Religious Studies - 4 pages at least


As a conclusion, it may be said that Ginen reinforces and identifies Vodu as an African- based religion and philosophy and complements the concept of a sacrosanct structure that con- firms the interconnectedness between diverse spirits and diverse powers. Also spelled Voodoo, Vaudou, or Vodun, Vodu is thus a religion of power, creation, and enigma, and it acknowl- edges a worldview that embraces philosophy, medicine, justice, ritual, healing, and other rich sets of belief. About 6,000 to 10,000 years old and with a membership of up to 60 million, Vodu continues to thrive to different degrees in the Caribbean, Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Columbia, Mexico, and many other countries in Latin America. Its attributes are evident in practices labeled variously as Obeah, Santeria, Regla de Ocha, Umbada, Lukumi, Candomble, La Regla Lucum, or Orisha, and it relies on systems and media that are common to native African religions, including drumming, chanting, singing, dancing, animal sacrifice, and spirit possession.

Philip U. Effiong

See also Vodou in Haiti

Further Readings

Hurston, Z. N. (1938). Tell My Horse. New York: Harper & Row.

Lucas, R. (2004). The Aesthetics of Degradation in Haitian Literature. Research in African Literatures, 35(2), 54–74.

McAlister, E. A., & Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Guide to Black History. (2007). Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Retrieved January 5, 2007, from article-9075734?tocId=9075734

Mohammed, P. (2005). The Sign of the Loa. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 18, 124–149.

Mulira, J. G. (1990). The Case of Voodoo in New Orleans. In J. E. Holloway (Ed.), Africanisms in American Culture (pp. 34–68). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Phipps, M. (2002). Marie-Ange’s Ginen. Callaloo, 25(4), 1075–1082.

Thompson, R. F. (1983). Flash of the Spirit. New York: Random House.


Tell me what kind of God you worship and I will tell you who you are! Such a maxim means that the notion of God impacts the perception of the nature of the African people because religion plays a crucial role in people’s identity. Misconceptions abound on the African vision of God. The ques- tion regarding the African vision of God arises as a problem in the context of globalization, espe- cially the encounter with modernity, the encounter between Africa and the outside world—namely, the West with its secularism, atheism, and Christianity, and the Arab world and Islam. This encounter occurred in a context of unequal power relationships. Dominated militarily, politically, and economically, Africa came to be dominated also culturally, epistemologically, and, most important, religiously. Its languages were demoted to meaningless dialects, its healers to witch doctors, its religion to fetishism, and its spiritual beings to idols.

In this context, several questions arose that have puzzled outside observers of African tradi- tional religion. Do Africans have an adequate knowledge of God? Is the African God the same as the God of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or Hinduism? Is the African God a true God? Is he a personal being, an impersonal spirit, a sort of creative energy, or an abstract idea? Is the African God a loving God or a malevolent trickster? Is African traditional religion pantheistic, polytheis- tic, monotheistic, or henotheistic? Is the “chief god” indifferent to or actively involved in human affairs? Do Africans communicate with God or only with the ancestors and spirits? For Africans, especially those steeped in traditional culture, the reality of God is grounded in the reality of people’s religious experience, and God is as real as the existence of the world or the African people. It is well established among scholars that an African cannot be understood apart from the categories of homo religiosus and homo symbolicus. In John Mbiti’s memorable expression, “Africans are notoriously religious.” This religiosity begins with the belief in a world beyond the physical and mundane existence on Earth, the belief in a spiri- tual order of ancestors, gods, and goddesses. Thus, the concept of God stands at the heart of


African cosmology and the conception of life. But what is meant by God in Africa? This entry begins by contrasting the perspectives of Westerners and Africans on African religion. Then, after a discus- sion of whether the African God is knowable, it describes several attributes of God and asserts the usefulness of the African vision in today’s world.

