WITH AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA:
THE CHANGING ATTITUDE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
By Chidi Denis Isizoh
The Christianity that reached Africa, especially the sub-Saharan region, had undergone several stages of inculturation and re-organisation. It started in a Jewish environment and, right from the beginning, took a radical departure from Judaism. The various accounts of the life of Jesus Christ in the Bible show a movement away from the Jewish traditional observances and strict application of the legal and religious prescriptions of the Torah. This shift continued as the new religion was taken to lands within the Mediterranean region and beyond.
The changing political situation of the people of the Ancient Near East from the rule of the Persians to that of the Egyptians, to the Syrians, and to the Romans, had a tremendous impact on the nascent Christian religion. Added to this were the effects of the intellectual currents in the first century A.D. and the religious movements organised by the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Zealots, the Qumran community and the Essenes, which contributed immensely in shaping the worldview of the first Christians. Paul of Tarsus put an international and inter-cultural stamp on Christianity. As one of the earliest powerful announcers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he took his religion across the seas to the "whole world". In an unprecedented and daring Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), a decision was taken to drop the non-essential elements of the Jewish form of Christianity.
As Christianity moved through the Greek and the Roman intellectual and political worlds, it acquired new categories of thought. There was a shift from Jewish fellowship around a master to the Greek and the Roman political and religious administrative structures. Life of prayer was no more restricted to frequent visits to temples and synagogues. Greek philosophical language began to be applied in expressing some of the mysteries of the Christian faith. This was particularly evident in the articulation of the theological language done by theologians like Thomas Aquinas and others of the same intellectual stature in the Middle Ages.
Christianity reached the sub-Saharan Africa through explorers, traders, colonial administrators and missionaries. The description of the movement of these early "messengers" of the Gospel into different parts of the continent is documented in many of the materials in print elsewhere. This write-up, therefore, does not cover it.
It is now an acknowledged fact that the early Christians from Europe to Africa did not meet pagans, peoples without any religion. The historian Herodotus had already noted how pious and creatively religious the Egyptians were before the coming of Christianity. They were the "first who brought into use the names of the twelve gods, which the Greeks adopted from them; the first who erected altars, images, and temples to the gods; and also the first who engraved upon stone the figures of animals". This religious piety was and is still evident in the sub-Saharan Africa, as many African scholars, especially John Mbiti and Edmund Ikenga-Metuh, have illustrated. Peter J. Paris observes that in spite of the variety of religious systems, "the ubiquity of religious consciousness among African peoples constitutes their single most important common characteristic".
The traditional African peoples of the sub-Sahara have a very high sense of the Sacred. There is reverence for sacred places, persons and objects. Religion enfolds the whole of life, and there is no dichotomy between the secular and the religious, the sacred and the profane, the visible and the invisible. These distinctions are to them artificial. A completely secular world does not exist for them. There is no borderline between this life and the afterlife. Life itself is cyclic, going from birth to death and to rebirth. The emphasis on a person’s enduring happiness is not concentrated on the afterlife but rather on the totality of his or her well-being in this life and in the afterlife. For the Africans, man is not just homo religiosus in the classical sense. He eats, drinks, sleeps, works and does practically every thing religiously.
2. Early Difficulties
The early visitors from the northern hemisphere to sub-Saharan Africa came with their own language and culture. Most, if not all, had no previous experience of another race or people different from themselves. They tried, with varying degrees of success, to impose their categories of thought on the Africans.
What may perhaps be of great interest to us here is to find out the theologico-pastoral thinking about non-Christian religions that informed those early Christians to Africa on their approach to followers of African traditional religion. Suffice it to read some of the major Church documents of the time. We are referring to the last part of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.
When it came to the issue of customs, rites and traditions, the Church was consistent in accepting them when they did not conflict with "divine laws". Pope Pius XII in his address to the directors of the Pontifical Mission Works put it very clearly:
The specific character, the traditions, the customs of each nation must be preserved intact, so long as they are not in contradiction with the divine law. The missionary is an apostle of Jesus Christ. His task is not to propagate European civilisation in mission lands…. Rather it is his function so to train and guide other peoples, some of whom glory in their ancient and refined civilisation, as to prepare and dispose them for the willing and hearty acceptance of the principles of Christian life and behaviour…"
The situation was totally different when it came to the attitude towards other religions and religious practices. Non-Christians, as non-Jews in the Bible, were considered as pagans whose "gods are idols, silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; they have eyes, but they see not; they have ears, but they hear not; nor is there any breath in their mouths. Like them be those who make them! — yea, every one who trusts in them!"
The picture painted of non-Christian religions in Church documents and expressions of the pre-Vatican II Council was not generally positive. What was found on the ground corroborated this uncomplimentary image. It is enough to look at the reports sent to "Mother-houses" by the early missionaries that came to Africa to see how negative their impressions were. But these were not as important as the official position of the Catholic Church towards these other religions expressed in some of the documents. I mention in particular three of such well-known documents which appeared during the crucial years of missionary "implantation of the Gospel" in Africa: the Encyclical Letter of Pope Leo XIII (Catholicae Ecclesiae) of 1890; the Apostolic Letter of Pope Benedict XV (Maximum Illud) of 1919; and the Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XI (Rerum Ecclesiae) of 1926. Apart from the fact that these documents came from the highest authority of the Church on earth, they indicated the theological/pastoral direction that all Christians, especially the missionaries, were meant to follow.
