Traditional African Society
1000 different languages; 1000+ different tribes
Early African Societies
Early African Societies
Anthropologists think that the first humans lived in East Africa. Over
thousands of years, people spread out over the continent, forming
distinct cultures and societies.
Early Farming Societies
Pastoralists in Sahara
• During early phase of their history,
Africans lived as hunter-gatherers
• First farmers likely pastoralists of
Sahara—wetter 8,000 years ago
• About 9,000 years ago, some
began to grow native crops
• 5,000 years ago climate changed,
Sahara became drier
• In some parts, pastoralism, practice
of raising herd animals, arose
before farming
• As land became desert, people
migrated to Mediterranean coast,
Nile Valley, parts of West Africa
By about 2500 BC many people in these regions practiced herding and
mixed farming.
Stateless Societies
• Function of mobile population,
underpopulation, and land as resource
• Even when dense population, there was no
• Hunters valued over warriors
• Ideal was the large complex household with
Big Man surrounded by 10-40 people
• Control happened laterally, not hierarchically
(secret societies, age-grade societies, ritual
experts as mediators)
What are some characteristics of a stateless
– Society divided into lineages – group traces its
collective ancestry to a common ancestor
– Authority is balanced among the various lineages –
– No single group holds a majority of power.
– Operate through sharing of ideas and possessions,
and cooperation is how they assume that society
will operate.
Lineages share
Elders negotiate
Stateless Societies
No centralized
continued . . .
Characteristics of Traditional
Tribal Life
– Tribes
• a political group that
comprises several bands or
lineage groups, each with
similar language and
lifestyle and occupying a
distinct territory
Common Traits or Characteristics of
Traditional African Tribal Life
1. The good of the group comes ahead of the good
of the individual.
2. All land is owned by the group.
3. Strong feeling of loyalty to the group.
4. Important ceremonies at different parts of a
person’s life.
5. Special age and work associations.
6. Deep respect for ancestors.
7. Religion is an important part of everyday life.
8. Government is in the hands of the chiefs [kings].
An African’s “Search for
1. Nuclear Family
2. Extended Family
3. Age-Set
4. Clan
5. Lineage (ancestry)
TRIBE (communal living)
Social Structures
Common Features
• Many societies developed village-based cultures
• At heart, extended family living in one household
• Families with common ancestors formed clans to which all members loyal
• In some areas, people took part in type of group called age-sets
• Men who had been born within same two, three years formed special bonds
• Men in same age-set had duty to help each other
Specific Duties
• Loyalty to family, age-sets helped village members work together
• Men hunted, farmed; women cared for children, farmed, did domestic chores
• Even very old, very young had own tasks; elders often taught traditions to
younger generations
On your Left Side:
• Draw the following pyramid on the next
slide and add the information to the
Structure of African Society
Kinship –
to individual
Family –
members of a
Clan – Group made up
of related families
Tribe – Group made up of related
• Tribe- group of people that share
language, customs, traditions,
geographic location
• Clan- group of related families
• Extended family- parents, children,
aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents
(common in Africa)
• Nuclear family- parents and children
(not common in Africa )
Kinship and Family Ties
How people are related in
traditional African society?
Kinship: means a
relationship that
binds two or more
1. Blood relative
2. Marriage
What is kinship?
• Sense of being related to another
• Set by rules (sometimes laws)
• Often taken for granted as being “natural”
rather than cultural
• Cultures define “blood” relative differently
Includes relationships through blood
and through marriage.
• Provides continuity between
• Defines a group on whom a person
can rely for aid.
Family Ties
• Farming and herding
societies consisted of
extended families
• Kinships created
strong bonds and a
sense of community
Lineage: Lines of Descent
• Lineages
• •Some societies group people in lineages—
those with common ancestor
• Members of a lineage have strong loyalties
to one another
• In some African societies, lineage groups
take the place of rulers
• These stateless societies balance power
among lineages
• Stateless societies—no centralized system
of power
• Means line of descent
or family tree
Inheritance and Descent
• The Ashanti people believed
the child’s blood came entirely
from the mother
• Uncle is more important than
the father
• Oldest son is the head of the
• Oldest son was the inheritor
Patriarchal: Male-Dominated society
very common in African tribes
• Descent is traced through male lineage.
• Inheritance moves from father to son, as
does succession to office.
• Man’s position as father and husband is
the most important source of male
• Example: Nuer or Sudan.
Patrilineal Descent
• Found among 44% of all cultures
• Kinship is traced through the
male line
• Males dominate position, power
and property
•Girls are raised for other families
•Found in East and South Asia and
Middle East
Matriarchal: female Dominated society
• Descent is traced through the female line.
• Children belong to the mother’s descent
• The inclusion of a husband in the
household is less important.
• Women usually have higher status.
• Example: Hopi.
