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African Spirituality: Another Voice

I’m continuing to attempt to get a handle on traditional African culture, particularly traditional African spirituality as it (may) impinge upon the development of early Christianity in the Nile valley and Latin North Africa. Peter J. Paris’s The Spirituality of African Peoples has provided a wealth of background information. Now I’d like to supplement Paris by looking at Guidelines for Christian Theology in Africa by Osadolor Imasogie.

It should be noted that I am flagrantly misappropriating these works for purposes other than what was originally intended. Paris’s book aims (among other things) to demonstrate how African culture and spirituality endured among African Americans, eventually blossoming in African American Christian traditions. Imasogie, by contrast, writes to address a particular pastoral need among Christians on the African continent. Still, I find that both of these sources speak credibly about the religiosity of traditional African peoples, and therefore hopefully fulfill my particular needs.

In a nutshell, Imasogie is concerned with the tendency he perceives for African Christians to resort to traditional measures (divination, sacrifices, and various forms of protective charms) in a crisis situation. He argues that the missionaries who evangelized much of sub-Saharan African in the nineteenth century, as products of a “quasi-scientific” world view, did not have a frame of reference in which to give serious consideration to certain aspects of African spirituality that ought to have been fertile ground for a re-contextualization of traditional Christian beliefs such as the supremacy of Christ over demonic forces and a sacramental approach to creation.

In this context, Imasogie highlights four aspects of the traditional African world view that seem to him most pertinent to understanding both the pastoral challenge before him and a way to address this challenge theologically. These aspects provide windows into traditional African cultures that is complementary to what may be gleaned from Paris.

The Earth

The earth is a reality created by God and the arena in which humans live out their lives in preparation for a fuller life in heaven (54). At the same time, the earth falls short of its original divine purpose. This fact, Imasogie writes, “is described in the various myths of creation and man’s alienation from God. The earth bears the brunt of man’s disobedience. Consequently, the earth has become the battleground where evil forces are pitted against man” (54).

By “earth,” Imasogie is actually describing a “multidimensional” reality, consisting not only of the material realm but of various unseen planes of existence. These planes include, first of all, “the dimension of the ‘vital force,’ variously referred to as ‘nyama,’ ‘psychic force,’ ‘dynamism'” (54). Dynamism is a morally neutral essence that can be tapped for either good or evil by occult practitioners—medicine men, witches and wizards, etc. A second invisible realm is inhabited by spirits and ghosts. Though malevolent, these spirit-beings can be held in check by supernatural means including the ministrations of medicine men. There is a possibly a third dimension, that inhabited by ancestral spirits and divinities:

This is a bit fuzzy, but in any case you have here on earth with a hierarchy of dimensions—the physical, the “dynamism” or “vital force,” the evil spirits and ghosts, and perhaps the station from which the immanent ancestral spirits and divinities operate. (55)

The point, Imasogie writes, is that humans live in a world pervaded by spiritual beings and forces—many of them morally evil—and their human allies. Humans are thus constantly exposed to danger from the unseen realms.


Humans themselves are complex psycho-physical beings as mysterious as the earth in which they live (56). As Imasogie explains,

He is created by God as seen in the myth of creation. As a psyche he is open to God, the divinities, and the spirits as well as the “vital force” on the earth. He is capable of entering into relationship with these entities which may result in good or ill; hence he is very vulnerable to their influences. However, he can manipulate the lower spirits and the neutral force, all of which can harm him if he is careless and does not protect himself against them. (56)

African peoples conceive of the human soul as tripartite, consisting of life-force, personality, and alter-ego, sometimes called “guardian genius.” (56). Other cultures see more than five components of the soul, but Imasogie prefers to list these three so as to avoid duplication. The “life force” is given at conception and animates the physical body. It can be harmed by spiritual forces and ceases to exist when a person dies.

The “personality-soul” is the aspect of the soul that does not die. It is created by God prior to the physical body. It is this aspect of the soul that chooses a destiny that the person will then seek to actualize on earth: one’s family, occupation, lifespan, status, etc. Humans are responsible to God by means of this aspect of the soul, which is also responsible for a person’s character.

Finally, there is the alter-ego or guardian genius. This entity is in a sense a duplication of the “personality-soul” that resides in heaven during a person’s earthly life. Its main duty is to ensure that the person’s destiny is actualized. The altar-ego is also immanent on the earth, hidden in the person’s head “since that is where the individual’s destiny is coded” (57).

Humankind’s Place

At death, the life-force is destroyed and the personality aspect of the soul returns to heaven. Under certain conditions, however (for example, when someone dies prematurely), the personality-soul lingers around for some time as a ghost.