Pope Leo XIII while urging the missionaries to go beyond protecting slaves to stopping the evil practice of the slave trade, expressed his "apostolic concern" for the missionary activities in Africa. Writing about Africans in Catholicae Ecclesiae, he instructed the missionaries to "bathe those inhabitants living in darkness and blind superstition with the light of divine truth, by which they can become co-heirs with us of the Kingdom of God".
In Maximum Illud, Pope Benedict XV referred to the followers of non-Christian religions as "the numberless heathen who are still sitting in the shadows of death. According to recent statistics their number accounts to a thousand million.." These peoples stood in need of the "benefits of divine redemption". It was the task of bishops "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". Religious superiors and heads of Congregations engaged in missionary work were requested after having "successfully accomplished their task and converted some nations from unhallowed superstition to Christian faith and have founded there a church with sufficient prospects, they should transfer them, as Christ’s forlorn hope, to some other nation to snatch it from Satan’s grasp."
In Rerum Ecclesiae, Pope Pius XI considered it a great act of charity on the part of missionaries to withdraw "pagans…from the darkness of superstition" in order to instruct them "in the true faith of Christ." Thus each missionary, as ambassador of Christ, must "bravely face all hardships and difficulties, as long as he can snatch a soul from the mouth of hell".
The same Pontiff encouraged vocation to the Priesthood especially for "the heathens particularly those who are still savages and barbarians". He urged European missionaries to have patience, saying: "if you find extreme slowness of mind in the case of men who live in the very heart of barbarous regions, this is due to the conditions of their lives, for, since the exigencies of their lives are limited, they are not compelled to make great use of their intelligence."
The desire to save the people from the "darkness of superstition" went beyond mere instruction of them "in the true faith of Christ" to an overall cultural advancement and civilisation of "uncivilised peoples". Hence the European system of education was introduced and promoted by missionaries who also preached a theology of discontinuity — which urged Africans of the time to break with ATR in order to embrace Christianity.
In Gabon, for example, the earliest missionaries to the country equated the traditional religion with fetishism and idol worship. The goal of the missionary action was to wipe out this paganism which was also considered barbaric by the colonisers. The result of it was the disappearance of the African traditional religion as a religious institution. What remain today are only aspects of initiation, healing, and clairvoyance.
Among the Igbo and Efik/Ibibio peoples of Nigeria, the early missionaries inserted in the "missionary" catechism of the Christian faith a list mortal sins, the first, literally translated, reads: "joining the pagans in idol worship, invoking the spirits, sacrifice, keeping of amulets and believing in them as God, making deadly charms, celebrating funeral rites in a pagan way, or participating in such rites". All these terms reveal the interpretation given to the religious expressions of the followers of ATR who were, in any case, regarded as pagans. In some of African countries prayers were composed for the conversion of African peoples "wandering in the vale of darkness where they are destined to be lost forever…." unless they turned to Christianity. Converts from ATR to Christianity were frightened into abandoning almost everything the traditional religion and culture had to offer.
3. The Second Vatican Council and its positive attitude towards other religions
The Second Vatican Council made a major break through in the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Religions when it directed all Christians to develop a positive attitude towards other believers. It opened a door for positive discussions about other religions. In one of its earliest documents, Lumen Gentium, it affirmed that salvation is possible for other believers outside the visible Christian fold:
The plan of salvation includes those also who acknowledge the Creator... with us, adore the one and merciful God who will judge mankind on the last day. Nor is God far from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God; for He gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour desires all men to be saved. For those also can attain eternal salvation who without fault on their part do not know the Gospel of Christ and His Church, but seek God with a sincere heart, and under the influence of grace endeavour to do His will as recognised through the promptings of their conscience.
In Gaudium et Spes the Council encouraged dialogue among all men. This dialogue springs from mutual respect and love which should be found in all spheres of human interaction:
Respect and love ought to be extended also to those who think and act differently from us in social, political and even religious matters. In fact, the more deeply we come to understand their ways of thinking through sympathy and love, the more easily shall we be able to enter into dialogue with them.
We ... turn our thoughts to all those who acknowledge God and preserve in their traditions precious elements of religion and humanity. We wish that a frank dialogue may lead us all to welcome faithfully the impulses of the Spirit and to carry them out courageously.
In Nostra Aetate, the magna carta for relations with other believers, the Council affirmed:
All men form but one community. This is so because all stem from the one stock which God created to people the entire earth and also because all share a common destiny, namely God. His providence, evident goodness, and saving design extend to all men against the day when the elect are gathered together in the holy city which is illumined by the glory of God, and in whose splendour all peoples will walk.
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. With sincere respect she looks on those ways of conduct and life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing on many points from what she herself holds and teaches, yet not rarely reflect a ray of the Truth which enlightens all men. But she proclaims and must ever proclaim Christ, "the way, the truth and the life" in whom men find the fullness of religious life, and in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
The Council then urged all Christians "to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. (And)... while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, (they should) acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture."
Specific reference was made in Nostra Aetate to relations with Muslims and Jews. But African traditional religion was not mentioned by name. It took another three years (1969) before the great Pope Paul VI, the first to set foot on the soil of Africa sub-Sahara, spoke gloriously about Africa, its rich traditions, culture and religion.
4. Pope Paul VI
Already in his first encyclical letter, Ecclesiam Suam, he mentioned by name "followers of the great religions of Africa and Asia". In Africae terrarum he extolled the various precious elements found in the African worldview which the Church appreciates and respects.
We think it profitable to dwell on some general ideas which typify ancient African religious cultures, because We think their moral and religious values deserving of attentive consideration.
