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.
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 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
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.
* 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,
(Webpage maintained by Chidi Denis Isizoh)
Also look at
Interreligious dialogue in the light of Proverbs and Sayings
No Religion is an Island (English