Matrilineal Decent
• Found among 15% of all cultures
• Kinship is traced through the
female line
• Women control land and
•Found in the Pacific, Australia,
small parts of Mediterranean
• Declining though capitalism
Status and Roles of Women
Status of Women
Societies that
valued women
Women could be
Societies that did
not value women
Women did the
planting, weeding, and
Women were the
teachers of the family
Were respected
because the bore
Bride Wealth paid to
brides family
In some societies
men married many
women [polygamy]
Viewed a wife as
property of the
Roles of Women
• An African woman's roles are as life
bearer, nurturer, and source of
• For an African woman in a traditional rural
community, the chief measure of success
in life is her ability to bear many children.
• The very existence of the family and clan
depends on women's ability to bear
children, who will provide security for their
parents in old age and who will continue
to nourish the spirits of the ancestors
through sacrificial offerings.
• As a result, much African art is directed
toward encouraging the fertility of women.
• Many shrines are devoted to spirits that
provide the blessings of fertility, and these
frequently contain sculpture and other
objects devoted to the concept of fertility.
Little Girl’s Dolls-Preparing for Role
of Adult Woman
Like children everywhere, African children play with
toys that help them visualize their roles as adults
and teach them the skills of parenting, hunting, and
At the end of a day of trading and shopping a
parent may stop at the blacksmith's stall in the
market to buy a small carved doll with which his
daughter can play.
She may dress the doll in new clothes she has
made, feed it, and tuck it to bed under a tiny blanket
in the corner of her room at night.
The carved figure is called biiga ("child"), but it
represents a mature women with developed
breasts, an elaborate hairstyle, and the scarification
patterns that mark passages in life.
The doll represents the child, as she hopes one
day to be.
In the same way American girls play with dolls
such as "Barbie" that represent an ideal or a
stereotype to which the child hopes to conform.
Initiation into Adulthood
Both young men and young women pass through
For Mende women, this life passage prepares them
for life as adult women in Mende society, teaching
them the skills of child rearing, cooking, trading, sex
education, and much more.
It is especially important as a means of
communicating knowledge of healing medicines and
the spirit world from one generation of women to the
At the end of the initiation period the young women
are ritually bathed, their bodies are oiled with
cosmetics, they are dressed in their best clothing and
are presented to the community, ready to receive the
gifts of potential suitors.
Their reintegration into community life is
accompanied by the appearance of masks such as
this one, worn by the middle aged women who
supervise the initiation, and which represent the
ideals of feminine beauty among the Mende.
The Mende are very conscious of personal
appearance and value a glossy black skin, beautiful
hairstyles, and a well-fed and prosperous physical
Marriage customs
• Many traditional African societies are
• Polygamy: having more than one spouse
– Men may only have multiple wives if he can
support them
Bridewealth- payment a man gives a woman’s
family before marriage (land, cattle, cloth,
Dowry- payment a woman’s family before
marriage (land, cattle, cloth, tools)
Some tribes allow divorce, some do not
• Marriage is a key moment that follows
immediately after initiation among many
peoples because both events serve to break
the bonds of the individual with childhood and
the unmarried state and to reintegrate the
individual into the adult community.
• Among the Woyo people a young woman is
given a set of carved pot lids by her mother
when she marries and moves to her husband's
• Each of the lids is carved with images that
illustrate proverbs about relations between
husband and wife.
• If a husband abuses his wife in some way or if
the wife is unhappy, she serves the husband's
supper in a bowl that is covered with a lid
decorated with the appropriate proverb.
• She can make her complaints public by using
such a lid when her husband brings his friends
home for dinner.
• The carved figure on this lid represents a
cooking hearth with a pot on three stones.
• Divorce requires only the scattering of the
stones, and it takes three to support the pot.
Bride Wealth
• It has been argued that such a system
commodifies the bride and thus dehumanizes
her, but others also make the argument that
the system defines her value to the marriage in
a concrete way and that it contributes to the
stability of the marriage, because were the
marriage to end in divorce the "bride-wealth"
must be returned to the groom's family, and if
it has already been invested in "bride-wealth"
for the bride's own brothers this can be
difficult indeed.
• The "bride-wealth" creates a bond between
the families which forces them to invest in the
success of the marriage.
• When there is trouble between husband and
wife the relatives on both sides intervene to
find a solution.
• The male-female couple from the Dogon
people of Mali represents the ideal of pairing
that is necessary for procreation.
• The linking of the male arm around the
woman's neck emphasizes the bond that is
created by marriage.
Becoming a Parent
• For an adult in Africa success in a traditional community
is measured by his or her ability to find a partner, raise a
family, and provide for the children that guarantee that
the family will survive through the generations.
• Every adult is beset by concerns about the health of her
children, his ability to secure and hold a means to earn a
living, about his own health and that of his partner, and
about the many uncertainties that we must confront
throughout our lives.
• For a Baule man or woman to fail to marry, bear
numerous children, and provide for his family is
considered a serious problem.
• She may visit a diviner who may prescribe the carving of
a figure that represents the spouse s/he had in the spirit
world before birth.
• The spirit spouse takes possession of the figure, and
care and attention as well as prayers and offerings are
lavished on it to please it, so that it will permit its realworld spouse to fulfill his gender role.
• This figure pair represents the female larger than the
male, and so it may have belonged to a Baule man.
