Religion in Africa is not a discreet human activity, separate from other aspects of living. This is in contrast to many branches of Christianity, where the spiritual is separate from the physical, and heaven is entirely separate from earth. In African traditional religion, as in many other ancient belief systems in other parts of the world, religion, or the spiritual permeates every aspect of life.
The landscape is a source of spiritual contemplation and worship. The Gikuyu of Kenya, for example, pray facing Mount Kenya. The Shona, of Zimbabwe, have sacred hills and caves. The Lugbara and Langi, both from Uganda, venerate sacred rocks. The landscape may also be populated by many spirits, some good some bad.
The ancestral spirits also mediate between this world and the spirit world. They play a large part in most cultures, are easily accessible, and generally considered to be benevolent. When alive these ancestors led lives judged to be honourable and well respected. They are well placed to give advice and warnings. They are, in many ways, as real to the people who talk to them, as the living.
Illness is a particular area where the physical and spiritual meet. There is no fixed demarcation between body and soul. Interestingly, this holistic approach is beginning to be rediscovered in the industrialised countries of the West and America.
In Africa illness may be treated with herbs very successfully. But often it will have a spiritual dimension. It may be seen as a punishment from God or the deities, or it might be the result of ill will from an enemy. In this case some form of spiritual power will be needed to combat it; a medicine man or woman will then be consulted.
There is a common belief that if the illness has been brought about by an enemy, then the likelihood is that the enemy consulted a witch. The concept of witchcraft is a complicated one. People judged to be witches are usually women. They are outsiders; they may be very old, or very ugly, without children or family. They may admit to witchcraft, they may not. The point is they are seen as a threat to the community.
The issue is obscured by a belief that the witch not only operates secretly at night, she may not even know that she is a witch. It's hard to get a fair trial once accused of witchcraft. In northern Ghana, there is a home for women accused of witchcraft. They are protected there from their accusers, but in one sense they are prisoners.
Acts of creativity
Every individual has the power to commune with divine beings through prayer and sacrifice, but the well being of each individual is tied up with the well being of the community. Theatre, dancing, singing and music are communal forms of religious expressions. They may act as a prelude to war, celebrate a good harvest, mark a birth, a marriage, or a death.
Equally, works of art have traditionally had a religious significance. With the coming of Europeans, an element of satire and comment began to infuse the work of wood carvers, and the performance of dancers and actors. Europeans were mimicked and made fun of.