The Outsider’s View

Theologians and scholars of world religions have grouped religions in three major categories. Two of them are those that believe in no God (Theravada Buddhism and Jainism) and those that believe in one single God (monotheism: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The majority of world religions, African traditional religion included, are viewed as polytheistic. This third category refers to religions that believe in many gods, which are often regarded as idols or false gods by the monotheistic religions.

What this simplified typology indicates is that African traditional religion and Africans’ vision of the nature of God have been defined overwhelm- ingly by outsiders. Almost five centuries of colo- nial and Eurocentric scholarship have sanctified concepts and paradigms that have largely con- tributed to the distortion of the African vision of God. Categories forged or promoted by Émile Durkheim, Mircea Eliade, Evans-Pritchard, Edward Burnett Tylor, and many others led to the definition of African traditional religion as animism, fetishism, magic, witchcraft, polytheism, shamanism, idolatry, paganism, primitive religion, and ancestor worship. Needless to say, these epis- temological constructs have no existence in the lexicon of most African languages. They are clearly invented by outsiders for the benefit of an outside consciousness. What these 10 “epistemo- logical plagues” have generated is the sense of meaninglessness. The African God has been defined first as a fictitious idol manufactured by the imagination of an ignorant primitive mind addicted to superstitious absurdity. Later, he was viewed as a demon, and, finally, more liberal scholars settled on “Deus Otiosus.”

But whatever the case, this distorted view of God led to the perception of all forms of African traditional religion as essentially a religion of error, horror, and terror. Most important, despite

all the rhetoric about postcolonialism, colonial categories still govern the understanding of African vision of God among many people and scholars. As the American Academy of Religion observed in 1993, in its “Spotlight on Teaching African Religions in American Universities,” within the field of religious studies, African religion still remains a residual category, variously character- ized as traditional, primal, primitive, oral, and nonliterate. African religions are defined as anti- thetical to world religions and are viewed as less complex, less reflective, less theoretical, and, most important, less moral and less spiritual.

Likewise, as recently as 1998, Robert B. Fisher observed that African religion continues to be excluded from “world religions.” Rather, it is viewed as a primal religion devoid of divine reve- lation, philosophic speculations, high spirituality, and decent ethical standards. In a postcolonial world that still divides civilization and spirituality between East and West, African religion remains a noncategory. This means that a better under- standing of the African vision of God requires a Herculean effort to overcome the misunderstand- ing disseminated by almost five centuries of Western and Westernized scholarship and the sci- entific prestige of its colonial library. The process of the decolonization of knowledge that gained pace after World War II has raised an increasing awareness of the pitfalls of anthropological and missionary studies of African traditional religion, and, in both Africa and the West, an increasing effort toward a better understanding of the African vision of God is underway.

African Assessments

Most African Christian theologians now acknowl- edge that African traditional religion is not merely a praeparatio evangelica for conversion to Christianity, but rather a proper locus of God’s revelation to African ancestors and therefore a sufficient means of salvation or meaning for the African people. According to this line of thought, God not only tolerated the religion of African ancestors, but was active in its creation. Ancestors are to be respected as the normal divinely given means for salvation, put by God in his will for the salvation of all the peoples, for God truly has spoken to our ancestors in that sense expressed in


the letter to Hebrews. African traditional religion contains “not only the seeds but also the fruit” of the word of God.

Thus, Christian theologians now regard the African ancestral religious heritage as the result of God’s activity, rather than a merely “man-made superstition.” African traditional religion has been defined by the Ecumenical Association of African theologians as one of the indispensable sources (locus theologicus) for the articulation of an authentically African Christian theology. This growing respect for African traditional religions does not mean that the African conception of God can merely be reduced to Christian or Islamic cate- gories. It simply means that traditional religions constitute a valid spiritual experience whose vision of God is awe-inspiring, love-sustaining, and a foundation for justice, equality, and human dignity.

