Given at ATOM’s Center, Anchorage, Alaska)
by Ozodi Osuji
Map showing the six traditional language families represented in Africa:
Afro-Asiatic (includes Arabic, intrusive from West Asia)
Nilo-Saharan (unity uncertain)
Niger-Congo A (Niger-Congo’s non-Bantu branches)
Niger-Congo B (Bantu, Niger-Congo’s largest branch)
Khoi-San (unity unlikely)
Austronesian (Malagasy; intrusive from Southeast Asia)
(not shown: Indo-European (Afrikaans), intrusive from Europe)
There are over 2100 and by some counts over 3000 languages spoken natively in Africa in several major language families:
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 validity)
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 region).
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’ religions.
IGBOS CONCEPTION OF GOD
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 the world)
Chi (the God in each person…in Christian categories, God the son or Christ or soul)
Manu (God, Chi in human form, the ego self, a false self)
IGBO FUNCTIONAL GODS
Ale (Each Igbo village and town has a functional god called Ale; it is a goddess)
Amadioha (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.
PERSONS PERFORMING SPIRITUAL FUNCTIONS
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)
Dibia ( 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 (heaven).
Chi manifests in body, in the world of space, time and matter and takes on a separated self-form called Manu (ego self).
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.
RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND PRACTICES:
MUSIC, DANCING, 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 self, Chi.
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 Christians.
The Nile- Sudanese is either Muslim or Christian or pagan (Barak Obama’s father, a Luau, is part of the Nilotic- Sudanese group).
PENTECOSTALISM IN AFRICAN RELIGIONS
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 on earth.
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 TRAVELS
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 you.
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 make-ups.
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 ignored.
The least that Africans can do is study their religions and synthesize them with the imported religions they now practice.
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 University).
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 reality.
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 superstitious means.
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 so.
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.
I 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 therefore loves.
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 of California)