The Meaning of Peace in African Traditional Religion and Culture


Godfrey Igwebuike Onah

Pontifical Urban University, Rome



I would like to begin this reflection with a prayer, a litany for peace, from the Kikuyu of Kenya. It is addressed to Ngai, the Supreme Being:


Praise ye Ngai… –  Peace be with us

[Say that the elders may have wisdom and speak with one voice.

Praise ye, Ngai. Peace be with us.]

Say that the country may have tranquillity

Peace be with us.

And the people may continue to increase

Peace be with us

Say that the people and the flock and the herds

May prosper and be free from illness –  Peace be with us

[Say… (that) the fields may bear much fruit

And the land may continue to be fertile.

Praise ye, Ngai. Peace be with us.]

May peace reign over earth,

May the gourd cup agree with vessel – Peace be with us

May their heads agree and every ill word driven out into the wilderness,

            into the virgin forest.

Praise ye Ngai… – Peace be with us.[1]


1. Introduction

It seems quite safe to assume that all human beings desire peace. What is not always very clear is what each person means by peace and how it can be attained and maintained. Religion and peace have been almost natural companions in the minds of humans in different periods of history and in different cultures of the world. This is because, although far too many adherents and leaders of the different religions in the world have disrupted the peace in the society by promoting violence and wars, the vast majority of believers still hold that true religion is a source and guarantor of individual and societal peace. This paper intends to examine the meaning of peace, how it can be attained and what it takes to maintain it in African traditional religion (ATR) and culture. First, we shall give a brief outline of the essential features of ATR and the world-view that constitutes its epistemological framework. This will then enable us to analyse the meaning of peace as a spiritual and moral value in ATR. Finally, by way of conclusion, we shall take a forward look at the possibility of world peace from the perspective of ATR.

Before proceeding with our examination, however, I think it would be helpful to point out a few difficulties and to enter a caveat. One major difficulty that any student of ATR encounters is the absence of scriptures. The world’s oldest religious tradition has been handed down orally and through what one may call some scanty religious fossils, preserved in the cultural and religious artefacts of African peoples. Most believers – and this applies to all religions – are normally concerned more with living out what they believe than with offering a rational justification for their beliefs and practices. It is usually only a few gifted persons (prophets, seers, thinkers) who attempt to probe the depths of religious beliefs and try to persuade their fellow believers – often without success at first – to accept the insights they have to offer. When the results of such penetrating rational reflection are not documented in writing, their diffusion among the members of a larger society and the possibility of their surviving over a long period of time are greatly reduced. For all the positive things that one may say about the dynamism of the oral tradition, especially with regard to religion, it cannot be denied that the fluidity of such traditions constitutes a formidable challenge to the scholar. It is impossible to understand a religion properly if one does not know its history well. The true meanings of present religious practices are often hidden in the layers of a history too long to be vividly present in the individual and collective memory of the believers.

Another difficulty lies in the fact that ATR is not a proselytizing religion. Africans generally take the central religious issues to be so self-evident that no normal human being would need persuasion by another person to accept them. For instance, the Akan of Ghana have a proverb which says: “Obi nkyere abofra Nyame,” meaning that no one teaches a child God; God’s existence is so evident that even a child is able to know that without the help of another. When the basic religious issues are taken for granted as self-evident truths, it is only natural that each person is allowed to work out his or her own general ideas about them, relying on the common heritage of the community, especially the family. As a result, there is a lot of flexibility and variation, even within the same cultural group, about the meanings of some important concepts, especially the concept of God and of spirits. Although there is more homogeneity with regard to public religious practices, since these are characteristically communitarian, this homogeneity is also very much circumscribed within particular clans and ethnic groups. Voluntary borrowing of religious practices often occur between cultural groups and sub-groups. But there is no attempt to forcefully harmonize religious practices. This has led some scholars to raise the question whether we should talk of traditional religion or religions in Africa.

There is also the difficulty of examining a religion from outside. It is common knowledge that the most vocal spokespersons of African traditional religion today are people who are not its adherents. When adherents of other religions study ATR, the starting point is usually the religion of the scholars. On the one hand, there is the danger of reading in too much of one’s own religion into ATR. On the other hand, there is also the tendency in some to assume that the similarities found between some aspects of ATR and the corresponding aspects in the scholars’ religions are due to the influence of the latter on ATR, rather than the other way round. This problem touches both Africans and non-Africans.

The last difficulty I would like to mention is closely linked to the previous one. It is the difficulty that arises from the enormous difference between the conceptual schemes of African traditional religion and thought and the Western-Christian conceptual schemes in which we are now carrying on this reflection.

These and other similar difficulties should make one very hesitant to take dogmatic or quasi-dogmatic positions on African traditional religion in general and on specific issues within ATR.


