EMERGENT KEY ISSUES IN
THE STUDY OF
AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS
by Christopher I. Ejizu
It began with brief references in travellogues of early explorers. Pioneer Arab travellers and traders to the Continent, like Ibn Battuta, as well as European voyagers calling at the coastal regions of the Atlantic sea-board, were greatly excited by aspects of the indigenous culture of the peoples of Africa they had encountered. They made entries in their travel journals. These did not often exceed passing references to places, objects or personages. Indigenous religious materials, especially ritual objects and symbol forms particularly caught their fancy and featured more than other aspects in their records, partly because the travellers had found them most exotic and curious. They apparently seemed very much unlike the religious forms they were familiar with in their respective homelands. They had not witnessed religious temples, churches or mosques. This in particular, had raised some serious doubt in their minds whether indigenous Africans had any religion at all. Some who believed they had found elements of a rudimentary religious tradition, employed derogatory language to describe what they had observed.
E.B. Idowu had reacted rather sharply. He criticised the travellers and pioneer writers for disseminating erroneous views and negative impression about Africans and their traditional religious culture. This is only a moot point here. There is however, a small though useful contribution of the pioneers that often tends to escape the attention of many contemporary scholars. The references and observations they publicised helped to wet the appetite of people that came later on the African scene, trained experts and lay alike. It gave rise to a more determined study of African indigenous religious culture. The interest has since grown and matured reaching a peak during the heydays of colonial enterprise in Africa. And contrary to the impression in certain circles that the phenomenal drain on adherents of the indigenous religions might lead to a waning of interest, the study of African traditional religion has continued without any appreciable decline.
The history of the development of the study is central to our discussion. For, it furnishes the background as well as certain relevant currents that determine issues of concern to scholarship. We need to grasp the context of those issues in order to better appreciate their importance and implications. My discussion of the theme of this paper will, therefore, first attempt to provide a summary of the high points in the history of the study from the early stages to the present. I shall try to highlight certain methodologies as well as conceptual schemes that have become prominent in the works of different writers and researchers on the subject. This is useful since the question of methodology and conceptual framework, as most scholars of the human sciences accept, are directly linked to the quality of result of any serious academic effort. Analysts are keen to know for example, who collected the data on which conclusions are based? What is his/her background of training? How were the data collected, etc? Also, they like to determine the thought alignment, or intellectual perspective and leaning of a writer or scholar. The clarification of these background matters should help to bring into clearer focus our discussion of the specific question of emergent key issues themselves, as well as their importance and implications for this conference.
II. Trends In The Study Of African Traditional Religion
Early European Christian missionaries as well as colonial soldiers and administrators who worked in Africa are credited with having made the first real effort to study African traditional religion and culture. They were motivated largely by curiosity, personal interest and by the practical objective of gaining some knowledge about Africans to be able to work and communicate with the host groups. Christian missionaries in particular, needed to understand the language, basic ideas and concepts of the host groups in order to proclaim and preach the Gospel and thereby convert the people. A couple of them, especially those of the British and North American extraction, did in fact, spend sometime with liberated African slaves in an effort to acquire a working knowledge of the culture and religion of their respective groups. With the help of local interpreters and assistants, some were able to translate hymnbooks and catechism texts in local African languages. Rev. Thomas Jefferson for example, compiled a dictionary of the Yoruba language and wrote sympathetically about the traditional religion of the people in 1857. Several other missionaries who did not publish works supplied descriptive accounts of traditional religious materials in the periodic reports they sent back to the headquarters of their religious congregations, or sponsoring agencies. Most of those reports are still available in archives in Europe.
Several pioneer colonial soldiers and administrators also studied aspects of the traditional of different African groups. Major Arthur G. Leonard, Percy A. Talbot in Nigeria, and Captain R.S. Rattray in Ghana are typical examples. Major Leonard for instance, was a British colonial soldier from Scotland who spent about ten years mainly in south-eastern Nigeria, 1895 - 1905. A year after his departure from Nigeria, he published a book titled; The Lower Niger And Its Tribes (1906). It was a detailed discussion of aspects of the religious beliefs, ritual practices and customs of the peoples of the lower Niger River area. He defended his emphasis on the traditional religion with the argument that, "there is, in fact, but one road that in dealing with the ... African leads to success and that road lies first of all through their own ancestral religion and custom" (A.G. Leonard, 1905: 30).
