The degrading of African spiritual traditions has often taken the form of defining them as more of superstition than actual spirituality, more primitive than contemporary, and more wicked than inherently good.
This flawed yet widely-accepted approach has led to the adoption of a belief that African spirituality is shallow, backward, and lacking in substance and value. This cannot be further from the truth.
In reality African spirituality is rich, complex, meaningful and well-suited to the African environment and way of life. It not only complements but also empowers and enriches the African socio-cultural system when applied appropriately and respectfully.
With this assertion as the basis there is need to outline and discuss some of the central themes that define and characterise the African spiritual worldview, with the Zimbabwean context as reference.
Role of The Ancestors
A defining hallmark of African spirituality is ancestor or spirit veneration, the belief that ancestors play a significant and powerful role in the lives of their descendants. This role primarily involves guiding, overlooking and intervening in the affairs of the living, as well as assisting and disciplining them.
Ancestors, known as vadzimu in Zimbabwe’s Shona language, are sacred in African cosmology and are viewed with the highest reverence. According to theologian Laurenti Magesa, “Ancestorship is an act of communion in remembrance that is also actualization or resurrection. It constitutes making present among us here and now those who are remembered. Ancestors and their descendants…are in continuity.”
The belief in ancestors is grounded in the relational nature of African society which holds that one’s existence only matters in relation to others, especially one’s kin and relatives. African culture is family-focused and ancestor veneration is only an extension of that focus into the spiritual realm, in the continued responsibility of the departed to the relations they left behind.
The veneration of ancestors is also symbolic of how the world of the living and the spirit world coexist side-by-side in African culture. There is no clear separation or demarcation between the two worlds, but rather a natural overlapping into each other. The dead exist alongside and sometimes within the living, in the case of spirit mediums or masvikiro.
It seems the laws of time and space do not apply in African spirituality, they are transcended and overcome. This is only a sign of how integral and necessary ancestors are in the African worldview.
The African Concept Of The After Life
Linked to the belief in ancestors is a strong and deeply-rooted belief in an afterlife. Africans do not believe in the finality of death, but rather see it as a graduation to a higher level of existence. African people’s regular interaction with the spirit world via their ancestors and similar spirits creates an awareness of death as a non-permanent phenomenon, which allows them to approach it with wisdom and understanding.
There is an intrinsic belief in the continuity of life beyond the physical realm. Eternity is a practical reality, not a matter of hope or faith as in other religious traditions. As Clapperton Mavhunga notes concerning the Shona people, “Death was the process not of final expiry, but merely an elevation into an ancestral spirit. Dying was sleeping, it was a stage in the process of being called to spiritland.”
To show how strongly they believe in the continuation of life after death the Shona carry out a ritual called kurova guva, which is awakening the soul of the sleeping dead after a period of time and returning him/her back into the homestead or village to look after the family. Therefore in indigenous spirituality death is simply a stage in the journey of existence, not the end of the road.
Connection To Nature
African spirituality is also greatly in tune with nature and the elements, it is a nature-based belief system. The natural world and the spirit world are interwoven in the indigenous traditions of Africa, and nature is viewed as highly sacred and spiritual. This is especially true in the case of land.
Jacob Olupona speaks of the African worldview as viewing everything as unified and connected to the land, “the place where one’s clan, lineage and people were cosmically birthed.” In African spirituality land is spiritual because it is ancestral. The land is where the ancestors lived and died and where their bones are buried, therefore it is sacred. The natural world is also viewed as not merely physical but also mystical.
In Shona spirituality animals such as lions are seen as representing senior ancestral spirits known as mhondoro, rivers are believed to shelter powerful water spirits called njuzu and certain mountains and hills are believed to be sacred and holy. In the spiritual traditions of Africa nature is not a separate element, but is at the very core of spiritual practice and belief. The interplay between nature and spirituality is symbolic of the divine interconnectedness of life and creation within African cosmology.
