African traditional

“Nature is like the autobiography of God. He is encountered through it. God created the universe full of rocks, trees, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and oceans to show his very majestic presence in the world.” (Bakanja Mkenda)

Africa, the cradle of mankind, is home to many cultures across its varied geographic regions that practice a wealth of spiritual and religious belief systems. The indigenous belief systems have altered, and many traditions have been lost or replaced by the secular and religious traditions of immigrants and colonisers. Islam has had a strong influence in northern Africa since the 7th Century as has Christianity in especially Sub- Saharan Africa since the 17th Century. Indigenous African religious practises were based on oral traditions and on knowledge and customs which are passed on during a wide variety of ceremonies and rituals during rites of passage and a range of community events. Some of the content of these ceremonies and rituals are secret, which combined with an oral rather than written tradition made them especially vulnerable to change over time. Many of the sacred environments which are believed to be the abodes of nature spirits or which are sacred places of learning about traditional healing, divination and rites to connect with the ancestors have been polluted or destroyed by mining, deforestation, dams and commercial cash crops. As a result of all these influences and impacts, indigenous African belief systems and knowledge are being forgotten. People are giving up many of their traditional ways in favour of western education, capitalist enterprise, new religious practices and prioritizing the individual over their community.

Isn’t it ironic then that the global environmental crisis, which is particularly harshly expressed in parts of Africa, is resulting in a growing interest in traditional African knowledge systems and of how communities lived in a sustainable relationship with their environment? An introduction below into the traditional spiritual values attached to land and water give some insight into a practical African conservation ethic.

Nature as a gift from God to be used in harmony with the web of life.

The prominent scholar of African Traditional Religion, John S. Mbiti, stated “Africans are notoriously religious,” implying that religion permeates and is integrated in daily African life with no clear-cut separation between what is secular and what is sacred. For Africans, religion focusses on the preservation of human wellbeing and the promotion of whatever enhances life on Earth. At a practical level, a healthy natural environment is acknowledged as essential for a healthy and harmonious life. The connection is also deeply spiritual. In traditional African societies nature was regarded as a gift by a supreme Creator God for the benefit of humanity who believed that mankind was created at the centre of the universe. Nature, however, is not a gift to abuse and a host of nature spirits associated with specific animal and tree species and sacred forests, rivers, lakes, and mountains remind local communities of their need to respect the environment and to use it sustainably. Through responsible behaviour people, were required to co-exist peacefully with other people, other living creatures and natural objects and by so doing to ensure a harmonious and sacred web of life. Many rituals, taboos and customs function to remind communities of the need for respect.

Using traditional Chagga society in Tanzania as an illustration, when the weather was good people felt they were in harmony with nature, their ancestors and God. If there was drought, famine or floods then the Chagga believed their good relationship with nature, ancestors, God and others had been disturbed. (Bakanja Mkenda )

Traditional Africans focus on life on earth as a member of a community and spiritually they do not draw clear distinctions between the living and the dead. The dead in the form of ancestors remain part of their community and can intercede on behalf of the living to ensure the wellbeing of their family members and clan. Land ownership is a core value amongst Africans and is also linked to the extended family’s link with their ancestors. God gave the land to each community through their ancestors and they in turn have the responsibility to look after it for future generations. The placenta of a new born was buried in the soil to connect the new born with God, the ancestors and their responsibility toward the land (Bakanja Mkenda).

Water as a source of life and spirituality is another core African value. Traditionally water was recognised as both an essential life force and a source of strong spiritual power. Water spirits were believed to live in and protect water sources as well as being the guardians of fertility, morality, and life itself. They can, however, be chased away by disrespectful actions or by social disharmony. Disrespect shown to them was believed to result in drowning, droughts and floods, and if it was so severe that they left, this could result in the degradation of the water bodies or their drying up.

Although the widespread practise of the traditional rituals to ensure a harmonious relationship between the water spirits living in local rivers and wetlands have become diluted, there are still traditional healers and communities in Southern Africa who observe these rituals. Water spirits manifest themselves in a number of ways, giant water snakes being one of the most powerful. Two well-known examples of the presence of water snakes are the water serpent Nyaminyami who lives in the Zambezi River and was reputed by the Valley Tonga to be angered by the construction of the Kariba Dam. Many locals believed that disasters that beset the project were caused by Nyaminyami’s distress at being separated from its mate below the dam wall. The Lesotho Highlands Water project encountered similar resistance from the locals, who attributed the seismic tremors to the local water snake’s distress.

The sacred role of water spirits goes beyond ensuring a respectful relationship with water. It is believed that the spirits of the water `call’ individuals who have been chosen to become traditional diviners and healers (amagqirha, izangoma) and pass on some of their power and knowledge. Skills in healing, sacred knowledge, psychic abilities, and medicinal plants are some of the gifts imparted to those chosen by the water spirits. These healers are the custodians of traditional knowledge. Healers and diviners who follow the calling become important mediators between the spirit world and their communities. This however requires access to and the preservation of sacred rivers, wetlands and the sea as to conduct rituals to aid communication with the spirit world. It follows that water is regarded among many African religious functionaries as a living force, with the power to transform people from one state to another, at a spiritual or physical level. It has the power to purify and protect one from evil, or to heal and bring one from illness to health and is a vital element in the performance of many religious and healing rituals. (Penny S. Bernard)

Sacred Sites and Conservation

Africa’s ecology has had eons to adapt to the impacts of mankind. However, the more recent impacts resulting from demand for resources from the industrialization of the world, materialistic capitalism, population density and now Climate Change are devastating. Across Africa, sacred areas long protected by traditional customs which restricted use and, or access have enjoyed protection and are now recognised as ecologically important areas in addition to being culturally significant. Sacred groves in the Ashanti region of central Africa were originally protected by customary law for a variety of purposes such as royal burial grounds or as the abode of traditional gods. Some habitats are venerated because they house an animal considered sacred, or a clan totem. One example is the belief in a common ancestry with the leopard, the symbol of the Akan people. The forest in which these leopards are found is sacred and killing them is forbidden. While the original intention may not have been purely for conservation, the benefits for conservation are clear.

Environmental conservation is not a recent phenomenon in indigenous African communities. Past generations knew about the sustainable use of natural resources. Because religion permeates virtually all aspects of African life, practises to protect special areas, species and to ensure sustainable use of land and water found expression in religious rituals and practises. This is in keeping with the belief that all things were created by the Supreme Being for a harmonious continuity, and as such there must be a relationship of mutual obligations between all created things. The traditional healers of the past collected bark or roots in a way that did not damage the plants, or if the entire plant was needed, they would not to harvest all the plants, but leave some for the future. Sadly traditions have been eroded and the demand for resources has increased. Middlemen, who are not trained in the conservation methods of the past or who are more concerned about short term profits, often disregard the conservation taboos and sustainable harvesting practises of the past.

A re-visitation of the principles of traditional African religious practices would provide modern conservation programs in Africa and globally with an insight into the activities of communities that managed to live alongside the rivers and forests and use them sustainably. Contemporary Africa would do well to borrow a leaf from traditional African spiritual beliefs to further environmental conservation for the wellbeing of humanity and out of respect for God’s gift of creation. (Bakanja Mkenda )
This article is a synthesis of the material in the resources below.
Kim Kruyshaar July 2014

References and for additional reading: