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 God and their desire to see children grow in virtues. Thus, the Baluba use names such as Dyese or Katokwe, which convey the idea of being blessed by God. In Rwanda, Uganda, and parts of West Africa, the very name of God is incorporated in people’s names. In Uganda, where God is called Katonda and Ruhanga, we find names such as Byakatonda (for or by the creator), Byaruhanga (thing of God), and Takacungurwaruhanga (we were saved by God).

In Rwanda and Burundi, we find names like Bizimana (God knows everything; Imana being one of the names of God in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda), Niyibizi (God knows all about it), Ndayiziga (I depend on Him), and Ndihokubgayo (I am alive because of Him). In Nigeria, we find some significant Igbo names like Chukwuemeka (God did marvelous thing to me), Chukwuka (God is almighty, God is the highest), Chukwuma (God knows), Ikechukwu (God is my force), Chigozie (God bless!), Chimuanya (God does not sleep), Chiamaka (God is beautiful, God is good), Chidiebere (God is merciful), Chinedu (God is my leader), and Chinyere (Gift of God). These theophoric names are prevalent in many other parts of Africa.

In Ghana, another type of theophoric name is known as “cosmological names.” Among the Asante and Fante, children receive their names according to the day of their birth and, thus, carry on the character of the spirit that presides over the cosmos in that particular day. Thus, children born on Friday, like UN Secretary General Annan, are called Kofi (with Afua as the female version), and those born on Saturday like the legendary presi- dent Kwame Nkrumah are called Kwame or Kwamena (with Amba or Ama as the female version). Other names include Kwasi or Kwesi for those born on Sunday (with Akosua for girls), Kwadwo or Kodwo for those born on Monday (with Adwowa for girls), Kwabena or Kobena for those born on Tuesday (with Abenaa for girls), Kwaku or Kweku for those born on Wednesday (with Akua for girls), and Yao for those born on Thursday (with Yaa for girls).

Most important, it is held that children share some of the qualities of the specific deity that


presides over the universe on the particular day of their birth. Thus, children born on Sunday have the gift of leadership and are under the protection of the Whisk spirit (Bodua); those born on Monday have a peaceful character and the gift of peacemaker and are guided by the Crab spirit (Okoto). Tuesday’s children have a special fire of compassion from the Ogyam spirit. Wednesday’s children have a golden heart, solid like the rock, and live under the protection of the Ntoni spirit. Thursday’s children are the children of the boar spirit (Preko) and enjoy the gift of courage. Friday’s children tend to be restless, curious, and an adventurer, like the Okyin spirit. Finally, the children of the spear spirit (Atoapoma) born on Friday are tenacious. Given that a strong relation- ship exists among the High God, the cosmos, and various spirits, cosmological names, like the theophoric names, also illustrate the African understanding of the nature and character of God.

The African Vision

From the hundreds of divine names and attributes praised in songs or invocations, God appears in many forms and has many characteristics that could be summarized in 20 major categories. Thus, God is understood by Africans as

1. creator or the ultimate source of all existence;

2. true owner of the universe;

3. supreme judge who abhors injustice, evil, discrimination, and oppression of the weak;

4. supreme ruler of the universe;

5. a laughing God;

6. a parent (mother and father);

7. omnipresent;

8. omniscient;

9. omnipotent;

10. immanent and near to people;

11. transcendent and the mysterious one who cannot be fully understood or known;

12. perfect, pure, or holy;

13. everlasting and immortal;

14. invisible and immaterial;

15. the nganga (the healer of bodies and souls);

16. peaceful and peacemaker; and, finally,

17. a compassionate God who is

18. generous,

19. forgiving, and

20. caring or loving.

The African God is not a jealous God. However, the notion of might and kingship led to the conceptualization of God as a warrior against the forces of evil, with all the ambiguity that such a notion carries in the hands of evil rulers or those addicted to libido dominandi.