The Masculine & Feminine Balance
Indigenous African spirituality also upholds a belief in the balance between the masculine and feminine nature of spirit, meaning both the male and female essence is valued in spirituality. This is unlike other religious traditions of the world that are often male-centric and patriarchal in nature and outlook. African spirituality recognises the importance of the feminine element as a necessary balance to the masculine, therefore the role of women is highly prized.
As Ivan van Sertima stated, “The woman in Africa was not seen as a rib or an appendage, or an afterthought to man, but as his divine equal.”
This may be linked to the fact that African cosmology highly values the concept of fertility, the creative essence of nature that births and brings forth.
Fertility is often associated with the mother or maternal principle, hence the importance of the feminine element. In Shona spirituality a man and a woman occupy the same position on the spiritual ladder, according to Mickias Musiyiwa.
The Creator or High God, known as Mwari, has both female and male characteristics. Musiyiwa writes about Mwari having “feminine attributes”, and how Mwari is referred to as mother, father and grandmother by the Shona. Women also occupy important and influential positions as spiritual leaders in Zimbabwean society, as spirit mediums and healers.
The most famous spirit in Zimbabwe, Nehanda, only possesses women mediums. All this exemplifies a spiritual system that seeks to balance the energy of the sexes, rather than separate them.
Life Convergence & Ritual
Another aspect of indigenous spirituality is the profound spiritual basis of every aspect of physical reality. The African worldview sees every circumstance and situation as having a spiritual cause or influence. Nothing is purely an occurrence of the world of matter, or random, or coincidental.
Everything that occurs has a spiritual basis. As Jacob Olupona states, “Religion informs everything in traditional African society. African spirituality simply acknowledges that beliefs and practices touch on and inform every facet of human life, and therefore African religion cannot be separated from the everyday or mundane.”
Clapperton Mavhunga further states that every facet of life in Zimbabwean culture was spiritual. This means that in Zimbabwean traditional society whenever anything happened, good or bad, it was believed to have a spiritual source.
If someone experienced good fortune it was attributed to blessings from the ancestors, but if a person experienced great negativity or misfortune it was due to witchcraft, ancestral anger or an avenging spirit. Therefore the spiritual is intrinsically tied with the physical and creates a cause-and-effect phenomenon in traditional spirituality.
Ritual is central to African spirituality.
Ritual is the practical aspect, the action that complements the beliefs and philosophies underlying the spiritual tradition. Rites, rituals and ceremonies play a prominent role in the practice of spirituality in the African context. The spirit world is approached and accessed through ritual acts filled with symbolism and meaning.
Africans perform ritual in the search for answers to the complexities of life and guidance for an unknown future, according to J.K. Asamoah-Gyadu. Ritual practices are considered sacred and are carried out with the greatest reverence and respect.
There is a belief that if rituals and ceremonies are not conducted properly this will anger the ancestors and lead to negative consequences, therefore they are practiced with much care. In Zimbabwe important ritual ceremonies include bira, a celebratory ceremony to invoke the ancestors, and mukwerera, an esoteric rain-making ceremony.
Finally, a central aspect of African spirituality is the lack of any holy book or sacred text that documents indigenous spiritual beliefs. Many world religions have holy books that contain their teachings and scriptures, but African spirituality is without such written records. On this issue Jacob Olupona asserts that indigenous African spiritual beliefs are not bound by a written text like Christianity, Islam and Judaism. He goes further to say, “Indigenous African religion is primarily an oral tradition and has never been fully codified.”
African beliefs are handed down orally from generation to generation, meaning Africans carry their beliefs within themselves.
African spiritual knowledge is contained within the souls of the indigenous people, it is part of them in the truest sense. They do not access their spiritual knowledge from a document or text but from knowledge received and stored in their inner beings, hence their connection to spirituality is innate. Spirit mediums, traditional healers and diviners carry and pass on spiritual beliefs.
Contributor: Cynthia Marangwanda