known as Iboga) during Catholic Masses (BBC, 2014). 

Being an offshoot of Fang traditional beliefs, Bwiti has certain fire rituals that are similar and might seem to imitate Fang fire rituals. Among Bwiti practitioners, for instance, the practice of cleansing the village with fire, as previously described, happens once a week rather than once a year. However, in the Bwiti belief system, the cleanse is a celebration that lasts all night long and is often marked in remembrance of the creation of the world and the creation of mankind. 

Bwiti practitioners also equate stars to fire and one of the common beliefs is that falling (shooting) stars represent a birth that has just taken place or a soul (fire) that has taken up residence of life in a being here on earth. Similarly, it is believed that when a person dies, the fire that is their soul returns to the place it came from. 

Ngi Cult

Ngi is Fang for gorilla and as earlier stated, gorillas are the animal representation of fire. The Ngi Cult was popular across Fang societies was often referred to as the Gorilla Cult or the Cult of Fire (Fernandez, 1982). The cult was largely male-based and was tasked with maintaining law and order within Fang communities. It was also a powerful ‘anti-witchcraft cult’ that mainly thrived during the late pre-colonial and early colonial periods. The leader of the cult had the power to navigate both the physical and spirit worlds and was thus able to strike sorcerers (Cinnamon, 2012).

The symbolism of the gorilla as the totem animal of the Ngi Cult ties back to it being the representation of fire which, as we have seen so far, is an element that cleanses and infuses beings with life. It is thus plausible that the Ngi Cult was responsible for cleansing Fang societies off sorcerers who used their powers for evil, as well as maintaining law and order while protecting lives and property. 

Post Script

Beyond its typical domestic uses, fire lights up our lives, and according to Bwiti practitioners, it is the very stuff that gives us life. Many modern African countries do not have room for the rituals and beliefs of fire as described here, yet, fire is still a potent element that we continue to go back to. Whether during uprisings as a way to express our anger at the state of things, or in customary bush burning to prepare the ground for yet another period of farming, fire continues to retain its power as an element that not only keeps us alive but also purifies us, collectively and individually. 

Traditional African Religion and Social Resistance Movements

October 2020 will be remembered for a long time as a pivotal moment of change in the history of Nigeria. The fact that the country marked the 60th anniversary of its independence in the same month is perhaps a mere coincidence with the uprising that occurred days later. Though an intimation with the nature of colonial trauma, the inherited vestiges of disdain and disregard for African lives that police brutality and other malaise signify, instruct us that perhaps the 60th independence of Nigeria was in fact a catalyst for the uprising.

Whichever way you look at it though, no one could have anticipated that it was at this important point in the history of Nigeria that Nigerian youths would rise in unprecedented numbers to demand an end to years of police brutality, as well as accountability from leaders, and a truer and more creatively imagined independence from a colonial hierarchy of being.

The resistance in Nigeria is one of many that have occurred across the continent in the year 2020, even though the world had been brought to its knees by a pandemic. In South Africa alone, a total of 511 protests were recorded from 27 March to 31 July 2020. Namibians, particularly women, were also out on the streets in the same period as the Nigerian protests demanding an end to widespread gender-based violence. Meanwhile, in Mali, we saw thousands march in the street to demand an end to poor leadership.

The year 1960 is referred to as The Year of Africa because, in that year, at least 17 African nations became independent from their colonial rulers. These countries all have interesting stories about the movements, and in many cases, the resistances, that led to their independence and the fact that a wave of movements and resistances are being witnessed exactly 60 years later can seem to be more than a coincidence.  Social resistance is nothing new in Africa, however, the fact that we have better tools to organize, report, fundraise and support each other across borders and physical barriers, is perhaps what has made some of these movements as monumental as they have ever been.

In keeping with the theme of resistance, this piece takes a look at how elements of two African belief systems influenced two major social resistance movements in colonial Africa.

The Chimurenga Resistance (Zimbabwe, 1896-1897)

In any social movement, religion can either be a catalyst or an inhibitor. These roles are represented by Max Weber’s notion of a “proactive religion” which can lead to socio-economic transformation; and Karl Marx’s notion of a passive religion, where he famously describes it as the “opium of the people” and consequently incapable of bringing about any kind of social change within oppressive systems.

The story of the Chimurenga Resistance exemplifies how religion and religious elements can serve as catalysts for social change. Chimurenga is attributed to the Shona people and can be translated as “revolutionary struggle” or “uprising”.

Like many colonized countries on the continent, the colonization of Zimbabwe happened through a web of deceit and violence perpetrated by the British South African Company in the early 1890s. The British South African Company employed a specific method of divide and conquer, or indirect rule,  which has been attributed to Fredrick Lugard.

