AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS
AND THE PROMOTION OF COMMUNITY-LIVING IN AFRICA.
By Christopher I. Ejizu
The sense of community and humane living are highly cherished values of traditional African life. This statement remains true in spite of the apparent disarray in the experience of modern politics and brutal internecine wars in many parts of the Continent. For traditional Africans, the community is basically sacred, rather than secular, and surrounded by several religious forms and symbols. A visitor to Africa is soon struck by the frequent use of the first person plural 'we', 'ours' in everyday speech. In modern African urban cities, primary community loyalties of one's extended family and village, continue to exert their hold over people who live away from the communities of their home-towns (A. Shorter 1975: 122-3). People generally return to their villages from their residence in the cities from time to time to join members of their village community to celebrate important traditional rituals and cultural events like initiation, title-taking or festival. From their residence in urban cities, they send substantial financial contributions to their rural home communities to support various development projects like provision of electricity and pipe-borne water, building of educational institutions and scholarship awards, funds to send young men and women on further studies in foreign countries or in one's own country.
Primary communities based on clan, or ethnic descent, or church affiliation equally abound in many modern African cities. Analysts point out that these are often, for people who are detached from the communities of their home-towns "surrogate for the extended family or the community of village neighbours" (A. Shorter 1975; 125). John Mbiti underscores the important belief and sense of the community among traditional Africans. In traditional Africa, the individual does not and cannot exist alone except corporately. He owes existence to other people, including those of past generations and his contemporaries. Whatever happens to the individual is believed to happen to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. ... The individual can only say: "I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am. This is a cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man" (J.S. Mbiti 1990; 106)
This paper discusses the religious dimension of community in the traditional African background. Several myths relate the founding of community as well as shed light on certain symbol objects and forms that feature prominently in the ritual network of the people. I will try to show how such relevant ritual forms and symbols, are employed by Africans to enhance the ideal of community I shall also be interested in finding out how certain punitive sacred sanctions like ostracisation, help to curb deviance, and indirectly advance the cause of harmonious communal life. I propose to conclude the paper by examining the phenomenon and impact of radical social change on the role of traditional African religions in promoting the community ideal in contemporary Africa.
II. African Community As Unity of Two Worlds
Traditional Africans share the basic instinct of gregariousness with the rest of human-kind. Families and members of kin-groups from minimal to maximal lineages, generally live together and form community. Africans share life intensely in common. There are communal farmland, economic trees, streams, barns, and markets. There are also communal shrines, squares, masquerades, ritual objects and festivals for recreational activity, social, economic and religious purposes. Members of the same kindred or clan could distinguish themselves by their proficiency in a particular trade, skill or profession. Some traditional African communities or even entire language group may be experts in rain-making, wood carving, practice of traditional medicine, or black-smithing. For example, the Lovedu of South Africa, the Ibibio of south-east Nigeria and the Awka in Igboland are widely reputed for their skills in rain-making, wood-carving and black-smithing respectively. These and similar features characterise the communal life of both agrarian and normadic groups of traditional Africa. Closeness to nature, the experience of life in terribly hazardous environment, and the crucial need for security and better performance in means of livelihood are some relevant factors that combine to deepen the natural impulse for gregariousness and sense of community among different African peoples.
For traditional Africans, community is much more than simply a social grouping of people bound together by reasons of natural origin and/or deep common interests and values. It is both a society as well as a unity of the visible and invisible worlds; the world of the physically living on the one hand, and the world of the ancestors, divinities and souls of children yet to be born to individual kin-groups. In a wider sense, African traditional community comprehends the totality of the world of African experience including the physical environment, as well as all spirit beings acknowledged by a given group.
The network of relationships among human beings are remarkably extended and deep. In fact, the words 'family', 'brother', or 'sister', etc. define far more for Africans than what they mean today for the average European or North American. The family for the traditional African, usually includes one's direct parents, grand and great grand parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, and aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. And normally, a child would refer to any of his uncles or aunts as his father or mother, his nephews and nieces as his/her brothers and sisters. People generally do not ask a child his/her personal name. Rather, a child is identified as 'a child of so and so parents'. The extended family system is the model. The molecular family pattern is alien and believed to be inimical to the traditional value of community. Actually, it is only in recent times that the latter system began to surface mainly in urban towns as a result of external influences in the Continent. The extended family structure is held up to people as model, one in which parents, grand-parents, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces live together and are cared for by their children grand-children and other relatives in mutual love and respect.
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. Neglect could spell disaster for human beings and the community. The invisible beings are represented by different kinds of symbols like carved objects, shrines and sacred altars. They may also be recalled in personal names given to children, especially in cases where particular ancestors or spirit beings are held to have reincarnated in individual children. The presence of the ancestors is particularly felt in traditional African community. They are believed to be benevolent and powerful representatives of the community in the 'mbakuv' (spirit land). Their symbols and shrines are common features among most traditional West African groups. This includes carved ancestral stool among the Akan of Ghana and 'okpensi' among the traditional Igbo. There are also the shrines of the 'Muzimu' (ancestors) among the Baganda of Uganda. The reality and presence of spiritual members are equally acknowledged through several taboos found in many African communities. For example, women within the child-bearing age are bound to observe several prohibitions among the traditional Igbo. Such women run a serious danger of becoming childless if they flout such taboos, since it could result in scaring away souls of unborn babies that are believed to hover around homesteads and families wanting to incarnate in wombs of potential mothers.