a) Trained And Government-sponsored ethnographers
The challenges of governance had prompted several local colonial administrators to seek the assistance of trained ethnographers and anthropologists. They were needed to provide vital data and information about the culture and customs, institutions, beliefs and values of indigenous groups to aid administration. In some territories like Nigeria, Kenya and Sudan, colonial officials were struggling hard to contain actual revolts and violent conflicts. The women of Aba in south-eastern Nigeria had actually revolted against the imposition of taxation in 1929. Similarly, in Kenya the violent conflict with the copper miners resulted in the death of at least, six persons. There was therefore, a felt-need in many parts of the Continent for accurate information about the people and their cultures to help in the formulation and implementation of appropriate policies.
A strong impulse in favour of engaging the services of experts in the colonial field was equally felt at the international level. After the the First World War the focus of colonial interest shifted from what Richard Brown calls, "the acquisition to the maintenance of control", and there began the first stirrings about 'development' as a consciously-induced policy. Also, the respected anthropologist and propagator of the field work approach in social anthropology, Bronislav Malinoswki had insisted that people concerned with developments in Africa must first understand the workings of the societies with which they were in contact (Talal Asad 1973: 175). A number of institutions were inaugurated, including The International Institute of African Languages and Cultures in 1926 (later known simply as the International African Institute, I.A.I.) by representatives of scientific, missionary and official colonial bodies. It had Lord Lugard as its first chairman. Its defined objective was to bring about "a closer association of scientific knowledge and research with practical affairs". The Rhodes-Livingston Institute (R.L.I.) with a similar aim, was formed in Northern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) not long after (precisely in 1937).
Several trained ethnographers and anthropologists got either recruited, or financially sponsored by the Colonial Office to provide accurate information to bolster the effort of local colonial governments. The development greatly benefitted the study of African traditional religion. Some ethnographers delved specifically into certain aspects of the indigenous religion, particularly those provoking debate at the time. M.D.W. Jeffreys and W.R.G. Horton for example, contributed their findings on the origin of certain African traditional beliefs and symbols, as well as the debate on the belief in God respectively. Some other discussed issues like witchcraft, the belief in the ancestors, etc.
Researchers like S.F. Nadel, K. Little, Monica
Wilson, Mary Douglas and Godfrey Lienhardt incorporated substantial materials from the
indigenous religious tradition in their respective works on other aspects of the
indigenous culture of Africans they had worked on. Charles K. Meek, one of the official
ethnographers who researched into traditional Igbo social, political institutions and
legal systems published a book with the title; "Law And Authority In A Nigerian
Tribe" (1957). He defended the serious attention and space he gave to the traditional
religion in his book thus;
Among the Ibo, religion and law are so closely interwoven that many of the most powerful legal sanctions are derived directly from the gods. As a preliminary therefore, to the study of the legal system of the Ibo, it will be necessary to give some description of their theology (Leonard 1905: 30).
The work of the anthropologists affected Christian missionaries in more ways than one. First, it helped to improve their attitude towards African traditional religion in general. A clear evidence of the better appreciation of traditional beliefs and practices was the incipient effort made to adapt certain local elements by a number of missionary church groups. More relevantly, several expatriate missionaries who had spent many years in Africa like Rev. George T. Basden (spent about forty years in Igboland), were encouraged to publish their studies of the beliefs and customs of the various groups and areas where they had lived and worked. Interestingly, the approach of the research of most of these missionary writers resembled very much the method of the ethnographers and anthropologist. The essays on the traditional African ideas and beliefs about God published in the edited anthology by Rev. Edwin W. Smith; African Ideas of God (1950) is a typical example.
b). The Effort Of Early African Writers And Scholars
The entry of indigenous African writers and
scholars into the study of African traditional religion was a significant development in
the evolution of the subject. The group includes African writers and scholars of the
pre-independence era as well as ordained ministers and clerics with Christian theological
background of training belonging to both the Francophone and Anglophone traditions. Given
the prominent place of religion in traditional African life and culture, it was not a
surprise that many early western-educated Africans should discuss and incorporate aspects
of it in their publications. Most of them were strong nationalist writers and include
people like Mbonu Ojike, J.B. Danquah, and Kenneth Kaunda. They were keen to disabuse the
minds of Europeans concerning the widely publicised inferiority of the black race and the
distortion of their culture in the writings of colonial writers and some Christian
missionary authors. Danquah (1944) in particular, was furious with those European authors
who sought to discrimate against the belief of indigenous Africans in God. He strongly
contended that Africans have as much genuine belief in God as Europeans.
