by Chidi Denis Isizoh

1. Introductory Remarks

Traditional Religions (TR) are both geographically and culturally bound. Although certain common elements can be established between the practices of different TR followers, it is difficult to group them as one. This explains why no specific name is used. The name is determined by the geographical location. The followers are found mainly in Africa, Asia, Australia, and, in an "inculturated form", in the Americas.

Our short reflection will make reference only to African Traditional Religion (ATR) for two reasons: the continent has the best developed practice of traditional religions, and I have personally met and worked with some of the adherents of the religion.

ATR has no sacred texts. All the tenets of the religion are handed on orally, sometimes with updates according to the period of time. Yet the religion constitutes "the religious context in which a good number of people in Africa live or have lived". (PCID).

Most of the authentic practising followers of ATR are not educated in the Euro-American system of thought and, therefore, are not prepared for academic or doctrinal dialogue with Christianity. But the followers are extremely friendly and often very disposed to welcome other believers.

There is no such thing as a hierarchy which can speak for the religion. It has to be person to person contact, often better when it is spontaneous. The Europeans who met leaders of ATR in the early days of evangelization found communication difficult because neither understood the language of the other. If one wants to engage an ATR adherent in dialogue, one has to learn the language for communication. There is a great difference between speaking through an interpreter and speaking the same language of one's interlocutors. "A whole way of thinking is rooted in the mental structures, ... the African languages ... have an ancient wisdom in their maxims." (1)

For a fruitful discussion, it is necessary that those who approach the followers of ATR should do so with religious respect. The observation made by an English missionary in Nigeria in 1902 remains valid:

There are innumerable ramifications which I have been unable to follow, and a vast amount upon which were I directly questioned, I should say, 'I don't know'. The more one investigates, the more one realises the extreme profundity of native thought. It seems so superficial yet, actually, it is infinitely more involved than the white man's logic, and he finds it extremely difficult to interpret it satisfactorily.(2)

In our own time the people that most frequently present the religion to the outside world are university people, priests and some of the Christian faithful who engage in dialogue of life with the followers of ATR.

2. The religious background of the Africans

"Africans are notoriously religious."(3) This assertion by one of the renowned African scholars can be verified in the lives of most Africans, be they exposed to the Euro-American influences or not. Religion permeates every aspect of the African life.(4)John Mbiti expresses this religiosity forcefully:

Wherever the African is, there is his religion: he carries it to the fields where he is sowing seeds or harvesting a new crop; he takes it with him to the beer party or to attend a funeral ceremony; and if he is educated, he takes religion with him to the examination room at school or in the university; if he is a politician he takes it to the house of parliament. Although many African languages do not have a word for religion as such, it nevertheless accompanies the individual from long before his birth to long after his physical death.(5)

Another author expresses the same point thus:

Religion was (and remains) a vital part of the lives of most Africans. For some it encompassed their entire existence. It substantiated and explained their place in the universe; their culture, and their relationship to nature at large. Religion among most African ethnic groups was not simply a faith or worship system; it was a way of life, a system of social control, a provider of medicine, and an organizing mechanism.(6)

Right from the womb, through birth, infancy, puberty, initiation, marriage, and funeral, many African societies have religious rituals for each phase of life.(7) Each day begins with prayer, offering of kolanut and pouring of libation. Major steps in the life of any given traditional community involve consultation of fortune-tellers and diviners to ascertain the will of God and the spirits. It is rare to find any act, human or otherwise, some without religious explanation for it.

This religiosity explains, in part, why there has been a high turn over from Traditional religion to Christianity or Islam in Africa. It accounts also for the quick spread of many groups of religious families and traditions in the continent. David B. Barret has recorded a long list of religious groups operating in Africa.(8) The number is ever increasing year after year.

3. Motivations for the approach of Christians to followers of ATR

The earliest missionaries to Africa did not have the opportunity to get all the information we have today from Anthropology, Ethnology, History, Geography and even the theology of the Mission. The result was that the adherents of ATR were dismissed as pagans, animists, pantheists, superstitious people, magicians, even devil worshippers. The first catechism book I ever read has ATR worship as the first in the list of mortal sins.

The approach of the Catholic Church, especially after Vatican II, to followers of ATR or converts from it has a special qualification. The Church is interested in the religion, from a pastoral point of view (PCID). This is a self-examination of the Church, to find what she has done or not done to reach the hearts of the followers of traditional religion and make a home for Christ in them.