If it is true that human beings are the way they think, believe, or pray, then this African vision of God has tremendous implications for social order, democracy and human rights, the global market, and the credibility and authenticity of religious experience in this age of increasing intolerance and religious terrorism. This is all the more true because there is more to religion than mere ritual, dance, and invocation of deities. Religion is not merely a basis of consolation for souls lost in the uncontrollable machine of world politics and global market or in the vicious circle of obsolete customs and traditions.

African traditional religion, like many other forms of religion, constitutes an encyclopedic com- pendium of knowledge about the world that guides people in their quest for the meaning of life and their metaphysical need to understand the world as a meaningful cosmos and grasp their place and role in the flow of world events. The African vision of God shapes people’s consciousness of the world and of themselves. It provides a hermeneutical key for understanding the world and the raison d’etre of political, economic, social, cultural, and religious events. As such, the attributes of God constitute a fundamental basis for the critique of all forms of religious, political, economic, social, or cultural thought and behavior. Five major areas of such implications are worth mentioning.

World Peace and Interreligious Dialogue

In a world driven by religious competition and scramble for souls, a world dramatically shaken by the missionary drive to convert to the “true


religion” the alleged godless barbarians, and a world that scoffs at respect for other religions as an impious and false relativism, it has become obvious that no peace among nations is possible without peace among religions. Because the African God is not a jealous God, and because African traditional religion is historically devoid of religious crusades, devoid of dogmas of orthodoxy, missionary zealotry, and the imperative of excommunication and hunt of heretics, the African vision of God brings a much needed fresh air of religious tolerance in a world where passions for truth and certainty and an obscene complex of religious superiority generate so much angst, spiritual restlessness, and unnecessary demonization of the other.

Universal Brotherhood in the Global Village

African creation myths establish the common origin of humankind from the same creator. Subsequently, all races, ethnicities, and religious traditions can be viewed as “chosen by God.” The inclusion of the whole humanity within the same family denounces all forms of discriminations, from tribalism to racism and nationalism, and establishes a strong foundation for human rights because the dignity of every human being stems from Shakapanga the universal creator.

Moreover, because the African principles of hospitality and solidarity are extended not only to the human family, but also to the natural world, God, as Sha-Bantu-Ne-Bintu (father not only of humans, but also of animals and natural world), becomes the foundation of a healthy theology of ecology, especially reverence for nature and respect for animal rights.

God as Mother

Along with the principle of a creator God, the African notion of the motherhood of God consti- tutes a powerful spiritual tool for the critique of patriarchy and sexism.

God as Creator

The notion of God as creator and true owner of the world informs a critique of private property so dear to the free-market economy. It raises the ques- tion of when an individual appropriation of natural

resources violates the principle of the universal destination of natural goods and crosses the line of decency to fall into the category of theft of common good. The implications for business ethic here are staggering.

No Exclusivity

Finally, by refusing to imprison God in man- made sculptures, icons, and intellectual images, African traditional theology sends a powerful warning against the absurdity of religious totalitar- ianism. God is not the private property of one mind, one gender, one race, one ethnic group, one nation, or one religious tradition. God as Adro- Adroa transcends all human categories, all human constitutions, and all human institutions.

This is even more underscored by that singular African vision of God as the father of laughter. Indeed, African traditional religion is a religion of abundant life, abundant love, and abundant laughter. Although some cultures and religions may strive to bring laughter into bad repute as a bad infirmity of human nature that a pious, ratio- nal, and civilized mind should strive to overcome, in Africa, laughter is celebrated as a virtuous expression of a humane heart.

In this era of global war on terror and rising reli- gious fundamentalism, the hermeneutics of laugh- ter offers us a precious lesson. It looks on the cold solemnity of fanatical orthodoxies as a spiritual dis- ease. Laughter is cathartic and therapeutic, but also, and most important, laughter is matter et magistra of life. It calls for caution, discernment, and constant flexibility. Moreover, laughter is prophetic; it denounces the folly of dogmatic modes of thinking in a global village that has become the stage of maverick and Machiavellian politics and is dominated by the diktat of the orthodoxies of fun- damentalist free-market theologies.