The aim of the first and second generations of ordained African cleric-scholars with Christian theological background of training, may be more religious than political. But, like the nationalists they also tried to correct misrepresentations of the indigenous culture in western scholarship, as well as show that Africa has viable traditional religious ideas, ritual practices, institutions and values institutions that could be adapted to benefit Christianity in the Continent.
Vincent Mulago and A. Kagame were among the first generation ordained African cleric-scholars of the Francophone background who took up the study of Bantu cosmology from where the Belgian missionary author, Placide Temples left off. They tried to present the traditional worldview along the lines of Scholastic philosophy. Their theory of vital force and hierarchy of beings drew mainly on the indigenous religious traditions of the peoples of Central Africa. Mulago for example, suggested that Bantu traditional religion is based on the belief in two worlds, one visible and the other invisible, the belief in the communitarian and hierarchic character of these two worlds; the interaction between the two worlds, and the belief in a Supreme Being, Creator and Father of all that exists (Westlund 71). Other French-speaking scholars influenced by Temples' theory include F.M. Lufuluabo and E.N. Mujynya. African cleric-scholars of the Anglophone tradition have been more theological than philosophical in their approach. Between late 1950s and early 1970s, a number of these scholars including, Harry Sawyerr, E.B. Idowu, J.S. Mbiti, F.A. Arinze, S.N. Ezeanya, and E.C. Ilogu worked on a wide range of issues in African traditional religion. Mbiti and Idowu wrote general texts to guide the systematic study of African traditioanl religion. Others including Sawyerr, Arinze, Ezeanya investigated important aspects of the subject like the belief in ancestors, ritual sacrifice, traditional morality, etc.
In addition to their individual writings, many of these early African cleric-scholars played notable roles, in the footsteps of a handful European pioneer scholars like E.G. Parrinder, in promoting the study of African traditional religion in institutions of higher education, including universities and theological faculties in different parts of Africa; Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, etc. Idowu, Mbiti, Ezeanya, Mulago and others designed and taught courses in African religions in departments of religious studies and theological faculties. They trained successive groups of graduates and scholars to carry on research on different aspects of the traditional religion.
The interest and effort of anthropologists and sociologists did not completely cease in the study of African religion. Rather, with the ever-growing success of the missionary religions, mainly Christianity and Islam in many parts of Africa, a number of western scholars (Africanists) diverted their attention to the study of religious change and conversion as well as new religious movements in Africa. Interestingly, their investigation of the cause, course and consequence of religious change often bring them face to face with the traditional religious culture of the people. It is pertinent therefore, to note that many of the published works, including those of R. Horton, J.D.Y. Peel, R. Hackett on the themes of conversion and new religious movements in Africa often incorporated considerable materials from African traditional religion.
c. The Contemporary Stage
The cumulative effort of researchers and writers finally led to the emergence of African traditional religion as a full-fledged academic discipline about four decades ago. African traditional religion has since become part of the curriculum of several academic institutions in Africa and other parts of the world. It is a major course offered in departments of religious studies in universities, colleges of higher education and research institutes. Students are free to major in African traditional religion at diploma, bachelor, masters and doctorate degrees. In Nigeria for example, the "Minimum Academic Standards of the National Universities' Commission" places African traditional religion on a similar pedestal as Christianity and Islam, that is, weighted one third of the total credits required for a bachelor's degree in religious studies. African traditional religion is also a favoured area for research students, as several candidates register for their graduate programme on the subject.
The systematic study of African traditional has achieved a measure of acceptability as an academic discipline. It is generally classified in the group of traditional/indigenous religions or primal world-views of humankind. The general aim of the study is to present systematically the authentic experience of the sacred by the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa (within the Continent and in diaspora), in their different socio-historical circumstances and backgrounds. African traditional religion is essentially oral and folk religion. A persistent effort is currently being made by scholars of different intellectual hues and backgrounds to push forward the frontiers of the subject through a critical approach to certain important issues of methodology and conceptual scheme that are adopted for the study.