On your Left Side:
• What is the following primary source
saying about women in traditional African
“No marry’d Women, after they are brought to Bed, lie
with their Husbands till three Years are expired, if the
Child lives so long, at which Time they wean their
Children, and go to Bed to their Husbands. They say
that if a Woman lies with her Husband during the Time
she has a Child sucking at her Breast, it spoils the
Child’s Milk, and makes it liable to a great many
Distempers. Nevertheless, I believe, not one Woman in
twenty stays till they wean their Children before they lie
with a Man; and indeed I have very often seen Women
much censur’d, and judged to be false to their
Husbands Bed, upon Account only of their suckling
Child being ill.”
--F. Moore (European trader) on the River Gambia in
the 1730s, Travels into the Inland Parts of Africa
(London, 1738), pp. 132-3.
Becoming an Elder
• The respect that is accorded both men and
women who have attained positions of
authority and honor is made visible among
the Dan people (Liberia) by the large
wooden ladles known as wunkirmian.
• The spoon bears an idealized portrait of the
owner as a young woman, at the moment
she began her role as mother and wife.
• The spoons are carved for women who are
recognized by other women of a town as
the most hospitable persons in a
• The spoons serve as symbol of that status
and are used as a kind of dance wand when
the honored women dances through the
town accompanied by her own entourage of
Patterns of Government and
Economic Structures
Patterns of Government
listen to
is reached
Economic Organization
• Most villagers were subsistence farmers
– They produced only enough food for
their own needs with little or no surplus
• Fallow – allowing the land to regenerate
important minerals needed to grow crops
• Land was community property
Natural Resources
[water / land]
Human Resources
[labor / knowledge]
Capital Resources
[seed / tools]
[family / friends]
Age Grade or Set
Age Set
• Group of boys or girls born
in the same year
• Go through rituals together
• Transition into adulthood
• i.e. Manhood initiation
• Circumcision ceremony for
• Scarification- ritual
markings for tribe
The Age Grade System
• Includes all
boys or girls
born in the
same year
• This same
age group
together for
their entire
• To Learn
and shared
• Together
they take
part in
special age
• This group
and works
quite well
• What are some advantages of an age-set
– Each member can help others to pass through the
various stages of life – they can also help each
other obtain the specific individual benchmarks of
each stage.
– Teach discipline, community service, and
leadership all together
Problems of Tribalism Today
Problems of Tribalism Today
1. The tribe is more important than the nation.
2. Communication problems.
3. Inter-tribal warfare  civil wars.
4. Tribal favorites for government jobs:
Breaks down tribal
Urbanization: traditions.
Tribal intermingling on
the job.
• Tribalism is
often a
stronger force
• Political
parties based
on tribes
• Problem of
Globalization & Diversity:
Rowntree, Lewis, Price,
African Culture: Art, Music,
Dance, and Literature
Characteristics of AFRICAN ART
What influenced it most? The environment
Environment is reflected in art and religion
It is a blend of NATURAL & HUMAN worlds:
Nature: forces are wild and uncontrollable
Human: is predictable and orderly
guided by laws and customs
Art, music, and dance very important to religion.
Animals are very important
Pieces are more ABSTRACT than realistic
GEOMETRIC forms are used: eyes, nose, etc.
Materials used: raffia, leaves, ivory, bark, gold, skins,
• Art was used for everyday life activities & religion
• EXAGGERATED body parts believed to have special
• Eyes were the window to the soul
• Head was the seat of the soul
• Very large eyes, elongated or stretched heads!
African Culture
• Painting and Sculpture
– Rock paintings, wood carving, pottery, metalwork
• Music and Dance
Often served religious purposes
Wide variety of instruments
Integration of voice and instrument
Music produced for social rituals and educational purposes
• Architecture
Stone pillars
Stone buildings
Sometimes reflected Moorish styles
• Literature
– Written works did not exist in the early traditional period
– Professional storytellers, bards
– Importance of women in passing down oral traditions
African Griots
Musician, Storyteller,
Tribal Historian
Griots, pronounced "greeohs",
are storytellers of West Africa
who use poetry and rhythm to
teach villagers about their history.
Their home is the territory of the
Mandinke people in the country of
Mali where their tradition is alive
to this day.
"Griot" is the French term for this
class of musicians; the local term
is jeli.
African Griots
• Every king wanted a Griot to recite the history of the
kingdom, and to pass it down from father to son.
• History wasn't written down – everything was memorized
and recited or sung
• The Griot memorized the clan's significant events such as
births, deaths, marriages, hunts, and wars
• Ensured the continuity of heritage and culture.
Historical Role of the Griot
• tutored princes and gave council to kings.
• used their detailed knowledge of history to
shed light on present-day dilemmas.
• would memorize significant events, like
births, death, marriages, hunts, seasons
and wars, ensuring that the collective
heritage, culture and lineage of the clan
Modern Role of the Griot
Orator, artist, musician
Spiritual Leader
• Many early societies did not develop systems of writing
• Maintained sense of identity, continuity through oral traditions
• Included stories, songs, poems, proverbs
• Task of remembering, passing on entrusted to storytellers, griots
Music and Dance
• In many societies, music, dance central to many celebrations, rituals
• Carving, wearing of elaborate masks part of these rituals as well
• Early Africans excelled in sculpture, bronze as well as terra cotta
• Traditional music performed with variety of wind, stringed instruments
West Africans have preserved their history through
storytelling and the written accounts of visitors.
