Missionaries of Africa

African Traditional Religion (ATR)
by Father Richard Nnyombi

When we speak of Africa in this context, we refer to Africa south of the Sahara desert. The North belongs more to the Mediterranean world and the religion of Islam is well established in that part of Africa.

A definition?

ATR has proved to be very difficult to define. There is no single simple and precise definition to describe it. Unfortunately, many writers have misunderstood ATR by trying to define it under misleading terminologies such as animism, fetishism, magic, superstitions, primitive religion, ancestor worship, paganism etc.

The difficulty to define ATR seems to come from the fact that its propagation is carried out by living it other than by preaching it. Its followers are more preoccupied with its practice than with its theory. In ATR, dogmas and doctrines have a very little role to play in the life of its followers. Its definition becomes even more difficulty because of its integral / holistic character. There is no separation between the religious (sacred) and the profane. Its influence covers all aspects of life, from before the birth of a person to long after s/he has died. It is a way of life and life is at its centre. It is concerned with life and how to protect it and augment it. Hence the remark such as: For the African, religion is literally life and life is religion.

Whoever, therefore, is looking for a single, simple and precise definition of ATR will most likely end up being disappointed! But, it is possible to find ATR and observe its influence if one knows where to look for it.

Where to find ATR

ATR has no sacred writings. Whoever would like to observe or study it has to do it in practical life. Mbiti gives a summary of where to look for and find ATR: rituals, ceremonies and festivals; shrines, sacred places and religious objects; art and symbols; music and dance; proverbs, riddles and wise sayings; names of people and places; myths and legends; beliefs and customs.

One or many African Religions?

There are two opinions. The first opinion is that there are several African Religions. The reason given is that these religions are tribal / clan based and therefore there are as many religions as there are tribes / clans. The second opinion is that there is one African Religion whose essential beliefs (about the Supreme Being, man, universe, life, death, and life after death, etc.) are comparable in their main themes, though there are many differences between particular places. For this second opinion, the similarities are more important than the differences.

A traditional religion in comparison to foreign religions

The beliefs and practices of ATR are based upon the faith of the ancient indigenous people (Ancestors). This is why it is qualified as traditional, (from latin verb tradere = to hand down doctrines, customs etc., from generation to generation), in comparison to the other religions, e.g. Christianity and Islam, which are considered as foreign since their doctrines and practices came from outside of Africa.

Statistics and geographical distribution of the followers of ATR

Presently, they are around 20% of the total population of Africa which is estimated to be around 760 m. This percentage has been declining since the arrival of Islam and especially of Christianity at beginning of the 20th century. Here below are some general statistics of the different countries.

From 50% onwards: Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Liberia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Swaziland, Togo, Zambia, Zimbabwe.

From 30% to 49%: Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Namibia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

From 10% to 29%: Angola, Gambia, Guinea, Lesotho, Niger, Nigeria, Sao-Tome and Sudan.

Less than 10%: Cape Verde, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Senegal, Seychelles and Somalia.
(Cf. Comboni Missionary Magazine, New Africa - Leadership. Special Issue of January 2000.)

However, the influence of ATR goes well beyond these statistics. ATR beliefs and moral values continue to influence, consciously or unconsciously, many Christians and Muslims. Also, many New Religious Movements have taken over ATR beliefs and moral values. Leopold Senghor, reflecting on this seemingly ambiguous religious situation of his fellow Africans, said that he prefers to speak about it as religious symbiosis, and therefore a religious enrichment, rather than religious syncretism, a concept he found meaningless in an african religious context!

Future of the African Traditional Religion

Inspite of the declining numbers of the followers of ATR mentioned here above, there seem to be reasons to conclude that ATR will continue to be a living religion in many years to come. Some of these reasons are the following:

- ATR continues to be the source of meaning, direction and security of the lives of many Africans, including followers of other well established religious traditions.
- In these last few years, there has been a revival in the practice of ATR in different parts of Africa.
- Today, as the spirit of religious intolerance and exclusivism is being replaced slowly by the spirit of interreligious tolerance, dialogue and mutual respect, ATR is also slowly finding its place in the orchestra of the world religions. Its true spiritual and moral values (e.g., profound sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the Creator and of the spiritual world; importance of family life, love and respect of life, sense of solidarity and community life etc., cf. Ecclesia in Africa, para. 36), have been recognised as part of the religious and moral patrimony for humankind.
- This tolerant and respectful atmosphere has given confidence and self-esteem to the followers of ATR. Many are no longer ashamed of their religious heritage, as they had been in the past. They are proud of being its heirs and consider it their duty and right to pass it on to the next generations.

Select Bibliography:
* African Religions and Philosophy. MBITI J.S., London 1970.
* Introduction to African Religions. MBITI J.S., London, 1975.
* African Traditional Religion: A Definition. IDOWU E.B., London 1973.
* African Traditional Religion. PARRINDER E.G., London, (repr.) 1974.
* African Religion. The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. MAGESA L., New York. 1997.
* The Attitude of the Catholic Church towards African Tradition Religion and Culture. ISIZOH C.D., Rome, 1998.
* Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa, SHORTER A., New York, 1975.

· www.africaworld.net/afrel/ (Webpage maintained by Chidi Denis Isizoh)
· http://members.aol.com/porchfour/religion/african.htm
· www.aaronc.com/modrelg/relafri.html

Also look at

Food for thought &
Interreligious dialogue in the light of Proverbs and Sayings

Documents: No Religion is an Island (English and French)

Who are-we?
Style of life