African Religion

By Laurenti Magesa

The premise of this book is that African religion can only be spoken of in the singular. While acknowledging the diversities of the African people, he says, these are just varieties of expression as we find in other world religions- Islam: Sunnis, Shiites- than basic belief.

In treating of world religions, he argues African Religion has not been treated as a world religion as a result of prejudice of 19th C scholarship, tainted by Darwinism, slave trading and a colonial mentality. He gives an example of Henry M. Stanley’s description of the African person as

Barbarous, materialist, childish and inarticulate creature, almost stupefied with brutish ignorance, with the instincts of man in him, but yet living the life of a beast.

Those who do not recognize African Religion as a world religion argue it has no written scripture. While this is true, it must be noted that all other world religions were orally based before they were codified in writing. The second objection is that it is not a revealed religion. In response to this, the African conceives of his religion as continuing and ever present. It is in this sense more morally based than ethically based. The third objection cited is lack of interest in aggressive proselytizing. This he says cannot hold because Hinduism or Confucianism do not actively proselytize.

In his introduction, the author tells us morality- normative ordering in terms of perceived meanings, values, purposes and goals of human existence- and ethics- the scientific study of such normative order- is of the very nature of religion. Here, religion is described as

A believing view of life, approach to life, way of life, and therefore, a fundamental pattern embracing the individual and society, man and the world, through which a person sees and experiences, thinks and feels, acts and suffers, everything. In short, a system of coordinates by which man orients himself intellectually, emotionally and existentially.

If the above definition is true for other religions, then African Religion must be recognized as one. This recognition is not a concession but a reversal of long held prejudice. African Religion is conceived as a way of life where distinction is not made between religion and other areas of human existence. One can conclude only prejudice and ignorance were the criteria used by early travelers to Africa to conclude the people have no religion.

Different African societies have their cosmogenic myths that we won’t care to enumerate. It is important to note however that they all begin with god as the great ancestor or progenitor of life. God is conceived as father or mother, accentuating the positive qualities of fatherhood or motherhood.

It is important at this point to note that African religious behavior is centered mainly on man’s life in this world, with the consequence that religion is chiefly functional.

African Religion underlines the fact that the earth is our home, and the prolongation of humankind is ultimately bound to the earth’s fecundity. The implications of this include the view the earth is a gratuitous gift to humanity who possess an equal claim to it. To callously disturb created order by abusing it disrespectfully means nothing else, ultimately, than to tamper dangerously with human life.

What constitutes misuse of the universe? Greed.

In the African Religion, the purpose of life is to produce and perpetuate more life. Therefore, to fail to perpetuate life in every way possible intentionally is worst moral wrong against self, community and society in general. In this view, a marriage that does not lead to procreation, should not have been entered in the first place. This also explains why different communities allow the brother in law to marry the brother’s widow to sire children if they didn’t have any and to bring them up. These children belong to the deceased and inherit his property. A widow in some societies is considered a ‘man’ and any children she has with any man belong to her dead husband and become members of his clan.

For the African, existence is communal. The implication of this is that without community one no longer has the means of existence. This unity is seen fully in the unity of the living, living dead (remembered dead) and yet to be born.

Morality, as defined above, is presupposed to be life-centered.

When the believes talks of sanctity of nature, they should be understood not to mean nature worship but treating it with respect. There should be no cruelty to animals. One should not destroy forests, pollute the earth, since there is no telling what calamity will befall the community.

Taboos, as they exist in African communities, is to make sure that the moral structure of the universe remains undisturbed for the good of community.

In matters to do with family life, conception is the assurance for parents of their possibility of living after death, of becoming ancestors. That is, in their children, there is the possibility of their being named and thus joining the group of the remembered dead. The communal unity referred to above, is expressed again in conception. Every individual is the outcome of human act, god’s creation and ancestral blessing. When the birth is uncomplicated, then there is tranquility in the universe, the ancestors are pleased, the parents are of good moral standing and finally it is a sign of defeat of bad people. Where the birth is complicated, it is believed the rights of deities have been contravened, there is illegitimacy, a crime has been concealed or some moral wrong among many others.

Death, to the believer is not to be feared. The beginning of life already carries the end. The dead are to be treated with respect. The pregnant woman is sacred. She carries in her future life. And as I pointed out earlier, perpetuation of life is the chief purpose of life, so to treat a pregnant woman badly threatens future life.

The author notes that whereas Africans are monogamous, it is not by choice, but rather is a result of certain constraints. It is a moral requirement that apart from showing material capacity to take care of an extra wife, one should be convinced he is able to treat them equitably. The social/ religious ideal is polygamy. The author notes that active homosexuality is morally intolerable as it frustrates baby making. Paradoxically, homosexuals sometimes do play unique social and religious roles.

While discussing incest, the author gives the range covered by incest to include sex with a parent or child, grandparents or grandchild, sister, half-sister, brother, half-brother, aunt/ uncle, sister or brother in law (while either couple is alive), sister, brother, half-sister/ brother of a man or woman with whom one has had sexual relations and any woman whose milk a man has suckled.

Regarding sin and evil, the author notes these do not exist in human experience except as perceived in people. He notes, regarding morality, that pursuance of right behavior rather than avoidance of wrong is what distinguishes the authentically good person and one who is not truly so. He reminds us everyone is capable not only of harbouring wrong and destructive thoughts but of acting them out as well. This view has, in my opinion, a big part in how we deal with wrongdoers.

It is noted that divination, in African Religion, is a way of knowing. The diviner is sought to explain why things are the way they are and this is done through divination.

Finally, as mentioned earlier, regarding community, entertaining people is both a social and moral duty that affirms and enhances life.

Whilst this review is not comprehensive, it does highlight the major areas of community life that the author addresses. I have not addressed the political life, which the author argues must be seen as not being separate from religion but as interlinked for the end of political organization is to promote life. The author argues, and I think I agree, the African convert to Muslim or Christianity, is only so on the surface. His/ her thinking and action is deeply African.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in comparative religion or who is curious about African Religion as I am.