This vision of God has been articulated in countless comparative studies accumulated by scholars over the last two centuries. But an accu- rate vision of ancestral theology can be gleaned from the numerous creation myths, from the wisdom of African proverbs and from the insight provided by African languages, religious songs, art and music, prayers, names of God, names of the African people, royal investiture speeches, reli- gious taboos, and various customs. But before analyzing the African understanding of the nature of God, it is worth addressing first the question of God’s existence and whether the knowledge of God is accessible to mortals.

Can God Be Known?

The answer to that question depends on the nature of God. Both monotheism and polytheism are foreign concepts that cannot fully render the richness of the African vision of God. In Africa, God is rather conceived of in terms of a family. More specifically, the African vision of God is cosmotheandric. There is Vidye Mukulu trans- lated as the Great Spirit, Supreme Being, or High God. Then there are various spirits, especially spirits of nature, dwelling in sacred waters, sacred mountains, and so on. Finally, the ancestors are people who were famous for their virtues and goodness and who become divine after death. The spirits and ancestors are regarded as lesser gods because they are created by Vidye Mukulu,

they depend on him, and they often act on his behalf. The question of whether humans can know God is therefore raised with regard to the Supreme Being (Vidye Mukulu, Shakapanga).

One of the most striking aspects of African tra- ditional religions is the absence of dogmatic defini- tions of God and, most important, the absence of sculpture or icons representing the Supreme Being. In most rituals, even prayers and sacrifices are often offered to the ancestors and the spirits. God is even called “the unknown” (by the Massai People), “the God of the Unknown” (by the Lunda people), “the Unexplainable” (by the Ngombe people), and “the Marvel of the marvels” (by the Bakongo people). Numerous proverbs also point to the mysterious nature of God. A Luba proverb warns whiners that God is not “our brother”: “Vidye ukuha bibidi I mwanenu?” (God cannot give you twice, he is not your brother).

This fact led many outsiders to conclude that Africans lack the knowledge of the Supreme Being. However, such a conclusion stems from a super- ficial perception of African religions. From time immemorial, atheism has not yielded support in African imagination. Contemplating the majesty of mountains such as Kilimanjaro and Nyiragongo and mighty rivers (Nile, Congo, and Niger), the beauty of the blue sky and the majesty of the stars, and experiencing the power of various spirits and interacting with the Dead through dreams, visions, or mediumship, Africans have firmly regarded the existence of God as a self-evident truth.

The difficulty of translating the unlimited God into a limited human language, however, has raised the question of whether mortals can acquire an accurate knowledge of God. Some religions claim to have received a clear revelation from God and thus to possess a clear, accurate, and unim- peachable knowledge of the Supreme Being. Yet even in these monotheistic religions, mystics and theologians have constantly warned against idola- try (i.e., man’s penchant to create God in his own image). Thus, apophatic theology reminds those who busy themselves in defining God that silence may be the best speech about God because every human discourse merely reflects the limited knowledge of their authors.

Such wisdom was well perceived by those African elders and artists who abstained from carv- ing sculptures of the High God. Such gesture was a


product of a long and sophisticated theological reflection that understood well that, although humans speak of God in anthropological and even anthropomorphic terms, ultimately God transcends all the categories of human understanding and lan- guage. A Luba proverb reminds people that “no one can put his hand in another person’s heart even when sharing the same bed” (munda mwamukwenu kemwelwa kuboko nansha mulele butanda bumo). This notion that every human heart is a mystery is even truer for God. No human can fully grasp God’s heart. In other words, although humans can describe God’s action toward humans, and some of God’s manifestations, God is unknowable.

Thus, God is praised as the “unknown,” the mysterious one, as a Kikongo saying puts it explicitly: Ku tombi Nzambi ko, kadi ka kena ye nitu ko (Don’t look for God, He does not have a body). The Baluba and other people liken God to the wind or to the word of the mouth. A tradi- tional Twa hymn conveying the vision of many Africans explicitly states that it is impossible to make an image of God:

In the beginning was God

Today is God,

Tomorrow will be God

Who can make an image of God?

