African people can be subdivided into three main groups: the Niger-Congo group; the Nile- Saharan group and the Afro-Asiatic group (and minor groups, such as Koi and the Madagascan). The Niger-Congo groups are found in West Africa, Central Africa and all the way down to South Africa. The Nile-Saharan (Nilotic) groups are found in Sudan and East Africa. The Afro-Asiatic (Semitic) groups are found in North Africa, Ethiopia and parts of the Sahel (Sahara Desert region).
A Talk On African Religions
Map showing the
six traditional language families represented in Africa:
Nilo-Saharan (unity uncertain)
Niger-Congo B (Bantu, Niger-Congo's largest branch)
Khoi-San (unity unlikely)
- Afro-asiatic (Hamito-Semitic) spread throughout the Middle East, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, and parts of the Sahel
- Nilo-Saharan is centered on Sudan and Chad (disputed
- Niger–Congo (Bantu) covers West, Central, and Southeast Africa
- Khoi is
concentrated in the deserts of Namibia and Botswana
- Austronesian on Madagascar.
- Indo-European on the southern tip of the continent.
African people can be subdivided into
three main groups: the Niger-Congo group; the Nile- Saharan group and the
Afro-Asiatic group (and minor groups, such as Koi and the Madagascan).
The Niger-Congo groups are found in West
Africa, Central Africa and all the way down to South Africa.
The Nile-Saharan (Nilotic) groups are
found in Sudan and East Africa.
The Afro-Asiatic (Semitic) groups are
found in North Africa, Ethiopia and parts of the Sahel (Sahara Desert
When most Americans think African they
generally think of the Niger-Congo groups (Negroes); this is because virtually
all African Americans came from these groups. Trans-Atlantic slavery was
between West Africa and the Americas.
The Nile-Saharan groups tend to be tall and
lanky and not the stout pictures folks have of Negroes. The Negroes of West Africa tend to do well in
short distance running, whereas the tall, lanky East Africans tend to do well
in long distance running.
The Afro-Asiatic groups tend to be a
mix of Africans and Semitic people (Arabs). Their body look tends to reflect
this mixing. Think of North Africans and Ethiopians (light complexioned).
The religions of the Afro-Asiatic
groups tend to be similar to the religion of the Semitic groups (Jews and
Arabs). Indeed, Ethiopians and Egyptians have been Christians for over two
thousand years; North Africans are of course mostly Muslims (Judaism,
Christianity and Islam are Semitic religions).
The Nile-Saharan (Nilotic) groups have
indigenous religions that are traced to ancient Egyptian religions.
When most Americans think of Africans
they are thinking of the Niger-Congo groups; I will, therefore, restrict my
talk to these groups’ religions and spirituality.
THERE IS SAMENESS
AND CONTINUITY IN THE NIGER-CONGO-GROUPS RELIGIONS
The religious practices of people
living in the West Coast of Africa, from Senegal to South West Africa are pretty
much the same. There is continuity in these people’s religious beliefs; perhaps,
this is because they are the same people.
These groups had a core place of origin
before migrating to where they are found today. Some say that they migrated
from what is now Nigeria to other parts of Africa. We know for certain that the
Bantus of South Africa (Zulus, Xhosas etc.) migrated from the Niger-Benue
region of Nigeria almost two thousand years ago.
For our present purposes, the religions of the
Niger-Congo groups of Africans tend to be similar. If you understand one of
these groups’ religions you have pretty much understood the essence of others
religions; you just have to see that the different names they give to their gods
are saying the same thing.
Given the one hour limit of this talk,
I will limit my talk to Igbo religion, with the understanding that what is said
about this group’s religion can be transposed to other Niger-Congo groups’
Igbos call God Chi. Chi has three
aspects to him; all three aspects represent the same God. (This is akin to the
Christian concept of Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy
Spirit; all three representing one God.)
Chi-Kudu (Supreme God this God
is transcendental and unknowable to us on earth)
Chi-Nike (God the creator of
Chi (the God
in each person...in Christian categories, God the son or Christ or soul)
(God, Chi in human form, the ego self, a false self)
Ale (Each Igbo village and
town has a functional god called Ale; it is a goddess)
(Each Igbo town has a god of light, knowledge called Amadioha)
There are myriad other functional gods,
such as the god of farming (Ahanjoku), god of war (Ikenga), god of truth (ogu) etc.; we do not need to concern
ourselves with these gods here; for all intents and purposes understanding Chi
and his three aspects is what characterizes Igbo spirituality.