The constant and general foundation of African tradition is the spiritual view of life. Here we have more than the so-called "animistic" concept, in the sense given to this term in the history of religions at the end of last century. We have a deeper, broader and more universal concept which considers all living beings and visible nature itself as linked with the world of the invisible and the spirit. In particular it has never considered man as mere matter limited to earthly life, but recognises in him the presence and power of another spiritual element, in virtue of which human life is always related to the after-life.
In this spiritual concept, the most important element generally found is the idea of God, as the first or ultimate cause of all things. This concept, perceived rather than analysed, lived rather than reflected on, is expressed in very different ways from culture to culture, but the fact remains that the presence of God permeates African life, as the presence of a higher being, personal and mysterious.
People have recourse to Him at solemn and more critical moments of life, when they consider the intercession of every other intermediary unavailing. Nearly always fear of God’s omnipotence is set aside and He is invoked as Father. Prayers made to Him, whether by individuals or by groups, are spontaneous, at times moving, while among the forms of sacrifice the sacrifice of first fruits stands out because of what it plainly signifies.
…. Respect for man is seen conspicuously, if not systematically, in the traditional ways of educating within the family, in initiations into society, and in participation in social and political life, in accordance with the traditional pattern of individual nations.
…. For Africans the family thus comes to be the natural environment in which man is born and acts, in which he finds the necessary protection and security, and eventually through union with his ancestors has his continuity beyond earthly life.
…. As regards community life — which in African tradition was family life writ large — We note that participation in the life of the community, whether in the circle of one’s kinsfolk or in public life, is considered a precise duty and the right of all. But exercise of this right is conceded only after progressive preparation through a series of initiations whose aim is to form the character of the young candidates and to instruct them in the traditions, rules and customs of society.
As one of the early signs of the opening of the Catholic Church to other non-Christian religions encouraged by the second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI established the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and charged it with the specific assignment to "become a means by which to arrive at a sincere and respectful dialogue with those who ‘still believe’ in God and worship Him."
Throughout the papacy of Paul VI African tradition, religion and culture received a very good mention at the central offices of the Catholic Church. The Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated life and for Societies of Apostolic life, for example, addressed a Message to Religious Men and Women of Africa in October 1976 in which a call was made to Africans to "africanise religious life" and "integrate into it the values of the African culture in harmony with the Gospel". Some documents published, and initiatives promoted, by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious dialogue portrayed African Traditional Religion and Culture in good light.
5. Pope John Paul II
Direct contact with followers of African traditional religion had to wait till the papacy of John Paul II who has shown clearly not only his appreciation of traditions and cultures but also interest in and respect for the religion which has given coherence to the African person. Like his predecessor (Paul VI), Pope John Paul II praised the many positive values found in African traditions and cultures that can help the African person to be open to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He encouraged africanisation, indigenisation, inculturation, etc. of these values. Addressing the Bishops of Kenya, on ad Limina visit, he asserts:
I am close to you, in praise and encouragement, in every undertaking of yours to communicate Christ, to make his Gospel incarnate in the lives and culture of your people…. The "acculturation" or "inculturation" which you rightly promote will truly be a reflection of the Incarnation of the Word, when a culture, transformed and regenerated by the Gospel, brings forth from its own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought. By respecting, preserving and fostering the particular values and riches of your people’s cultural heritage, you will be in a position to lead them to a better understanding of the mystery of Christ, which is to be lived in the noble, concrete and daily experiences of African life. There is no question of adulterating the word of God, or of emptying the Cross of its power, but rather of bringing Christ into the very centre of African life and of lifting up all African life to Christ. Thus not only is Christianity relevant to Africa, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself African.
The same Pope John Paul II introduced a new dimension to the dialogue with the followers of African traditional religion. On 4 February 1993 he met and addressed the followers of African traditional religion in Benin Republic. Inter alia, in his address the Pontiff told them:
I am happy to have this opportunity to meet you, and I greet you most cordially…. You have a strong attachment to the traditions handed on by your ancestors. It is legitimate to be grateful to your forebears who passed on this sense of the sacred, belief in a single God who is good, a sense of celebration, esteem for the moral life and for harmony in society.
By addressing the followers of this religion, he was sending a message to the whole world. African traditional religion is not an archaic religion of primitive people fit only for study by ethnologists, sociologists and students of religion. It is not a religion for the museum. In the eyes of the Pope, it is a religion of a living people. And being part of the yearning of humanity for God, the religion deserves respect and should be considered along side other non-Christian religions.
The Pope himself gave the following advice:
The adherents of African traditional religion should…be treated with great respect and esteem, and all inaccurate and disrespectful language should be avoided. For this purpose, suitable courses in African traditional religion should be given in houses of formation of priests and religious.
There are many benefits that could come to the Church from "serene and prudent" dialogue with the followers of ATR. It will help "on the one hand, to protect Catholics from negative influences which condition the way of life of many of them and, on the other hand, to foster the assimilation of positive values such as belief in a supreme being who is eternal, creator, provident and just judge, values which are readily harmonised with the content of the faith."
6. Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
The first major engagement of the Council after its creation was to undertake a study of different religions with which it was meant to encourage in dialogue. ATR was not forgotten. In 1968 the Council published a 190-paged book entitled Meeting African Religion which explored various aspects of ATR — its role in the shaping of African systems of thought; belief patterns of its followers; and the in-built dynamism of the religion, etc. — and also possibilities of dialogue with its followers.