III. Key Issues In Contemporary Scholarship
Notwithstanding the progress already made in the systematic study, African traditional religion is still a relatively young academic discipline. It is barely forty years old as a subject in its own right. The volume of literature that has accumulated is sizeable, although this says nothing about the quality of the publications. The subject has no doubt, surmounted certain teething problems, including long-standing prejudice and discrimination to bring it to the present status. But there are a number of key issues, many of them deriving from the historical roots of the subject, while others are part of the rigorous requirements of the subject as a serious academic discipline. For purposes of our discussion, I shall group these issues into three broad categories, namely; issues of nomenclature and terminology, issues relating to methodology and theoretical presuppositions as well as schemes of interpretation, and finally issues connected to the content of African traditional religion.
a). Nomenclature And Terminology
It may sound rather elementary. But the issue of the precise name of the subject has not been fully settled (E. Ikenga-Metuh 1987: 19). A group of scholars, led by E.B. Idowu, insist that one could legitimately speak of One African Traditional Religion, that is, in the singular (E. Idowu 1973: 103). J.S. Mbiti thinks that there is no basis for such a position. He maintains that the title of the subject should be in the plural; African Traditional Religions, Many not One. The debate engaged the attention of scholarship and constantly featured in publications and conferences for a considerable period of time.
J.V. Taylor had earlier pointed out that there is a remarkable number of features as well as the fact of a basic world-view which fundamentally is everywhere the same in sub-Saharan Africa. Idowu pressed the argument further;
... a careful look through actual observation and comparative discussions with Africans from various parts of the continent, will show, first and foremost, that there is a common factor which the coined word negritude will express aptly. There is a common Africanness about the total culture and religious beliefs and practices of Africa. This common factor may be due either to the fact of diffusions or to the fact that most Africans share common origins with regard to race and customs and religious practices. (Quoted in A. Shorter 1975: 48).
J.S. Mbiti is not convinced. While he accepts the existence of a single, basic religious philosophy for Africa, he is emphatic that there are as many religions in the sub-Saharan African background as there are distinct ethno-language groups. "We speak of African religions in the plural because there are about on thousand African peoples (tribes), and each has its own religious system" (J.S. Mbiti 1969: 1-2). African traditional religions are not universal but tribal, each being bound and limited to the people among whom it has evolved. One traditional religion cannot be propagated in another tribal group. And there is no conversion from one traditional religion to another.
The views of scholars were for a long time split along the two positions, with authors like Benjamin Ray and E. Ikenga-Metuh supporting the opinion of Mbiti. More recent scholarship appears however, to favour the use of African Traditional Religion in the singular. The argument being that the existence of a common world-view as well as similarities in belief-systems, ritual forms, values and institutions across the various regions of the continent, provide a sufficient basis for keeping the singular form of the name. There is no reason to single out African traditional religion, while accepting as normal a multiplicity of denominations, even rival sects in other religions of humankind, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Still on the issue of nomenclature, it is pertinent to note that Mbiti has also made the point that he regards Christianity and Islam should now be regarded as indigenous and traditional religions of Africa because of their deep historical roots in the continent (Mbiti 1990: 223). His point of view has not won acceptance among scholars. Most people retain and use the word 'traditional' for the original experience of the sacred, cultivated by the Africa man and the concrete expression of that experience within the different ecological and socio-historical backgrounds. Being traditional does not however, mean unchangeable from age to age. Rather, in keeping with the original sense of the term (trado, ere), it implies that the living experience and expression are handed-on from one successive generation to another. This is also the sense in which the term 'indigenous' (home-grown), is commonly used today.
The related issue of terminology is closely connected with the history of the development of the subject. For a considerable period of time, certain terms with clear negative and degrading connotations were employed by writers to refer to African religious elements, ethnocentric words like primitive, savage, native, and tribe. Other expressions are paganism, heathenism, idolatory, animism, fetishism and totemism. The use of these expressions mainly by Western anthropologists and evolutionists, forms part of the background of the serious racial prejudice and discrimination against Africans. Scholars like E.B. Idowu, have tried to examine the etymological implications of most of these terms and to show why they are not acceptable in the study of African traditional religion. It is not our intention to reopen the discussion in this paper. Fortunately, the terms are no longer used by informed writers on the subject.