Onye isi muo (the high priest
of one of the functional gods)
Onye agwu isi (a child/person
inordinately possessed by desire to understand spiritual matters)
when the person possessed by desire to understand spiritual matters undergoes
certain initiation rituals he or she becomes a Shaman, in Igbo Dibia; called Duru in men, Lolo in women)
In sum: the Igbo name for God is
Chi. God is said to have three states:
the Supreme God who is unknowable is called Chi-Ukwu literally, big God; that
same God is said to be a creator God, called Chi-Neke; that same God is said to
be in each person, called Ch. Chi is the
individual’s real self, his spirit self; the individual’s earthly self is called
Manu, a false self or Chi disguised in flesh.
Chi is eternal, changeless and permanent; he
is in each person and at the same time transcends our world and lives in Eligwe
Chi manifests in body, in the world of
space, time and matter and takes on a separated self-form called Manu (ego
Manu or ego is not the individual’s
real- self, it is the form Chi takes to experience his existence in the
universe of forms; in Oriental categories it is the separated self, the ego.
HERBS AS MEANS OF TRANSCENDING THE EGO SELF
Igbos recognizing that their real self
is not Manu, ego, engage in all sorts of religious practices to enable them
transcend the ego state, Manu state, and attain their true self, Chi.
These activities generally entail inducing
forgetting of the awareness of the ego self-concept, ignoring who we
consciously believe that we are so as to attain the awareness of the non-form
Music, dancing, chewing certain herbs,
and silence, meditation are employed in enabling the individual to forget his
temporal self so as to remember his transcendental self.
The few persons who have attained the awareness
of their real self, Chi, often speak from that perspective and folks listen to
them for they are said to speak from a higher self that knows the past, present
and future. These persons are called dibias.
Dibias or in Western categories,
shamans, are persons who habitually are able to transcend their ego, Manu state and tune into their true self,
Chi and from that state make pronouncements on what is happening in the world
of space and time.
Folks go to Dibias to be told about whom they
were in past lives, what they came to do in the present life, and what is going
to happen in their future. Interestingly, these shamans’ predictions tend to
turn out true!
Whereas dibiahood can occur in people in
all walks of life, Igbo priesthood is hereditary. Only certain families produce
the people’s high priests. Generally, when the current high priest dies a son
of his or a son of his brother becomes the next high priest. The High Priests
are called Onye Isi Muo (literally, the head of spirits).
Igbos have functional gods. The main
functional gods are Ala (usually a goddess); each village and town has its Ala;
each town also has Amadioha (God of light, Knowledge). There are gods for most
of the activities Igbos, an agricultural people have, such as the god of
farming, the god of war etc.; each of these gods has its high priest.
CHRISTIANITY AND ISLAM
In the nineteenth century and early twentieth
century most of the Niger-Congo groups of Africans were converted to
Christianity. Thus, today most of these Africans call themselves Christians.
The Afro-Asiatic groups were converted
to Islam a long time ago; indeed, some from the inception of Mohammad’s
ministry in 610 AD. Ethiopians and the original Egyptians are today Coptic
The Nile- Sudanese is either Muslim or
Christian or pagan (Barak Obama’s father, a Luau, is part of the Nilotic-
Considering the tendency for Africans
to dance to music and chew on herbs to help them forget their temporal
self-concepts (Manu) so as to attain their transcendent self (Chi) and speak
from it we can safely say that African religions tend to be like what we see in
Pentecostal Christianity in North America.
It should be remembered that the
Pentecostal movement in Christianity was initiated in Los Angeles, California,
in 1906 by an African American. Perhaps, the spirit of the ancestors came over
him and he began dancing, singling and speaking in tongues (as Christians
supposedly did on the day of the Pentecost, a few days after the ascendance of
Jesus Christ to heaven)!
Igbos, like all Niger-Congo African
groups believe that when their people die that they continue to exist in
ancestors land called ALAMUO (literally the land of spirits).
Ancestors, called Ndichi are believed
to be actively involved in the activities of those living on earth. Igbos literally talk to their ancestors as if
they are talking to persons on earth; they ask them for help with their affairs
Igbos call their ancestors Ndichi (ndi
means people; chi means God; thus, God’s people; those in God, or those with
God, those in ancestors land).