Writing was not common in West Africa. People passed along
information through oral histories, a spoken record of past events.
West African storytellers were called griots. They helped keep
the history of their ancestors alive for each new generation.
In addition to stories, they recited proverbs. These were short
sayings of wisdom or truth. They were used to teach lessons
to the people.
Some of the griot poems are epics that are collected in the
Dausi and the Sundiata.
• Griots were West African
• They were highly respected
• Their job was to remember
and pass on their people’s
• They had to remember
hundreds of names and
Griots: Oral Storytelling
• Tradition passed down by
• Two forms of tales
– Human characters
– Animal characters
• Human tales dealt with
creation, death, success
& love
• Animal tales focused on
small creatures vs. larger
• Griots passed on more than stories, they
also recited proverbs
• Proverbs are short sayings of wisdom
or truth
West African Proverbs
“It takes a village to raise
a child.”
“Talking doesn't fill the
basket in the farm.”
“Rats don't dance in the
cat's doorway.”
The griot profession is
inherited, passed on from
one generation to the next.
Griots are very different
from the rest of society,
almost a different ethnic
They are both feared and
respected by people in West
Africa for their wisdom and
talent with words.
Griots have been around for a
millennium (one thousand years).
Once, the male griots and female
griottes were historians,
genealogists (a person who traces
or studies the descent of families),
advisers to nobility, entertainers,
messengers, praise singers — the
list goes on.
Today they are mainly
In return for their
services, griots
receive gifts. There
is no set fee. They
never know what
they will get.
Sometimes a few
coins, sometimes a
blanket, sometimes
much more.
Good griots must have
remarkable memories and
be ever ready to recite or
sing long histories,
genealogies, and praise
songs. They must also be
musically talented.
To become a griot you
must learn genealogies
and histories, but not just
the words, also the music.
Training for a griot
begins within the
family unit, with
boys and girls
learning from their
griot parents, and
then moves on to a
formal griot school,
and then to an
apprenticeship with
a master griot.
Both boys and
girls can train to
be griots,
although griottes
may have less
freedom to travel
and train because
most are mothers.
This is the way
griots have always
been trained.
Griots hold the memory of West Africa. At the
festival marking the installation of a regional chief
in Faraba Banta in October 1991, griotte Adama
Suso sings and Ma Lamini Jobareth plays the kora.
Griot singer Suso is playing the kora (note
his name on the instrument).
Visitors’ Written Accounts of
Visitors’ Written Accounts
The people of West
Africa left no written
histories of their own.
• Much of what we
know about early
West Africa comes
from the writings of
travelers and
scholars from Muslim
lands such as Spain
and Arabia.
• Ibn
Battutah was the most
famous Muslim visitor to
write about West Africa.
• His accounts describe the
political and cultural lives of
West Africans in great
• Much of what we know
about West Africa comes
from the writings of
Muslim travelers and
– One writer was Ibn
Battutah- he described the
political and cultural lives of
West Africans
– Europeans learned about
Africa from another
traveler/writer named Leo
Ibn Battutah’s travels
• Epics are long poems about kingdoms
and heroes
• The Sundiata is an epic about Mali’s king
– The epic tells how Sundiata’s family was killed
by a conqueror when he was a boy, but
Sundiata was spared because he looked
weak. As a grown man, Sundiata overthrew
the conquering king.
Art, Music, and Dance
Through art, music, and dance, West Africans have
expressed their creativity and kept alive their cultural
• Of all the visual
forms, the
sculpture of West
Africa is probably
the best known.
– The sculpture
is mostly of
– It was made
for religious
– Artists were
• Artists carved
masks, which
were used
mostly for
rituals as
they danced
around fires.
• They wove
cloth such as
kente, a
•Music and
dancing were
helped people
honor their
history and
were central
to many
• West Africa was famous for its statues made of
wood, brass, clay, ivory, stone
• Sculptures of people were often used for
ancestor worship
• African artists were deeply respected
Pablo Picasso was influenced by African art
Bronze sculpture, Mali, 1500s
Masks & Clothing
• Carved masks of animals
used for dance rituals
• Africans wove special cloth
called Kente that was used
for special occasions
• Kente cloth is a handwoven, brightly colored
Antelope mask, West Africa
Music & Dance
• Music and dance were forms of
entertainment and helped people honor
their history
• Dancing used for celebration at
weddings, funerals
Nok terracotta
and ivory
Nigeria, 1000 BC
– 500 AD
Ashanti bird mask – kept in
homes to ward off evil
Modigliani’s style compared to African masks
On your Left Side:
• In a T-Chart, compare and contrast the
role of the arts in traditional African society
to that of American society.
Traditional African Religious
African Religions
• “African Traditional Religions” = indigenous
• Islam = introduced to sub-Saharan Africa in
11th c.
