There are few religions as globally misunderstood as African Traditional Religions. Whether it is being wrongly labelled voodoo, juju or witchcraft, indigenous African faith systems tend to be associated with darkness, animal and human sacrifices, violence and general backwardness.
Few people are aware that Voudou (rather than “voodoo”) is a faith based on harmony with nature, one that expressly forbids the killing of another being, or that most African faith systems believe in the concept of one God above all other divinities and deities, who function much as a pantheon of saints.
From the early colonial period till today, misinformation about African indigenous spiritualities is spread and believed as truth. From Nigeria to Kenya, it is disturbing how we have come to accept the intolerant Western views of African indigenous spiritualities, believing that we are saved because we no longer engage in “idol worship”. We ignore the influences that these systems have had and continue to have on the way Africans worship and conduct their everyday lives. Rather than viewing them as the complex systems they are, we have debased them to nothing but a series of sacrifices.
Religious colonialism is the lesser-discussed arm of colonialism itself, but its psychological effects have been as long-lasting. With religion being the sensitive topic that it is, one close to the hearts of many African people, it is not always easy to have a sensible discussion about the problematic ways in which Eurocentric Christianity and Islam reached the African continent. Yet religious colonialism on Africans is the main reason that most of us have come to view our own indigenous faith systems as epitomes of evil. Presenting local beliefs as nothing but backwater superstitions was part and parcel of how Christian missionaries operated in their bid to bring their religion and Western civilisation to the dark continent. Most missionaries strongly believed that they were saving Africans from satanic oppression and ignorance, an idea that most post-colonial Africans have internalised.
In the 1900s, “traditional African religions still claimed the loyalty of majority of the population of sub-Saharan Africa”. Indigenous faith systems were competition to those missionaries who wanted their religions to be established in Africa, thus they were essentially subjected to a smear campaign.
African indigenous faith systems became “primitive”, uncivilised, a necessary evil that had to be dealt with, and an inferior system that had to be done away with. It was not enough to insist that every form of worship in Africa was of the devil, this was tied to African cultures as a way to reinforce the notion that Africans and African civilisations were lesser when compared to that of Europeans.
The lengths to which some missionaries went in their bid to “civilise” people they saw as inferior still astonishes. Little known is the history of indigenous children across the world who were kidnapped, forced into seminaries and taught not only Christianity but also the superiority of Western culture and language in the hopes that they would go ahead as agents of European authority and “civilise” their own people. As a young boy, Malidoma Somé was abducted by Jesuit missionaries and made to undergo indoctrination into European ways of thought and worship in colonial Burkina Faso. Now a diviner in hisDagara tradition, Somé wrote about the brainwashing he received at the seminary and the difficult journey finding his way back to his people’s traditions in Of Water and the Spirit. In the book, Somé writes “religious colonialism tortures the soul. It creates an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and general suspicion. The worst thing is that it uses the local people to enforce itself”. These words are still relevant today.
What exactly are rituals?
To the modern African who distrusts these age-old traditions, indigenous faith systems can be nothing but evil. Proof of this is in the ritual killings that keep on happening in this modern age whether it is 100 graves dug up in Benin Republic or albinos being killed for their body parts in Tanzania. These rituals, otherwise called witchcraft, are said to exist due to the superstitious nature of Africans, which arises from traditional beliefs. It is believed that in rituals, people are regularly abducted and killed, their body parts used to create charms or “fetishes” that are said to bring riches to whoever bears them. These so-called ritual killings have attained the status of urban legends in countries like Nigeria where the 10% of Nigerians who adhere to traditional beliefs have to keep their faith secret or risk being labelled as enablers of human sacrifice. There is a great need to differentiate between legitimate spiritual systems and witchcraft, yet it is widely accepted that human sacrifices were part and parcel of pre-colonial faith systems.
That these rituals are done with the main aim of making money should hint at their true capitalist nature. In a world where everyone is looking to be rich and wealthy, indigenous African spiritualities are not exempt from being corrupted by those who would do anything to get rich. Discussions about the modern “innovations” in African cultures and religious practices are almost nonexistent, so most of us never consider that the growth of Pentecostal churches is encouraging witchcraft related fears or that market forces are central to today’s beliefs in witchcraft. A few months ago at a work meeting, the topic of ritual killings and idol worship came up and a colleague boldly objected to a idea that ritual killings had been traditionally done by Nigerians in pre-colonial times. She said she recalled when human sacrifices started in Nigeria – at the time, she was a child growing up in the 1970s. Her opinion is backed by Chief Adelekan, a Yoruba diviner who at a talk in the Manchester Museum insisted that human sacrifices have nothing to do with his indigenous worship. But in people’s minds, this modern practice of ritual killings has been conflated with indigenous faith systems.
African indigenous spiritualities in the 21st century
Due to the disdain and fear surrounding indigenous faiths, I tell very few Nigerians that I have consulted with a babalawo, a diviner of the Yoruba deity Ifa. I was curious to get a life path reading and to know which Orisha “ruled my head” after a friend had had a similar reading done. Now this confession is enough to freak out a lot of Nigerians, who absurdly believe that Ifá, a deity of divination would demand a human sacrifice. What I do not tell them is that I consulted this babalawo over the Internet. It was through email that my friend introduced me to him, his service was paid for through his website, and after consulting with Ifá, he sent me my life path reading in pdf format. I couldn’t help but compare his very modern and professional service to the recurring stereotype of wild-eyed witch doctors providing consultations in a darkened room that is popular in Nollywood and even Western depictions of any African spiritual system. For those who are open-minded and interested, there are a growing number of priests ordained in their respective spiritualities who are changing the face of indigenous African spiritualities on the continent and in the Diaspora.
Take Ghanaian priest and healer Kwaku Bonsam, for instance, the focus of this New York Times article. Kwaku Bonsam regularly uses social media for divination purposes, and he also appears on television talk shows. He named himself “Bonsam” which in Twi means “devil” thus knowingly poking fun at the continued demonisation of indigenous faith systems. Unlike the “primitive” witch doctor of popular imagination, Kwaku Bonsam has adopted children, opened a free elementary school and runs a cattle farm. In keeping up with the generation of Pentecostal pastors in Ghana who use the media to deride Ghanaian traditional religion as devil worship in the continued colonial tradition, Kwaku Bonsam uses similar tactics to strike back. In a fascinating case, Kwaku Bonsam stormed into a church with a camera close by, to expose a Pentecostal priest for soliciting the help of his deities and keeping an idol on the church environs.
Pentecostalism has much in common with the way indigenous spiritualities are practiced, with its heavy emphasis on exorcisms and speaking in tongues. In so many indigenous African faiths, spirit possession and trances are a part of worship. In nearby Benin Republic, a country where majority of the population hold on to their indigenous faith, Voudou, Aligbonon Akpochihala hosts his own radio show and appears on television to dispel misconceptions about the Voudou faith. In his own bid to modernise the faith, Akpochihala launched a crash course that allows Voudou devotees to become priests in four months, as opposed to the usual three years. The mere existence of people like Kwaku Bonsam and websites that offer the West African equivalent of Western zodiac signs shows the ways in which indigenous priests are adapting their centuries-old traditions to the modern world and resisting the grand narrative of Christianity and Islam. It shows that African cultures and customs do belong in this world. The keepers of the age-old traditions are staking their claim for credibility despite the many challenges they face.