The indirect rule sought to outlaw spirit mediums and rely solely on traditional rulers to help establish colonial authority within colonies. The system employed local chiefs to serve as ‘mouthpieces’ and ‘right hands’ (Fields, 1985), on behalf of colonizers who sought to control the chiefs for the ultimate aim of controlling the people. However, the colonizers failed to consider the fact that across many African societies, there isn’t typically a separation between the political, social and religious aspects of life and this meant that spirit mediums, known as n’angas, were just as powerful and influential as traditional chiefs (Kaoma, 2016).

To establish the dominion of chiefs over their localities, the colonizers outlawed n’angas and this set the stage for the influential roles spirit mediums played during what is now known as the First Chimurenga. According to Kaoma (2016), the attempt to outlaw spirit mediums and to denounce witchcraft and superstitions also created a social crisis which resulted in an undermining of the authority of chiefs whom themselves depended on spirit mediums for their authority.

Expulsion from their ancestral lands and imposed taxes further compounded the grievances that the Shona and Ndebele had against their colonizers. So, between 1896 and 1897, the Shona and the Ndebele communities, through the help of n’angas, violently rebelled against the British South African Company.

The rebellion was led by spirit mediums who were adherents of the Mwari Deity or ancestral cult. The mediums who communicated with Mawri and channelled the deity’s messages to the community were mainly women and Kaoma (2016) emphasized the fact that Mwari’s voice was a woman to highlight the important role women played within the belief system as well as the resistance movement.

The deity Mawri is quoted as attributing various misfortunes including severe drought, a locust invasion, disease in cattle and violent deaths to the arrival of colonizers. The deity thus called for the Shona and Ndebele people to “go and kill these white people and drive them out of our father’s land and I Mwari will take away the cattle disease and the locusts and send you rain.” (Daneel 1970, as cited in Kaoma, 2016).

With that, the spiritual leader, known as Mlimo, led nearly 2,000 warriors to fight against the British. It is said that the power of the Ndebele warriors peaked during the full moon and with that knowledge, their first attack was carried out on the night of March 29, 1896, beneath a full moon.

Eventually, the leaders of the rebellion were conquered and sentenced to death by the British, however, they were evoked by nationalist leaders and adherents of the Mawri deity to mobilize support for the Second Chimurenga which eventually led to the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 (Kamao, 2016).

The Majimaji War (Tanzania, 1904-1908)

The Majimaji War saw Tanzanians rise in resistance against colonization by Germany. Leaving an estimated 100 to 300,000 southern Tanzanians dead, it has been described as one of the most catastrophic wars of colonial Africa (Rushohora, 2019). Like in Zimbabwe a decade earlier, the Majimaji resistance was initiated by a spirit medium named Kinjekitile Ngwale. The resistance was a result of frustration with years of German colonization which featured forced labor, torture, and unfair tax systems. 

Ngwale, described as being possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo, was able to mobilize various groups to take part in the uprising. He was a powerful medicine man who gained popularity in the years leading up to the war. As word spread about him, people began traveling to see him as it was widely believed that his medicine provided several benefits including good health and harvest. However, most notably, Nwgale was popular for claiming to have found a way to repel German bullets. His secret was healing water which he referred to as Majimaji, and could “give invulnerability, acting in such a way that enemy bullets would fall from their targets like raindrops from a greased body.”

A study analyzing the coordination of the Majimaji resistance emphasizes the role of “witchcraft” in coalescing various groups of people to struggle against a common enemy (Iliffe, 1967). According to John Iliffe (1967), the group of mediums led by Ngwale were most likely the religious counterparts of the mediums responsible for the Chimerunga Resistance years earlier. However, the mediums in Tanzania were adherents of a serpent deity and were referred to as the Kolelo cult and believed to have possessed supernatural elements including mediumship, possession, and command over death  (Iliffe, 1967).

Tanzanian warriors, armed only with arrows, spears, and Majimaji water, thus launched an offensive against the Germans, first attacking small outposts, before spreading throughout the colony. Eventually, the Majimaji War involved 20 different ethnic groups all fighting towards dispelling German colonizers.

The Role of Religion in Modern Resistance Movements

In a modern, increasingly globalized and multicultural world, what role can religion play in resistance movements such as the #EndSARS or #BlackLivesMatter movements?

Nepstad & Williams (2007) argue that religion provides important organizational resources including networks of members, meeting spaces, fund-raising capacities, leadership, and free spaces to promote the development of organizing skills, etc. However, beyond these, religious institutions can also offer theological and ideological critiques of existing social issues such as the wanton killings and brutalization of people by agents of the state. Even within multicultural societies where there might be an absence of a unifying ‘Cultural Religion’ (the overlap between cultural and religious elements (Nepstad & Williams, 2007), extant religious institutions can still render themselves useful to modern resistance movements.