When a person dies at the “right time”—that is, after having been old enough to have children—elaborate funerary rites are performed to ensure that he or she is properly incorporated into the realm of the ancestors:

Soon after [a person’s] death, the family gathers and invites relatives to arrange for the interment which is the first step in the funeral rites. The corpse is washed, shaved of all hair, the fingernails clipped and the body is dressed up before being laid in state…. The corpse may be buried within the house, in the courtyard or in a public cemetery; but in modern times the later is the general rule. (57–58)

A second phase of rituals begins a few days after the burial involving various sacrifices performed over a number of days, generally between seven and forty. This period of sacrifices, dancing, and feasting concludes with a special ritual “to elevate the spirit of the deceased into the ancestral shrine” (58). The previously collected hair and fingernails are usually involved at this point. With all the rituals completed,

The deceased has been ritually separated from the living members of the family through the interment ritual and by means of the proper funerary rites. These rites are believed to help in the process of incorporation into the community of the deceased members who preceded him into the spirit-world. Now, by the elevation or divinification ritual he is reincorporated into the community of the living as an ancestral spirit who, though invisible, is symbolized on the ancestral shrine. In other words, the unbroken communion between the living and deceased members of the family is maintained ritually. (59)

Methods of Coping with the Uncertainties of Life

Traditional African cultures have a number of provisions for coping with the uncertainties of life. These include divination, sacrifices, and protective charms and amulets.  Imasogie writes,

Diviners are people who, by virtue of their extra sensitivity to spiritual reality and years of training, have become “fathers of secrets.” They are able to decipher the past, the present and the future—as well as uncover the human and the spiritual causes of events and the possible solution to the problems of life. (60)

The purpose for consulting a diviner is to obtain a solution to a problem. This solution will necessitate a sacrifice “as this is the only sure way of communicating with spiritual forces” (61).

The frequency of such sacrifices is an indication of the seriousness with which people take them as a means of dealing with the mysteries of life. You can hardly walk through any village without seeing especially at the crossroads as well as at the entrance to the village, signs of fresh sacrifices. (62)

Finally, African peoples seek the protection of charms and amulets against malevolent spiritual forces:

The importance of protective charms and amulets for the people of Africa can only be appreciated in the light of their world view as described above. If the world is so unfriendly, then the most reasonable thing to do is to arm oneself against any attack of the nefarious powers. This is why people spend much money acquiring charms which they wear in the form of finger-rings, arm-bands and waist-bands. Some are worn on the wrists and ankles. Besides the ones worn on the body, others are hung on door lintels or buried under the threshold of the entrance to the house to protect against invading spirits. (63)

In my next post, I’ll attempt to see how the spirituality of the ancient Egyptians may be compared or contrasted with the spiritual beliefs and practices of much later African peoples south of the Sahara.



  1. Ben says:

    I’m enjoying this series of posts. I haven’t had a chance to read this book, so thank you for the quotes. Have you seen Laurenti Magesa’s African Religion: The Moral Traditions of the Abundant Life (1997)?


  2. Thanks, Ben. I haven’t heard of the Magesa book. Is it worth a trip to the University library to see if they have it?


  3. Patti Ricotta says:

    This is the first blog I’ve read in the series and so I do not yet understand exactly what Paris is trying to do. I can only comment here about the statements he made that I feel are somewhat accurate, and others that I believe to be in error with regard to the reality of life in Africa today.

    First of all, for Paris to say that “the summum bonum in African culture is the well-being of the community: The preservation and promotion of community is the paramount goal of African peoples in all spheres of life,” makes me wonder where he found this information. Has he lived among many African people today? Is he involved in their lives — I don’t mean as an academician, but as a fellow human being? Africa is a huge continent and to say that ALL of the people in even one tiny country such as Uganda, Rwanda or Burundi (the countries in which I serve) hold this to be a paramount goal is a lovely wish, but far from reality.

    Many African’s do hold this principal, but they are the Christian Africans as far as I can find, and very few others. At least, that has been my experience in 7 years of working in East Africa. The well-being of the community is not upheld when relatives go into widows homes, take all her belongings, beat their sister-in-law and throw her and all her children out on the street because now that their brother/uncle is dead, so are his wife and children in their eyes. To these relatives all their brother’s things now belong to them and his wife and children are left to starve. Women often fear for their lives when their husband is alive because her life is his, to do with as he pleases. After his death these women fear their husband’s family just as much as they feared their husbands because of what his brothers/uncles will do to her and her children. Their well-being is of little or no consequence. But in the Christian home, this is changing, (even though it is still a problem in some Christian homes.) This is just one example of how the preservation of the community is not upheld, but it is a very pervasive example.
    Also he says, “Thus, all life is sacred. This is a fundamental principle for all African peoples.”
    I do not understand how the author can possibly say such a thing as this. To say that ALL Africans hold the sacredness of all life to be a fundamental principal is simply ludicrous. Marauding gangs of boys/men who roam the streets of the DR Congo looking for girls to overpower and rape, do not hold life to be sacred…or at least not female life. Corrupt government leaders take millions in aid money meant for the health and welfare of the citizens they “serve,” and build shopping malls inside their homes for their own family to enjoy. Minister’s of roads build perfect roads from their offices to their homes, but let the mud roads for which that money was designated remain dangerous and impassably, stranding people in their homes during the rainy season. Witch doctors tell people that if they will sacrifice a child and bring them the child’s little head, they will receive millions of shillings. Last year 128 children were kidnapped and murdered in ritual sacrificial killings for the sake of one person to get rich quick. In Somalia two men will get together to rob their friend and kill him for a transistor radio. then when those two sleep, one will stay awake and kill the other to sell the $3 radio for himself. How is that showing that ALL African people hold ALL life to be sacred.

    BUT, in the Christian world view in Africa — not the “spiritual world view including the pagan religions — this is changing. I just don’t have time to write about it now….sorry!


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