The following could be considered as some of the things that motivate Christians to approach the followers of ATR:

A) Salvation and development of peoples

The first motivation (the "divine task" of the missionaries) for approach to the followers of ATR was, as expressed by Pope Benedict XV: "to light the torch for those sitting in the shadows of death, and open the gate of heaven to those who rush to their destruction."(9)This is the driving force which sustained many missionaries that worked in different parts of Africa. Many of them lost their health and even their lives.

The desire to save the people from the "darkness of superstition" went beyond mere instruction of them "in the true faith of Christ"(10) to an overall cultural advancement and civilization of the "uncivilized peoples". Hence the European system of education was introduced and promoted by missionaries.

B) Desire to penetrate the depth of the spiritual treasury of ATR.

After more than hundred years of intensive missionary activities among the followers of ATR, some of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa have the following reports (11)to make:

Burkina Faso: «La religion traditionnelle africaine survit toujours, même si elle va s'effritant. Malgré la modernisation et le mouvement de Christianisation et d'Islamisation, son influence reste profonde sur les consciences des individus.»

Cameroun: «La religione traditionnelle demeure vivace dans toutes les couches de la société camerounaise. Elle s'accommode aisément des exigences de la science, de la technologie et ne se trouve nullement freinée par les structures d'un Etat moderne.»

Ghana: «On the surface, African Traditional Religion seems to be dying out, but this is not so.»

Sudan: «ATR adherents number some 30% of the population of about 8 million people.»

Uganda: « ATR is solidly entrenched in the lives of millions of people and, therefore, cannot be ignored.»

Why is ATR still exerting much influence on the people despite many years of intensive missionary work? Why are there still in many places people who are unwilling to leave ATR? Why do those who are converted to Christianity return in certain moments of their lives to some aspects of the ATR practice?

There is need to enter into the world of the "die-hards" in ATR to discover what spiritual richness, what fears, what elements, profound as they may be, attract, and sustain the followers of ATR or what draws back the half-converted Christians who return from time to time to the practice of the religion.

C) Desire to adopt some of the important values in ATR

If Christianity had come directly from the Middle East to Africa, it would probably have been more easily understood and appreciated by the pre-Christian followers of ATR. But having been filtered through European culture, it had acquired many abstract terms and some of the values which do not always touch the spiritual depth of the religious African person. This in itself has created a certain distance between ATR and Christianity.

Such values as family, community, appreciation of life as a gift from God, sense of the Sacred, are deeply appreciated and lived in ATR. The Church, especially in Africa, seeks to adapt some of these values and re-interpret them in Christian categories, and ennoble them

Pope John Paul II has particularly encouraged this initiative. To the bishops of Nigeria, 1982, he said:

An important aspect of your own evangelising role is the whole dimension of the inculturation of the Gospel into the lives of your people. Here, you and your priests co-workers offer to your people a perennial message of divine revelation - "the unsearchable riches of Christ" (Ep 3:8) - but at the same time, on the basis of this "eternal Gospel" (Rv 14:6), you help them "to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought".

The Church truly respects the culture of each people. In offering the Gospel message, the Church does not intend to destroy or to abolish what is good and beautiful. In fact she recognises many cultural values and through the power of the Gospel purifies and takes into Christian worship certain elements of a people's customs. The Church comes to bring Christ; she does not come to bring the culture of another race. Evangelization aims at penetrating and elevating culture by the power of the Gospel.

To Bishops of Mali, 1990, the same Pope spoke:

In dialogue with those who remain attached to the traditional African religions, encourage a benevolent concern for the values they profess so as to recognise with discernment that which can remain as an integral part of the common good. Collaboration will often be possible and beneficial for the service of society. And, while maintaining an invaluable part of the traditional heritage, Christians will be able to give a clear witness to their own faith in Jesus Christ, in a naturally fraternal dialogue.

D) Desire to explore some of the concepts in ATR which have become important issues in contemporary international discussions

i) Ecology

ATR takes Nature serious as God's work and, therefore, respects it. Pope John Paul made the followings remark to the Voodoo worshippers of Togo in 1985:

Nature, luxuriant and splendid in this place of forests and lakes, imbues minds and hearts with its mystery, and spontaneously directs them towards the Mystery of the one who is the Author of life. It is this religious sentiment that inspires you and that inspires, one might say, the whole of your compatriots. May this sense of the Sacred, which has always characterised the human heart created in the image of God, bring man to desire always to draw closer to this creator God in spirit and in truth, to recognise him, to adore him, to thank him, to seek his will.