There are however, expressions like 'Supreme Being', 'Ancestor worship', 'Witchcraft and Sorcery' whose usage in the subject, at one time or another provoke some debate among scholars. The debate has not been strong to constitute a serious issue. On the use of Supreme Being for example, most contemporary writers agree that the expressions; 'high god', deus otiosus, deus remotus, deus incertus are obnoxious and unacceptable. But less people are opposed to the use of 'Supreme Being'. They believe that the expression approximates better the actual belief of indigenous Africans with the experience of various powerful local deities (spirit-beings), than the term, God (in the strict it is understood in Christianity or Islam). Concerning the expression ancestor worship which is supposed to refer to the recognition of the strong African belief in ancestral beings, many scholars accept its usage as appropriate with the proviso that the belief in the Supreme Being is not confused or compromised.
The important point that has been made is that the History of Religions/Comparative Religion as a broad academic discipline, possesses an adequate stock of acceptable vocabulary from which one should draw appropriate terms and concepts for the study of African traditional religion. The situation where one set of biased, obnoxious and discriminatory expressions are reserved for Africans, and a different set reserved for other religions, should be avoided.
b). Issues Of Methodology
Issues related to methodology, as earlier stated, are central in the systematic study of African traditional religion as they are bound up with the quality of work and result one hopes to achieve. They concern data on which analysis is based, their collection and viability. And they are closely linked and determined, as in other disciplines, by the nature and characteristic features of the subject. Incidentally, several scholars both Africans and Westerners clearly recognise the essential elements of African traditional religion. But many fail to press home the implications of such significant elements for methodology in their respective works.
The first of these key methodological issues we discuss concerns the significance of oral sources in the unearthing of data for the study. African traditional religion is essentially an oral and pervasive religion. It is a typical "religion of structure" (E.N. Zuesse 1985: 7). It is diffused in all spheres of life. And it invests all facets of life with meaning and significance. The social, economic and political aspects of life of the people are hedged round with sacredness and supernatural sanction, while important interests and phases in the cycle of life and nature are ritualised. The supernatural sheds into the natural, the invisible into the visible, and spiritual beings as well as supersensible cosmic forces impinge on and influence the affairs of humans.
As an essentially oral tradition, African indigenous religion was until recently communicated by word of mouth, preserved and transmitted from one generation to the next through a wide variety of language-related means. It is discoverable not in any 'sacred books' as such, since none was written, but rather in the warp and woof of people's lives, in the labyrinth of the evolving socio-cultural networks of different traditional groups.
Another significant element of African indigenous religion is that it is a folk and locally-rooted religion. People simply assimilate the religion of their forebears. There is hardly any effort to propagate it across ethno-language boundaries and communities. In the words of E. Isichei, its worship is closely tied to local shrines and oracles. This is an aspect of the segmentary and largely small-scale autonomous communities that make up much of traditional African socio-political societies. There are similarities in cultural experiences particularly within individual language groups. But at times, the differences in beliefs, institutions and practices from one community to another, could become significant.
These inherent features of the subject have far-reaching implications for methodology. For one thing, they bring into focus the issue of who collects the data. How equipped is such a person, in other words, how disposed and prepared is such a person to be able to collect viable data? They also bring up the question of generalisation and comparison in the study of African traditional religion. Could one simply presume that the basis for generalisation or comparison exists or should one be concerned to establish such a basis? How significant to the systematic study of African traditional religion are the variations that may exist in belief systems, ritual practices, symbols and values within individual language groups?
Partly because of the kind of questions that dominated scholarship in the past, a less than serious attention was paid to the issues of methodology. Ethnographers and social anthropologists of both the colonial and post-colonial periods were more keen "to record for posterity in their view, the last vestiges of the primitive cultures which the 20th-century was about to engulf" (Jones 1974: 33). Some of them were able to master the language of the different groups they studied. They showed a good grasp of the religious culture of individual African groups. Commendable as their efforts are, they were too particularist in their approach (Shorter 39). Besides, they presented synchronic accounts thereby creating the impression that African traditional religion is static and unchanging. The social anthropologists were not really interested in the issue of methodology towards the development of the systematic study of African traditional religion.