2. The Essential Features of African Traditional Religion

            I would like to group the essential features of ATR under three headings, which may be regarded as the three principal dimensions of religion: belief, worship and morality.[2]


a) Belief

Considering Africa as a whole, the main objects of traditional religious belief are: God, the divinities, spirits and the ancestors. Belief in God, conceived as one Supreme Personal Being seems to be shared by the majority of African cultures. Nevertheless, there are a few cultures where the situation is not very clear. Whereas in monarchical cultures, like among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Zulu of South Africa and the Ashanti of Ghana, Deity is clearly conceived as one and supreme, in some republican cultures, like among the Igbo of Nigeria and the San of Botswana, language and practice have left some scholars in doubt about whether the people traditionally believe in one Supreme Being, or whether there are several Supreme Beings one of which emerges as the primus inter pares. I hasten to add, however, that in the case of the Igbo, only a handful of scholars doubt the belief in God as one Supreme Being in the traditional religion. The Supreme Being in ATR is personal, not an impersonal absolute principle. God has a will, emotions and, of course intelligence. Among the major divine attributes in ATR are omnipotence, omniscience, goodness and justice, although these attributes are not expressed in mere abstract concepts. Sometimes he is thought of in most cases however,  Mother. ther, at other time she is thought of as a Mother. asculine terms and even as a Father, at other times she is conceived in feminine terms and as a Mother. But in most cases African languages do not specify and gender categories are totally absent. Each local community has its name for God, but the people believe that it is the one and same God who is given different names and who is the ultimate source of all the other spiritual beings, the universe and all that it contains. One can say that in ATR God is the creator and sustainer of all that is, provided one allows that creation can have other meanings in religion than the one that Scholastic theology has given to it. God is manifested in some way in everything that exists and in every event in life.  There is, however, no risk of pantheism since the Supreme Being is thought of and approached as a Person. Most traditional Africans are so overwhelmed by the uniqueness, majesty and supremacy of God that they lack images for the Source-Being. Daily prayers are addressed to God in most parts of Africa and some peoples (like the Wachaga, the Lugbara, the Gogo, the Dinka) have direct cult of the Supreme Being. In ATR God is at the same time transcendent and immanent, but definitely neither absent nor even too distant.

            Next to God are what one may call divinities, for lack of a better expression. These are spiritual beings who owe their origin to and are dependent on God. Some of them are personified attributes of the Supreme Being, like the thunder divinity, which usually represents God’s wrath. Others are God’s manifestation in some natural phenomena like the sun (regarded in many African cultures as the God’s son), and the earth (which also represents the maternal aspects of Deity), mountains, seas, and so on. Among the divinities one also sometimes finds a few heroes and outstanding ancestors. It would be improper to call the divinities “gods,” thus giving the false impression of polytheism. The divinities are messengers or ministers of God and some of them may be very prominent in some localities but totally unknown in others. While God, as we have already mentioned, is believed to be known by all, albeit by different local names. The divinities, although usually dreaded for their uncompromising stance in some moral issues, are, nevertheless, in themselves good and just. As God’s messengers and intermediaries between God and humans, they are the targets of numerous cults and prayers.

            There is yet another class of spiritual beings who are not always good. Some of them are good, some are, to say the least, mischievous, while others are outright evil. And they are innumerable! Some of these are human, like the wandering spirits of some dead persons who due to some lack did not make it to the home of the ancestors and also the spirits of witches and wizards who, though still alive, are believed to be able to leave their bodies and inhabit lower animals in order to harm other persons.

            Perhaps the most dearly loved spiritual beings in ATR are the ancestors, those “living-dead” (to borrow the expression of John Mbiti), who are effectively members of the family and clan, now living in a state that permits them to enjoy some special relationship with God, the divinities and the good spirits. They are also believed to have some power over the evil spirits and are therefore able to protect the living members of their respective families from harm. To qualify to be an ancestor, it is not enough just to be dead. An ancestor is one who died after having lived a life judged to be fully realized and morally upright, an integral life. The ancestors are so dear to the heart of Africans and so central in their traditional religious practices that some outsiders have mistakenly described ATR simply as “ancestor-worship.”


b) Worship

            Religion for the Africans embraces life as a whole and worship touches every aspect of their lives. Strictly speaking, only God and the divinities are worshipped and this is done through sacrifices, offerings, prayers, invocation, praises, music and dance. In many localities in Africa there is no direct cult of the Supreme Being, yet God is the ultimate object of worship whom the people approach through intermediaries: religious functionaries, the ancestors and the divinities. There is no clear separation between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane. Nevertheless, there is an abundance of temples, shrines, groves and altars used for public and private worship in most parts of Africa. Some special trees, some rivers, forests, mountains, considered manifestations of the sacred, often serve as places of worship. This has led some scholars to imagine that it is these natural objects that are being worshipped – to the amusement of the traditional religionists.