The worship of a Laughing God is a process of liberation from all types of dogmatic and authoritar- ian ways of thinking, praying, or being in the world. Thus, despite the numerous mischiefs of African societies and institutions, a well-understood African concept of God constitutes the foundation of those humane African virtues of Bumuntu so critical not only for a genuine African renaissance, but also for the creation of a genuine humanity where the global village can really be a family where all are brothers


and sisters. The revolutionary power of such a vision of God for local tyrannies, patriarchy, world politics, and a global market some see as immoral and crim- inal is self-evident. In a world where religion has always been a double-edged sword, used to heal and to wound, to liberate and to enslave, to bless and to curse, the power to control the definitions of God shapes the outcome of the perennial struggle for meaning and dignity and the quest for peace and happiness. The notion of a “Laughing Adro-Adroa” God constitutes a dramatic and iconoclastic force of empowerment and liberation from cultural, reli- gious, political, and economic tyrannies in this emerging faceless global empire.

Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha

See also Creation; Divinities

Further Readings

Asante, M. K., & Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Mbiti, J. (1992). African Religion and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.


The African female divinity system, or sacred mother tradition, is one of the oldest God concepts in the world. In traditional African societies, national cosmologies focus on (a) a masculine God, (b) a feminine goddess, or (c) a masculine and feminine (androgynous) God. Goddesses per- form the same functions as Gods. In traditional African societies, goddesses are omnipotent, omnipresent beings who control and influence the lives of mortal beings. In myth and cosmology, African goddesses are beyond human; they tran- scend man and woman, and thus their mysteries may not be completely understood by human beings. Throughout the continent of Africa and manifested in the African Diaspora, goddesses have traveled through time and space to express themselves in the contemporary moment. This entry looks at some of the general characteristics of goddesses and then reviews some specific examples from different parts of Africa and the Diaspora.

General Characteristics

The stories indicating how African goddesses came to be worshipped suggest that they entered human consciousness often through prophecy or are self-existing like the Gods. However, as a mani- festation of the African mother image, goddesses possess a direct and logical connection for their existence and attributes through the act of human creation by females. Therefore, because African goddesses teach sacred lessons to human beings, they are archetypes of the divine woman.

African goddesses are most associated with the process of human creation in terms of woman- hood, motherhood, fertility, childbirth, and preg- nancy. African goddesses are often linked to the symbolism of sacred vessels, bowls, and other containers that signify the womb so they oversee the initiation of birth. In doing so, the womb and menstrual blood (which are sacred waters) cause goddesses to be keepers of great bodies of water. With the advent and rise of the masculine divinity system, many gendered attributes are assigned to goddesses, although some of them indicate a quixotic nature of female Gods. In addition, many goddesses are wives or consorts of Gods. Often African goddesses are depicted as powerful, but also as elegant and majestic in stature.

The extent of human reverence over time is indicative of this perception. People celebrated African goddesses by holding festivals in their honor, establishing shrines for worship, develop- ing temples and priestess societies (initiations into sacred mysteries), performing ritual dramas, wearing symbols, celebrating their “birthdays,” and planting crops in their names. In African socie- ties where goddesses are powerful, women tend to be influential (in terms of matrilineal structures, property transference, bride price, and polygny). Two of the most discussed examples of African goddesses come from Northeast and West Africa.

Isis and Maat in Egypt

In Northeast Africa, Egypt (Kmt), Egyptian god- desses such as Nut (Nit, Net, Nekhebt) existed thousands of years before the Christian era. She is understood to have existed before anything else had been created. Nut then created the cosmos and put Ra into the sky. The ancient Egyptian


Lambelet, E. (1986). Gods and Goddesses in Ancient Egypt (2nd ed.). Cairo, Egypt: Lehnert & Landrock.