The first generation of African scholars on the other hand, played an important role mainly in the explanation of the significance of elements of African traditional religion. Many of them headed departments of Religious Studies in universities and theological faculties and contributed, in no small measure to the evolution of the systematic study of the indigenous religion of Africa. However, the background of training and vocation of many of this group of African scholars of the traditional religion are significant in appreciating their general attitude to research and quality of their respective contributions. They were not only ordained Christian ministers, they were specialists in one branch of Christian Theology or another. Rev. Canon John S. Mbiti is a top minister of the Anglican Church. Revd. E.B. Idowu discharged his sacred duties as an ordained minister of the Methodist Church of Nigeria while occupying the Chair of Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan. Similarly, Rev. S.N. Ezeanya, Rev. Canon E.C. Ilogu as well as Rev. H. Sawyerr occupied the Chair of Religion at the Universities of Nigeria, Nsukka and Fourah Bay, Sierra Leone respectively while serving as chaplains to students. The academic background of their training in Graeco-Roman philosophy and Christian Theology did not prepare them to fully appreciate the implications of the nature and characteristic elements of African traditional religion for methodology. Neither did their involvement in pastoral ministry allow them much time to engage in serious and sustained research in the field for the collection of viable data (D. Westlund 1985: 44f).
Many of the scholars simply assumed that their personal acquaintance of the traditional beliefs and practices of their respective communities was sufficiently representative of the entire language-group. They, therefore, easily generalised on the basis of such limited knowledge without bothering themselves with the rigours of detailed field-work or search for any variant materials. Some others, under the pretext that they are concerned with only the theology of African traditional religion, choose to depend mainly on the data and findings of social anthropologists and ethnographers with all their inherent limitations. Virtually every traditional community is credited with a more or less uniform possession of and emphasis on such important features as the belief in the Supreme Being, Ancestors, Religious Institutions and Practices. The systematic study of African traditional religion has, without doubt, been seriously affected by these limitations.
c. Issues Related To Interpretation
Interconnected with methodology are issues relating to theoretical presuppositions and models of interpretation of unearthed materials in the study of African traditional religion. Strictly speaking, conceptual schemes of interpretation or analysis of data, generally fall within the broad area of methodology. We have decided to treat them separately here for ease of analysis.
Writers and scholars of different intellectual hues and backgrounds have contributed to the study. Some of the researchers were evolutionists who hold strongly the theory of unilineal stage by stage development of culture and civilisation. The diffusionists among them worked from the perspective that holds that whatever higher cultural form found in sub-Saharan Africa, derived its origin from an external source, that is old hamitic hypothesis. On the other hand, many ethnographers and social anthropologists were equipped with one refurbished version of Marxian or Frazerian theory or another in their studies of African traditional religion. Many of the African scholars who systematically sought to explain the indigenous religion, as already mentioned, adopted the schemes of scholastic philosophy and theology from their Christian background of training.
These intellectual perspectives which prevailed in the systematic study of African traditional religion have recently come under close scrutiny. Contemporary students of African studies (religion and other related disciplines are interested to know how effective, and to what extent those perspectives really contributed in advancing our knowledge through providing full existential and semantic explanation of the traditional African religious experience and expression. The development is bound to be of major significance in the systematic study of African traditional religion. For, as Newell S. Booth (Jr) correctly pointed out "many Western students of Africa - historians of religions, anthropologists, and others - exploit Africa for their own academic or ideological purposes" (N.S. Booth Jr. 1977: 4). In a similar vein, R. Horton is highly critical and suggests that the 'Judeo-Christian spectacles' being used by several African Christian-trained scholars is 'more a bane than a boon in the study of African religion'. Okot p'Bitek was quite categorical in his assertion that African scholars of the traditional religion are "intellectual smugglers" (Okot p'Bitek 1971: 107) who dress up African deities in borrowed garbs (Graeco-Roman Philosophy and Judeo-Christian Theology) and using them "as mercenaries in foreign battles, none of which was in the interest of African peoples" (p'Bitek 1971: 102).
The criticisms have clearly heightened the concern of scholarship over issues relating to theoretical presuppositions and interpretational models. Students of African in particular, have reacted in a number of ways. Some people tend to discriminate against or refuse to accept that social anthropologists who adopt Marxian or Durkheimian ideological scheme could make any worthwhile contribution in the study of African religion. Some others strongly advocate that ordained African Christian ministers should be excluded from the study since their Christian formation and background of training already predisposes them to biased conclusions. They maintain that the era of searching for materials to 'baptise' in African traditional religious culture is now over.