            Some of the good spirits and all the ancestors are venerated and constantly implored to intervene on behalf of humans. The evil spirits are never worshipped, even though some evil persons are believed to align themselves with the evil spirits in order to tap their evil powers and use them to harm others. The veneration of the ancestors, which usually takes the form of libations, offerings and prayers, sometimes also becomes more elaborate and intense leading to the blurring of the line which usually separates worship and veneration. But this is not peculiar to ATR, as Christians who also have the cult of the saints can testify to.[3]


(The story is told of a lady who went everyday to her parish church to pray. Each time she entered the church she would go straight to where there was the statue of the Our Lady, light a candle, kneel in prayer for a very long time and at the end would leave, without even as much as a bow in the direction of the Blessed Sacrament. The sacristan, who had watched this go on for several months and felt irritated by this misplacement of emphasis, one day decided to play a trick on the lady. He hid behind the altar and just as she began her usual prayers he started saying in a voice meant to rouse awe: “I am Jesus! I am Jesus! I am Jesus!” The lady, unable to bear this any longer burst out: “Shut up! I am talking to your Mum!”)


c) Morality

            The practical aspect of belief in ATR is not only worship but also human conduct. Belief in God and in the other spiritual beings implies a certain type of conduct, conduct that respects the order established by God and watched over by the divinities and the ancestors. At the centre of traditional African morality is human life. Africans have a sacred reverence for life, for it is believed to be the greatest of God’s gifts to humans. To protect and nurture their lives, all human beings are inserted within a given community and it is within this community that one works out one’s destiny and every aspect of individual life. The promotion of life is therefore the determinant principle of African traditional morality and this promotion is guaranteed only in the community. Living harmoniously within a community is therefore a moral obligation ordained by God for the promotion of life. Religion provides the basic infra-structure on which this life-centred, community-oriented morality is based. John Mbiti’s famous phrase “I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am,”[4] captures this ethical principle well. The implication is that one has an obligation to maintain harmonious relationships with all the members of the community and to do what is necessary to repair every breach of harmony and to strengthen the community bonds, especially through justice and sharing.[5] And this is not simply a social need but a religious obligation since God, the divinities and the ancestors, the guarantors of this order of things, are quick to punish defaulters. Any person who infringes a moral norm in traditional African societies has not only the members of the community to fear for reprisals but also God and the spiritual beings. “In order to aid man in ethical living, God has put in him the ‘oracle of the heart’… the ‘inner oracle’… This ‘oracle of the heart’ is a person’s conscience, the law of God written in him. A person is at peace when he obeys his conscience.”[6] On the contrary, when he disobeys this ‘inner oracle,’ he lives in constant fear, especially in fear of all natural manifestations of divine power. The Igbo express this in a proverb: “Ọbụ onye ñụlụ iyi asị ka egbe igwe na-atụ egwu” (It is only one who has committed perjury that is afraid of the thunder). It has been noted earlier that thunder is believed by many Africans to be a manifestation of divine power and is even sometimes regarded as a divinity. People often swear by this divinity, asking him to visit his wrath on them if what they say is not the truth.

Perhaps because of their strong attachment to the community, Africans have a very strong sense of justice. Without justice, life in the community would be impossible; there would be no harmony. A victim of injustice often makes a direct appeal to God. Africans believe that God, who is just and who sees and knows everything, hates injustice as is illustrated by the following Akan proverb: “Nyame mpe kwaseabuo nti ena wama obiara edin” (It is because God hates injustice that he has given each one a name).[7] Traditional African morality has cosmic dimensions which will emerge from our brief look at the world-view implicit in ATR.


3. The World-View Implicit in African Traditional Religion

            While examining the objects of belief in ATR, we have already seen that traditional Africans believe in the existence of God, the divinities, other lesser spirits and the ancestors. Below these beings are humans, animals, plants and other inanimate objects. All these realities are believed to exist in a hierarchical order established by God who is the Source of all. In this order, the human being is at the centre. Two things can therefore be said of the traditional world-view of the Africans, namely, that it is permeated by the spirit and that it is anthropocentric. It is a spiritual world-view because all the spiritual beings are believed to be constantly in action in the world of humans. It is anthropocentric because the actions of God and the other spiritual beings are generally directed towards humans for their sustenance and well-being; and infra-human realities are thought to be ordered towards the promotion of human life. Things and events that may seem to be life-threatening are often seen as arranged either by divine wisdom or through the benevolence of the ancestors for the good of human beings, sometimes as a warning and sometimes as punishments for human misconduct. For this reason, extraordinary events are not taken at their face value. There are spiritual and religious experts who are consulted to decipher the hidden meanings of such events.

            All the elements in the material universe are believed to be intimately connected to one another and all of them are connected to God and to the other spiritual beings. Nothing is attributed to chance or necessity. In fact the concept of chance is alien to the traditional Africans. Rather than chance, they talk of unknown invisible causes. But the orderly arrangement of things is attributed to God: day and night, the seasons, the rhythms of life, the varieties and chains of dependence and so on. God is the ultimate source of harmony in creation. Humans, for their part, have a vocation to respect this universal cosmic order and any deviation is believed to be fatal. Being at the centre of a universe so ordered, the human being establishes a network of relationships, according to the hierarchical order of things in order to maintain the primordial harmony and equilibrium. It is immoral to upset this equilibrium and thus breach the harmony either in the human society or in the larger universe.