Redford, D. (Ed.). (2002). The Ancient Gods Speak: A Guide to Egyptian Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.


The Bulu belong to the group of related Africans called the Beti-Pahuin, who inhabit the rain forest regions including the Camaroon, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Sao Tome, and Principe. This group, sharing a common history, culture, and mutually intelligible Bantu language, includes the Beti, Fang, and Bulu, who are divided further into about 20 subnations or subtribes. Their mutually intelligible language is often referred to as the Beti or Ewondo language, and intermarriage among their subnations serves to unite them.

The Bulu can be found largely in Southern Cameroons and also in the Central and Eastern Provinces and constitute about 1 million of the population of Cameroons. They are supposed to have been slave hunters who aspired to satisfy European demand for slaves. They have also been accused of being fierce cannibals in the past. However, given the tendency of imperialism to malign those who resisted them, such accounts are not credible.

Like all Beti-Pahuin peoples, the Bulu organize themselves according to patrilineal kinships. In this respect, the paternal family live together in a village, and several related villages constitute a clan. Although such clans may come under a chief also traditionally regarded as a religious authority, the Bulu are so politically decentralized that the chief commands much respect, but does not command much political power, which is vested consensually among the village leaders.

The Bulu were highly skilled workers in wood and ivory and were particularly noted for their lively masks with associated ritualistic and festive songs and dances. However, through moderniza- tion, they have suffered cultural defoliation to such an extent that little of their traditional craft is still pursued, although some few carvers continue to supply the tourist market. Much Bulu culture has been abandoned, including their

traditional dance and song, which once attracted visitors and tourists.

Like most Bantu, the Bulu believed in a Supreme Being, ancestral spirits, and spirits who inhabited natural objects such as rivers, lakes, lagoons, trees, and plants. Spirits can be invoked and pacified through rituals and sacrifices. Medicinal plants are believed to have spiritual components that are as important as their physi- cal and biochemical properties. The spiritual com- ponents of plants heal the spiritual body with the help of ancestral spirits and the gods while the biochemical properties heal the physical body.

Although most Bulus may have been converted to Christianity, in practice, they are equally engaged in both Christianity and their traditional worship. They may go to a Christian church on Sundays, but that does not prevent them from attending their various secret societies and con- sulting their traditional healers during the week- days. Indeed, some Bulus are still deeply involved in their own indigenous religion involving sacri- fices and rituals aimed at appeasing their gods who are credited with healing, protective, and blessing powers.

Daniel Tetteh Osabu-Kle

See also Ancestors; God; Medicine

Further Readings

Balandier, G., & Maquet, J. (1974). Dictionary of Black African Civilization. New York: Amiel.

Delange, J. (1974). The Art and Peoples of Black Africa. New York: Dutton.


Muntu, Kintu, and Bumuntu are the three funda- mental concepts involved in the definition of a human being in the African context. Bumuntu means the quintessence of personhood, that fun- damental authentic mode of being humane. Bumuntu stands for the content of a Muntu, the moral character, the essence of genuine humanity, and the essence of a deeply humane being. This word is widespread in Bantu languages. Ubuntu,


for instance, is a linguistic variant of Bumuntu in southern Africa. In other African cultural groups, one finds profound similarities to the Bantu para- digm. In fact, the Akan Tiboa-Aboa paradigm of personhood, the Muntu-Kintu paradigm of the Luba religion or the vision of humanity in Yoruba religion, all point to the existence of a common African vision of personhood.

In the Kiluba language, a human being (man or woman) is referred to as a Muntu (pl. Bantu). Muntu is not an ethnic concept, but rather a generic term for every human being. It is found in closely related variants in other Bantu languages. The word Kintu refers to things and to human beings who have lost their dignity. All over Africa, we find a clear distinction between genuine humans and bad ones. Thus, to the fundamental existential question “What is a human being?” Africans respond: Bumuntu. This notion conveys the fundamental African understanding of gen- uine personhood or authentic humanity. It is indeed the Bumuntu that defines personal virtue, sacredness, or gentlemanness.

