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Conversion in African Traditioinal Religions PT 1

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  • Conversion in African Traditioinal Religions PT 1

    By Christopher I. Ejizu


    The concept of conversion is as relevant to African indigenous religions as it is to many other religions of humankind. This may sound something of a surprise to some people. After all, the indigenous religions of Africa do not fall within the category of religions generally referred to as universal or missionary religions. They are rather, classed within the family of traditional or folk religions of the world.(1) And this for many people, is another way of saying that African traditional religions admit of little or no change. They thrive in stable and homogenous ethnic societies. They have no founders, reformers, or prophets, and are handed on much in the same form from one generation to the next. In the words of Mbiti, African traditional religions "have no missionaries to propagate them". As folk religions, they are said to be community-based. "People simply assimilate whatever religious ideas and practices are held or observed by their families and communities"(2). This viewpoint assumed that African traditional religions were more or less fossil reality. Against that backdrop, the discussion of the subject of religious conversion made sense for the protagonists only within the context of the encounter of the indigenous religions with the missionary religions that are available now in the Continent, mainly Christianity and Islam (3).
    While this later contemporary stage in the religious history of Africa is important and of relevance to us in this paper, our discussion of the theme of conversion in African religions proposes to focus on the type of change brought about by dynamic impulses in the differing religious experience of indigenous African groups prior to the encounter, as well as on the phenomenal movement of former adherents as converts to the missionary faiths. This later development clearly amounts to a religious revolution. Both strands of religious change are signalled by and implied in the topic of conversion in African religions. We shall therefore, be handling the two dimensions in this paper. But first, the key concepts ought to be clarified and the scope delimited.

    Clarification of Terms
    The first is conversion. As a religious concept, it refers to change in the religious life and behaviour of people. It generally involves a positive interior change in one's religious conviction, moral and spiritual fervour, from a state of unbelief, weak or lukewarm faith, to a holy and ardent religious life (4). Conversion therefore, usually implies a change from one religious state (a terminus a quo) to another religious state (a terminus ad quem). The change could be a permanent one, or it could last for only a period of time. Conversion could take place within the same religious system to which an individual or group already belongs or professes, or it could involve a change away from a religion to which one was previously affiliated to another one all together.

    In studying religious change or conversion scholars are usually interested in accounting for the causality, as well as the course and consequence of change(5). They are keen to explain the impulses that motivate conversion as well as the process, and also the resultant effect of the experience in the life of individual adherents and groups. Furthermore, Professor Humphrey Fisher identified a three-phase stage of "adhesion", "mixing", and then "full conversion" in the process of conversion from a non-prophetic to a prophetic religion (6). In his study of conversion of Africans from traditional religion to Islam and Christianity, he had noted that people could pass through the stage of "adhesion' during which they stood "with one foot on either side of the fence adopting their new worship as useful supplements" to the old. There could be a lapse from the orthodoxy and religious ardour of the first converts to a mixing stage, and people could later regain their fervency after a reform movement (7).

    It is pertinent also to point out that by African traditional religions in this paper, we refer specifically to indigenous religious forms and systems which the different peoples of sub-Saharan Africa cultivated as part of their total experience of life within their particular ecological environment, society and history. The indigenous religions pre-date any other forms and articulations of the sacred that have been brought into the Continent from outside(8). The religious traditions differ one from another largely on account of differences in language, ecosystem and overall historical circumstances of the groups. But they possess a lot of similar essential characteristics. The vision of reality as a whole which they engender is very similar indeed. They possess an essential holistic vision of reality. Traditional Africans perceive life as an integral whole with the sacred flowing into all facets, underpinning and investing every worthwhile event with meaning and significance. There is no dichotomy between the visible and super-sensible world. Spiritual beings and cosmic forces manifest their presence and power through visible events and experience of life. African traditional religions are equally oral in nature. They are codified not in any sacred writings but in the living experience of people and various oral forms of communication.

    I am aware that a number of scholars have argued in support of the term African traditional religions as applicable also to Christianity and Islam because of the long period of time the two religions have existed as well as the kind of following they have in the Continent (9). The issue is still a debatable subject. In any case, in this paper the term indigenous religions designates as well as distinguishes the original religious faith of Africa from the missionary religions that have arrived the Continent from other parts of the world.