In a spiritual vision of the universe and Nature, the African soul has perceived the moral obligation to collaborate with the ordered harmony in creation so as to preserve that equilibrium which visible and invisible forces must maintain. It is from the Supreme Being the divine creator and author of order and harmony. It is therefore a sinful serious transgression to attempt to break or interrupt the free, harmonious and orderly functioning of the god-given peace which guarantees life, growth, survival in creation.[8]


            Bearing in mind this world-view and the essential features of ATR, let us now try to understand how peace is conceived in ATR.


4. Peace: A Religious and Moral Value

            In traditional African societies, peace is not an abstract poetic concept, but rather a down-to-earth and practical concept. In ATR peace is conceived not in relation to conflict and war, but in relation to order, harmony and equilibrium. It is a religious value in that the order, harmony and equilibrium in the universe and society is believed to be divinely established and the obligation to maintain them is religious. It is also a moral value since good conduct is required of human beings if the order, harmony and equilibrium are to be maintained.


a) Peace as Fullness of Life

It was earlier noted that the promotion and enhancement of life is the central principle of African traditional morality. The goal of all moral conduct is therefore the fullness of life. Human life is considered full in Africa when it is marked by spiritual, material, and social blessings; when the network of relations with the spiritual, human and material beings is as it should be. And this is what is meant by peace in ATR. “Peace is good relationship well lived; health, absence of pressure and conflict, being strong and prosperous...[9] Peace is the totality of well-being: fullness of life here and hereafter, what the Yoruba call alafia…[that is] ‘the sum total of all that man may desire: an undisturbed harmonious life.’”[10] If one is therefore lacking in any of the basic things that are considered essential to life in an African society (like good health, a wife or a husband, children, means of sustenance of one’s family) or if one, though possessing these things, does not enjoy a good relationship with the other members of the community (living or dead), one cannot be said to have peace. Mere material wealth or progress that is not accompanied by an integral moral life is neither regarded as fullness of life nor is it envied in traditional African societies. Any action that is capable of hindering another from attaining the fullness of life is considered a breach of peace. A selfish or unjust person, even when he or she is not violent, is anti-social and is therefore regarded by the Africans as an enemy of peace. In the Kikuyu litany of peace which we recited at the beginning, Ngai is asked for some of the things associated with the fullness of life: increase in population, prosperity not only of the people, but also of the flock and the herds, freedom from illness and a fertile land.


b) Peace as the Result of Harmonious Living

            Harmony is a fundamental category in traditional African religion and thought. No attempt is made to deny or cancel out differences, rather all effort is devoted to finding a way in which differences can continue to harmoniously co-exists. In personal life, such a harmony consists in the ability to reconcile one’s desires with one’s means, coordinate one’s thoughts, sentiments and their verbal expressions as well as the ability to discharge one’s religious and social duties. One who is able to do this will experience inner peace. In the community, harmony entails smooth relationships between persons and other beings.


The goal of interaction of beings in African world-views is the maintenance of the integration and balance of the beings in it [the world]. Harmonious interaction of beings leads to the mutual strengthening of the beings involved, and enhances the growth of life. A pernicious influence from one being weakens other beings and threatens the harmony and integration of the whole.[11]


Turning again to our opening prayer, we notice the centrality of harmony in the prayer for peace: elders speaking with one voice, tranquillity, agreement between the gourd cup and the vessel and the banishment of every ill word. These are all fundamental requirements for the realization of the peace prayed for. Since human beings come in different shapes, sizes and with all sorts of different ideas in their heads, traditional African societies go to great lengths in trying to accommodate the various opinions of their members. Africans are known for their long drawn-out village discussions (les parlabres africaines) in search of consensus. The terms “majority” and “minority” have little place in traditional African debates, since the goal is always to take everybody along in any decision that will be binding on all. And in the interest of harmony, the discussion is continued until the last sceptic has been won over. It often happens that the few who do not share the opinion of the many voluntarily give up theirs, still in the interest of harmony.

            Any person who causes a breach on the harmonious co-existence of the members of the community is made to make up for it through just reparation or restitution, depending on the offence committed. We may recall here what was said earlier about justice. In ATR peace in the community cannot be separated from justice. Peter Sarpong underlines this inseparable relationship between justice and peace within the context of Ashanti culture: “Justice produces peace… there can be no peace without justice… Peace is honourable… peace can never be achieved when you are disgraced or when you disgrace another person. People must relate to one another on equal terms.”[12]  And Theophilus Okere, writing about the Igbo goes even further. He says: “Peace is not something that happens but rather a situation that arises when justice happens. It is a happy state of things that happens when the state of things is just… the result of order and right alignment… It is not only that peace is based on justice, rather, peace is justice and justice is peace.”[13] The unwritten moral code of the Africans contains not only things that are forbidden but also things that must be done as compensation and in reparation for the injury which immoral conduct inflicts on individuals and on the society at large. Such compensation and reparation are usually based on past experiences. People are usually at a loss when a person commits a sin or an immoral act hitherto unknown in the community.[14]

            The harmony that is to be maintained for humans to experience peace is not only social but also spiritual and cosmic.