The distinctive characteristic of Bumuntu is the feeling of humanity toward our fellow human beings. As John Mbiti pointed out so eloquently, a genuine human being does not define her or his humanity merely in the Cartesian “Cogito ergo sum” terms. Rather, he or she focuses on those thoughts of goodness and compassion toward oth- ers. Thus, the Bumuntu is defined in terms of hos- pitality and solidarity: “I am because we are, and because we are therefore I am.” This is well trans- lated in daily greetings. Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, for example, greetings go as follows:

Mangwani. Marara sei? (“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”) Ndarara, kana mararawo. (“I slept well, if you slept well.”) Maswera sei? (“How has your day been?”) Ndaswera, kana maswerawo. (“My day has been good, if your day has been good.”)

Such forms of greetings clearly exemplify the feeling of humanity toward others. Thus, the Bumuntu, as Bishop Desmond Tutu put it, is the feeling that “My humanity is caught up, is

inextricably bound up, in what is yours” or that “A person is a person through other persons,” as a proverb has it. The Muntu wa Bumuntu is the Muntu wa Buntu (“a generous person”), one who feels that the joy and pain of others are also her or his own joy and pain, that her or his humanity is humiliated or diminished whenever other people are dehumanized. A person with ubuntu does not feel threatened that others are good or successful. She or he celebrates cooperation over competi- tion. The Bumuntu is then that good character that believes in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It is that ontological authenticity that governs the African quest for well-being and the African celebration of the humanity of other fellow humans. Such solidarity is not a superficial condescendence. It stems from the understanding of the common origin of humanity as defined in African cosmologies. Creation myths indicate that Bumuntu derives from the transcendent origin of human beings. As an Akan proverb has it, “All human beings are children of God, no one is a child of the earth” (Nnipa nyinaa ye Onyame mma, obi nnye asase ba). For the Baluba people, as for the Akan, all human beings, men and women, are Bantu ba Leza (“God’s people”) and Bana ba Vidye Mukulu (“Children of the Great Spirit”).

It is in virtue of this transcendent origin that the true nature of human beings consists in good char- acter, which again is the intrinsic attribute of Bumuntu. Thus, in many regions of Africa, people make a distinction between two kinds of human beings: those without Bumuntu, who are regarded as nonhuman, and those with Bumuntu, who are appreciated as genuine human beings. The Baluba maintain that, just like the Yoruba and the Akan, “good character is the essence of religion.”

One of the fundamental characteristics of the African concept of the person is the distinction made between what the Baluba call Muntu wa bine (“the true human being”) and Muntu wa bitupu (“an empty shell” or “nonperson”).

To the question, “What is a human being?” Luba religion responds by establishing first a distinction between two categories, Muntu (“a genuine human being”) and Kintu (“a thing”). According to Luba cosmology, every human being exists as a pendulum between two categories of being, as Table 1 shows.


As the table clearly shows, a human being can lose her or his humanness and shift to the category of things or the animal state. The Bumuntu is determined by a person’s capacity to move from the Ki-ntu to the Mu-ntu state of being. This dis- tinction is not limited to the Bantu-Luba world- view, but is found in many other regions.

Indeed, although it is not possible here to explore the worldview of all ethnic groups, it appears nonetheless rather clear that, from West Africa to South Africa, there is a widespread belief that people of bad character are not truly human. In Nigeria, the Yoruba say: Ki I se eniyan (“He/she is not a person”). In South Africa, we find the expression Ga se Motho, and the Baluba people of Central Africa say Yao Ke Muntu (“s/he is not human”) or I mufu unanga (“S/he is a dead body walking”). Among the Yoruba, the concept of personhood is expressed through the term Eniyan. The Yoruba make a distinction between Eniyan as “ordinary meaning” of human being and Eniyan as “normative quality” of a genuine human being, exactly as the Baluba distinguish a Muntu (“a person with good character”) from a Kintu (“a thing”).