• Christianity = introduced to West Africa in 15th
• Folk Christian Groups = indigenous Christian
movements since early 1900’s
Africa Religions
• In Africa the three major religions are
Traditional Beliefs, Christianity, and Islam.
• Traditional beliefs may include worship of:
– ancestors,
– spirits,
– gods,
– animals,
– land,
– inanimate objects,
– and/or natural phenomena.
Traditional Religions of Africa
• Not able to speak with authority about a
single religion, theology, or ritual system.
• Few written records; oral tradition passed
on by griots (singing, story tellers).
• The religious beliefs and customs of one
group are not universally shared by others.
• Great variety of beliefs and practices in
African tradition
Traditional Religion and Culture
Many early Africans shared similar religious beliefs and shared common
features in the arts as well.
Examples of Beliefs
• Many believed that unseen
spirits of ancestors stayed near
• Many Africans also practiced
form of religion called
animism—belief that bodies of
water, animals, trees, other
natural objects have spirits
• To honor spirits, families
marked certain places as
sacred places, put specially
carved statues there
• Families gathered to share
news, food with ancestors,
hoping spirits would protect
• Animism reflected Africans’
close ties to natural world
Traditional African Religion
1. Belief in one remote Supreme Being.
2. A world of spirits (good & bad) in all
3. Ancestor veneration.
4. Belief in magic, charms, and fetishes.
5. Diviner  mediator between the tribe
and God.
Religious Leaders in Traditional
African Religions
• Not a major need for religious leaders; many
activities can be performed by individuals –
offerings of food and drinks to ancestors
• No complex theology or rituals like in Hinduism,
Judaism, or Christianity
• No requirement of a priesthood and temples are
very rare
• Some communities in West Africa do have
temples and altars; people trained in African
mythology, taboos, and rituals to prepare them
African Religions
• Supreme being had created
• Supreme being was a distant figure
• Many are monotheistic
• Oral traditions and myths
• Ancestors could help or harm them
• Every object on earth was filled with a
living spirit (Animism)
• The term animism is derived from the Latin word
anima meaning breath or soul.
• The belief of animism is probably one of man's oldest
beliefs, with its origin most likely dating to the
Paleolithic age.
• From its earliest beginnings it was a belief that a soul
or spirit existed in every object, even if it was
• In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part
of an immaterial soul.
• The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal.
Animism is the belief that all living and
nonliving things in nature have a spirit.
Animism was the belief system of many early
Animism in early civilizations was often
combined with ancestor worship.
• Animism dates back to earliest
humans and still exists.
• It can be practiced by anyone
who believes in spirituality, but
does not proscribe to an
organized religion.
• Animist gods and beliefs often
explain natural earthly things.
• The presence of holy men or
women, visions, trances,
dancing, sacred items and
places are often characteristic
of animist societies.
• Animism exists in traditional
African, Asian, American and
Aboriginal cultures.
• Retained tribal ethnic religion of people around
the world
• Today, adherents number at least 100 million
• Animists believe certain inanimate objects
possess spirits or souls
– Spirits live in rocks, rivers, mountain peaks,
and heavenly bodies
– Each tribe has its own characteristic form of
• A Shaman — tribal religious figure usually
serves as the intermediary between people and
the spirits
The Roots of Religion
Animism (Shamanism) - the belief that all
objects, animals, and beings are
“animated” or possess a spirit and a
conscious life. Also called shamanism
because of the prominence of a Shaman.
• Such beliefs are common among huntergatherers.
• 10% of Africans follow such traditional
ethnic religions.
• These beliefs are losing ground to
Christianity and Islam throughout Africa.
Nigerian Shaman
• To some animists, objects do not actually
possess spirits, but are valued because they
have a potency to serve as a link between
people and the omnipresent god
• Animism can be a very complex belief system
• Sub-Saharan Africa is the greatest surviving
stronghold of animism
– Along the north edge Islam is rapidly winning
– Christian missionaries are very active
throughout the area
High God and Lesser Spirits
The High God
• Belief in a Supreme High God who created
the world and then withdrew from active
participation in it is common in polytheistic
religions around the world
• Belief shared by many African people
• Most African religions are polytheistic in
day-to-day practice
• Beyond all minor gods, goddesses, spirits
and ancestors, exists one High God, who
created and in some sense still governs
the universe.
High God Continued
• Most believe that this God is too distant and has
limited contact with daily operation of human life
• Can be appealed to in times of great crisis
• Yoruba tribe of West Africa – Olorun (High
God) – He assigned creation to his eldest son
Obatala, who failed to complete the task. Olorun
passed it on to Odudua, but he failed too. Olorun
oversaw creation himself by assigning smaller
tasks to various orisha, lesser deities. Olorun
then retired to the heavens and has little contact
with people.
Nuer Tribe of Sudan: Exception
with the High God
• Kwoth Nhial (High God) continues to play
an active role in the lives of humans
• He rewards the just, punishes the wicked,
and blesses those who uphold the moral
values of the Nuer people
• He loves and cares for His creation and is
asked for blessing and assistance
High God
• Most Africans believe the High God is too
powerful to be appealed to for daily
• He really isn’t interested.