    Conversion Within The Indigenous Religions
    Contrary to the general impression created in many existing works, especially writings with anthropological bias (10), a number of recent studies have drawn attention to the inherent dynamism of African indigenous religions (11). They have also highlighted internal impulses and factors that account for significant positive alteration in religious beliefs and conviction of individual adherents and groups, as well as the interchange of religious ideas and cultural forms among people in traditional African societies prior to the advent and interaction with other races and religious cultures. The factors include the people's acute sense of the sacred, initiation rites, special life-needs like health, sickness and off-spring, disaster, epidemic, long distance travel and trade, migration and warfare. Even m the contemporary background and context of plurality of religious beliefs and practices in the Continent brought about by the co-existence with missionary faiths, the traditional religions have continued to exhibit tremendous resilience and ability to adapt to the changing circumstances.

    Evidence abounds of various forms of experience of genuine conversion by individuals and groups both in the indigenous background of homogenous religious beliefs and practices among the different African groups, as well as during the relatively recent period of intense interaction of African indigenous faiths with missionary religions. The oral corpus of the different groups yields a lot of relevant materials. There are striking stories of people changing from lukewarm religious state to fervent religious adherence and strict ethical and moral life. There are equally clear examples of people switching from one traditional religious convictions and cult to another.

    The mythical story of the origin and evolution of the cult of Ezemewi and Edo, two arch-divinities of Nnewi people, a typical Igbo language group in Nigeria, makes a good illustration. Ezemewi, otherwise known as Ugi1i Nwa Onye Olu, was reportedly a mythical being, the son of Eze Agana m far-away Ndoni, a coastal town m the lower Niger River basin. Long ago, he appeared as a hungry-looking and unshaven young man at Nnewi. He expressed the desire for food to a number of people who had spotted. Ezi-Abubo, the primeval ancestor of the village group with the same name was able to provide him nourishment promptly, while another man, Akwa, in an attempt to prepare a delicious meal for Ezemewi arrived late with food. Ezemewi was pleased with the hospitality accorded him and finally settled at Nnewi. As a reward for the attention shown to him by Ezi-Abubo, he bestowed several gifts, including off-spring and wealth to him and his descendants. More importantly, he gave them the right to visit him and attend to him daily, while the others who were not prompt in meeting his acute need for food, including Akwa, he gave fewer blessings. They could only visit him occasionally. On account of the many blessings that people received from attending to his residence at the present site of the shrine of Ezemewi in Abubo village-group, the power influence of Ezemewi spread rapidly through the Nnewi and beyond.

    Ezemewi married his firstwife a mythical being, known as Ogwugwu Eze Kwuabo. Ogwugwu was very powerful as a young lady with numerous admirers and attendants. She had only two issues, Uzukpe and Mgbodo. Ezemewi was dissatisfied. He sued for another very pretty and influential lady. With his powerful influence he was able to win over Edo who had been living with Omaliko. Edo gave birth to a very pretty daughter, a mythical being known as Asala. With that, her power and influence became widespread. From time to time she left Ezemewi to consort and enjoy the affection of some powerful male deities in neighbouring communities. On one occasion she returned from such sorties only to discover that her home had been overgrown by grass. Obaisedo, the ancestor of the kindred with the same name, gained the confidence of Edo who allowed him to clean her compound and thereafter, earned the invitation to visit pay her nocturnal visits for food and other pleasantries. From initial nocturnal visits to eat food in the home of Edo by Obaisiedo, members of his lineage gained the unique privilege to minister as priests at the shrine of Edo (12).