A man’s well-being consists… in keeping in harmony with the cosmic totality. When things go well with him he knows he is at peace and of a piece with the scheme of things and there can be no greater good than that. If things go wrong then somewhere he has fallen out of step… The whole system of divination exists to help him discover the point at which the harmony has been broken and how it may be restored.[15]


In many African societies, there are specific periods of the year marked out for the promotion of peace. During this period, which may last for a week or a month, litigations are suspended while quarrels and all forms of violent and unjust acts are avoided for fear of incurring the wrath of God, the deities and the ancestors.[16] This sacred period sometimes precedes the planting season and it is believed that any breach which is not adequately atoned for would lead to a poor harvest. If a person breaks either the spiritual or the cosmic harmony, the lack of peace that ensues reverts on the entire community. Sometimes individual reparations in terms of sacrifices are not enough to restore the harmony and all the members of the community are called upon to right the wrong. There is thus a strong sense of the social dimension of immoral conduct. Sin is often only apparently a private affair as the following story illustrates.


Once upon a time, a squirrel sat on a palm tree, eating palm fruits with gusto. He was so delighted by the meal he was having that he sang loudly and cracked the nuts very noisily. Under the tree, a python was trying to get some rest. Unable to sleep because of the noise the squirrel was making, the serpent called out to his little friend, asking him to be more reasonable. “My dear friend,” said the python to the squirrel, “could you please make less noise. Look, you have disturbed my sleep with the noise you are making up there.” To which the squirrel replied: “Why are you so intolerant? If you are sleeping, it is because you have had your fill. Now that I want to put something in my little stomach, you are already complaining.” “This is not a question of intolerance, my dear,” the python continued. “I am only asking you to be considerate of others. Nobody denies you the right to eat. But that does not mean you have to disturb everybody else while eating. Besides, the noise you are making could put us in some trouble.”  “Listen to that!” shouted the squirrel as it burst out laughing. He laughed so vigorously that he nearly fell from the palm tree. Then he continued: “I am here above, you are there below, and you tell me that what I am doing up here could put you in trouble down there. Come on, do not make yourself ridiculous.” There was also a cocoa-yam plant nearby. It had only one leaf. At this point the cocoa-yam leaf joined the discussion and said to the squirrel: “Yes dear, the python is right. The noise you are making could be dangerous for us all.” The squirrel, visibly irritated, shouted: “Won’t you keep quiet there? Who called you into this? If you guys want to climb up here, feel free to do so. There are enough fruits for us all. Otherwise, you should let me eat my meal in peace. Whatever I do here is strictly my business and should there be any danger, it would be only for me, not for you. Period!” Thus, the squirrel continued to enjoy his favourite meal of palm fruits, singing louder than ever before.

       At that very moment, a hunter who was passing by was attracted by the noise that the squirrel was making. Looking up, he saw the little animal, lost in his meal, oblivious of the world beyond the palm fruits. The hunter drew nearer the palm tree, took aim and with a single explosion from his gun, the squirrel came tumbling down to the bottom of the tree. As the hunter bent down to pick his game, he saw the big serpent lying nearby. He drew back sharply and with the agility of a good hunter, he quickly drew his sword and killed the python. The sudden sight of the python was sufficiently scaring even to this daring hunter. It made him perspire. While cleaning the perspiration from his brows, he thought of how to carry the dead animals, since his hunting bag was two small for the two. Then he caught sight of the large cocoa-yam leaf. With a smile of relief, he cut the leaf and with it made a neat parcel of the squirrel and the python. So it was that the noise made by the squirrel caused the death of all three: the squirrel, the python and the cocoa-yam leaf.


On the theme of peace one sees very clearly the very close relationship existing between religion and morality in Africa. Immoral or bad behaviour disturbs the peace of the community: it makes the ancestors angry, provokes the divinities and may even annoy God. This explains why “one of the main means of restoring peace in society is to find out what has gone wrong spiritually, and through special rituals to restore the state of equilibrium.”[17]