Between 1968 and 1998 the Council sponsored, and participated in, many conferences on ATR. Among the most significant of the meetings were the two conferences organised in 1974: one in Abidjan (29 – 31 July for French-speaking Africa) and the other in Kampala (5 – 7 August for the English-speaking countries). Both of them made recommendations on how to promote the study of ATR in different countries of Africa. The Council also organised an international colloquium at Abidjan in 1996 on Traditional Religions around the world.
When Cardinal Arinze was appointed in 1984 to head the PCID, one of the specific instructions given to him by Pope John Paul II during his first two formal meetings with him was to pay close attention to followers of African Traditional Religion and converts from it. The Cardinal took this message seriously. In 1988, therefore, he wrote a letter to all the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and its islands.
This 1988 letter of Cardinal Arinze was entitled "Pastoral Attention to Followers of African Traditional Religion". The document was meant to serve a dual purpose.
It was meant to encourage those who are engaged in dialogue with followers of ATR. Dialogue is understood, as explained elsewhere by Cardinal Arinze, as "a meeting of people of differing religions, in an atmosphere of freedom and openness, in order to listen to the other, to try to understand that person’s religion, and hopefully to seek possibilities of collaboration". This form of exchange could be called interreligious dialogue ad extra, that is, dialogue outside oneself with somebody else with a different worldview and different religious ideas. This form is often referred to simply as interreligious dialogue.
The letter of Cardinal Arinze was also meant to introduce another aspect of interreligious dialogue. This other form of exchange could be called interreligious dialogue ad intra, that is, a dialogue of worldviews and religious ideas within an individual. When it comes to African traditional religion, there is a change in the understanding of dialogue. ATR is not a religion an African adheres to at some point in time in life and which could be independent from other aspects of life. ATR is part and parcel of the African worldview. It influences the daily living of Africans — even those converted to other religions like Islam or Christianity.
Cardinal Arinze called for pastoral attention to these "new Christians" to enable them harmonise the two religious worlds in which they find themselves after converting to Christianity and thus to promote sound inculturation. He recommended that courses on ATR be introduced into the curriculum of studies in seminaries, religious institutes and particularly ecclesiastical higher institutes in Africa.
7. Inside Africa
a) Statistics of the followers of and converts from ATR on the continent
Statistics show that out of about 815,000,000 inhabitants of Africa, 48.4% profess to be Christians (Catholics, Protestants and African Independent Churches), 41.6% are Muslims, 8.9% belong to Traditional Religion, and less than 1% to the other religions. These figures may impress non-Africans. But most Africans will dismiss them as one of those notorious ways of manipulating the course of affairs in Africa by Europeans and North Americans. To start with, the figures are not exact. Figures of growth rate, outbreak of epidemics (like AIDS), etc. are inflated when describing the situation in Africa. But those who have cared to visit the places described know that often there is little truth in what is widely reported in the media in the so called "developed countries". In many cases it was meant to entertain the European and American audience.
It is almost impossible to have an accurate census of religious affiliation in Africa. Many countries in Africa do not have columns for religious beliefs in the census data form.While for the Europeans, figures help to establish the criterion for the distribution of common resources and for assessing the popularity of policies, for most Africans who depend on self help, calculating numbers would be useless, and a waste of time and money. Indeed in most tribes of Africa, human beings are never to be counted. Many parents would be very reluctant to tell a visitor the number of children they have. There could be religious reasons for this hesitation. Caution is, therefore, needed when quoting population figures in Africa.
b) Presence and Nature of ATR in Africa
Almost all the Episcopal Conferences in sub-Saharan Africa acknowledge that in their respective countries African Traditional Religion exists in some form or other. While in some countries, like Ghana, Benin, and Togo, public adherence to ATR is appreciated, in other places, like Somalia, the religion has been suppressed in the public life of the people. In between these two positions we find most African countries where people identify themselves publicly with either Christianity or Islam, but privately practise ATR at some stages in their lives.
In general, the following four states of existence of the religion on the continent could be detected:
Survivals: The old ATR disappeared hundreds of years ago when northern Africa was overrun by Islam and Arabic culture. Traces remain in certain taboos, traditional feasts, veneration of ancestors and certain funeral rites and customs.
It would seem that in some places, either because of long continuous evangelisation or other factors, it has disappeared as a social and cultural force and has become rather a type of popular religiosity.
Popular Religiosity: Traditional practices have merged with Christian ones in some places especially in the areas of personal and family life. Examples would be the para-liturgical celebrations of the Ethiopian and Coptic Churches and similar rituals in the more heavily christianised parts of Africa.
ATR as an all-pervasive determinant of life and culture: This is the situation in the majority of countries. In these places, ATR is part of the cultural heritage and determines the spontaneous and subconscious reactions of people and their interpretation of reality.
ATR as an organised system: There are some countries or parts of countries where ATR is still the dominant religion and is practised as a public, social and organised system. In some places, for various reasons, some intellectuals are returning to this religion and are re-organising it according to modern principles.
African Traditional Religion, despite many years of negative "propaganda" against it by Christians, is still alive and remains the "religious and cultural context from which most Christians in Africa come, and in which many of them still live to a great extent." According to Bishop Justin Tetemu SAMBA of Tanzania, the religion is part and parcel of the life of the people in Africa." Cardinal Thiandoum, the Relator-General for the African Synod remarked:
For us Africans, ATR is neither alien nor even a separate religious system. Rather, it usually represents the common religious and spiritual rooting for all who belong to the same ethnic group.