Discussions on ozone layers, green peace movement, "earth matters", have become very important in the international circles. The care and attention which ATR gives to Nature as God's own work has helped to initiate and promote the evolving branch of studies known as ecological theology.

ii) God the Mother

ATR has a place for the conception of God in completely feminine terms in some parts of Africa.

The African concept of God is not altogether masculine. In many parts of Africa, God is conceived as male, but in some other parts, he is conceived as female; the Ndebele and Shona ethnic groups of former Rhodesia have a triad made up of God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Son. The Nuba of Sudan regard God as "Great Mother" and speak of him in feminine pronouns.... Although called the queen of Lovedu in South Africa, the mysterious "She" is not primarily a ruler but a rain-maker; she is regarded as a changer of seasons and the guarantor of their cyclic regularity.(12)

Among the societies that are matriarchal, God is often invoked as Mother. The southern Nuba tribe use feminine terms to describe God. They even refer to him (in their context I should say "her") as "Great Mother" who gave birth to earth and to mankind. Among another tribe there is the saying" "The mother of pots is a hole in the ground, the mother of people is God".(13)The invocation of God as female is found among those whose "social organisation is centred on the home and position of the mother".(14)The Ewe people have powerful female-male combination of Mawu/Lisa as the Supreme being(s). Mawu who is female is often spoken of as the Supreme being. She is gentle and forgiving. Indeed it is said that when Lisa punishes people, Mawu grants forgiveness.

Putting together many questions I have been receiving in the past eight months from those who have visited my internet webpage on Africa Traditional Religion,(15) it seems to me that there is a growing number of researchers who think that the concept of God as Mother, as found among some African peoples, needs more careful attention from theologians.



1) Secretariatus pro Non-Christianis, Meeting The African Religions, (Roma, 1968),136.

2) Basden G.T., Niger Ibos, (London, 21966), xviii.

3) Mbiti J.S., African Religions and Philosophy (New York, 1990), 1; also his Introduction to African Religion (Oxford, 1975), 30.

4) "In spite of their many and varied religious systems the ubiquity of religious consciousness among African peoples constitutes their single most important common characteristic." Paris P.J., The Spirituality of African Peoples, The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis, 1995), 27.

5) African Religions and Philosophy, 2. The same idea is expressed by many African scholars some of whom we mention as example: Parrinder E.G., West African Religion, London, 1961; Idowu E.B., Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, London, 1962; Awolalu J.O., West African Traditional Religion, Ibadan, 1979.

6) Holloway J.E., ed., Africanisms in American Culture, (Bloomington, 1990), 37.

7) J.S. Mbiti documents many examples from several African societies. Cf. African Religions and Philosophy, 107 - 161. In his Concept of God in Africa, he dedicates a whole chapter to discuss Africans' "Times and Places of Worship": every day; at the observation of the rites of passage; at the harvest ceremony; at planting time; in time of war or raid; in time of drought or when rain is needed; at the time of distress, illness, calamity, or other disaster; before or during an undertaking; annually or monthly; on special days and occasions; and other times. See Chapter 20.

8) Barret D., ed., World Christian Encyclopaedia, Nairobi, 1982.

9) Benedict XV, Maximum Illud, 30 November, 1919, AAS 11 (1919), 442; cf. Hickey R., Modern Missionary Documents and Africa (Dublin, 1982), 42. The was a prayer for the conversion of Africa in which the people of the continent were referred to as "people wandering in the valley of darkness where they are destined to be lost for ever until your (God's) Son came to redeem them".

10) Pius XI, Rerum Ecclesiae, 28 February 1926, AAS (1926), 66; Hickey, Op. cit., 53.

11) cf. Replies to the questions posed in the Lineamenta for the African Synod 1994.

12) "The Role of Women in African Traditional Religion," in Onupona J.K., ed., African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, (New York, 1991), 74.

13) G.W. Dymond holds that the saying is from among the Ovambo tribe. See Smith E.W., ed., African Ideas of God, 146.

14) Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, 53.

15) See also