New Attacks on African Spirituality
On January 13, 2010 Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, stated that Haiti “swore a pact to the devil.” This was one day after a 7.0 earthquake rocked the island nation resulting in massive loss of life. The “pact” Robertson so confidently mentioned to various media outlets was a reference to the Haitian Revolution, more specifically, the Bwa Kayiman (Bois Caiman) Ceremony in August of 1791.
The event is significant because Africans of varying ethnicities joined together in a traditional ceremony to affirm that they would no longer remain enslaved. The insurrection in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), in what would become known as the Haitian Revolution, resulted in the establishment of a Haitian republic in 1804. The “devil” Robertson spoke of was a reference to the African gods invoked by Haitians to overthrow their French oppressors.
This practice of referring to anything in the realm of African spirituality as evil or devilish is a continuation of the propaganda used by missionaries, slave traders, and colonizers ever since they ventured onto the continent. Enslaved Africans were treated as a people without culture. They were reduced to being treated as cargo. Africans were viewed as heathens because they had their own religious traditions prior to the introduction of Christianity and Islam. These traditions include ancestor veneration, systems of initiation and respect for the natural environment.
African Traditions in the Americas
African spiritual systems, which fall under the category of African Traditional Religion (ATR), are the traditions that have sustained us since time immemorial. Enslaved Africans brought these traditions to such places as Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, New Orleans, Florida, and South Carolina. They can be seen in the burial custom of placing items on the graves of deceased family members, knowledge of certain ritualistic and medicinal practices, known under various names as juju, hoodoo, rootwork, etc. They can be seen in the tradition of adorning trees with bottles, vessels, and other objects to protect the household through invocation of the dead as noted in places like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Virginia.
n the African worldview, as noted by such scholars as John Mbiti, spirituality is intertwined with culture. “In traditional society there are no irreligious people. To be human is to belong to the whole community,” said Mbiti. “A person cannot detach himself from the religion of his group, to do so is to be severed from his roots, his foundation, his context of security, his kinships and the entire group of those who make him aware of his existence. To be without one of these corporate elements of life is to be out of the whole picture.”
The Desecration of Traditional Beliefs & the Hysteria Surrounding “Witches” in Africa
“Witch” is an Old English word. Thus it is linguistically and functionally problematic to try to define a witch within an African context. Many females who today would be prosecuted as witches in parts of Africa, would in ancient times be revered for their powerful feminine energy. To impose European concepts of spirituality upon African traditional beliefs results in this type of mistranslation and attempt to suppress the spirit of African peoples.
One of the most well-known witch hunts in history is the Salem Witch Trials. Interestingly, Tituba, the woman thought to have sparked these trials, is recorded by some as an African woman and in other reports an Indian woman who would participate in divination with young New England girls and adolescents. She was also said to tell stories of witchcraft, demons, and mystic animals. Examining this within the larger context of traditional beliefs might provide further insight into why this enslaved woman was accused of witchcraft in 17th century Massachusetts, and why the accompanying hysteria followed.
According to a July 2010 article in the Guardian titled “Protecting Child ‘witches’ in Africa,” “The phenomenon of accusing children of witchcraft emerged only within the last 10-20 years (and in Nigeria more recently)”. Nollywood, the Nigerian movie industry and one of the largest movie industries in the world, often portrays themes of witchcraft and “black” magic in its films. The 1992 film, “Living in Bondage” is often considered the first Nollywood blockbuster film. Can you guess what theme was displayed prominently in the film? Witchcraft.
According to Biyi Bandele in a Guardian article titled, “Welcome to Nollywood,” “Living in Bondage was a morality tale that resonated with many Nigerians, articulating and validating their fondest and darkest suspicions. It proved, for instance, that most of those ‘big men’ driving about in fancy cars with their trophy girlfriends, living in obscenely big mansions, eating lots of chicken and drinking nothing but foreign wine came into their wealth by drinking their wives’ blood – not before killing them in gory sacrifices to the devil, of course.”
While many Nollywood films focus heavily on witchcraft and themes of the “dark side,” many Nollywood films don’t and speak instead to such themes as the need to retain tradition, the importance of the family and the elders, and the like. This is true not only of Nollywood but films across the continent. Some films even challenge notions surrounding witches. The 1989 film “Yaaba,” shot in Burkina Faso, follows the story of Bila, a young boy who befriends an elder named Sana. While everyone in the village refers to her as a witch, Bila refers to her as grandmother. When a young girl in the village falls ill Sana’s medicine saves her.
Those such as Helen Ukpabio, founder of the Liberty Foundation Gospel Ministries, should be questioned about their statements regarding so-called child witches. It should be noted that Ukpabio has funded several Nollywood films and produces films through her production company, Liberty Films, to further exploit and twist African traditions. A look at the number of children and women accused of witchcraft (tens of thousands according to some reports) exposes a serious problem and challenge to the authentic practice of African traditional religion.
In Nigeria, where Ukpabio is able to evangelize and distribute her propaganda, traditional beliefs and practices such as ancestor veneration and divination are often labeled demonic. It’s not uncommon to hear a non-traditionalist demean the practices of their foreparents as “wicked” or “useless.” This happens all over Africa and outside of the continent as well. It’s reminiscent of the 19th century efforts by the Royal Niger Company and the Church Missionary Society (CMS) to set up commercial and religious bases in Nigeria. Africans would be employed as intermediaries between priests and priestesses and European missionaries. These middle persons would assist these missionaries in “spreading the gospel”, in order to deter traditional beliefs.
Deterring these traditions often included force on the part of Europeans and the destruction of shrines in many villages. Other effects of these efforts were that important traditional customs such as birthing and naming customs, marriage, and funeral customs became “Christianized”. Many Africans took biblical names for themselves and their children as opposed to names in their own languages, newborns were baptized in churches, people wedded in churches as well, and funeral customs took on a non-traditional approach. Speaking about the effects of missionary practices in Nigeria, in particular western Igboland, Victoria Ibewuike states, “Since the introduction of Christianity in Igbo society, some significant changes have taken place, especially in connection with burial ceremonies. Christian rituals have replaced the traditional burial ceremonies, in which the Igbo women played a significant role.” These traditional life cycle rituals incorporate the family and the ancestors and at times speak specifically to events that occurred in the lineage. Thus, to negate these things and remove the role of women, elders, and other members of the lineage from these practices is to suppress tradition.
To be very clear, charlatans outside of and within African Traditional Religion (ATR) attempt to sully the name of ATR. Their twisting of these traditions to suit their own agendas is not reflective of the beauty, usefulness, and importance of spiritual systems within African cultures.