• Lesser deities or orishas control day-today occurrences
• Even Nuer have a host of lesser deities
The Lesser Spirits
abilities of supreme being (creation),
aspects of nature (water), historical
humans (leaders), human activities
celebrate through myth, song, prayer,
sacrifice, possession, gendered,
character, food, color, altars, images,
priests, rituals, daily relationships
The Lesser Spirits
• Earth, water, and sky contain spiritual life similar
to human kind
• Mountains, forest, rivers and streams, many
plants and animals
• Storms, lightening, thunder
• Spirits can be beneficial or harmful
• They are influenced by prayer, flattery, and
• They have a direct influence on human life so
Africans seek to understand them and seek their
World of the Spirits
Dogon “Spirit House”
Lesser Spirits Continued
They can be male or female.
Earth is regarded as a mother goddess.
Ex. Ashanti prayer for the Earth Mother:
“Earth, while I am yet alive,
It is upon you that I put my trust
Earth who receives my body,
We are addressing you,
And you will understand.”
• In Ghana there is a water spirit called
Mami Water
• The fishermen
consider her
so sacred
they do not
talk about her
People believed they had to
maintain a favorable (good)
relationship with the spirits
or else suffer their wrath
Water: A Sacred Element
• Water sacred to many cultures.
• When life depends on water in the form of
rainfall, rivers, and streams, water takes on a
life of its own.
• Africans use water for rituals such as the
washing of the newborn and the dead.
• It must come from a source of sacred, living
• It must not be heated or boiled, or treated with
chemicals as that would kill the spirit in it.
Ancestor Worship
Ancestor Worship
• Most commonly recognized spiritual forces in
• Continue to live on in the spirit world and unlike
the High God take an active interest in the wellbeing of those who live in the world.
• Ancestors are consulted before the birth of a
child, beginning of an agricultural season, prior
to battle, or political conflicts.
• In some tribes, no one may eat the first fruit of
the harvest until it has been offered to the
Ancestor Worship Continued
• While in China and Japan ancestors are loved
and respected, in Africa they are feared.
• They can be capricious (do whatever they want,
fickle) and unpredictable.
• Ancestors can do whatever they want.
• Despite many offerings, they can turn on you or
the community.
• May cause sickness, death, childlessness (a
major curse)
• Ancestors more than the gods are the enforcers
of the moral codes of the tribe.
Ancestor Worship Continued
• Gifts and sacrifices offered to them
• Belief that ancestors own the land and its
• Portion of harvest must be offered to them
• When animals are born, some must be
slaughtered and offered to ancestors to
ensure their blessings.
• Modern Africans living in cities, return to
their native villages to offer sacrifices
Diviners and Healers
Diviners and Healers
• Rooted in Tradition
• Their purpose was to
explain the cause of
• Experts in herbal medicine
• Today, doctors study the
roots and herbs used in
traditional African healing
Diviners: Communication with
• They can speak to you in dreams
• They can send signs to you in nature that
can be interpreted with the help of
diviners, spiritual specialists
• Signs are sometimes interpreted by
looking at the organs of sacrificed animals
• Diviners can also contact ancestors for
help with knowing the future.
• Causes: natural & supernatural; humanhuman, human-divine, & human-natural
relationships are messed up
• Divination: ritual process, humans
obtain inaccessible, obscure info. about
a client’s place in religious cosmos
– Priests handle neutral objects
– Priests interpret meaning of results
(i.e. Yoruba Ifa diviners & Orunmila & Odu,
16 palm nuts, x8 times, 256 chapters)
African Diviner (Shaman)
Tallensi Tribe: Example of Pleasing
• Tallensi man named Pu-eng-yii left his family
and settled with a rival group to earn more
• Auto accident, serious leg injury
• Diviner told him that ancestors were angry; told
him that his ancestors had intended to kill him
but failed to follow through on the plan.
• Solution: He had to make restitution (monetary
compensation) for leaving his family, severe ties
with newly adopted family, and return home.
Sacrifices to Please Spirits and
• Pouring our a bit of their drinks or tossing
away bits of their food (similar to when you
drop a hot dog at a BBQ – an offering to
the backyard gods).
• Simple act that pleases spirits and
• Sacrifice of animals for more serious
occasions – dogs, birds, sheep, goats and
Animal Sacrifice and Other
Sacrifice to Appease Gods
• Blood poured out on ground or altar
• Before a battle or election campaign or
when there’s a serious drought or in times
of illness
• Prior to engaging in a dangerous hunt
• Ogun – Yoruba god of iron. In modern
day, he is a god of machinery.
• People who drive automobiles in
dangerous streets decorate their cars with
his symbols
Partaking in the Sacrifice:
Communion with Spirits
• After animal is sacrificed, a portion is cut
and roasted or boiled and offered to the
• A portion is consumed by those in the
• This unites them with the spirits.