For the Baluba, as for many other Africans, to be is to be ethical. This implies not only the capac- ity to distinguish good from evil, but the ability to choose to do good. An unethical person is muntu wa bumvu (“a man of shame”) and Muntu bituhu (“a zero-person”). In the Kiluba language, ethics is conveyed through expressions such as Mwikadilo muyampe (“a good way of being in the world”) or Mwendelo muyampe (“a good way of walking on the road of life”).

The African religious anthropology maintains that a human being can increase or lose her or his humanness. The quality of a human being does not stem from her or his gender nor her or his ances- tors, but rather from their personal behavior— hence, the centrality of ethics in African religion. In Africa, to be a human being is a project to be fulfilled by each individual. Being a human being is an ongoing process. Birth alone does not define humanity. One has to “become” a real Muntu. One becomes more fully human through one’s “way of life,” by behaving more ethically. This ethic (Mwikadilo) is based on a clear distinction between the notion of Bubi (“evil”) and the notion of Buya (“goodness, righteousness, purity, moral beauty”). The criterion of distinction is the attitude toward human life. Everything (word, thought, and action) that threatens, destroys, or belittles human life (Bumi) and human dignity (Buleme) is considered evil. Luba religion identifies four main modes of behavior (through thought, speech, eyes, and action), as Table 2 shows.

According to this logic, the violation of human rights occurs in various modes. One can violate the rights of another through evil thought and evil speech. In Africa, the whole conception of witch- craft is based on the belief that Mucima mubi (“evil heart” or “evil thought”) and ludimi lubi (“evil tongue” or “evil speech”) produces death and constitutes a threat to human dignity. On the concrete issue of ethics, Luba religion has a long list of taboos, that is, forbidden behavior that is considered harmful to human dignity or life. For the sake of illustration, Table 3 gives just a few elements of the Luba ethical charter.


The MU-NTU The KI-NTU Category of Good Morality and Intelligence Category of Bad Morality and Stupidity

MUNTU KI-NTU (good, respectable person) (someone who does not deserve respect)

TATA (good father) KI-TATA (bad father)

MAMA (good mother) KI-MAMA (bad mother)

MULUME (good husband) KI-LUME (abusive husband)

MULOPWE (good king) KI-LOPWE (tyrant, stupid king)

Table 1 The Two Categories of Being According to Luba Cosmology

This ethical scheme is not limited to the Baluba. We are here reminded of the Iwa (“character”) in Yoruba religion. Among the Yoruba, the word Iwa means both “existence” and “character.” That is why a true being is a being with good char- acter (Iwa rere) or gentle character (Iwa pele). It is crucial to understand that for the Yoruba, each person is responsible for the growth of her or his moral character as it is stated in the following proverb: Iwa rere l’èso eniyan (“Good character, good existence, is the adornment of a human

being”). The Ifa corpus is even more explicit: Owo ara eni, Là afi I tunwa ara enii se (“Each individual must use their own hands to improve on their own character”). This concept of free will and personal responsibility finds an interesting echo in the Luba proverb: Vidye wa kuha buya nobe wa mukwashako (“God gave you beauty and goodness but you must help her/him”), mean- ing God will not do everything for you. This notion of personal responsibility shows that tradi- tional ethic was not about following customs


Table 2 Luba Four Main Modes of Behavior

BUYA (Goodness) BUBI (Evil) Mwikadilo Muyampe Mwikadilo Mubi

The Mu-ntu category (good human) The Ki-ntu category (thing)

Mucima muyampe (good heart) Mucima mubi (evil thought)

Ludimi luyampe (good speech) Ludimi lubi (evil speech)

Diso diyampe (good eye) Diso dibi (evil eye)

Bilongwa biyampe (good deeds) Bilongwa bibi (evil actions)

Table 3 Luba Ethical Charter

BUYA (Goodness) BUBI (Evil) Virtues Vices Characteristics of Mucima Muyampe Characteristics of Mucima Mubi (Good Heart) (Evil Heart)