Most traditional African groups, including the traditional Yoruba of Nigeria and the Dogon of Mali, have intriguing sacred stories or myths that tell how the world, human beings and important institutions came into being. Such sacred stories generally also underscore the involvement of ancestors and mythical beings in the life and affairs of the community of the physically living. They also try to explain the significance of different rituals for human beings and their important life-interests.
The central myth of the priestly caste group of Nri in Igbo heartland, for example, relates that it was the Supreme Being, Chukwu that gave Nri people their traditional home community. More significantly, it was Chukwu that constituted them into a special priestly class, set them apart from the rest of the traditional Igbo people with a definite duty to serve as ritual specialists. The original covenant was between Chukwu and Eri, the archetypal ancestor of Nri people. Eri and his wife, Namaku had accepted a near-impossible feat to sacrifice their only son and only daughter to Chukwu in order to obtain food. Yam, the prince of Igbo agricultural crops had sprouted from the grave of the son and cocoyam from the grave of the daughter. As a reward for their obedience, Chukwu bestowed on Eri the special privilege of being the traditional high priest with the exclusive right to cleanse all forms of abomination, especially those connected with the yam crop among the Igbo. Chukwu gave Eri the Ofo symbol so that he would be able to speak to Chukwu through the medium of the symbol. Otonsi became the ancestral symbol of authority, while the Alo signify the ritual authority of the high priest.
What this myth accomplishes is to define and legitimate for the people both the divine origin of the closely knit community of the Nri, as well as the source of the special right and privileges which the group enjoyed among the Igbo and their neighbouring language groups. In the case of the traditional Yoruba, Oduduwa, believed to be the founding ancestor of Ife was said to have been the first king of Oyo kingdom in Yorubaland who became divinised after his death. The powerful mythical ancestor was credited with the establishment of the great Yoruba empire. And virtually every traditional Yoruba community tries to trace its connection with the mythical hero. Similarly among the Baganda, every community tries to connect with the Kibuka (mythical war hero) and the Mukasa (mythical ancestral spirit associated with rivers and seas). These are believed to be powerful Balubaale (national heroes and leaders who became deified after death) whose presence and influence continue to be strongly felt and recognised in virtually every community of the Baganda.
Traditional Africans, like their counterparts in other parts of the world, are acutely aware of the distinction between the physically living (men and women of flesh and blood who constitute the actual visible community), and ancestral spirits and other supersensible beings who belong to the invisible order. It would be wrong therefore, to conclude from the fore-going explanation of the myth, that the people were incapable of rational thinking, but possessed what Levy Bruhl referred to as 'primitive mentality' which was characterised by mystical participation.
The idea and structure of human society for traditional Africans, are essentially part of a world-view that is fundamentally holistic, sacred and highly integrated. Human community, therefore, has its full meaning and significance within the transcendental centre of ultimate meaning. Hence, the belief in ancestors and the supernatural order, in addition to its inherent religious import, provides traditional African groups a useful over-arching system that helps people organise reality and impose divine authority and sanction to their life.
III. Promotion Of Community-Living Among Africans
It is an essential article of belief in African traditional religions that a fundamental delicate balance and equilibrium exist in the universe, between the visible world and the invisible one. The Creator, Olodumare among the Yoruba or Chukwu among the Igbo, created everything that exists and set everything in its place. Traditional Africans basically view the universe as comprising basically two realms; the visible and the invisible realms. They grasp the cosmos as a three-tiered structure, consisting of the heaven above, the physical world and the world beneath. Each of these is inhabited by different categories of beings. The Creator and a host of spirit beings, including archdivinities inhabit the heaven above, other divinities, ancestors, and myriads of unnamed spirits dwell in the world beneath, while human beings occupy the physical earth. Human beings may be less powerful, but their world is the centre and the focus of attention. It belongs to human beings as sensible beings to maintain the delicate balance in the universe. This is what assures the happiness and prosperity of individuals and the community.
Harmonious living is clearly a pivotal value. African traditional religions, which have been rightly referred to as the womb of the people's culture, plays a key role in the realisation of this all-important value among every traditional African group. Religion is central in inculcating in the promotion and realisation of harmonious inter-relationship among individuals and the community. In the traditional African background, religion is a most important aspect of life. It pervades and permeates all aspects of life and infuses the social, economic, political dimensions African with meaning and significance. But there are some more striking avenues through which the traditional religion helps the community to realise the community ideal of harmonious living. They include transmission of certain key religious ideas and beliefs, initiation practices, ritual activities, sacred symbol forms and vital public institutions. We shall discuss these in some detail.
i. Belief In The Ancestors: The belief in ancestors is an important element of African traditional religions. The belief occupies an important place in the understanding of the role of the traditional religion in inculcating the ideal of harmonious living among African peoples. One needs however, to know the content of the belief to be better able to appreciate how it helps the people to realise the community ideal of harmonious living.