    Edo (female) and Ezemewi (male) have since been the two arch-divinities of Nnewi. Significantly, their cults rose to prominence by successfully displacing pre-existing cults of other deities such as Ulasi and Uzukpe. Ezi-Abubo and Obaisiedo village groups though they are not the most senior clans in the town have been specially dedicated to the worship of Ezemewi and Edo respectively. To this date, they alone of all the numerous clans that comprise Nnewi provide candidates for initiation to the priesthood of the two deities. And any male chosen by the deities to serve as priest from the groups would have to undergo a prolonged ceremony of ritual initiation before assuming office at the respective shrines. The conversion of the candidate to serve as Isiedo, the traditional priest of Edo from Obaisiedo village group, was always a dramatic religious experience. He would have to physically depart his original family home in the village with a few belongings, travel slowly through sacred groves and forests for several nights before emerging at the shrine of Edo. He would be dressed totally in white and migrate to the Edo shrine with only one wife. His permanent abode thenceforth, would be at the sacred grove of Edo. His choice by Edo require total commitment to the deity. As such, he had to undergo a physical and ritual disconnection with his kin-group in order to achieve a full change of his religious, spiritual ethical and social relationships and pattern of life.
    The desire for initiation into the prestigious Ozo traditional Igbo title may include such apparently mundane interest like celebration of wealth and achievement, as well as enhancement of one's status in society. But the elaborate ritual invariably brings the Ozo candidate to a full religious conversion (13). In some localities, the initiation proper involves the physical burying of an initiate. A plank is placed over the shallow grave and earth is thrown on it. The death wail is started and the burial ceremonies are performed. (In some other parts of lgboland, the candidate goes into seclusion for four native weeks, that is twenty-eight days (14). When the uninitiated retire, he is exhumed and bathed and whitewashed with Nzu (white chalk). The origin of Ozo lies in the ancient past of the Igbo people. Traditionally, the initiation which was expensive and reserved for upright male members of the society could last several years until a candidate achieved the full title position. Commenting on the profound change that comes about with Ozo initiation, Arazu rightly observed:

    • In the solitude imposed by the Ozo ritual initiation the candidate learns to pronounce 'man' with deliberation. He sees that his very nature is a statement from the Supreme Being: 'Let goodness exist. The man who does not meditate, who does not contemplate, will never realize what man means ... The Ozo chief attains the meaning of man. Man in his concrete existence is the nearest resemblance to divinity. The resemblance is neither moral nor physical. These concepts are not adequate in this matter. Man's resemblance to God is religious. The Ozo rites of initiation take in every aspect of human activity, political, social, religious (15).

    Beside initiation into title positions, severe misfortune like sickness, death and spirit possession are significant developments that motivate religious conversion. B. Ray citing Pierre Verger, relates the case of a Yoruba woman who was chosen by Ogun, a major deity of the Yoruba people of Nigeria to serve as a medium. The woman had lost all her children, one after the other, each dying a few days after birth. Some day while crossing the village square, she began to behave in an abnormal way, making uncontrollable gestures. She then staggered to the front of Ogun's temple and fell like a corpse to the ground. The diviner later revealed that it was Ogun that had chosen her. She had been called to serve as his medium and "wife" to the entire community. Her preparation for the ritual initiation took about a month. As part of the festival in honour of Ogun, one of the mediums proclaimed the full conversion and status of the candidate Ogun had chosen as his medium:

    • See the new iyaworisha (medium): it is Ogun that chose her. Is it not good? It is because I have seen the death on her that I took her. Now she is not going to die; no more danger for her; She is going to have a lot of children; boys and girls. I am going to tell her father and her husband what they must do now. Because she is not the same any more; the husband must not beat her any more. He must leave her in peace. If the husband has anything to say, he must tell it to me. It is Ogun now who is the father. Everybody must hear, men and women (16).

    The husband and other relations of the woman expressed their gratitude to Ogun for taking the woman into his protection and pledged to abide with all the instructions of Ogun and never to interfere with norms and taboos relating to her in her changed status and role.
    For Ajak the young Dinka of Southern Sudan, who had left his home and people in the village to seek greener pasture in one of the urban towns, it was Nhialic, the arch-divinity of his clan that caused him all sorts of misfortune, including throwing him into a dangerous river and seriously threatening to kill him. Ajak had gone to the town against his father's wish. Neither did he bother to get reconciled to his father before the latter died, or to supervise his relations at home. After several sudden bouts of sickness and attacks of evil forces in the town, and unsuccessful attempts at a cure in the town, he was eventually taken to his home in the village. Ajak participated in ritual sacrifices for Nhialic and his ancestral spirits (17). Part of the healing ritual involved the repair of the broken family bonds and a vow by Ajak and his relations to uphold the ancestral norms of his clan. He recovered fully and remained devoted to the clan divinities and the ancestral spirits. No spirit possessed or troubled him again.

    There are numerous examples of similar cases of genuine religious conversion within African indigenous religions in the religious history of various traditional African groups. Unfortunately, their significance as authentic religious experience is often ignored or down-played by researchers. Or such experiences are treated or reduced simply to socio-structural, and psychological development.

    Continue With Pt 2

  • #2
    Conversion in African Traditional Religions Pt2

    Conversion in African Traditional Religions Pt2 is posted in another thread


    • #3
      So far I had a chance to read some of this very interesting my brother thank you for the information I'll be read more and also get some of part 2 when I get a chance thank you.