1. LUSA (compassion) MUSHIKWA (hatrate)

2. BUSWE (love) BUTSHI (witchcraft, sorcery, killing)

3. BULEME (dignity, respect, integrity) BWIVI (robbery)

4. BOLOKE (righteousness) BUNZAZANGI (hypocrisy)

5. BUBINE (truth, integrity, honesty) BUBELA (lie)

6. BUNTU (generosity) MWINO (selfishness)

7. KANYE (sensitive heart) BUSEKESE (fornication)

8. BUYUKI/NGENYI (wisdom, intelligence) BULEMBAKANE/BUVILA (stupidity)

9. BUTALALE (peacefulness) BULOBO/BUKALABALE (violence)

10. BUKWASHI (help) NTONDO (discrimination)

11. BUTUNDAILE (hospitality) LWISO/MALAKA (absence of control of one’s desire and sentiments)

12. BWANAHABO/BULOHWE KIBENGO (insolence) (freedom, autodetermination, being one’s own king, nobility)

blindly. It also shows that the notion of God as the foundation of morality does not rule out self- improvement. In its attempt to define personhood, the Yoruba traditional wisdom explicitly states:

Where did you see Iwa? Tell me Iwa is the one I am looking for A man may be very, very handsome Handsome as a fish within the water But if he has no character He is no more than a wooden doll . . . Iwa, Iwa is the one I am looking for If you have money, But if you do not have good character, The money belongs to someone else. Iwà, iwà is the one we are searching for. If one has children, But if one lacks good character, The children belong to someone else. Iwà, iwà is the one we are searching for. If one has a house But if one lacks good character, The house belongs to someone else. Iwà, iwà is what we are searching for. If one has clothes, But if one lacks good character, The clothes belong to someone else. Iwà, iwà is what we are looking for. All the good things of life that a man has, If he lacks good character, They belong to someone else. Iwà, iwà is what we are searching for . . . Each individual must use their own hands To improve on their own character Anger does not produce a good result for any man It is honesty which I have in me, I do not have any wickedness Iwà lèsin Good character is the essence of religion.

A similar vision of ethics is found among the Akan in Ghana. Like the Yoruba, the Akan have a sophisticated ethical system that has been well articulated by Kwame Gyekye, among others. This system is based on three basic concepts: Suban (character), Tiboa (conscience), and Papa- bone, the antithesis (moral goodness vs. evil).

At the center of the Akan conception of person- hood stands the concept of Suban (character), which occupies a pivotal place in Akan moral language and thought. Suban stems from conscience (tiboa). The Akan maintain that every human being pos- sesses a Tiboa, a sense of right and wrong. Talking about somebody who constantly misbehaves, the Akan use the expression ne tiboa awu to mean that the person in question is somebody whose Tiboa is dead. When somebody who has persistently denied wrong doing finally confesses her or his fault, people say that her or his conscience has judged her or him guilty (ne tiboa abu no fo). But it is mainly the way a person listens to her or his conscience that determines her or his character. Like the Baluba, the Akan make a distinction between two categories of human beings: the person with conscience (Tiboa) and a beast (Aboa), that is, a person without con- science. The Akan notion of owo suban pa refers to a person who “has morals,” and its opposite, the notion of onni suban pa, refers to a person who “has no morals.” As these expressions indicate, the Akan use the word suban (character) to mean “goodness.” The word pa or papa, meaning “good” (in the moral sense), is added to the expression or dropped. This usage means that, for the Akan to have conscience, he or she must be a good person. Bad people are said to be without conscience or without morals. Thus, the expression onni suban (“s/he has no character or morals”) is interchange- ably used with onni suban pa (“s/he has no good character”). In Akan anthropology, being itself is determined by the character.