            Of all the breaches of social and cosmic harmony in traditional Africa, interrupting human life (whether one’s own or another’s), which the harmony is meant to enable and promote, is about the most serious. Life is sacred. It comes from God and God alone has the right to interrupt it at any stage. Spilling of human blood defiles the murder and the earth. There is a difficult case in some local African cultures about the treatment of strangers. Whereas the killing of a kinsman, even inadvertently, is always a grave crime, when it comes to strangers, several distinctions are made. Limited space here does not allow us to go into details. It seems however to be a widespread moral norm in Africa that one has to be hospitable to strangers, especially when they come quietly and peacefully. This is because, although kinship relations are usually clearly defined, Africans believe that all human beings are children of God. In some cultures, like among the Yoruba, it is even believed that creation took place in a definite location, Ile-Ife, and that all humans ultimately originate from there. The so-called stranger is thus sometimes regarded only as an unknown relative. Furthermore, given that divinities often take human forms to bring some important messages to communities, one is careful not to harm a stranger for fear of unknowingly harming a divinity, with all the consequences that would definitely come in its trail. African hospitality is proverbial and, with the benefit of a hindsight, some even think that it has cost Africans their continent. Nevertheless, strangers are frequently victims of kidnappings and killings, and those captured during warfare were often used for ritual purposes in those rare and extreme cases where human sacrifice was deemed expedient. Yet, human life, all human life, is still regarded as sacred. Even though some distinction is made between the killing of a kinsman and the killing of a stranger, killing, even in wars, is usually abhorred. The warrior may be hailed for his valour and for defending his land and its people, yet he is still considered defiled by the blood he spills at the war front and in some localities warriors are not allowed back into the community after a war until they have undergone ritual purification. The courageous and the brave man is admired and respected in the community because his courage and bravery may be needed when the society is threatened from outside. But to expose one’s life or that of other persons to unnecessary danger is never regarded as a sign of courage or bravery. Similarly, the warrior is also expected to be self-disciplined. No intimidation of innocent or disadvantaged persons is tolerated.

            War was usually not sought for its own sake. Even in the event of provocation by a neighbouring community, attempt was first made to negotiate and resolve the problem without resorting to armed conflict.[18] There were, of course, several inter-clan wars and raids in Africa ever before the slave trade, colonial conquests, neo-colonialism, and now globalization, raised them to dimensions never dreamt of in traditional African societies and made them permanent features of the reality of contemporary Africa. But the traditional religious view of life makes war always morally unacceptable, since it is a total collapse of social and cosmic order and harmony. Traditional Africans know this well enough. But as Sarpong rightly points out, “in the realm of moral value… mere knowledge is not power.”[19]


c) Peace as a Gift of God

            Since human beings are aware of their limitations in attaining and maintaining peace in their persons and within their societies and also aware of the fact that God is the source of universal order and harmony, they regularly turn to him to ask for peace. While recognizing their co-responsibility in this regard, traditional Africans equally believe that true peace is a gift of God. One of the main purposes of sacrifices and offerings is expiation. Expiatory sacrifices are supposed to make up for an evil act, remove an abomination, placate the deserved wrath of God, the divinities or the ancestors and thus restore the equilibrium that was disturbed by the sinful act.[20] In offering expiatory sacrifices, human beings are asking God and the other spiritual beings to intervene and help restore the peace that has been violated. “The fundamental meaning of sacrifices and offerings,” writes Laurenti Magesa, “lies in their efficacy to restore wholeness. If wrong-doing causes a dangerous separation of the various elements of the universe, sacrifices and offerings aim to reestablish unity and restore balance.”[21] Sometimes, sacrifices and offerings are made explicitly to ask for peace even when no infringement of a religious moral norm has occurred, or to ward off the evil spirits capable of harming one’s peace.

Whereas sacrifices and offerings come at intervals, prayers are very frequent indeed. And peace is a regular item on the Africans’ list of petitions.

            The following is an example of a morning prayer said by the Boran of Kenya:


O God, thou hast let me pass the night in peace,

Let me pass the day in peace.

Wherever I may go

Upon my way which thou madest peaceable for me,

O God, lead my steps.

When I have spoken,

Keep off calumny from me.

When I am hungry,

Keep me from murmuring.

When I am satisfied,

Keep me from pride.

Calling upon thee, I pass the day,

O Lord who hast no Lord.[22]


A corresponding prayer, which could actually be regarded as the conclusion of the morning prayer, is said when one retires at the end of the day:


O God, thou hast let me pass the day in peace,

Let me pass the night in peace,

O Lord who hast no Lord.

There is no strength but in thee.

Thou alone hast no obligation.

Under thy hand I pass the night.

Thou art my mother and my father.[23]


While addressing their prayers for peace to God, the Boran are not silent over the role that humans themselves must play for them to obtain what they ask of God. Calumny, murmuring and pride are listed as obstacles to peace, for they are capable of upsetting the harmony in the community.

Even when peace is not directly mentioned in prayer, it is often implied in the intentions which have to do with life in abundance and divine justice. An example of such can be seen in the following morning prayer of an Igbo paterfamilias while offering and breaking kola nut:


Olisa, the long-sighted one,

You hold both the yam and the knife,

Whomsoever you give a piece will eat.

Grant us health;

Grant us long life;

Give us food and drink.

Bless our children:

May the father train his child;

And may the child in turn take care of his father.