Igbos believe that their ancestors, ndichi are guiding them and protecting them in the temporal world.
Igbos believe that one must abide by the law of the land, ofo/ogu, and that if one willfully disobeys the law that misfortune follows one.
When one does something that is
considered a sacrilege, an offense to the land (ala) one is excommunicated from
the village, banished; sometimes if the crime is egregious one makes amends by
making certain sacrifices to the land (those who commit incest or rape are
generally banished from the town and told never to return to it; to be cut off
from ones people is considered a punishment worse than death itself).
OUT OF BODY
There are Igbos who claim to have out
of body experiences and travel to other place in that out of body state (astral
travels). They tell elaborate stories of where they went to during the night,
such as attending meetings in distant lands.
Igbos believe in the existence of
witches and wizards. Elaborate stories
are told of persons who are witches and harm other people. Occasionally, such
persons are identified by dibias and rounded up and forced to confess their
sins and make amends for their crimes or are banished from the group.
When misfortune befalls an Igbo
(African) he often attributes it to offense he committed against his ancestors and
or functional gods and asks for forgiveness from them (and in certain
situations he consults Dibias who may
tell him to make amends by sacrificing this or that animal to the ancestors);
or attributes it to witches.
Ancestors who have unfinished business
on earth are said to reincarnate to life on earth. Generally, when a child is
born Igbos consult a Dibia (psychic) to find out the ancestor that reincarnated
to them and what he came to earth to do.
Igbos (Africans) do not associate rebirth on earth with Karma; reincarnation is not seen as a punishment for misdeeds done in past life times; instead, reincarnation is done by ancestors who are still interested in living on earth.
Some children are said to be
mischievous and shortly upon birth die. Such children are said to come over and
over and get born over and over and die in childhood; they give their parents
enormous grief. Usually, Dibia’s
intervene and perform certain rituals to prevent such a child from dying.
Some ancestors may decide that they have exhausted their interests in what life on earth has to offer and move on to other worlds and universes. It is believed that there are infinite worlds and universes that people go to. Indeed, in their sleep-dreams certain Igbos claim to visit other worlds, universes and even heaven; they claim to bring knowledge from those worlds.
The Individual’s spirit circles
through the various worlds and universes and occasionally returns to his
source, Eligwe, aka heaven.
Heaven is construed to be a formless place where all spirits are unified as one spirit. This state is said to be unknowable to our current human ego, separation based understanding. It is considered futile trying to understand it for our current minds are separated minds designed to understand and adapt to the exigencies of a separated world of multiplicity and, as such, cannot understand the world of perfect union called heaven. Heaven is perfect union hence perfect harmony and perfect peace and joy; our earthly minds cannot understand those absolutes.
Igbos talk to their Chi. Praying is talking to God. Praying is done at all times. At any time
during the day, Igbos talk to their Chi.
(Those trained in Western psychiatry
probably could mistake this talking to gods as some kind of auditory
hallucination; one must be very careful transposing Western psychological
categories to non-western persons; academic psychology is heavily colored by
Western culture and is not yet a universal science of the human mind;
psychology would become a science when it takes into consideration how all
human beings minds work, not just Western minds).
Before he goes to sleep at night Igbos kneel
by their beds and account how their day went to their Chi; where he feels that
he made a mistake he asks for guidance in not making similar mistakes.
The Igbo literally talks to his Chi at all times. It is as if he is talking to a person standing next to him. You would hear him or her suddenly say: Emela Chi- ukwu nnam (thank you God, my father); Chukwu nnam merem ebere (God my father have mercy on me).
Igbos practice the art of silencing
their ego thinking so as to become still and hear their Chi, God talk to them.
In prayer you talk to Chi, God and
make requests; in Meditation you remain silent and listen to Chi, God talk to
Thus, prayer and meditation are
alternated. You ask God a favor and then you quiet your mind to hear him talk
to you (he may talk to you through what other people around you say to you;
since God, Chi is in every person it follows that what other people say to you
is said to you by God!).
Simply stated, Igbos are in constant
communication with their creator; praying and meditating is not something set
aside for certain times during the day but take place at all times.
Do you want to make a decision? You ask Chi how you should decide and then you listen to him tell you what to do, either directly or through what other persons around you say.