He has no body

He is as a word which comes out of your mouth

That word! It is no more,

It is past, and still it lives!

So is God.

What is expressed in this metaphorical language is the fact that African traditional religion is fully aware of the transcendence of God. God is con- ceived of as the one who is at once close to humans and yet utterly other and mysterious. It is this awareness of the limitation of human knowledge of God that explains, in part, the amazingly tolerant nature of African traditional religion and the absence of excommunications and persecution of heretics in the religious history of Africa. By rela- tivizing human knowledge of God, Africans allowed for various religious expressions and

claims; however, in a world of strong belief in “spirit possessions,” people did not totally deny the possibility of knowing God. What is rejected is the absolutization of one’s knowledge of God. Thus, praise songs, invocations, creation myths, and other forms of expression for a litany of the quali- ties of God can help believers grasp the African vision of the nature of God and his attributes.

God’s Attributes

God as “Adro-Adroa”

One of the fundamental questions of African theology is that of the relationship between God and humans. The abundant literature produced by Mircea Eliade and some influential anthropolo- gists, theologians, and sociologists of religion has popularized the mythical hypothesis of an African “Deus Otiosus,” claiming that for African peoples God is “too remote” and virtually excluded from human affairs. The African God, they claim, is a lazy, indifferent, and absentee God who, after crea- tion, withdrew far away and no longer intervenes in human affairs, neither to accept prayers nor to come to the rescue of those who invoke him.

Thus, it is assumed that African traditional reli- gion lacks the sense of providence, that Africans worship a useless God. This view is not supported only by Westerners. Some African scholars too have made ambiguous statements, which lent credibility to a hypothesis that is nothing else than a colonial invention aimed at finding evidence for the superiority of the religion of the conquerors. Assertions of this kind are misleading, and the notion that Africans conceive God as “Deus otio- sus” is false. Even authors who promoted the Deus Otiosus mythology acknowledge that the Igbo may make their sacrifices to various deities, but they envision a high God who ends up getting their message. Moreover, the Igbo and many other people appeal to the “High God” in their distress, believing that he is not completely separated from the affairs of men and that He is still the great father, the source of all good, who intervenes in favor of the living.

Africans, like many other people, consider God to be at once “near” and “far away.” In the poetic Lugbara expression, the African God is “Adro- Adroa.” The Lugbara people speak of God as


being near to people (Adro) and at the same time “far away” (Adroa). This same notion is found among the Baluba, who express the transcendence and immanence of God in a beautiful proverb: Vidye kadi kula, umwite ukwitaba, umulonde bukwidila (God is not far away, if you call him he will answer you, but if you try to walk you will never meet him).

What is critical here is that God is not merely Adroa, but also Adro. Because he comes close to humans in his benevolence, God is knowable to some degree and has qualities that can be described as mother, father, judge, and so on. Chief among these is the notion of creator.

God as “Sha-Bantu-ne-Bintu”

There are in Africa more than 2,000 creation myths. Indeed, the most fundamental African attribute of God is summarized in the Mashi expression, Ishe w’abantu n’ebintu. God is the father (Ishe) of human beings (abantu) and things (ebintu) because God is the universal creator, the source of the existence of the whole universe and every single creature. The Baluba use a similar expression: Sha Bantu ne Bintu. The father of all things and all human beings is first of all the Supreme Creator, the Supreme source of all life. As many Western and African scholars have pointed out, in African traditional religion, there is only one Creator. In some myths, God creates directly the whole world. In some others, he cre- ates the spirits and delegates to them the mission to create the world on his behalf.

Thus, the Baluba call God Shakapanga, Wa bumbile ngulu ne minonga (Father of the creation, he created mountains and rivers). In many creation myths, God is spoken of as the Molder or the Potter who created the first human couple (male and female) by using clay. The Shilluk believe that God used clay of different colors in making men, which explains the difference in human skin pig- mentation. The Dogon explain racial differences by the fact that Amma, who created all human beings, used the light of the moon for the skin of Europeans and the sun for Africans.