The ancestors, or the living-dead, as John Mbiti refers to them, are believed to be disembodied spirits of people who lived upright lives here on earth, died 'good' and natural death, that is at ripe old age, and received the acknowledged funerary rites. They could be men or women. But more over often than not, male ancestors are prominent since patrilineage is the dominant system of family and social integration in most traditional African societies. For matrilineal groups like the Ashanti of Ghana and the Ndembu of Zambia, both male and female ancestors are duly acknowledged. With the completion of prescribed funeral rites, a deceased person is believed to transform into an ancestor. The funeral rites in this case, serve as some kind of 'rites du passage'. The disembodied spirit joins the esteemed ranks of fully achieved ancestors in the spirit world.
Among the Akan of Ghana, as part of the coronation ceremony of a new king, the candidate carves a traditional stool for himself which he uses as personal stool while he is alive. When he dies, he is placed on the stool and bathed before his burial. The stool is then blackened and kept at the shrine of his ancestral spirit. Each lineage has a chapel of blackened stools which is the shrine of its ancestors. The Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Thonga, and Shona among other South African peoples have their respective ancestral symbols and shrines. The Igbo of South-east Nigeria have their Okpensi and Ofo as well as sacred altars for the ancestors.
Traditional Africans hold the ancestors as the closest link the physically living have with the spirit world. "The living-dead are bilingual; they speak the language of men, with whom they lived until 'recently', and they speak the language of the spirits and of God ...They are the 'spirits' with which African peoples are most concerned: it is through the living-dead that the spirit world becomes personal to men. They are still part of their human families, and people have personal memories of them". (J.S Mbiti, 1990; 82). Africans believe that the ancestors are essentially benevolent spirits. They return to their human families from time to time and share meals with them, however, symbolically. They know and have interest in what is going on in their families.
For African peoples, the belief and ideas about ancestors to form an essential part of the effort to inculcate, mobilise and promote the community ideal of harmonious living in society. As benevolent spiritual guardians of their respective families and communities, ancestors are believed to reincarnate in new-born babies in the community. A child is named after the ancestor that is believed to have reincarnated in the life of that child. Special attention and favours are bestowed to such a child as a mark of respect to the ancestor. Family elders make regular offerings of gifts, food and drinks to the ancestors. The Igbo male elder does not normally eat or drink without first offering some portion on the ground, or at the shrine or symbol of the ancestors. The Mende of Sierra Leone avail of the staple food item of rice, and water for their offering to ancestral spirits. Among the Akan, the lineage head offers food and drinks to the ancestors at appropriate times. The Adae rites which take place every twenty-one days and the annual Odwera festival are high points of the Akan worship of ancestral spirits. Furthermore, ancestors are generally held to be the custodians of the land on which their children live. They are guardians of family affairs, customs, traditions and ethical norms. Offence in these matters is ultimately an offence against the forefathers who in that capacity act as invisible police of the families and communities (E.Ikenga-Metuh 1987; 149). Ancestors are thought to mete quick and severe punishment on people who disregard the hallowed traditions of the community, or infringe taboos and norms of acceptable behaviour in society. Africans therefore, try to strictly observe such taboos and norms, thereby ensuring peace and harmony in their relationship with one another , with ancestors and other supernatural beings.
From early childhood through adolscence to full adulthood,
the traditional African is formed to hold tenanciously to the belief in the ancestors, to
reverence them as powerful and benevolent members of the community, although not in a
physical but rather mystical sense. Ancestors are held up as models to be copied in the
effort to strictly adhere, preserve and transmit the traditions and norms of the
community. The African is psychologically, fully equipped and motivated to promote the
delicate balance and equilibrium believed to exist in the universe through ensuring
harmony in his relationship with the invisible world and among members of the community.
ii. Initiation Rituals: Rites marking the transition of individuals and groups from one significant stage of life to another abound in traditional African societies. Similar rites are also found in several parts of the world outside Africa. But, as Ikenga-Metuh rightly points out, rites of passage tend to reach their maximal expression in small-scale, relatively stable societies like those of Africa, that are cyclically-oriented in their pattern of time-reckoning, societies where change is bound up with biological and meteorological rhythms and reoccurrences rather than with technological innovations (E.Ikenga-Metuh 1987;197). Initiation rites have far-reaching implications for the life of individuals and the community at large. They involve different aspects of life including the psychological, social, economic and political. The religious dimension is clearly important as traditional African groups rely on the supernatural power and divine authority of ancestors and other spiritual patrons to validate their worthwhile activities and to ensure the lasting success of their initiation events.
There are several rites of initiation for boys as well as for girls into adult status. These rites like the Ima Muo among the traditional Igbo, the Egungun of the Yourba, Poro for young boys and its counterpart Sande for young girls in Liberia generally mark their transition of young adolescent boys and girls from 'social puberty' to full adult status with all the attendant roles and responsibilities. The Luguru of Tanzania refer to their initiation of young males as 'ng'hula', a word that in fact means growth and maturity. It begins with the seclusion of the candidates in camp under the supervision of a specialist male elder known as 'kisepi'. During the period which lasts between two and four weeks, the period long enough to brew the beer to be used for the rites, the candidates are fed on a rich diet of chickens. They learn to share everything in common and they are exposed to the 'treasured secrets', including the historical landmarks, myths and symbols of their community.