Many Christians, at "breaking points of life", have recourse to practices of the traditional religion, or to prayer houses, healing homes, "prophets", witchcraft or fortune-tellers. Some turn to African Independent Churches (sometimes considered a syncretistic Christian cum African Traditional Religion) where they feel that certain elements of their culture are more respected. Few of them return to African Traditional Religion. All these movements indicate that the spiritual yearning of these people for an authentic expression of the African spirituality is not yet fully satiated. There are some Africans who feel that, as long as no harm is intended for the other person, one can go to a Christian Church, meditate in a Buddhist temple, pray in a mosque, and offer sacrifices in an African Traditional Religion shrine. The word "syncretism" does not have altogether a negative connotation in the traditional African religious worldview.
c) Presence and Practice of ATR in specific African countries
There are differences in the presence and the practice of ATR in specific African countries, as the description below will show:
Angola: ATR persists in private and family lives. The religion has been given names such as witchcraft, superstition, Umbanda or healing practice, all mixed with a certain religiosity. Although in some regions, contact with the people of the northern hemisphere has reduced much of its impact, an ancestral cult is widely practised, mainly by old people. There continues to exist even among Christians, the belief (accompanied by fear) in the influence of ancestors, of bad spirits, and in the invisible power of the dead.
Burkina Faso: ATR is still alive. It is regarded as a religion of life, at the service of life and for life. Some of the problems it addresses, namely, suffering, death and survival, are those for which modern science/technology has no solutions. Despite the impact of Christianity and Islam, the influence of ATR remains profound in many individuals. There are many Christians, peasants or people belonging to the elite, who return to the practice of the African Traditional Religion in the following situations: during child-birth, sicknesses, funerals or problems of insecurity which science and technology have not been able to resolve; etc.
Cameroon: Despite sentiments of shame and culpability sometimes felt and in spite of some reservations observed among young people who consider ATR as a relic of the past, there are many people who turn to it to seek solutions to their problems of life, particularly on the occasion of misfortune, sickness, death and other important events.
Central African Republic: There are many followers of ATR in the country but very little is known about the religion. Only those who are initiated are allowed to come near enough to understand what are being done. Many who have received Western education do not want to identify themselves publicly with the followers of the religion.
Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone: The practice of ATR is very strong, especially in rural areas. In big cities, most people seem to ignore the religion externally, but it still exists in the subconscious and is influencing their lives. Some people turn to Traditional Religion to seek explanation of some of the riddles of life.
Ghana: It is reported in the country that, on the surface, African Traditional Religion seems to be dying out, but this is not so. Most Ghanaians still hold on to some of the strong beliefs in ATR, because they have been part of the cultural heritage from which they come and within which they live. The impact of science and technology on traditional beliefs has been limited because they have not been able to provide answers to many of the problems that the people face. Such problems are often traced to witchcraft and magic. Nevertheless, medical science has significantly diminished the taboo system connected with traditional medical care. Today there is the tendency to elevate ATR to the centre stage as an authentic religion that expresses African identity. This is seen in the pouring of libations and the invocation of ancestors at state functions. ATR has also been given emphasis in the school curriculum and it is given access to modern technology in the dissemination of information on its mode of worship and practice.
Kenya: African Traditional Religion does not generally exist as an organized religion. It is expressed in "attitudes" towards various life experiences. The adherents do not see the need for Christianity and are least touched by modern civilization. They feel secure within their traditional set up. Some of them even say that the Church is an instrument of colonialism, a phenomenon they would never want to be associated with. Even among the convinced Christians, some traditional African attitudes and beliefs exist and resurface in time of crisis.
Madagascar: ATR is practised by a good percentage of the Bara people — one of the major tribes of Madagascar. The religion is far from going into extinction. It will not disappear, they say, until the last survivor of the Bara tribe is gone. Thus, ATR, "source of ancestral customs", constitutes an important element of the identity of the tribe. The Bara man lives in a religious universe. The main stages of life are marked with religious ceremonies in order to maintain the harmony between the world beyond or the "extra-natural" and the human being in the world. In traditional prayer, there is always invocation of Zanahary (Creator God), and the ancestors and of Tansy Masyt (the sacred land, the land where for generation upon generation, is buried the raza, that is to say, the placenta). This attachment to the ancestral land (the tanin drazana — the land of the placenta) becomes as such a visceral attachment to all the customs inherited from the ancestors in the land where the past generations received life.
Rwanda: In recent times, there has been a rekindled interest in some forms of ATR beliefs and practices. Among some of the "Western" educated people in the country, this return to the "sources" is a thing of pride. The practice of the Christian religion is sometimes considered as an alienation and a relic of colonialism.
Somalia: The old organised African Traditional Religion in the country disappeared over a hundred years ago. Islam has become the religion of about 98% of the population. But traces of ATR still survive in the vocabulary (not completely Islamised), the calendar, certain traditional feasts, taboos regarding some animals, and especially the honour attributed to religious leaders "santoni" or "marabouts", particularly to their tombs.
Sudan: Followers of African Traditional Religion form 30% of the population of about 8 million people. These are mostly found in the southern States and also in the Arabised north and west. The old traditional (religious) practices are still firmly adhered to by many. Many areas where followers of African Traditional Religion are in the majority are still governed by traditional chiefs according to customary laws.
Uganda: There are many adherents of ATR in the country. The religion cannot, therefore, be ignored. The followers have no identifiable communities, no formal training houses and colleges. They train by apprenticeship and their stronghold is the family.