But this line of thinking seems to miss out the critical issue in the argument. It is in fact, not a matter of deciding in advance who may, or may not engage in the study African traditional religion. The issue revolves around the adoption of an interpretitional scheme that would best render the faith of the traditional religious faith of the people meaningful and in a way that most approximates the indigenous understanding. And people who choose to engage in the study should always bear in mind the important note of caution about the dangers of reductionism, and of 'reading-in or reading-out meanings' in the study of African religion, or any other religion for that matter. Wilfred Cantwell Smith made the point that; "It is no longer enough to talk about people of other religions, or to them; now we must talk with them. The historian of religions, ideally, is one who recognizes 'that we - all of us - live together in a world in which not they, not you, but some of us are Muslims, some are Hindus, some are Jews, some are Christians'. Perhaps, it will be possible to add, 'some of us are communits, some inquirers, some of us are African traditional believers?' He concludes that, 'anyone who writes about a religion other than his own today does so, in effect, in the presence of those about whom he is speaking, ... no statement about a religion is valid unless it can be acknowledged by that religion's believers'" (Quoted in N.S. Booth Jr. 1977: 4).
Already there are indications of some positive response. More and more scholars are beginning to take seriously the need for viable interpretational schemes that will help to render the full meaning and significance of traditional African religious materials. A good number of researchers have begun to turn their attention to alternative theoretical frameworks like the phenomenological approach. This perspective has developed and gained currency in the History of Religions as being capable of providing a more viable conceptual scheme towards the systematic literary reconstruction of African indigenous religion. As the name implies, it is an approach whereby "that which shows itself is let to be seen from itself just as it shows itself" (rather than be force into any preconceived theoretical schemes). The phenomenological perspective equally allows for the adoption of a multi-dimensional method, thus it is possible to combine a number of cognate schemes and methods including those of social anthropology, theology and ethno-history in the study
d). The Subtance/Content Of The Religion
Issues relating to the content or substance of
African traditional religion are closely tied and corollary to the problem of the problem
of methodology. And they also derive from the major trend that marked the study of African
traditional religion in the past. In other words, they arise mainly because of the kind of
questions that for a long time, occupied the attention of scholarship in the subject.
The views of critics like p'Bitek and Booth, jr. that traditional African religious materials and deities were exploited and used as mercenaries in a foreign battle by African and non-African writers and scholars, may not be altogether untrue. A close look at the literature reveals that people availed of traditional African religious materials often for purposes other than its systematic exposition. The evolutionists and diffusionists referred to 'fetishes' reportedly found in the West Coast, and elements of the so-called high culture in sub-Saharan Africa in the effort to prop up their arm-chair theories of the origin of religion, or the assumed role of the hamitic stock in spreading high civilisation. On the other hand, E.C. Ilogu appears to have articulated a primary motivation of many of the first generation of African Christian-trained scholars who researched into the traditional religion in his statement that it was in order to find out the best way "we can graft our religious culture past on the vitality of the Christian present ... the expression of Christianity in an African way of life". (Ilogu 1977, p.xv). An African student of religion retorted that Ilogu's kind of scholarship of seeking out and baptising aspects of African religious culture might perhaps, be acceptable in its own specific context, and the contribution a legitimate one. But, it is highly doubtful if such an approach could lay claim to doing justice to the systematic reconstruction of African traditional religion as a subject in its own right.
Partly because of the externally-induced interests and objectives which dominated the study, certain questions of less importance in the traditional religion got over-flogged, while some others of major significance, received at best, little attention in most of the existing literature. The belief in the Supreme Being makes a typical case. For the vast majority of traditional African religion adherents, it is the belief in and reverence of the deities, ancestors, fear of spirits, ritual sacrifice, ritual symbols, initiation rituals, healing, divination, medicine-making and upright living as well as their interrelated values like, enhancement of life, continuity, community-living, etc. that are focal issues of their religious consciousness and life. The Supreme Being does not feature prominently, although this is not a denial of the existence. But, it is that belief, the attributes and cult of the Supreme Being that dominated the interest of writers and researchers for a long time. And the debate is far from ended. Only recently, a number of well known African literary scholars reopened it. Professor D.I. Nwoga published a small but powerful booklet with the title; The Supreme Being A Stranger In Igbo Religious Thought. He was quickly followed by another literary scholar, Professor Chukwumah Azuonye who thinks that it is Ala (Earth-deity) not Chukwu who is the Supreme Being in Igbo traditional religious thought.