However, whether or not existing religious institutions are willing to lend their voices to resistance movements is another area of inquiry entirely. If the response of religious institutions in Nigeria to the  #EndSARS movement is any indication, then it can safely be concluded that religious institutions, or at least those in Nigeria, cannot be expected to fully and outrightly support resistance movements. This conclusion is largely drawn from the loud silence that has emanated out of the pulpits of some of the world’s largest megachurches based in Nigeria.

Asides from mega-pastors and churches, other religious entities have also been largely mute during the #EndSARS movement. The Association of Nigerian Witches and Wizards, known to have declared its support in 2014 during the fight against Boko Haram, has largely been quiet. So has the Muslim religious body in Nigeria.

So What?

As seen with the Chimurenga and Majimaji movements, a shared cultural religion was pivotal in bringing together different groups which collectively participated in both movements. However, and perhaps, largely due to the suppression of African religions, we are likely never to see a similar uprising as either the Chimurenga or the Majimaji which were both entirely inspired and dependent on various aspects of the prevailing African belief systems.

Still, there are various concepts from African religions that can inspire modern resistance movements, after all, as John Mbiti has asserted, Africans’ belief in God has always engendered a moral response which has directed moral life and interaction long before the first European settlers came with their religions and philosophies.

Sources

  1. Beverton, A. (2009, June 21). Maji Maji Uprising (1905-1907). https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/maji-maji-uprising-1905-1907/#:~:text=A%20prophet%E2%80%94Kinjikitile%20Ngwale%E2%80%94emerged,against%20the%20Germans%2C%20attacking%20atBritish
  2. Broadcasting Corporation. (n.d.). The Story Of Africa| BBC World Service. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from  http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/features/storyofafrica/11chapter7.shtml
  3. Emory University. (2016). The Maji Maji Rebellion | Violence In Twentieth Century Africahttps://scholarblogs.emory.edu/violenceinafrica/sample-page/the-maji-maji-rebellion-2/
  4. Hay, M. (2014, October 28). The Association Of Nigerian Witches And Wizards Is Helping To Fight Boko Haram. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/5gkqnn/the-association-of-nigerian-witches-and-wizards-is-a-thing-and-they-are-helping-fight-boko-haram
  5. Ikechukwu, P. (2019, February 21). The Essence Of African Traditional Religion. Church Life Journal. https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/the-essence-of-african-traditional-religion/
  6. Iliffe, J. (1967). The Organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion. J. Afr. Hist.8(3), 495–512. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0021853700007982
  7. Nepstad, S. E., & Williams, R. H. (2007). Religion in Rebellion, Resistance, and Social Movements. In J. A. Beckford & N. J. Demerath III (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. SAGE. https://sk.sagepub.com/reference/hdbk_socreligion
  8. Rushohora, N. A. (2019). Facts and Fictions of the Majimaji War Graves in Southern Tanzania. Afr Archaeol Rev36(1), 145–159. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10437-019-09324-2

Spirits (Bori/Iskoki) in Hausa Animism

In the Beginning God Created Iskoki

According to the Mawri people of Dogondoutchi in The Niger Republic, in the beginning, God created a man and woman who procreated and bore fifty sets of twin babies. God was pleased and wanted to marvel at children and so asked the man and woman to see them up close, however, doubting God’s motive, the woman told her husband to hide the better-looking twin from each set in a cave. Knowing what they had done and displeased by it, God decided to punish the man and woman by cursing the children who were hidden in the cave. These children were cursed to disappear (become spirits) and remain in the unseen world, forever invisible to their parents and siblings, yet, dependent on them for sustenance. The children who remained on the human plane of existence were, on the other hand, bound to their invisible siblings to seek protection and guidance and placate them with offerings (the origin of sacrifice) or risk being haunted (Masquelier, 2001)1

This story establishes the presence and importance of spirits by centering them in the creation story of the Mawri people. Indeed, spirits are an essential aspect of belief in Hausa Animism as can be seen in the story of the Maguzawa from Kano who, even though they believed in Ubangiji, the supreme being, were never known to worship nor seek his help (Danfulani, 1999)2. Rather, they interfaced strictly with spirits, known as iskoki or Bori, through various ways and particularly through spirit possession, a practice that has endured over the centuries and is perhaps the most notable spiritual practice in Hausa Animism. It is also worth noting that the Mawri people in Dogondoutchi do not worship a supreme being, however, like the Maguzawa, they believe that each person comes into the world with an Iska (singular of iskoki) or multiple attached to them. The Mawri also believe that certain iskoki can be inherited from the family one is born into and these familial spirits often have physical influence over the family, like the line of work a family might be known for (Masquelier, 2001). 