May it work out for everyone according to his thoughts:

Whoever thinks good, may it be good for him;

But may evil follow the one who thinks evil.[24]


Like in every other aspect of the religious life of the Africans, the divinities and the ancestors are very close collaborators of God in the administration of the universe and especially of human affairs. Prayers and sacrifices are also directed to them in order to obtain peace. Besides, since all are involved in watching over the moral order, they are also guardians of peace. “They all uphold righteousness, kindness and holiness – the very essence of peace.”[25]

            Part of the religious functions of family heads and political leaders in most traditional African societies is peace-making: settling disputes, offering sacrifices and prayers for peace. Similarly, peace-making is a major task of religious functionaries. Among the Nuer of Sudan, a sacred person with no political authority (the leopard-skin-chief) acts as the chief arbiter in settling disputes.[26] It is on this ground that Robert Rweyemamu says (and I agree):


In African traditional religions the peace-maker represents divine power on the one hand and social harmony on the other. In his person he expresses the divine origin of peace, a peace that is associated with the virtues of loyalty, honesty and trust in God.[27]


If an Igbo, a Nuer or a Dinka had been in the audience when Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount, he would have recorded the seventh beatitude in the Gospel according to Matthew as: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are [not shall be called] sons of God.”[28]




d) Peace as a Precondition for Progress

            If justice is the prerequisite for peace, peace is the precondition for progress. Africans of all creeds hardly ever talk of progress without founding it on peace. A Yoruba song expresses this in very simple and straight terms: “I want to build a home/ I want to have children… Without peace, these things are impossible.”[29] In a culture that sees progress as divine blessing, it is impossible to think of true progress in the midst of moral, social and cosmic disorder. From what was said earlier regarding peace as the fullness of life, it may appear that one who has peace already has everything and does not need to make any further progress. If one’s life is already full, nothing can be added to it. In reality, however, this kind of fullness of life is never totally realizable in this life. The Igbo have a rhetorical question that has become a name and also a proverb: “Onye ka o zuuru?” (For whom is everything perfect?) The answer is emphatic:  “Nobody!” The best that one can hope to obtain in this life is only an approximation of the fullness of life. This then always allows some room for progress. When an individual or the community has peace within, the terrain is prepared for yet more peace, and this brings the individual or the community closer to the fullness of life. This is the true meaning of progress. It is just another word for more peace. And there cannot be more peace unless there is some peace already.


5. Conclusion: Prospects for World Peace from the Perspective of African Traditional Religion and Culture

            In a world so full of injustice, so short of harmony among humans as well as between humans and God, the divinities, the ancestors and other beings in the universe; in a world where billions profess faith in God but few have any regard for the divinely established moral order; in a world where human blood flows constantly like steams and so many innocent lives are taken in many ways, some violently and some subtly; in such a world as ours today, what possibilities does African traditional religion see for peace? How can humanity purify our blood-soaked earth? Where will humanity begin to make restitution and reparation for the injustices and the imbalance resulting from the permanent exclusion of the weak majority by the powerful minority? The picture looks so dark and world peace as it is understood in ATR may seem impossible. But it is not so. Adherents of ATR know that some injuries can never be fully repaired. With regard to the loss of human life, for example, the only complete restitution that could be made would be the restoration of the dead person to life – which is not possible. Hence, Africans readily admit that reparations and restitutions are in most cases only symbolic. What is important and indispensable is the admission of guilt on the part of the offending person, accompanied by a declaration of the readiness to make reparation and at least a symbolic gesture of restitution. For there to be peace in the world today and tomorrow, human beings must face the issue of justice; there must be some confession of guilt and some form of reparation. There has to be some form of ritual cleansing for every human life that has ended through the agency of human beings. When they disagree, humans must be prepared to reason it out rather than fight it out. Above all, humans must recognize their total dependence on God and their mutual dependence on one another.

It is often argued that because humans are by nature competitive and aggressive, there will always be wars as long as there are up to two human beings on earth. However, a closer study of human nature shows that humans are so constituted that they naturally seek the friendship and cooperation of their neighbours. By nature, the human person is an open being. This openness, makes the person constantly reach out to the other. Human beings are so made by nature that they can only realize themselves and their common destiny in collaboration with one another. The breakdown of this collaboration is a distortion of the natural order. The uneasy feeling that normally accompanies a quarrel or a fight may be a pointer to this fact. For it does seem that no creature feels uneasy in its natural state. If humans feel so uneasy when they quarrel or fight, it may be because it is not natural for them to do so. And what can be said of individual persons can also be said of nations,  and other groups of persons.

Competition and aggression are not quite the same, even though the former has the potential of degenerating into the latter. Competition seems to be the communitarian form of the person’s natural tendency to move beyond already realized goals. Human beings may be naturally competitive, but they are not naturally aggressive. Aggressive behaviour is often a result of the failure of reason, and extreme aggressiveness is sometimes a symptom of ill health. If today this aggressive behaviour has become so widespread and so institutionalized, the cause has to be sought not in human nature itself but in the unbridled greed of some. For, as Frank Buchman rightly said: “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

The sharing commanded by African traditional moral norms is capable of keeping competition healthy and preventing it from degenerating into aggression. Rather than force Africans to abandon their traditional moral and religious values of sharing and communion to embrace the individualistic and aggressive attitude of some other culture, the rest of the world should learn these values from the Africans and humanity in general will be enriched. Is it possible to globalize some African moral and religious values, or are we resigned to a unidirectional globalization of values and non-values?