The key issue connected with the content or substance of African traditional religion revolves mainly around the kind of questions that should be given prominence in research. Should they be mainly issues that emanate from the nature of the subject and for those advance the literary reconstruction of the indigenous religion, or rather those that are aimed at answering academic concerns that are largely external to the subject? I am inclined to believe that greater attention and emphasis should be given to the latter than the former. In other words, topics that are of importance to the religion and its adherents should engage the attention of scholarship.
Focussing attention on themes that are of immediate relevance in the indigenous religion, has the great potential of at last helping students to come to terms with with the problem of providing the much-needed historical depth in the study. T.O. Ranger and I.N. Kimambo, The Historical Study Of African Religion (1972) among others, have drawn attention to the importance of adopting a historical approach. But the appeal was largely unheeded since many students of African religion are not prepared to appreciate fully its importance nor have they been equipped with necessary skills to seriously work with oral sources. The motivations and objectives for studying the religion were mainly external to the subject. And scholars were busy seeking out information to respond to those goals. The emphasis on themes that are really significant to the adherents of the traditional religion, should induce scholars to explore and adopt appropriate tools for handling oral sources available in such related fields as ethno-history towards providing meaningful historical dimension in the systematic study of African traditional religion.
When I received the invitation to participate in this training session, I was delighted, particularly by the fact that the topic assigned to me to discuss is one that I am familiar with. But at a second thought, I wondered what business the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (whose primary work as I understand it, has to do with the promotion of dialogue among members of different religions and religionists towards greater peace and harmony in today's plural world), as well as other participants in this seminar have with a topic that should normally be the concern of academic scholarship as such. I was afraid that I might end up discussing with a wrong kind of audience. As I moved from one section of the paper to another, I regained my confidence because I got convinced that the topic, Key Issues In The Study Of African Traditional Religion, belongs also to members of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and participants in this seminar.
Why do I now think that the topic belongs also to this Seminar? The answer is not too difficult to figure out. Anyone who really wants to engage in a serious dialogue with African traditional religion and its adherents, or any other religion for that matter, stands a better chance of successfully doing so if he/she understands the cultural background, major tenets, practices and values of the dialogue partner.
Unfortunately, most adherents of African indigenous religion, as it well known, are not literate enough to be able to articulate the major articles of their religious faith in scholarly works and settings such as this. The traditional religion of the African ancestors depends on her children who, though may no longer be devotees and active members, still possess the African blood running in their veins. People whose fundamental vision of reality remains at its core, African. Most of us participating in the seminar possess this basic element. We are literate Africans, and also Christians. We are keen to promote interreligious dialogue, particularly between Christianity and African traditional religion. We have an extra job to discharge towards a fruitful realisation of our objective. We have to act as 'translators' and 'interpreters' for African traditional religion. A non-African could also perform that role but only if such person possesses the necessary qualities, including the disposition and knowledge of the accumulated insight and vision of reality of the African people.
Our special situation therefore, makes it necessary for African Christians to possess also the required knowledge of the traditional religion, if we intend to have the indigenous religion as a serious partner in a meaningful dialogue with Christianity. We should be interested and engaged in the study of the indigenous religion of our ancestors to be able to discharge the expected role creditably, so that the two religions (African traditional religion and Christianity), as well as their adherents who are partners in the dialogue can understand and communicate fruitfully with each another.
The success of our effort to comprehend the beliefs, practices, institutions and values of African traditional religion will largely depends on the extent we are able to appreciate what various people have been able to write about the subject. We would need to understand the existing literary contributions, the strengths and also the weaknesses of the studies that have been made. We would need to know what the key issues in the subject are. What are the characteristic features of the traditional religion. We would need also to know the methodologies that have prevailed in the study, their respective merits and limitations, the schemes that apparently hold out brighter prospects. We would need to guard against the pitfalls that have impaired the literary reconstruction of African traditional religion. These are some of the issues I have tried to grapple with in this paper.
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