At the end of the training in camp, the candidates are prepared for the climax ritual. This comprises series of ritual dramatisations in a thick forest. The candidates are lead through a ritual dance in which awe-inspiring masks feature. The tree that is used by the community to brew local beer is uprooted and cut into short lengths, mixed with other materials and tied into a bundle with cloth for the boys to carry. The grandfathers of the candidates assemble in the forest and instruct the initiates on the norms of acceptable behaviour of the community. Extracts of the instruction may read like this; "Now you are big. Never be rude to anyone older than yourself, especially, not your mother, father, father's brother, and mother's sister. If you do this your mother and father will die, and you will be poor ... and no one will care for you. This is a very evil thing.. You are big now! Do not do these things, to us Luguru they are taboos. Never lie with young girls. If you do you will die". ( E.Ikenga-Metuh 1987;207).
The instructions given to the candidates are comprehensive, covering all aspects of life of the community. The initiates are taken back to the seclusion camp. On the final day of their stay there, a large crowd from the community gather in front of the camp and welcome with loud songs and dancing the candidates now ready for their graduation. The initiates are blind-folded. They are led into the open square through the bush with their heads totally covered. Male elders encircle the candidates forming a fence with pieces of cloth around the initiates. Some rituals are further performed including lowering the candidates individually into a stool. The candidates are anointed with castor oil by their respective fathers' sisters and then are sprinkled with sorghum seed. The ceremonies conclude with the graduates carried shoulder high. They sway to the sound of the drums.
Prior to the introduction of Western-type schools, initiation rituals provided a most effective avenue for socialisation and transmission of keybeliefs, ideas and values of the community to successive generations. Against the background of the oral culture of traditional African groups, people relied on such oral media as speech-forms, dramatic performances, and ritual symbolic forms to communicate their important ideas, beliefs and values to members of the community. The awe and mystery that often characterised the initiation ceremonies proof particularly favourable for the successful communication of the accumulated wisdom of the people, including the ideal of harmonious co-existence in the community. In the case of the 'ng'hula' for example, the deep and mysterious communion of the candidates and supernatural beings, symbolically represented by the thick forest that provides the theatre for the initiation, the community ideal is impressed in the minds of the young initiates.
Masquerades and several ancestral symbols feature
prominently in traditional African initiations. Such is the case for example, with
initiation into the Poro for young men and even Sande for young girls in
Liberia, as well as the Ima Muo for young adolescent men among the Igbo. Roy Sieber
was able to arrive at the conclusion following his study of the Poro that the
masquerades are symbols of the spiritual forces that validate the acts and the precepts of
the elders. They serve as the visible expression of a spiritual force or authority that
validates the basic beliefs of a society, and reinforce acceptable social modes of conduct
and symbolise the spiritual authority that eradicates social evils (N.S. Booths (ed) 1977;
iii. Dominant Ritual Symbols: Traditional Africans also preserve and express the ideal of harmonious community-living through their dominant ritual symbols. In an effort to ensure that this and other important value relating to their survival, is well preserved and successfully transmitted to successive generations, in the absence of developed literary culture, traditional Africans avail of different kinds of oral means and media to encode and communicate their important cultural values over and over again. Repetition is, no doubt, a typical feature of oral cultures around the world. Traditional Africans rely on speech-forms such as myths, proverbs, wise sayings and songs, as well as art-forms like sculpture, dance, ritual objects, etc to preserve and impress their key beliefs, ideas and values in the minds of successive generations of society. Dominant ritual objects are particularly relevant because of their tremendous potential as effective means of communication in the oral cultural background and their prominence in the socio-cultural and religious dynamics of life of traditional Africans. They encapsulate and express for traditional African groups vital information relating to their different areas of awareness; the intuitive, physical, aesthetic, social and normative.
The Golden Stool which is the dominant symbol of the Akan, preserves vital information regarding the Asantehene (traditional king) and the kingdom itself; its culture and religion. The Ofo ritual object features prominently in traditional Igbo life and culture. It is the dominant symbol object that expresses for the traditional Igbo people important ideas, beliefs and values concerning their religious, social and political life. Ofo has several types and a wide range of functions. There are Personal Ofo which is owned by individual persons, Titular Ofo which is kept by titled male elders, Institutional Ofo kept by officials like traditional priests and Professional Ofo is used by practitioners like diviners.
The Lineage Ofo is certainly the most prominent kind of Ofo among the traditional Igbo. It is kept by the male head at every level of the Igbo social-political structure; the family, kindred, village, clan (minor, major, and maximal lineage levels). The lineage Ofo is of great importance among the traditional Igbo. It is at times, referred to as 'the soul of the lineage'. It is believed to represent the unity of the particular group as well as the ancestors who are thought to be the guarantors of the unity. It is normally inherited and kept by whoever is the eldest surviving male member of the lineage, or as the case may be, the eldest son of the family that has the primacy of honour in the community. It goes by such names as Ofo-Okpala, Ofo-mbichiriama and Ofo-Umunna depending on the area of Igboland.
The lineage Ofo has far-reaching implications for the socio-political and religious life of the traditional Igbo. The people are dominantly patrilineal in their pattern of family integration and social organisation. They live in less centralised groups. They therefore, made serious use of lineage Ofo to reinforce the basic structure of leadership and endorse important traditional values.