Zambia: It is observed in Zambia that there has never been a homogenous traditional religion. Certain strands of African Traditional Religion have faded out; new forms have developed and grown in prominence. The practice of the religion is especially strong in rural areas. There, modern science and technology have had little influence on it.
d) Efforts to promote studies in ATR and culture in view of inculturation
In Burkina Faso, mention is often made of the doctoral thesis of Anselme T. Sanon (defended and published at Paris in 1970, entitled Tierce Église, ma mère ou la conversion d’une communauté paienne au Christ) as a major attempt by a Burkinabe to introduce aspects of ATR and Culture into Christianity.
Matters concerning inculturation are handled in the country at the national level by the Commission for Catechesis and Liturgy. There is St. Augustine’s theological association that promotes theological research and pastoral reflections on aspects of inculturation.
While trying to promote a better understanding of the Christian faith, the Church in Cameroon encourages efforts to deepen the study of African Traditional Religion in order to make the followers of African Traditional Religion who have become Christians not to lose their cultural identity. In 1991 the Episcopal Conference organised a seminar at Garoua on African Traditional Religion and inculturation. It was agreed during that seminar to constitute one national commission charged with the promotion of the study of African Traditional Religion.
Almost all the major seminaries and institutes of higher learning in the country offer some courses on African Traditional Religion. There are a number of changes introduced in some of the Christian rites inspired by pastoral attention paid to African Traditional Religion: the penitential rite of Ash Wednesday, "the rite of engagement" during priestly ordination, the carrying of the sacred tree and the gong during the procession with the book of the Gospel, etc.
Lay Christians in many regions of the country are not enthusiastic about deepening their knowledge of Traditional Religion. This could be as a result of the early wrong information about the religion given to them by the first and the second generations of missionaries.
Among the people of Central African Republic there is no organised course on African Traditional Religion. Priests and religious men and women occasionally come into contact with the followers of the religion in the course of discharging their missionary duties. The introduction of traditional musical instruments and dances in the liturgy is considered an achievement coming as a result of the effort of the people to pay attention to African Traditional Religion.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, with its well-known "Roman Liturgy of the Zairian Rite", presents a good example of inculturation of African forms of celebration in Christian liturgy. The Faculty of Theology of the University of Kinshasa and the Centre for the Study of African Religions are powerful institutions for the study of ATR. They have published many good books in the last twenty years.
In The Gambia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, cultural anthropology is taught in the major seminaries and seminarians are encouraged to write their research papers on aspects of African Traditional Religion. At the level of the lay Christians, there is a systematic catechesis organised at parish levels.
African Traditional Religion is studied as a major course in the three universities in Ghana. The same could be said of other institutes of higher learning in the country. The major and minor seminaries, Catholic schools, colleges and other houses of religious formation also study African Traditional Religion.
Some Bishops and priests have made in-depth studies on the religion and have come out with books on various aspects of it. The Tamale Institute of Cross Cultural Studies, for example, studies certain aspects of the traditional religion to bring out relevant suggestions for pastoral attention.
Some traditional elements of religion and culture have been introduced to enrich Christian liturgy and celebrations as a result of pastoral attention to African Traditional Religion: funeral rites, widowhood rites, purification and thanksgiving ceremonies after calamity, blessing of fields, people and homes.
In Nigeria, Church groups and individuals study African Traditional Religion, especially in view of inculturation. All the major Seminaries in the country and the Catholic Institute of West Africa, Port Harcourt, give it attention. A good number of academic research works exist: theological, anthropological, sociological and liturgical. Some bishops devote their Pastoral Letters and publications to certain key aspects of African Traditional Religion.
e) Positive elements of ATR identified
One of the results of studies on ATR and culture promoted by many Episcopal Conferences of Africa is the possibility of identifying values that could be adopted or adapted in view of inculturation in Christianity. What will follow below is a country-by-country listing of these important elements. The list may appear repetitive but it is indicative of how these values are universally acknowledged in almost all the countries of Africa.
— religious sense of life
— popular religiosity
— solidarity in funerals, groups, community
— sharing of goods
— respect for life
— festive dimension of life
— sense of community
— notion of God the creator, good and great
— faith in life after death
— sense of communion between the dead ancestors and the living
— marriage - covenant of families and of persons
— prophetic value of the elders
— Belief in God, supreme creator of all things and belief in the great beyond.
— Important place of religion which is an integral part of life for an African and which is expressed in rites, prayers and constant reference to God.
— Effectiveness of the mediation by ancestors and spirits.
— Traditional initiation as a consecration or as a rite of passage.
— Importance of sacrifices
— strong sense of the sacred, reverence to God.
— hospitality and solidarity.
— obligatory contribution of each person for sacrifice or rites, in the spirit of
participation and of sharing.
— Community aspect of education, etc.
— respect for ancestors as mediators between God and men
— libation to the same ancestors, rite which could help make comprehensible the Communion of the Saints and the concept of the Church as communion.
— great concern to situate man in his environment, in order to find joy there.
— presence of religion in daily lives.
— solidarity: solidarity during the events of life, solidarity in work, solidarity during misfortune.
— efforts to guarantee the stability of marriage
— some of elements of periodic initiation
— agricultural feasts, sowing, harvesting
— some prayers
— the rites of human life, birth, naming, marriage, funeral
Central African Republic
— Respect for elders
— Charity (Ndoye)
Congo (Democratic Republic):
— belief in God
— belief in afterlife
— links with the dead and the cult of ancestors
— initiation rites
— solidarity and sharing/communion/fellowship
— respect for life
— the sense of mystery: awareness and communication with the invisible world.