Most contemporary Africans have been
exposed to Christianity and Islam and some to Oriental religions such as
Hinduism and Buddhism. Clearly, Africans cannot entirely return to practicing
their ancient religions for their new religions are now part of their psychological
The only option now available to them is
to synthesize their people’s religions and the foreign religions that they have
been exposed to.
It seems to me that Africans must now
transcend their particularistic religions and move towards a universal
spirituality, an approach to spiritual matters that takes into recognition all
mankind’s religious experience.
What Africans cannot do is deny their
peoples religion. All mankind began in Africa; it follows that African religion
is the fountainhead of all other people’s religions and, as such, cannot be
The least that Africans can do is study
their religions and synthesize them with the imported religions they now
This is actually already taking place
for the Catholicism that this writer was exposed to in childhood is not the
Catholicism now practiced in contemporary Africa; contemporary African
Catholicism is taking into consideration Africans traditional religious
practices and is more and more resembling the Pentecostalism seen in
traditional African religions.
Ultimately, all religions of mankind will contribute to a universal spirituality, a spirituality that unifies all mankind, pretty much as science has unified scientists approach to phenomena. There is Particularism and universalism in religions; clearly, humanity is now searching for a universal religion, not Christianity or Islam or Hinduism or Buddhism etc. to unify all mankind.
It is very difficult to do justice to a
whole continent’s religions and spirituality in one hour’s talk. Hopefully,
some of the ideas I alluded to in this talk have stimulated your interest. If so,
you can then go and seek out more information on African religions and
spirituality (I am not a specialist on African religions, I am a social
scientist; nevertheless, you can talk to me about it; I can be reached at the
Africa is the birth place of all human
beings; in fact, all human beings are Africans. Therefore, to understand human
beings religions we must understand Africans religions.
It is silly pretending that the West can
understand human religion without paying attention to the place where human
religions began, Africa. I am talking about the current tendency to talk about religion
as if all there is to it is what is found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam,
Hinduism and Buddhism. Those who engage in this outrage have only one word that
characterizes them: foolishness.
You understand something only when you
go to its root. Africa and things African are at the root of all that human
beings do and, therefore, to understand anything human beings do we must see
how Africans do it.
Looked at from the framework of
science most of the Igbo/African beliefs talked about today can be dismissed
off hand as superstitious. One could tell one’s self that our ancestors
believed in all sorts of irrational, magical concepts that were not rooted in
If one is learned enough in Western
philosophy one tells one’s self that mankind travelled a path before they got
to where they are today, a path that began in primitive beliefs in the
existence of many gods, polytheism, and thereafter belief in monotheism, then
graduation to doubting the existence of gods and efforts made to use abstract
thinking to make sense of living, metaphysics, and finally to what logical
positivists called uncompromising empiricism (science).
Empiricists’ epistemology is that only
that which can be observed and verified, can be experimented on and is
falsifiable can lead to real knowledge.
John Locke, David Hume, Auguste Comte
were radical empiricists. Folks like Thomas Hobbes, Herbert Spencer and Karl
Marx etc. were radical materialists who rejected any notion of God and spirit
and rooted all human behavior in the processes of matter.
There were pure rationalists who tried
to use only rational auspices to prove or disprove the existence of God, such
as Rene Descartes, Baruch Spinoza, Blasé Pascal, Ludwig Leibnitz, George
Berkeley, Voltaire, Jean Jacque Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, George Hegel, Arthur
Schopenhauer, Frederick Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, William James and Henri
Bergson. These folks would probably laugh at what seems to them primitive
Africans attempts to understand their world and relate to it through
Perhaps, traditional African beliefs
were primitive? However, the fact
remains that we still do not understand our origin.
Have astrophysics and its big bang
hypothesis and evolution biology (and its primordial soup hypothesis where
atoms mixed to form molecules that formed biological organisms) explained the
origin of life on earth? I do not think
For all its gyrations, neuroscience
has not understood consciousness, how three pounds of grey matter in our brains
(neurons) produce our thoughts.
Man remains a mystery to himself; we
are an enigma to each other. In this sea of not knowing who we are, it seems to
me that wisdom compels each of us to be honest and say: I do not know many things;
especially, I do not know anything about human origin.
From the profession of not knowing one
looks with open mind on how different groups of human beings tried to explain
their origin and nature.