The Maguzawa and Mawri people also believed that spirits inhabited the physical natural environment and as a result, they had a deep reverence for the natural environment which influenced the manner both peoples interacted with the land, trees, and rivers they encountered in their daily lives. The Maguzawa, for instance, centered their religious activities around Dalla Hill in Kano where their first leader performed religious rites and ceremonies to Tsomburburai, a pantheon of spirits who inhabited a sacred tree known as Shamuz. Likewise, the Mawri believe their ancestors were led by Sauraniya, a woman possessed by a spirit of the same name, who led them from the Hausa State of Daura to their current location in Niger. The Sauraniya (Hausa for queen), was also a spiritual leader who was said to be devoted to land spirits and thus helped her people connect to these spirits. The Mawri also used stones as anchorage for their spirits. These often doubled as altars to the spirits and it is believed that each spirit chose the stone to be used on its behalf.

Things Change but Spirit Remains the Same

Even though Hausa Animism experienced a tidal wave of change with both the arrival of Islam and colonization, like many resilient cultures across the African continent, adherents found ways to incorporate these changes into their belief systems. It has been argued that for both the Mawri and Maguzwa, syncretizing with Islam is one of the main reasons both people have not completely lost their indigenous beliefs (Danfulani, 1999; Masquelier, 2001). Both the Mawri and Maguzawa peoples indeed adapted elements of Islam into their beliefs and localized practices, however, one thing remained the same, the existence of iskoki/bori. 

The Maguzawa, for instance, introduced Muslim bori into the pantheon of spirits that already existed. The Maguzawa even went so far as to differentiate Muslim bori from pagan bori who were believed to be village dwellers, in contrast to the Muslim Bori who were city dwellers (Danfulani, 1999). This contrast is believed to have represented the emergence of cities and urban living among the Hausa and its association with trade and commerce, and subsequently with Islam (Danfulani, 1999). Consequently, the Muslim bori were perceived to be light-complexioned (farfaru), indicating the divine, holy and pure nature of the light and truth of Islam, while the so-called pagan Boris were dark-complexioned, malevolent and relegated to the world of pagans and infidels (Danfulani, 1999). 

Elsewhere in Mawri, Masquelier (2001) claims that the interaction between Islam and Bori was extensive and complex such that it was nearly impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. Masquelier (2001) cites the example of known Bori practitioners who travelled on pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as those who were present at and participated in bori possession ceremonies. The influence of Islam can also be seen in the initial story of the first man and woman narrated earlier. Versions of the story told among the Mawri claim that the name of the first woman was Hawa (or Adama) and her husband, Adamu. It is not a coincidence that these are the names of the first man and woman in the Islamic version of the creation story.

A Double-Edged Sword

According to Danfulani (1999), one of the reasons the Maguzwa belief system (simply referred to as Bori) has survived so long is because it converted spirits into Islam and Bori practitioners accepted that iskoki were also creations of Allah. This notion was somewhat easily accepted because iskoki were then categorized alongside jinns, the supernatural beings that predated Islam but were co-opted by it. Whereas the Maguzawa simply categorized spirits based on whether they were malevolent or benevolent, the categorization into fairer and darker spirits was representative of the Islamic notions of dar-al-harb and dar-al-Islam, meaning the abode of war (the world of pagans and infidels) and the abode of Islam, respectively (Danfulani, 1999). This simple yet profound misrepresentation of iskoki would become one of the reasons why more Bori practitioners would forsake the belief system.

While the syncretization of Islam and Hausa Animism might have influenced its survival so far, it is also worth noting that Islam has also significantly contributed to the suppression of Hausa Animism most notably through the jihad led by Sheikh Usman Dan Fodio which resulted in a predominantly Islamic empire around the region that is now northern Nigeria. The consequence of this crusade is still seen today in the marginalization and almost complete disappearance of Bori practitioners across northern Nigeria where they initially thrived. Still, there are pockets of practitioners to be found in Nigeria, and indeed across the continent. As Masquelier (2001) puts it, Bori has continued to reassert itself through its capacity to become a multifaceted belief system that addresses a variety of needs and expectations, even when that means containing contradictions paradoxes. 