Thus, contrary to an ingrained prejudice against the so-called tribal religion, Africa has the concep- tion of a universal creator, which led to an ethic that values the dignity of every human being and not

merely that of the members of one’s clan or ethnic group. This notion of “morality without borders” found its best expression in that legendary sense of African hospitality and solitarity (Ujamaa).

It should be noted that the African notion of a Creator God has its peculiarity. Among the Yoruba, God is called the “Father of Laughter.” No wonder African people are well known for their fondness of laughter. As we clarify in the conclusion of this entry, the notion of a Laughing God is extremely valuable for a better understand- ing of the healing and liberation power of African traditional religion.

God as Mother

It is worth noting some critical facts here. First, there is the inclusive nature of most African languages. In Kiluba and many other Bantu languages, there is no grammatical gender differ- ence. Subsequently, God is never spoken of with the pronoun “He” or “She.” For instance, the expres- sion unena means “He speaks” or “She speaks.” Second, women have always played a crucial role in African traditional religion as priestesses, mediums, diviners, or prophetesses. Finally, the African pan- theon is replete with gods and goddesses. All this stems from the understanding of God’s nature as a kind of “yin-yang,” to borrow the Chinese cate- gory. God in Africa expresses his nature in both masculine and feminine forms. God’s motherhood is widely expressed in proverbs, songs, and names given to God in various ethnic groups.

Although God is often called Father in many regions, there is a significant tradition that pre- sents God as Mother. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Bakongo ethnic group, which still practices the matriarchal system, explicitly refers to God as “Mother.” Elsewhere, God is referred to as “Nursing Mother” (among the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania), “Great Mother” (Nuba of Sudan), “Mother of People” (Ewe of Benin, Ghana, and Togo), and the “Great Rainbow” (Chewa of Malawi and Zambia). It should be noted, however, that in African thought, God is basically beyond gender identity.

Thus, what people refer to when they call God Mother or Father is the quality of his caring love. God is a parent; as such, he incarnates both mother- hood and fatherhood. He is called father and


mother at the same time to express what he does for human beings as protector and source of life. The image of God as Mother is not confined to matriarchal societies. Even in patriarchal societies, people consider God as Mother to emphasize His love and the fact that He takes care of people, cherishing and nursing every human being. This vision of God’s motherhood is not exclusivist. It lives side by side with the vision of God’s fatherhood.

Vidye Kadi Katonye

One of the most striking aspects of African worship is the abundance of “strict rules of purity” imposed to everyone involved in perform- ing rituals directed to God. Indeed, African tradi- tional religion is replete with rites of purification and taboos pertaining to rules of cleanliness. The diviner (Kilumbu) or the priest (Kitobo or Nsengha) who presides over a religious ceremony begins prayers, sacrifice, or a divination session only after extensive rituals of purification of the body and the mind. Priests and officiating elders must refrain not only from sexual intercourse and certain foods and activities before and after the ritual, but also from evil thought.

This purification practice stems from the fun- damental belief that God is pure, and therefore it is not suitable to approach God with a “dirty heart” or “dirty hands.” The Baluba explicitly state that God is spotless, stainless, and blameless (Vidye kadi katonye). In the eyes of the Yoruba people, God is “the pure King who is without blemish.” Here the Baluba and the Yoruba express a belief common to many other Africans. This notion of God’s purity is translated into three other essential attributes of God: holiness, right- eousness, and goodness. By goodness is meant the notion that no evil occurring in the world can be attributed to God because the one who is pure cannot perform malevolent deeds.

Although many people raise complaints about misfortunes, no African religion considers God to be intrinsically evil. In some proverbs, God is called “the Father Creator Who creates and uncre- ates.” He is considered as intrinsically good and the source of any good in human life. The Baluba, Bakongo, Igbo, Herero, and others say categori- cally that God does them only what is good. The Ewe firmly hold that “He is good, for He has

never withdrawn from us the good things which He gave us.” The Banyarwanda, the Baluba, and many other people believe that only through God’s will does one find a wife or a husband, a job, or wealth or is restored to good health.