— veneration of, and communion with, ancestors
— belief in life after death
— concept of intercession
— use of symbols and gestures
— respect for elders and authority
— respect for the totality and sanctity of life
— total involvement of the whole person, body and soul, in religious celebrations
— attention given to crisis situations, e.g. infertility, barrenness
— co-responsibility and communality in worship and sacrifice
Emphasis on spontaneous prayers coming straight from the heart
Preservation of religious sacredness in liturgy, dress and places of worship
Bodily purification before offering a sacrifice to God without foregoing provisions for spiritual purification also.
There is no distinction between life and Religion. They are all tied up into one whole process of being.
Solidarity in community: African Traditional Society had a strong sense of solidarity and strong spirit of charity going through concept of the extended family — the poor and the sick are taken care of, widows and orphans are not left out.
Moral education for youth was seriously taken
Traditional blessings are so rich and meaningful to the African people.
The respect for authority was much adhered to
Rituals of blessings of seeds for planting and farms, etc.
Blessings by the elders
Symbolic acts of showing our communion with the dead
— rites of initiation
Rites of initiation.
Sense of communion
Installation of titles.
Sense of the Sacred
Reverence for ancestors
African holistic view of life.
— belief in one Supreme God, unique, transcendent and immanent.
— alliance based on blood relationship.
— cult of some family ancestors or some mythical heroes
— belief in afterlife
— respect for life
— the social virtues of mutual assistance, and respect for elders
— traditional gradual initiation rites
— sense of prayer
— fidelity to engagements, promises
— sense of the Sacred.
— rich variety of traditional rites for naming ceremonies, marriages, funeral.
— rituals of thanksgiving at harvest time.
— rituals in times of sorrow or joy.
— veneration of the ancestors.
— the strength of the traditional extended family structure.
belief in the continuity of life and communion between the living and the dead.
Family unity and strength.
Sanctity of human life
Importance of sacrifices
Faith in divine providence
Use of many blessings
Reverence for Sacred places, persons and objects
Communal confession, necessity for purification of oneself from sins for the public good and that of the persons involved
— Belief in the afterlife
— Sense of mutual dependence and belonging
— Spiritual cults catering to emotional needs of people
— Meaningful use of symbolism
— Belief in the existence of spirits
— Bonds between the living and deceased relatives
— Strong sense of community
— Prayer to ancestors in times of crisis
— Belief in the supreme God and Creator
— Sacred shrines
— Initiation rites at different stages of life
— Times of festival and celebration such as harvest
— Importance of family and extended family
— Traditional prayers and titles of God
— Inseparable link between life and faith
— Rites of purification for individuals and communities.
f) Concrete Results from Dialogue with ATR and Inculturation
The studies done on ATR have already enabled the introduction of the following liturgical rites:
— socio-religious images of the African family introduced in the catechesis under the form of human experiences.
— sung biblical narrations (for example: creation, the exodus, the Decalogue, etc.) motivated directly by the traditional songs and rhythms of initiation in several dioceses.
— liturgy of Good Friday. It has, as the source of inspiration, the traditional funeral ceremonies and is celebrated in several dioceses. One speaks then of the "Funeral of Christ"
— baptism of adults celebrated as Christian initiation and borrowing elements or rites from the traditional initiation. That has led to the elaboration of a ritual of baptism of adults in a certain number of dioceses.
Rites already introduced because of Pastoral Attention to ATR include:
— rite of Ash Wednesday
— rite of engagement during priestly ordination
— sacred dance
— rite of the celebration of marriage.
Congo democratic republic
— musical instruments,
— ritual dances in liturgical celebrations,
— use of African symbols,
— invocation of the saints and the ancestors,
— liturgy of the Mass – the Roman Missal according to the Zairian rite.
The Gambia, Liberia & Sierra Leone:
— We celebrate the "naming of the child", and the "forty days ceremonies" for the dead.
— Some African liturgical rites being introduced as a result of pastoral attention to African Traditional Religion are:
Purification and thanksgiving after calamity
Blessing of fields, people and home.
— Initiatives taken include:
Drumming and dancing
The use of shakers and local music for celebrations
The use of the local languages.
— some ritual dances or processions.
— Drum and African music, and
— ululation during celebrations.
Indigenous names are used for baptism
Many hymns with traditional background have been composed
Dance has been performed on special feasts like Corpus Christi
— improvement of funeral rites,
— invocation of dead who have followed God’s will
— liturgical songs with musical instruments ( tambourines, cloches).
— "Para-liturgical" service for girls completing initiation
— use of proverbs and folklore stories for catechetical instructions
— some elements of funeral rites.
8. The 1994 Special Synod of Bishops for Africa
There has been Christian presence in Africa south of Sahara for over two hundred years but the mandate given to the Apostles in the Gospel of Matthew 28, 19-20 is far from being realised. Although it is reported that many new people in Africa are coming into the Church, a good number of them today become Christians because they are born into Christian families and are baptised in the Church. Coming from Christian parents or guardians and, perhaps, attending Christian schools, they become Christians almost automatically by tradition without necessarily making a personal choice. What do they know about Christianity? How deep is their faith in Christ?
It was not surprising that evangelisation was chosen as the main theme of the 1994 Special Synod of Bishops for Africa. The Synod provided a special occasion to assess the work of Christian evangelisation in Africa. What is of interest and relevance for this write-up is the directive given by the Synod for the promotion of dialogue with ATR and culture. This directive issued at the end of the Working Session of the Synod is contained in the Message (Nuntius) which was the first major Synodal document approved by the participants. To this Message we turn our attention.