            I started this reflection with a prayer. I would also like to end it with a prayer, a rather short and dense one. It is a prayer of the Serer in Senegal which, in my opinion, sums up all that we have seen so far about the meaning of peace in African traditional religion and culture. It acknowledges that God is the source of peace; that peace means fullness of life in this world and in the world to come – a life that is long and deep, that is, based on real and not ephemeral values. Our concluding prayer recognizes that peace is a result of the harmonious co-existence of all human beings on earth, of all possible colours, and it asks for a spiritual guide (represented by a white hen) in our journey towards humanity’s final home, designated in the prayer as the sky.



May God grant us peace and health of the body,

Let the black and red people live on earth in peace

And live in the world to come in joyful heart

May our life be long and deep

And a white hen guide our way towards heaven (the sky).[30]

[1] I found two versions of this prayer, one in Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa, Oxford University Press, Nairobi 1975, pp. 125-126 and the other in John S. Mbiti, The Prayers of African Religion, SPCK, London 1975, pp. 162-163, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace (An Experience with African Traditions)”, Studia missionalia, 38 (1989), p. 394. I took the version offered by Mbiti but added some lines (enclosed in square brackets) found in the version by Shorter but missing in Mbiti’s.

[2] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace (with Special Reference to Ashanti),” Studia missionalia, 38 (1989), pp. 351.

[3] E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, SCM Press, London 1973, pp. 180-182.

[4] John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, Heinemann, London 1988, pp. 108f.

[5] Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, Orbis, Maryknoll 1997, p. 65.

[6] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 361.

[7] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 356.

[8] Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 391

[9] Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 381.

[10] J. S. Awolalu, The Yoruba Philosophy of Life, in Présence Africaine, 1970, p. 21, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 382.

[11] Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies of African Religions, IMICO Publishers, Onitsha (Nigeria) 1987, p. 78.

[12] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace (with Special Reference to Ashanti),” Studia missionalia, 38 (1989), pp. 353-355.

[13] Theophilus Okere, “The Kite May Perch, the Eagle May Perch: Egbe Bere Ugo Bere – An African Concept of Peace and Justice,” Paper read at the World Congress for Philosophers, “International Philosophers for Peace,” Boston University, 1998, pp. 9-10. The expression “Egbe bere ugo bere; nke sị ibe ya ebela, nku kwaa ya” – “May the kite perch and may the eagle perch; whichever says the other must not perch, may its wing break,” is common in Igbo morning and community prayers. See Francis A. Arinze, Sacrifice in Ibo Religion, Ibadan University Press, Ibadan 1970, pp. 25 & 104; Marius Chukwuemeka Obiagwu, Our Praying Fathers, pp. 40-41.

[14] Chinua Achebe mentions the situation in a clan where no one knew the punishment prescribed for one who intentionally killed the sacred python, since no one ever imagined that it could ever happen. See Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Anchor Books, New York 1994, pp. 157-158. There was also the recent case of a Maasai man whose gnitalia were completely bitten off by his angry jealous wife. In addition to his physical pain, the man was also in a state of total confusion because nobody knew what reparation could be made for such a crime. It never happened before. As the victim told a BBC reporter “If you kill somebody you must pay 49 cows, even if you’ve removed somebody’s tooth – it’s one sheep. But this has never happened to a Maasai.” With no precedence to follow, members of his family “planned to slaughter a sheep in the homestead in order to remove any dangers of a curse.” Story accessed electronically at

[15] J. V. Taylor, The Primal Vision, S.C.M. Press, London 1963, p. 67, quoted in Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies of African Religions, p. 79.

[16] An example of the sacred week of peace is given in Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, Anchor Books, New York 1994, pp. 29-32.

[17] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 360.

[18] See Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, pp. 9-12.

[19] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 365.

[20] Francis A. Arinze, Sacrifice in Ibo Religion, Ibadan University Press, Ibadan 1970, pp. 34-37.

[21] Laurenti Magesa, African Religion, p. 203.

[22] Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa, p. 122.

[23] Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa, pp. 122-123.

[24] Marius Chukwuemeka Obiagwu, Our Praying Fathers: Prayer in Alor Traditional Religion, Exercitatio Practica, Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Privately published by the Author, Rome 1983, pp. 39-40. This English translation from the Igbo is mine and is slightly different from the one offered in the text.

[25] Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 359.

[26] Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 376.

[27] Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 376.

[28] Cf. Matthew 5: 9 (RSV).

[29] J. S. Awolalu, The Yoruba Philosophy of Life, in Présence Africaine, 1970, p. 21, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 383.

[30] H. Gravrand, in Présence Africaine, 1962, p. 70, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 400.