Introduction to Africa - Religion

African traditional religions were at one time (and still today to some extent) considered by outsiders to be "primitive," filled with "jujus" and witchcraft, or else to be based on emotional display beyond the comprehension of non-Africans. Both are racist views: the reality is quite different.

African traditional religions all recognize the existence of a Supreme Divinity or Creator God, usually otiose and beyond personal contact by ordinary people. Each indigenous society has its own divinity in this sense. Between the people and the divinity there are believed to be both mystical and living intermediaries. The former include various spirits and ancestors, to whom sacrifice and prayer are typically offered in response to ill health, lack of success, or uncertainty of role. Contact is also made between the living and these mystical agents through possession. Living intermediaries include priests, diviners, and prophets, all of whom are thought to have divine knowledge. Priests are rarely specialists; they are more often the heads of lineages and families, although some, such as rainmakers, play more specialized roles. Diviners (and oracle operators) are thought to have the power to explain the meanings of the past and present and to foretell the future. Prophets are the messengers or emissaries of the divinity. They come to communities that experience disasters and troubles (natural, medical, or political) beyond their comprehension and control, bringing advice and messages from the divinity. They exercise charismatic authority over their followers, and, if successful, may establish new forms of social organization that may, in time, take on political and other functions, in addition to the primarily religious ones.

Beliefs in evildoers, especially witches and sorcerers, are widespread. These evildoers bring harm to their rivals by mystical means, an expression of the traditionally small-scale, personal organization of local societies: harm comes from kin and neighbors who are in disagreement or are having a dispute, rather than from distant impersonal forces.

Both Christianity and Islam have long histories in Africa, Christianity was introduced to Ethiopia as early as the fourth century, but in most of the continent, it was spread by European evangelization, beginning with the Portuguese on the western African coast and in the kingdom of Kongo in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and also along the eastern African coast. Missionary enterprise did not reach its peak until after the eighteenth century. During the twentieth century, most conversion has been by African Christian prophets and other local leaders. Islam was taken to the northern and eastern African coasts in the seventh and tenth centuries, respectively, and was carried southward into the Sudan and throughout the western African savanna zone after the eleventh century, largely by Islamic traders and brotherhoods and occasionally through a jihad, or "holy war."

Africa today has a higher rate of conversion to Christianity than does any other continent; Islam is also widespread. One cause of this high rate of conversion is the steadily widening gap, throughout the continent, between the most wealthy and the most impoverished, with a concomitant decline in the importance of local deities and mystical forces. Education is another important factor, especially where vernacular translations of the Bible have been made available. Anti-European sentiment has undoubtedly fed Africans' wishes to form purely African religious congregations, with their own local leaders, ut it would be a mistake to suggest that local people see the various religions that are open to them in strictly either-or terms. Most people, in Africa as elsewhere, may assent to more than one religion and turn to whichever one would appear to be the more likely to bring good health, success, certainty, and happiness in any specific situation.

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