It seems to me that as long as Africans
identify with either Christianity or Islam that they are denying their true
religions; as long as they live in this state of denial, it seems to me that
nothing is going to work out well for them.
The present social decay we find in
much of Africa, I think, is largely attributable to Africans flight from their
people’s religions and spirituality.
Adhering to other peoples religions,
such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam merely confuses Africans
hence they currently behave like confused persons.
It is only when Africans reclaim their
people’s spirituality that sanity would return to their lives. As I pointed out
in many writings Igbos suffer from higher levels of delusion disorder. This, I
think, is a result of denying their true selves while pretending to be false
selves, westernized selves.
Igbos are probably the most Westernized
African group; they tend to see all things Western as good; they place white
folks on a pedestal and pretend to be like them, hence live as false selves
hence deluded persons.
Delusion disorder occurs when one
believes what is not true as true. A deluded person, for example, denies his
real-self, which he sees as weak and inferior, posits a false ideal self,
generally a grandiose self, and identifies with that false big self and try to
behave from its stand point.
Since the individual is not his desired
ideal, big self, to the extent that he pretends to be it he is deluded; he is
partially psychotic; in full blown psychosis there is both delusion and hallucination;
he is paranoid. Paranoia is Greek word meaning seeing one’s self as a different
person that one is in fact not.
The paranoid person uses his
imagination to invent an ideal, important and powerful self, identifies with it
and defends it.
The unreal must be defended to seem
real; thus the paranoid person is almost always defensive, defending a
fictional self he wants to become. He scans his environment trying to ascertain
that people treat him as the important person he wants to be seen as and when
he feels not seen as such he quarrels with those he believes belittle him.
Paranoia, aka delusional disorder is
healed when the individual gives up the quest for a false, important self; when
the individual accepts his real self, a humble self that sees itself as the
equal of all selves and a self that loves itself and loves all selves.
Mental and somatic peace returns to the
deluded person when he jettisons his identification with a fictional grandiose
self, finds out who he is in fact and behaves from its parameters.
believe that when Africans and all people find out who their real self is,
which I believe is Unified spirit self, in Igbo categories, Chi, and behave
from its standpoint they regain sanity.
Chi is one yet is found in all people.
As the one force in all people it loves all people to love its whole self. Chi
Our true self, Chi, is a loving self. A
person who is living from his true self, Chi is always a loving self; he loves
his self and loves all people, black and white, adult and child.
When a person sees all human beings as
one with him, as the same and coequal and loves them all he is peaceful, happy
and joyous; conversely, when the individual hates even one human being he lives
in conflict, for hatred of seeming other persons is self-hatred.
A person who hates himself by hating
other persons is at war with his whole self (holy self, Holy Spirit) hence
lives in conflict and knows no peace and joy.
Igbos believe that Chi is their real
self; they believe that he is eternal, permanent and changeless; what they
believe is pretty much what all African religions believe.
However, whether Chi exists or not,
whether there is God or not is a different matter; we know that science has no
proof that God exists; scientists cannot prove the existence of God with the
scientific method (that method applies mostly to physical phenomena).
Since we can neither prove nor disprove
the existence of God, I leave it to you to decide what you believe is true or
false in spiritual matters.
Whatever you do please strive to be
truthful to your beliefs. If you do not believe in God be honest with that view
and do not pretend to believe in God. Conversely, if you believe in God accept
your belief as real to you regardless of what science says about the existence
or non-existence of God. You do not have to obtain other persons approval to
justify your beliefs.
Study science and technology to enable
you adapt to the exigencies of the world of matter, space and time and then
clarify your approach to the unseen aspects of life and stick to it without
apologies to anyone else. Have the courage of your convictions; live what you
believe is true.
What I know for sure is true is that all
people are related and that I must love all of them to love my whole self. To
the extent that I love all people I feel peaceful and happy; conversely, to the
extent that I hate one human being, regardless of his race, I feel unhappy and
have disturbed my peace. I am not so certain what my religion is!
However, if the essence of religion and
spirituality is love for all humanity I have religion and spirituality;
anything else is not for me. (Auguste Comte, the founder of sociology and radical
logical positivism made love of humanity his religion; I am with him; I am not
impressed by religion and metaphysics that is bereaved of love.)
Ozodi Osuji, PhD (University