Ofo is primarily the medium of communication with spirits, including the ancestors and divinities. It is known as the 'ear of the spirits (Ofo bu nti ndi Muo). As a key religious symbol, it is used in ritual sacrifices, in prayer, for cleansing taboos and abominations, as well as for a wide variety of rites. Its socio-ethical functions include its use for attesting to the truth, for affirming one's innocence, in settlement of disputes, for covenant-making, oath-taking, and decision-making. Igbo male elders usually begin their day by offering prayers to the ancestors and other spirit beings for the health of members of his family, good fortune and general progress in life. They do this with the help of the lineage Ofo which they hold in their right hand while pronouncing the prayer and benediction. Most times, when traditional Igbo male elders of a particular community gather to discuss a serious matter affecting the community, each of them brings with him his lineage Ofo to the venue of the meeting (often in the community square or market-place). At the end of their deliberation, the spokesman would normally recap the agreement reached. The assembled elders would then seal their decision by striking their respective lineage Ofo on the ground while invoking divine sanction of ancestral spirits on any person or member of the community who would defy or disobey their decision.
Ofo may be of different kinds and uses, but it is
invariably connected to the ancestors and spiritual beings from whom it is believed to
obtain its power and efficacy. Most male members of the traditional Igbo community could
acquire and keep one kind of Ofo or another. The constant use of this powerful
ritual symbol in prayer, sacrifice and a wide variety of rituals, its recurrence in social
and political life of the people, including maintenance of law and order, make it easily
the most effective instrument for mobilising and strengthening community consciousness
among the traditional Igbo people. The power of the ritual object resides not itself as
such, but in the supernatural beings to which the object primarily refers.
iv. Important Traditional Institutions: Traditional African peoples also possess important sacred institutions with significant religious dimension that equally further the community ideal. They include sacred kingship institution, public shrines and sacred groves, divination and masquerades. Each one of them generally implies important religious beliefs, supernatural power and authority, and serves as a vital channel for inculcating and promoting the ideal of harmonious living in society by the people. For traditional groups that have sacred kings, such kings are not simply political heads, they are more importantly sacred personages. They posess spiritual and mystical powers which enable them to confer benefits on their people. In most cases, they are regarded as descendants or incarnations of divine beings, a mythical ancestor, or divinity. Such is the OOni of Ife among the Yoruba, the Asantehene of the Ashanti kingdom and the Queen of the Lovedu in South Africa.
The traditional Ashanti Empire of Ghana is a combination of localised lineages that form a political community. Each lineage head possesses his own blackened stool representing the lineage ancestors and to which the lineage head pours libations. The Asantehene presides over the Ashanti nation with his own royal stool believed to symbolise the ancestral spirits. The person of the Asantehene is sacred and he primarily fills a sacred role as the 'one who sits upon the stool of the ancestors'. He is hedged round with a number of taboos. In addition to his political role, he is the link between the living and the dead. He presides over important ritual sacrifices at the Adae and Odwera ceremonies. Thus, the Ashanti king is regarded as the first-born of the kingdom. He is the leader of the living and their representative before the ancestors, as well as the vicar of the ancestors among the living.
Public shrines and masquerades are some other important sacred institutions which contribute significantly in promoting the sense of community. Shrines are often located in large public squares. They serve multi purposes for traditional Africans. The shrines are specifically for religious worship. The adjoining open space is for meetings, economic transaction, for staging of festivals and other public performances. Symbolically, shrines and adjoining public squares signify for traditional Africans the mystical meeting-point or communion of the invisible world of spiritual beings and the visible world of human members of the community. People usually take turns in keeping them clean. Such places are surrounded by all kinds of prohibitions and taboos. As sacred place, they inspire awe and elicit reverence because of what they stand for.
Masquerades are highly symbolic public institution and performance among traditional African groups. There are mainly two types; a class belonging to youths and adolescent children that serve largely for purposes of entertainment, and the serious masks belonging to different senior age grades. African masquerades are generally public performance troupes that evoke a wide variety of significant ideas and values concerning the social, occupational, political and religious aspects of life of traditional peoples. The Egu Orumamu of the Igala in Middle-belt area of Nigeria belongs to and is performed by individual village groups twice a year, at the beginning and end of the farming season. The Chiwara masquerade of the Bambara are for purposes of ritual purification of villages of social ills in order to ensure success in agriculture. The Do masquerade of Western Ghana like the Gelede of the Yoruba is for fighting witchcraft in society. The Mgba/Abia Dike and Ikpirikpe Ogu troupes among the Igbo belong to the senior age grades, men of valour on whom it devolves to defend the community in the event of attack and war.
Masquerades are rich in their meaning-content. Onyeneke refers to them as "the Dead Among the Living", while Kalu suggests the title of "Gods As Police Men". Masquerades, no doubt relate to several important areas of life of the peoples of Africa. Masks usually identify and represent the respective social units; villages or age sets in the community. They associated closely with the occupational pursuits of the people, as well as their socio-political structure. Primarily, masquerades are thought of by Africans as powerful sacred symbols. They represent lineage ancestors and serve as the visible expression of the spiritual force and authority believed to validate the basic beliefs and values of society. They also serve to reinforce social modes of conduct and symbolise the spritiual authority that eradicates social evils. As a sacred symbol with a rich religious significance, they contribute considerably to bind people together, to sustain and foster the people's sense of interdependence.