Thus, being a bad person (onipa bone) and having a bad character (suban bone) are considered identical. Similarly, being a good person (onipa pa) and having a good character (suban pa) are consid- ered identical. Here the Akan conception of the nature of human beings joins the Yoruba notion of Iwa, which means both character (in the moral sense) and being (nature). One fundamental charac- teristic of the Akan notion of character is found in


the notion of personal responsibility. Although the Akan, like many other people around the world, wrestle painfully with the issue of destiny and fatal- ity, people clearly maintain that character can be changed (suban wotumi sesa no) and that human beings are not born virtuous or vicious, as the proverb puts it so clearly: “One is not born with a bad head, One takes it on the earth” (ti bone wofa no fam, womfa nnwo). What this proverb highlights is that, among the Akan, like many other African societies, freedom is the engine of morality. No one is evil because she or he is pushed by God or the ancestors or evil spirits, but because one is free to make choices about her or his behavior. It is also because people are free to act as they please that each person can be blamed for wrongdoing. For the Akan as for other Africans, God did not create evil and does not push any one to do evil. But what does the word suban exactly entail? To understand the content of suban is to grasp the Akan moral code, so to speak. Here, like in many other African reli- gions, the catalogue of good and evil is not limited to 10 commandments. It is much broader. Among things regarded as praiseworthy, we find Mmobrohunu (compassion), Ayamyie (kindness, generosity), Nokwaredi (truthfulness, honesty), Ahooye or Adoe (hospitality), Ahomeka (dignity), and anuonyam ne obuo ba (that which brings respect). This list can be completed by various attributes of God, such as love, justice, forgiveness, and so on. Evil is distin- guished into two categories: bone, which encom- passes “ordinary evils” such as theft, adultery, lying, backbiting (kooknsa), and so on; and musuo, or “indelible evil”(ade a woye a wompepa da) viewed with particular abhorrence and revulsion. This type of evil is so disgusting and rare that it is remembered and referred to by people even several years after the death of the doer. These “extraordi- nary” evils, according to the Akan worldview, are so horrible that they provoke the wrath of super- natural beings and are considered “taboos” (akyi- wade, “abominations”). They include rape, incest, and murder.

It should be noted, however, that the African religious ethic is holistic because it is extended to the animals and the whole cosmos precisely because the first principle of African cosmology is not the concept of Muntu, but rather that of Ntanda (the world). God created first the world,

the whole universe, and then humans. God did not create only one village, but ntanda yonso, the whole world, and all its contents. All human beings have but one single source of existence, and not only human beings, but all other creatures. Indeed, as the Mashi expression clarifies, God is Ishe Wabantu n’ebintu (“father of human beings and things”). The natural world is the extension of the human’s body and being as the Yoruba orisha tradition makes it clear. This interconnect- edness with nature marks the specificity of the African conception of both God and the human. Indeed, for the Baluba, as for other Africans, reli- gion is cosmotheandric. God’s nature, as well as human’s nature, includes animals and trees because the whole cosmos is the home of the divinity. It is also the home of human beings— hence, the general solidarity that the Bantu feel with nature. Thus, a genuine human being, a per- son of Bumuntu, is the one who has a good heart (Mucima Muyampe), the one who extends her or his goodness to all human beings and to animals and the natural world. This Bumuntu, as we pointed out, is manifested in four basic ways: good thought and good heart (mucima muya), good speech (ludimi luya), good actions (bilongwa biya), and good way of looking at people and at the whole world. Such is the art of becoming human as defined by African religion, according to the will of the ancestors and the will of Shakapanga Vidye Mukulu, the Great spirit and supreme creator. It may be necessary to note that this vision of personhood reflects well the funda- mental spiritual and moral values found in ancient Egypt in the Maatic charter (e.g., Chapter 125 of the Egyptian Book of Coming Forth to Light).

Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha

See also Akan; Iwa; Ontology; Yoruba

Further Readings

Gyekye, K. (1995). African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Jahn, J. (1961). Muntu. New York: Faber & Faber. Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy.

London & Nairobi: Heinemann.