• A long tradition with world religions to build
spiritual bond
• Consider Christianity and Holy
Rituals and Rites of Passage
• Organized group activity
• Relationships among humans, superhumans & nature give meaning to
• Rites of passage: define social,
religious, physical identity (birth,
puberty, marriage, death)
Rituals and Rites of Passage
• Important parts of life marked with rituals
• Rites of passage regulated by religious
• Birth of child – time for great rejoicing;
great blessing from the world of the spirits
• Twins – not a blessing, dangerous and
• Sometimes, regarded that women had two
men and each were the fathers
• Occasionally, one or both are killed
Rituals and Rites of Passage
• In many African societies, including the
Ashanti, children are not named for the
first week of life.
• Because of high infant mortality, African
tribes believe that it may be a trickster god
who wants to trick people into loving it only
to leave them
• After they make it through a week, then
much love is lavished on the child
Rituals and Rites of Passage
• After naming the child, there is a
ceremony of gently throwing the child in
the air and introducing it to the moon,
which is deity (The Gu of the Benin)
• The Basuto of South Africa say: “There is
your father’s sister.”
• Circumcision is sometimes done after child
• Most of the time, it is reserved for puberty
• Circumcision is a religious requirement for
Jews and Muslims and is significant to
many Christians
• For Africans, circumcision is reserved for
when young men reach puberty
• Severity can vary from a minor cuts that
have no major threat to genital mutilation
which can be life threatening
• Usually no anesthetic
• The man who performs the ceremony may wear
a mask representing the ancestors.
• Represents passage into adulthood
• Initiate is expected not to flinch or cry out in pain
• Female circumcision is practiced in some African
societies although there is growing opposition
around the world
• As with male circumcision, no major medical
reason for doing it but supposed to control their
erotic desire
Rituals and Rites of Passage
• Adulthood – responsibilities and privileges
• Leaving the family home
• Marriage is very important; so is bearing
children; a childless couple will go to great
lengths to discover why they are childless with
the help of a diviner
• Death – rituals to make the deceased
comfortable; fear that their ghosts will return to
haunt the living; widows fear that husbands will
return to cause their wombs to die
Marriage Rituals
• Virginity is highly prized especially among young
• Some tribes sew part of the female genitalia
when the girls are small for the future husband
• Frequently, husband may not have sexual
relations with wife while she is pregnant and
nursing, which altogether may be two years.
• Polygamy is practiced by elites of many
traditional African tribes. Several wives and
separate houses
Rituals for the Dead
• Africa’s warm climate ---dead buried quickly
• Sometimes embalming and mummification;
occasionally offered to hyenas
• Burial with objects that will make their time in
spirit world more enjoyable
• In some African societies, illness, misfortune,
death don’t just happen. Often the result of
witchcraft or foul play
• In past, dead were allowed to identify their
killers. If their hands, dropped as they passed
someone in the community or if they fell near
someone as they were being carried, that
person would have to defend his/her innocence.
Death and World of Spirits
• Most tribes do not have a system of
eschatology or concepts of judgment and
retribution after death.
• Dead simply move into the world of the
spirits and continue to be interested in the
world of the living.
• LoDagaa people of Ghana – exception
• Crossing a river with a ferryman (similar to
Greek idea of River Styx and Hades), easy
if you were good, difficult and up to three
years if you were bad, making up for your
Islam and Christianity in Africa
Other Religions in Africa
ISLAM  25%
* Nigeria
 largest sub-Saharan
Muslim countries.
• Religion
• Indigenous religions tend to be animistic
– The Introduction and Spread of Christianity
• Entered northeast Africa around 300 A.D.
– Coptic Christians - Ethiopia & Eritrea; other
Christians in Sudan
• Dutch brought Calvinism to South Africa in 1600s
– The Introduction and Spread of Islam
• Introduced about 1,000 years ago
• Today, orthodox Islam prevails in most of the Sahel
– Interaction Between Religious Traditions
• Religious conflict most acute in northeastern Africa
• Sudan: conflict between Muslims in north and NonMuslims in the south
Globalization & Diversity:
Rowntree, Lewis, Price,
Christianity in Africa
The route of African Christianity
• Egypt and Libya in the
• Apollos of Alexandria
• Others from Cartage
• Eunuch of Ethiopia,
Meroitic Official, a.k.a.
Kandaka, a Regent to
the throne of Candace,
the Queen of Ethiopia
• Preservation of
Scriptures in Africa, the
Sinaiticus Texts
• Bishops such as
Clement and Cyril, men
of Alexandria in Egypt.
• The Nubians of Sudan
and the Coptic of
Ethiopians are part of
Africa Christians
• 2 billion adherents
make it most practiced
in the world.
•Originated in
Bethlehem (8-4 BC) and
Jerusalem (AD 30) with
Jesus Christ.
• Spread by missionaries
and the Roman Empire
(Constantine A.D. 313).
• It is the most
practiced religion in
Africa today.
Islam in Africa
The Coming of Islam
• North Africa
– Arab forces seized the Nile delta of Egypt in 641
– New capital at Cairo
– Arabs welcome due to high taxes and periodic persecution of
Coptic Christians by Byzantines
– Arabs seize Carthage in 690, called Al Maghrib
– Berbers resisted for many years
• The Kingdom of Ethiopia: A Christian Island in a Muslim Sea
– Axum began to decline
– Shift in trade routes and overexploited agriculture
– Muslim trading states on the African coast of the Red Sea
transforming Axum into an isolated agricultural society
• Source of ivory, resins, and slaves
– Attacked by Muslim state of Adal in early 14th century
– Became a Christian state in mid-twelfth century
Islam in West Africa
• Along with adopting new practices and
ethical values, West Africans kept some of
their old religious practices.