IV. Other Ways Of Enhancing The Community Ideal
The afore-mentioned media do not exhaust the many and varied oral means through which traditional African peoples try to communicate and enhance the important value of harmonious community-living. As already stated, repetition is a characteristic feature of oral cultures, including those of traditional Africa. People encode and communicate their cherished value of peaceful interrelationship in prayer, personal and title names, wise sayings, as well as in the code of conduct.
i. Direct Speech-forms; Recorded oral materials, including prayers, personal and title names of traditional African groups contain a lot of references to the theme of social harmony. Naming ceremonies are important events among traditional African groups. In many African societies, it is the prerogative of lineage elders to give personal names to the children born to the different families in the kindred. The elders usually try to convey significant life-experiences of parents, or community as well as their important aspirations in the names they give to babies during the naming ceremony. Simiarly at initiation into important title positions, candidates take title and praise names which refer to important values in the community, or attributes for which the candidate has become distinguished in society. I will draw most of my examples here from the traditional Igbo group with which I am very familiar. The Igbo have for example, such personal names as;
Azuka-ego - One's kins are worth much more than money; Adinigwe/Adigwe - it is better to be many, Igwemadu/Ndedigwe/Odigwe -the large grouping is better, Oraka - the community is greater (than the individual), Ohakanma - the community is ideal, Orakwue - let it be decided by all
Oranefo - the community speaks well of me,
Somaadina - let me not exist alone,
Umunnawuike - One's relations are a source of strength, and Umenwanne - the tender feeling of one's kins.
Apparently the names may seem not to have much to do with religion. But, they certainly do. The context in which the names are given is clearly religious. Naming ceremony and initiation always take place within the context of ritual performances. The giving of a name is usually the climax and conclusion of the ritual event. Religious beliefs and ideas are implied in peoples' names among traditional Africans. In fact, the name Somadina is at once, a prayer to ancestors and spiritual beings ?not to let me exist alone?. Most traditional African names are meaningful and symbolic. Many of them imply values that relate to and enhance community consciousness in traditional African societies.
Traditional prayers equally play an important role in the promotion of the sense of community. Most traditional prayers are intensely communitarian in content and orientation. Whether offered by the individual elder in front of his family shrine, or by a priest or other ritual experts in public shrines, African prayers contain a lot of references to the community. The elder in most traditional societies begins the day by offering prayer and supplications for himself, members of the kindred and the entire community. He would pray to the ancestors, divinities and other spiritual beings for his health, that of his family, for progress of members of the lineage, both the young and the old, for peace and harmony, for protection from the attack of evil forces, sorcerers and witches, and finally for the elimination of his enemies and evil doers in the community.
The transliterated text of a prayer from Anloland of Ghana recorded by Christian Gaba makes a good illustration;
O Avumoada, A wild dog can never lie near a wolf's den;
You have now finished eating. I offer you an imported drink;
It is gin. Please receive it for all members of the lineage,
Here is the drink we have brewed ourselves; It is corn beer. Receive this one also.
May you be as a powerful medicine to protect the entire lineage. May we all be in good health always, All our children too.
All our customs which are going to the Europeans,
May they understand them well.
They should take good care of the black people....
Look! Prayers offered for one's in-laws should not become ineffective.
No ! Never!
Here is gin; Here also is water.
Help us to succeed when we use your nets;
Your coconut plantation too must be fruitful,
To provide a means of livelihood for us;
May trouble be far from us. May poverty be far from us;
May sickness be far from us; May death be far from us.
Give us plenty of wealth; Give us plenty of children;
Just as we have also given you,
May you too give us even more abundantly
(C. Gaba 1973; 53).
As typical oral (rather than formalised) texts, African
traditional prayers are very contextual. They fiercely reflect the concrete needs,
aspirations, values and relevant life-situation of people making the intercession. The
above prayer of the Anlo traditional elder is a good example of the African's keen
interest and concern for both the needs of individual and the general well-being of the
entire community. The individual's need for protection, good health and material wealth
has its full meaning within the context of the need of the entire community for overall
well-being. Hence, the Anlo elder does not focus simply on the individual as such. He asks
for the health of the entire lineage (which in this case includes the kindred of his
relations through marriage, his in-laws) , for the well-being of the black people, for
prosperity in the means of livelihood (coconut plantation, success in fishing) and for a
large community with abundance of children.
ii. Normative Standards of Behaviour: The area of morality is yet another relevant avenue through which traditional Africans try to form people and reinforce in them the important idea and value of harmonious community-living. Every social group evolves its distinct ethical code. Every society has its norms of acceptable behaviour, taboos and prohibitions. Many traditional African groups have in addition, motivational features and incentives through which compliance to the norms of approved behaviour and social ideals are encouraged. There are equally rituals of purification, as well as punitive measures that try to deter and curb the tendency to deviate.
