18 december 2018 // Articles & Stories

What are traditional African beliefs?

Connected to prayer

This article was first featured alongside our Prayer Diary in January 2019. You can download the January 2019 prayer points here or sign-up to receive future editions by post or email.

African traditional religion is the collective name given to a set of highly diverse beliefs, which vary according to geography and ethnicity. Generally, these traditions are oral rather than written, and include belief in a supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of the dead, and use of magic and traditional medicines. The role of humanity is generally seen as a bridge between nature and the supernatural.

What do Animists believe?

Animists believe that there are spirits in everything; in stones, trees, seeds, water, and in people, whether they are dead or alive. They believe that these spirits control good and evil and can be petitioned to carry out actions in their lives and in the lives of others.

To protect themselves against the spirit world, or to barter with spirits, animists offer sacrifices designed to pacify or please. This might include animal sacrifices or smaller actions, such as tying a piece of hair around a tree to ensure a good supply of coconuts. Many wear fetishes (bracelets and charms), believing them to have magical properties to ward off harm. These are often tied around the wrists of small children. Within communities, there may be actions, or sets of actions which are seen as ‘taboos’. A taboo can be something as simple as washing your clothes on the wrong day – an action believed to anger a certain spirit. Breaking a community taboo would risk bringing problems upon the whole community.

As a result of this, many animists are full of fear. They are fearful of breaking community taboos and risking anger and ostracism, and fearful of spirits in the objects around them being displeased with them. They’re also often very concerned about their own ability to appease the spirit world.

What is a witchdoctor?

The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of this term in 1718 when the name ‘witchdoctor’ was given to a healer who treated ailments believed to be caused by witchcraft. Today, we use the word to refer to people who claim a special knowledge of the spirit world, interchanging it with words such as shaman or sorcerer. In many African societies, witchdoctors are highly revered and respected. People go to them for help and protection from spirits and witchcraft. Other people ask for ‘medicine’ to harm others.

What is ancestor worship?

Many animists also worship the spirits of family members who have died. In the same way they seek to placate the spirits in the objects around them, they seek to please their ancestors; offering sacrifices and obeying rules and regulations, which have been passed down for generations.

They often believe that if things are going wrong in their lives, it is because they haven’t been diligent enough in their worship of their ancestors. The idea of ancestors punishing people for their behaviour towards them is common. Therefore, times of trial might lead to them adding new rules and rituals, or spending more money on livestock or items to sacrifice to their ancestors.

When sacrifices fail and illness and difficulty remain, animists and ancestor worshippers believe that if they are not to blame, then someone in their family must have caused the ancestors to become angry. This generates much suspicion and blame within families and communities, as people search for culprits and look for answers to their troubles.