In the Message, the Synod Fathers called for attention to be paid to African "customs and traditions in so far as they constitute our cultural heritage…. (They) belong to oral cultures and their survival depends essentially on the dialogue of generation to assure their transmission." (n.21).
Dialogue ad extra with followers of ATR was encouraged. The Fathers identified the partners as "Corporate personalities, (and) wise thinkers…." (Ibid.). This list is short but all-inclusive. It could be expanded further, as was done at a seminar in Nairobi (Kenya) organised by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in 1974 where the following were among those listed:
(a) Spokesmen for authentic and living religious traditions, e.g. Priests, shrine-keepers, spirit-mediums, diviners, doctors and other religious specialists.
(b) Disciples of great religious personalities of the past, whose memory is well documented in oral tradition and cherished by people today. Examples of such personalities include Kintu and Mukasa for the Ganda people of Uganda.
(c) Members of independent Christian movements and neo-traditional movements that are non-Christian.
(d) Persons with submerged traditional values and attitudes in modern socio-political situations. In this case, dialogue is a stage in the creation of a "situational theology" which represents a realistic approach to modern problems.
The Synod Fathers also encouraged dialogue ad intra with those who are now Christians but who would want to retain some or all of the precious values from African Traditional Religion and Culture. The domain of inculturation is very vast. The Fathers insisted on its spiritual dimension, emphasizing the theological, liturgical, catechetical, pastoral, juridical and communications aspects (n.18). They mentioned specific areas of African life that must be studied in view of integrating the worldviews as presented in Christianity and African Traditional Religion. Such areas include: "health, illness and healing…, marriage, widowhood…." (n.19).
For any serious engagement in dialogue both ad extra and ad intra with followers of and converts from African Traditional Religion, it is important to have trained personnel. The Synod Fathers stressed the urgency of having courses on interreligious dialogue and inculturation included in the formation programme of those in the seminary and other religious houses of formation (nn. 49-50).
The leading role of African theologians in the promotion of dialogue with followers of African Traditional Religion and in the inculturation process was praised by the Synod. "Your (African theologians’) mission," the Fathers write, "is a great and noble one in the service of inculturation which is the important work site for the development of African theology" (n. 56).
This encouragement by the Synod Fathers is also a challenge to explore avenues for better promotion of dialogue with ATR and culture. But there are some stumbling blocks on the path of theologians in Africa.
9. Blocks along the path
a) Inflexibility of the first and second generation African Christians.
Most of the early missionaries in Africa presented African traditional religion and culture in a negative light. This impression was "diligently" handed on to the first generation of African Christians who in turn preached it to those after them. The result is that there are Africans today who still find nothing good in African traditional religion and culture. There are some of them who, trained in the European systems of thought, continue to consider African traditional religion and culture from the point of view of its "classical form" in antiquity. They refuse to admit any growth, any assimilation of other influences, in the religion. They reason that no person who has received a European education could be considered an authentic follower of the religion. For them, therefore, the religion is "primitive" and not worthy to be discussed in a gathering of the "civilised world". Such people do not encourage any meaningful dialogue with followers of the traditional religion, as they are found today.
b) Fear of disrupting the unity of the Church
Two important principles guide inculturation in Africa: compatibility with the Christian message and communion with the universal Church (cf. Ecclesia in Africa, n.62). Many Church leaders in Africa, fearing the possibility of going against these principles, have left untouched many important areas that demand pastoral attention in the African context. For example, in a society where having children is considered almost as an absolute condition for marriage, what is the Church’s response to childless marriage? What of families without any male child in an area where it is most demanded for the stability of marriage? How does the Church in Africa want to answer positively and directly to the African demand for offspring in marriage and for sons at that?
c) Uncertainty of knowing the limits to go
There are many elements in ATR and culture already praised by the Magisterium of the Church. For example, the African Synod encouraged Episcopal Conferences in Africa in co-operation with universities and Catholic institutes, to set up study commissions, especially for matters concerning "the veneration of ancestors and the spirit world in order to examine in depth all the cultural aspects of problems from the theological, sacramental, liturgical and canonical points of view to develop the concept of ancestors for the Christian theology". How far can Christians go in venerating ancestors who lived good lives? What of the traditional practice of libation in honour of the ancestors? Should the ancestors be expressly mentioned in some liturgical or para-liturgical celebrations?
Another example. Christianity, with all the Greco-Roman influences, emphasises the division between body and soul in every person. But in African categories of thought, as in the Jewish way of thinking, the human being is considered in his or her wholeness. Life itself is seen in its totality, not parts. Religion covers every aspect of African life. There is no division. Could the African Church put aside the concept that dissects the human person and opt for a theology of wholeness without changing radically the Christian theology of "body and soul" as presented today?
Notwithstanding these obstacles, much has been achieved. The Catholic Church has come a long way in appreciating the important place ATR and culture occupy in the moulding of the African personality. This recognition is due to the excellent work done by many scholars in African Studies who are even becoming more and more articulate in their presentation of both Christianity and ATR. Cardinal Thiandoum insists that "the project of an African Theology must continue with all vigour and commitment, respecting the principles of compatibility with the Gospel and communion with the universal Church".
The 1994 African Synod was a special occasion to reflect on the gains the Church has made since the arrival of the first heralds of the Gospel in Africa. It was an opportunity to assess the efforts so far made to build up on the continent "the Family of God" truly Christian and authentically African. There are still "many rivers to cross".