Religion may be distinct and separate from morality, as many scholars have rightly argued. For traditional Africans, however, the line dividing the two is very thin indeed. African traditional religion plays a crucial role in the ethical dynamics of the different groups. In the traditional African background, 'gods serve as police men'. African traditional world-views invariably outline a vision of reality that is, at once ethical in content and orientation. Human beings and their world are the focal centre of a highly integrated universe. Hence, traditional African world-views have been described by some people, as heavily anthropocentric. Human conduct is seen as key in upholding the delicate balance believed to exist between the visible world and the invisible one.
There are norms and taboos that try to address the need of the individual human person for security of life and property. For example, most traditional African groups have stiff penalties for wilful murder of a person, not an enemy at war, including bringing about the death of a foetus. Any one guilty of murder, would be required to repair the crime usually by providing another human being to the family of the person killed, a person relatively close in age to the deceased. The offender would then be bound to take his/her own life through public hanging. There are also severe penalties for wilfully damaging people's crops, economic trees, and animals.
The vast majority of norms, taboos and prohibitions is directed towards protecting the community and promoting peace and harmony. Communal farmland, economic interests like the market-place, stream, or shrine are generally surrounded with taboos, including who may or may not enter, and when and under what circumstances people are permitted or not to enter such places. Stealing is abhorred. It is in fact, an abomination to steal things relating to people's vital life-interests and occupation, like yam crop (Ji) among the sedentary farm cultivating communities of traditional Igboland, or stealing fish held in a trap laid by someone in a stream or river among the fishing communities of Ogoni and Kalabari in the Niger Delta area of Nigeria. There are also special restrictions and norms regulating the behaviour of people towards public functionaries like lineage heads, the king or queen, traditional priests, diviners and medicine-practitioners. Such persons are generally regarded as specially sacred, and representative of the community. Their residence is equally sacred. So, are instruments of their office.
Traditional Africans believe that spiritual beings, especially ancestral spirits guarantee and legitimate the ethical code. Igbo traditional elders visibly demonstrate this by striking their powerful lineage ritual symbol, Ofo, on the ground to mark the promulgation of a law or a taboo. And they invoke severe divine sanction on any one who would try to oppose or disobey a promulgated law or norm of morality. People, no doubt acknowledge the social basis of ethical norms. Fines may be imposed or material reparation demanded. But they seriously reinforce the norms with the supernatural authority and sanction of invisible beings. As such, agents of divinities, including traditional priests, and more frequently special masks representing individual deities or ancestral spirits, participate actively in the execution of communal law and morality in many traditional African societies, They impose sanctions and take active part in the recovery of fines imposed on defaulters. Serious criminals are not simply regarded as anti-social persons, they are sorcerers, witches and wizards. People protect themselves against their nefarious activities through different kinds of ritual practices including offering ritual sacrifice, making and wearing of charms and amulets.
For most African groups, ostracising an individual or group that has fragrantly disobeyed the community is thought to be the most severe punishment that could be meted out to any body. It feels like death for any one so punished since such a person is regarded as an outcast. He/She would not be allowed to share in the life of the community. There would be no visits to the family, no exchange of greetings, no one would sell or buy from members of the affected family. So severe is the punishment of ostracisation, that every member of the community highly dreads it, and would do every thing possible to avoid it. It does, on the other hand show the kind of tremendous power of the community in traditional African background.
In cases of abomination, grave offence or defilement against the community like murder, incest, etc., the moral pollution has to be cleansed or expiated by special ritual experts in order to appease spiritual beings and ancestors who are believed to have been also offended. Until the expiation is done, the entire community (and not only the individuals directly involved), stood a real and imminent danger of suffering a disaster. The serious moral breach has destabilised the fundamental peace, balance and harmony that should prevail between the visible world of humans and invisible world of spiritual beings and forces. The affected community could therefore, expect severe punishment from the supernatural custodians and guarantors of morality. African traditional religion clearly plays a distinctive role as the ultimate source of supernatural power and authority that sanction and reinforce public morality. It is pressed into full service to maintain social order, peace and harmony. Traditional Africans believe that success in life; including the gift of off-spring, wealth and prosperity, are all blessings from the gods and ancestors. They accrue to people who work hard, and who strictly adhere to the customs, and traditional norms of morality of the community, people who strictly uphold the community ideal of harmonious living. Only such people could entertain a real hope of achieving the highly esteemed status of ancestorhood in the hereafter.
V. Conclusion; The Factor Of Radical Change In Africa
Prior to the advent and spread of external forces of change engendered by colonialism, commerce and Christian and Islamic missionary campaigns most groups of sub-Saharan Africa lived in stable, largely small-scale and homogeneous communities. The traditional religion was 'a typical religion of structure'. It was the sole world-view with which people explained, predicted and controlled space-time events. It underpinned every facet of life of the people. It was particularly significant in inculcating and promoting the sense of community-living and certain key values associated with that. African traditional religion suffused and gave meaning to life, pervaded and permeated all its aspects. What one of the pioneer colonial officials, who lived and worked among the traditional Igbo of Nigeria from 1895 to 1905 witnessed, is typical of the situation that prevailed throughout sub-Saharan Africa prior to the total exposure of the Continent to external forces of radical change.