Sources:

  1. Masquelier, A. (2001). Prayer Has Spoiled Everything. Duke University Press.
  2. Danfulani, U. H. D. (1999). Factors Contributing to the Survival of the Bori Cult in Northern Nigeria. Numen, 46(4), 412–447. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270434

About African Religions

Our ancestors prayed, believed, worshipped, and called on God in various ways before the first mosques and churches were ever established on the continent. Just as there are currently diverse people and cultures on the continent, with over 3000 ethnic groups, so were the beliefs and spiritual practices of pre-colonial Africans diverse, such that we could spend lifetimes studying them and we would never exhaust them all. 

Because of the diversity of religious and spiritual beliefs on the Continent, many researchers who have previously studied them have done so by observing a few, making comparisons between them, and then making broad conclusions and generalizations about the basic tenets and characteristics of what they collectively refer to as “Traditional African Religions”. 

While the generalizations perhaps allowed for easier access to and analysis of  African religions, they have also inadvertently allowed for the reduction of African religions to a monolithic set of beliefs and practices. This reductionism is exemplified in the attempt to use the name “traditional African religion” to imply a single religion, much like Christianity and Islam, which is expected to encompass all the beliefs and practices of non-Christian and non-Muslim religions on the continent1. This reductionism is problematic because — perhaps without intending to — it erases certain unique aspects of African religions on the continent by focusing simply on the similarities between them.

Jacob Olupona, a leading scholar of African religions, asserted that a truly indigenous understanding of African religions has to begin with understanding the history of Africa before colonization because our current knowledge of African religions and their accompanying practices are deeply rooted in non-African paradigms and Eurocentric ideas2

So then, the question becomes, how do we begin to seek this understanding of pre-colonial Africa which is not rooted in Eurocentric views? And how do we dislodge African religions from the Eurocentric point of view which has so far demonized, reduced and attempted to erase them? 

These are some of the foundational questions that have led to the creation of this platform. This site is intended in to be a space that fosters an understanding of African Religions which, as much as possible, is not centred in Eurocentric views. This attempt to dislodge African beliefs from the Eurocentric view is depicted in the chosen name for the site; African Religions, rather than ‘African Traditional Religions,’ because when we talk about Christianity or Islam, for instance, we do not refer to them as Hebrew or Arabic  Traditional Religions, or perhaps even collectively as Middle Eastern Religions. If we are specific when we talk about those religions, we ought to begin to adopt a similar approach when we speak about and study African religions. And although the term ‘African Religions’ still refers to the diverse spiritual beliefs and customs as a collective, it is not done in an attempt to categorize them all as a single religious entity. Additionally, erasing the word ‘traditional’ is an attempt to centre these beliefs and make them less of an ‘other’ in our discourse. 

As scholars continue to emphasize globalization and the emergence of “new African religions” — which include African beliefs syncretized with either Islam or Christianity and those that made it to the Americas as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade — it is imperative to understand how these ‘older’ beliefs have influenced the so-called new religions.  An ancient principle which this work is based on is Sankofa, from the Akan people of Ghana. The concept reminds us that “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” 

One might wonder why it is necessary to preserve these spiritual beliefs, or at least what is left of them, and a response to that is culled from the work of Kofi Asare Opoku (2006) who has asserted that African religion is inextricably linked to all aspects of African life3. Opoku highlights that the word ‘religion’ is missing from many African languages because these African cultures do not make a distinction between their spiritual beliefs and other key aspects of life including ways of organizing society, governance, etiquettes and customs, etc. And so, by abandoning these spiritual beliefs, many African societies are at risk of losing their identities; the very principles and tenets which give meaning to their existence. 

The goal, therefore, is to help those already on the path to remembering by providing various resources about the different beliefs and practices that existed, and still do, across the Continent. The information available here is also aimed at people who are not yet on the path to remembering but wish to be. It is hoped that the resources here will fuel your curiosity about your Ancestors and spark within you a desire to know more about how they lived and what they believed for the ultimate purpose of enriching your life and freeing your mind. The overarching goal is for the site to be a digital catalogue of resources and information for scholars and researchers whose works are centred on African religions. 

The site will be updated monthly with new resources and articles and I invite you to subscribe to receive them directly in your inbox. Also, send me questions about the ideas, concepts, myths and misconceptions you are curious about. I am making it my mission to dig deep into as many topics on African Religions as possible.

Sources

1. MacGaffey, W. (2012, October 25). African Traditional Religion. Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199846733/obo-9780199846733-0064.xml

2. Olupona, J. (2006). Thinking Globally about African Religion. In M. Juergensmeyer (Ed.), . Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 18, 2020, from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195137989.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195137989

3. Opoku, K. A. (2006). Traditional African Religious Society. In M. Juergensmeyer (Ed.), . Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195137989.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195137989