This belief in divine purity and goodness is enshrined in timeless cosmogonies. In their numerous creation myths, Africans have wrestled with the question of the origin of evil and suffer- ing. The conclusion is that God is not the source of evil. The myths of the origin of suffering stress the responsibility of human beings and present God as pure (Utoka). This notion of purity refers to the African conception that God has a “good heart” (mucima muyampe). This heart embodies the virtues of truthfulness, impartiality, and, most important, goodness, which is translated into love, compassion, and forgiveness. The Luba notion of God as a loving, compassionate, and forgiving God (Leza wa Lusa ne Buswe, Leza Muyampe) is found in many other parts of Africa.

It is worth mentioning here that African tradi- tional religion is devoid of the notion of original sin. The African God does not hold children accountable for the sins of their ancestors, but he is a God who abhors evil and punishes evil-doers. Thus, God’s goodness is the fundamental source of African morality. The notion of God as the supreme judge of human thought and actions is predicated not only on his purity and ownership of the whole creation, but also on the fundamen- tal fact that nothing escapes God’s eye.

God as Omnipotent, Omnipresent, and Omniscient

Luba prayers often begin with the formula, Abe Leza wabine ne wa buninge bonso (O, you truth- ful and omnipotent God). Luba and other tradi- tional prayers are predicated on the fundamental belief that “nothing is impossible to God.” The creator and owner of the universe is understood as an omnipotent or “Almighty God.” This might includes the power of God’s knowledge. As a Supreme Creator who transcends space and time, the Master of the universe is particularly endowed with the ability to know the past and the future, the deeds and secret thoughts of humans.

This omniscience is reinforced by his omnipresence. To better express these qualities, people use various


metaphors. The Baluba liken God to the wind (Leza udi bwa luvula). The metaphor of seeing and hearing is often used to explain God’s omni- science. The Ila people say that God has “long ears.” The Baganda people visualize God as “the Great Eye” or “the Sun” that beams its light everywhere. In many regions, God is given names that mean “The Wise one,” “He who knows or sees all,” or “The Discerner of hearts, who sees both the inside and outside of human beings.” With knowledge comes the other fundamental attribute: wisdom. God is thus viewed as the wise king who governs the world wisely.

God and Names

These attributes and countless others are exemplified in the litany of praise names given to God and in the theophoric names of the African people.

In Sierra Leone, for instance, God is called Maada (Grandfather), Mahawa (Great Chief), Yataa (The One whom you meet everywhere), and Meketa (The One who remains and does not die, the Everlasting One). Names used in Cameroon include Hilolombi (the Ancestor of days, the first one, the beginning of everything), Nkoo-Bot (the Maker of People), Mebee (Bearer of the Universe), Ebasi (the Omnipotent), and Nyi (He who is everywhere and hears and sees everything). The Banyarwanda use Imana as the official name of God and various other names that describe his nature—for instance, Iya-Kare (the Initial one) and Iya-mbere (the Preexisting one).

The Bashi of Kivu (Congo) use four basic names for God: Nyakasane (Master, Sovereign), Nyamuzinda (origin and end of everything, from the verb Kuzinda, to stand at the end), Nnamahanga (Owner of the universe), and Nyamubaho (The Existence par excellence, from the verb kubaho, to be there, to exist). They use other names to describe specific activities or quali- ties of God, such as Lulema (creator, from the verb Kulema, to create), Kabumba (creator, from the verb kubumba, to make like a potter), Kalanga (conservator, from the verb kulanga, to preserve, to keep), or Lugaba (the Generous one, from the verb kugaba, to give, to offer). God’s attributes can also be gleaned from the names of African people.

Africa has a long-standing tradition of theophoric names, by which parents give to their children names that express their relationship with …