– Muslim leaders allowed them to continue
religious traditions as long as they did not
contradict (conflict with) the Five Pillars Faith.
– W. Africans continued to show respect for the
spirits of dead ancestors. They kept their belief
in spirits who could help those or made sacrifices
to them.
– They used amulets, or charms, that they believed
helped people or protected them from harm.
The Spread of Islam in West Africa
Traders Bring Islam to
• Between 639 and 708
C.E., Arab Muslims
conquered North Africa
• They wanted to bring W.
Africa into the Islamic
• Initially the king of Ghana
did not convert, nor did
the majority of the people.
• But the king did allow
Muslims to build
settlements within his
Islam in Mali
• The tolerance shown by
Muslims toward traditional
religious practices helped
Islam to spread.
• Early leaders of Mali
accepted Islam, but they
didn’t follow all of its
• In 1312, a new leader,
Mansa Musa, took over in
Mali. He became the first
West African ruler to
practice Islam devoutly.
Islam in Mali
• Under the rule of Mansa
Musa, Mali became a
major crossroad of the
Islamic world.
• Musa made a hajj, or
pilgrimage to Mecca
• His caravan was
described as “a lavish
display of power, wealth,
and unprecedented by its
size and pageantry.”
• Included in his caravan
– 500 slaves, each carrying
a 6 lb. staff of gold
– Caravan of 200 camels
30,000 lbs. of gold
Food, clothing, and
• Because of this
impressive display, Mali
gained acceptance as an
important empire
Islam in Songhai
In the 1460s Sunni Ali became
the new ruler of Songhai.
He built a powerful army that
enabled Songhai to break away
from Mali and eventually conquer
Early Songhai rulers didn’t
seriously practice Islam
Under the leadership of Askia
Mohammed Toure, a devout
Muslim, rigid controls were set to
ensure Islam was being practiced
Changes in Africa due to
Change #1: Succession
An important change in
government was in how
people chose their next
leader, or “line of
Traditionally succession to
the throne had been
matrilineal – the right to rule
was traced through the
woman’s side of the family
After the arrival of Islam,
succession became
patrilineal – the right to rule
went from father to son.
Change #2: Structure of Gov’t
• Muslims believed in a
highly centralized
government, which was
different than traditional
African society
• After conversion to Islam,
West African kings sought
more control of local
• Rulers adopted titles used
in Muslim lands, such as
“emir” and “sultan”
Change #3: Adoption of
Shari’ah Law
• Customary laws of
Africa usually:
– were enforced by
chiefs or kings
– didn’t give physical
– Weren’t written down
– Guilty person paid
injured party with gifts
or services
– Family or clan of guilty
person could also be
Shari’ah Law:
• Laws were written
• Muslims believed
that shari’ah came
from God
• Administered by
judges called qadis
– Cases were heard in
a court
Witnesses called
Ruled on basis of the
law and the evidence
Change # 4: Emphasis on
• Muslims highly value learning &
encouraged people to become educated.
• Timbuktu
– Became famous for its community of Islamic
– Contained several universities
– Schools were set up to educate children in the
• Schools run by an imam (scholar)
• Basic subjects included studying the Qur’an,
Islamic studies, law, and literature
Change #5: Arabic: A New
In West Africa, Arabic became the language of religion, learning, commerce
(business), and government.
Arabic became the language of TRADE and GOVERNMENT
West Africans continued to use their native languages in everyday speech.
Scholars used Arabic to begin to write about the history and culture of West Africa.
Arabic allowed rulers to keep records and to write to rulers in other countries.
Using the common Arabic language, West African traders who spoke different
languages to communicate more easily.
What was written about?
• Described how
people used animals,
plants, and minerals
to cure diseases.
• Discussed ethical
behavior for
business and
• Told how to use the
stars to determine
the seasons.
• They recorded
the history of the
• They wrote about
Islamic Law
Change #6: Architecture
Mosques in West Africa
 Traditionally, West Africans built small shrines to the
forces of nature. As they converted to Islam, they
began to build mosques (Muslim house of worship).
 The mosques that were built blended
Islamic architectural styles with their own
traditional religious art.
For example, the minaret (tower) of one
mosque was designed to look like the
symbol of a Songhai ancestor.
• Mosques in West Africa used the materials
that were available in the local area.
Change# 7: Decorative
West Africans adopted the
use of calligraphy and
geometric patterns in their
decorative arts.
Arabic calligraphy was
used to decorate costumes,
fans, and even weapons.
West Africans adopted the
dress of Arabic robes…
using decorative textiles and
clothing and everyday
objects like stools, ceramic
Extent of Islam (Fig. 6.25)
Globalization & Diversity:
Rowntree, Lewis, Price,

History and Geography of Africa