"...They are, in the strict and natural sense of the word, a truly and a deeply religious people, of whom it can be said, as it has been said of the Hindus, that "they eat religiously, drink religious, bathe religious, dress religiously, and sin religiously".In a few words, the religion of these natives, as I have endeavoured to point out, is their existence, and their existence is their religion". (A.G. Leonard 1968; 409)
The situation has changed radically today. The experience of colonialism, Christian missionary activity and Islamic religious campaign have given rise to a radically different socio-political and religious background in Africa. Colonialism created a new social and political order in sub-Saharan Africa. It created modern nations by pulling together traditional groups with diverse language and cultural identities. Countries like Angola, Congo Brazzaville, Ghana, Nigeria and Rwanda came into existence as a result of the colonial enterprise. Urbanisation has given rise to mega-cities in different parts of the Continent. Most communities are no longer homogeneous. They are heterogeneous and plural in virtually every aspect of their life. A wedge has been driven between the sacred and the so-called secular aspects of life.
While it is true that the traditional religion still has considerable influence in the life and culture of many African peoples, it no longer enjoys exclusive dominance and control over the life of the vast majority of the population. The prevailing social and political order in most parts of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa resembles more the state of affairs in European countries. Civil society now prevails. There are civil governments, civil law, agencies of government responsible for law and order, Western-type schools for formal education and socialisation. Above all, plurality of religions is now the existing order in the Continent with Christianity and Islam being the dominant faiths. The law of diminishing returns have since befallen African Traditional Religions. Roles in society are now much more specialised and differentiated unlike what obtained in the traditional background. Life is parcelled out into specific departments and different needs catered for by distinct units in the civil society.
The prevailing radical social change has far-reaching implications for the ideal of community-living in contemporary Africa. On the one hand, the world-view with which people explain and control reality is no longer the traditional one which is religion-dominated. Certain traditional African beliefs, customs and practices associated with the idea and promotion of community-living among many African groups have been outlawed. They were considered either too cruel, or simply opposed to the aims of colonial administration and/or Christian missionaries. For example, the old practice of killing twins by some traditional African groups because such twins were regarded as taboo and a potential danger to the community, was long stopped. Polygamy, which has as its major objective to produce many children and thereby increase the size of the community as much as possible, is in serious decline in many parts of modern Africa. This is as a result of the combination of several factors, including Christian missionary preaching against it, better health-care services, and changing economic circumstances. The traditional belief in ancestors and other spiritual patrons, as well as the vital role they were believed to play in fostering community-living, have been serioulsy relativised in most contemporary societies. Masquerades are not part of the apparatus of modern state administration. And schools have largely displaced traditional initiations as the main channel for formal education and socialisation of youths.
Community-living on the other hand, remains a cherished value among traditional Africans. The dramatic changes in the socio-political and religious aspects of life bring considerable pressure on the people's sense of community. With the progressive relativisation of the traditional religion , the traditional role of the latter in inculcating and promoting harmony and peaceful co-existence become more and more diminished. The profound sense of the sacred and feeling of awe which the traditional religion brought to life in general and different institutions in traditional societies have become greatly circumscribed. The ability of African Traditional Religions to promote the community ideal of peaceful and harmonious co-existence in contemporary African society is in a state of progressive decline. The trend is much more noticeable in urban cities like Abidjan (Cote d'Ivoire), Accra (Ghana), Nairobi (Kenya) and Yaounde (Cameroon) than in rural towns and villages. The rate of displacement of the traditional religion by the forces of radical social change in Africa is generally slower in rural areas than in urban cities.
African societies are visibly in a state of transition, a stage of betwixt and between, with the attendant anxiety, tension and confusion being felt at virtually every facet of life of the people. The destabilisation of the traditional religions have clearly left wide gaps in the social structure, particularly in the bonds of interpersonal and inter-group relationships. Fortunately, the forces that precipitate and sustain radical change in the continent, including Western culture and socio-political systems, Christianity and Islam, now largely provide new framework and elements for community-living and harmony in most societies of Africa.
1. F.A. Arinze, Sacrifice In Ibo Religion (Ibadan;
Oxford University Press, 1970).
2. N.S. Booth (ed.) African Religions, A Symposium (New York; NOK Publishers, 1977)
3. C.I. Ejizu, OFO, Igbo Ritual Symbol (Enugu; Fourth Dimension Publishers Ltd. 1986)
4. A. Ekwunife, Consecration In Igbo Traditional Religion (Enugu; SNAAP Press, 1990)
5. E.Ikenga-Metuh, God And Man In African Religion (London; Geoffrey Chapman, 1981)
6. ---- Comparative Studies Of African Traditional Religions (Onitsha; Imico Publishers, 1987)
7. J.S. Mbiti, African Religions And Philosophy (London; Heinemann, 1990 ed.)
8 ----------- The Prayers of African Religion (New York; Orbis Books, 1975)
9. C. Gaba, Scriptures Of An African People; The Sacred Utterances Of The Anlo (New York; NOK Publishers, 1973)
10. M.A. Onwuejeogwu, An Igbo Civilisation, Nri Kingdom And Hegemony (London; Ethnographica, 1981)
11. A.G. Leonard, The Lower Niger And Its Tribes (London; 1905, Frank Cass, 1968 edition)
12. B. Ray, African Religions, Symbol, Ritual And Community (New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1976)
13. A. Shorter, African Christian Theology (London; Geoffrey Chapman, 1975).