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Conversion in African Traditional Religions Pt2

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  • Conversion in African Traditional Religions Pt2

    Pt 2

    Conversion To Missionary Religions
    The rate of conversion of millions of former adherents of African indigenous religions to one or other of the missionary religions now available in Africa is nothing short of a revolution. Mbiti captured the general scene of radical change sweeping through the Continent thus:

    • Africa is caught up in a world revolution which is so dynamic that it has almost got out of human control ... The man of Africa must get up and dance, for better or for worse, on the arena of world drama. His image of himself and of the universe is disrupted and must make room for the changing 'universal and not simply 'tribal' man (18).

    The phenomenal religious conversion that has taken place is certainly the direct result of a complex interplay of diverse impulses, and historical circumstances. There are political as well as socio-structural and psychological factors. But the religious encounter between the indigenous faith and the immigrant religions is of interest to us here. For Christianity, several unsuccessful attempts had previously been made (19). It was, in fact, not until the 18th and 19th centuries that the campaign that yielded the present significant break-through in religious change in the Continent begun.

    Christian missionaries had benefited from the favourable climate created by European colonialism in Africa. Urbanisation, Western culture and civilisation, science and technology all played a major role. But the missionaries themselves were equipped with different viable evangelical methods and strategies. 'They proclaimed the Good News of salvation through open-air preaching. They also offered various humanitarian services including rehabilitation of slaves and socially disadvantaged people. They set-up Christian villages where they settled many early converts (20). Medical care equally played an effective part in disposing many traditional adherents to accept the Christian message, so did pastoral visitation and vocational training for young men and women. By far, the promotion of formal school education proved to be the most viable and effective instrument of conversion evolved by Christian missionaries among many traditional African groups. Hundreds of thousands of young men and women who attended such schools, also received instruction in the faith, accepted baptism while in school and thereby broke the ancestral covenant with deities. It was not too long before the missionaries of the different mainstream Christian groups, including the Roman Catholic Church, Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians began to harvest the fruit of their vigorous evangelical efforts (21).

    In Liberia, as in the coastal region of Nigeria, the charismatic ministry of the renowned William Wade Hams and the fiery preacher Garrick Braide of Bakana respectively swept like tidal waves across towns and villages with the conversion of thousands of former adherents of African indigenous religions to the Anglican faith. In lgboland, Chief Samuel Idigo abandoned his traditional religious belief, and symbols of indigenous rituals and his staff of office, to embrace the Catholic. He had left his elevated position as the traditional ruler of his people to settle with numerous fellow converts in the new Christian village "Ugwu Ndi Uka' established by the missionaries in Aguleri (22). Presently, lgboland, has well over 80% of its approximately twenty million people converted to Christianity. It has been cited as a typical African society in which the walls of the traditional religion have collapsed Jericho-wise. E.A. Ayandele title his review article, "The Collapse of 'Pagandom' in lgboland". And he described the conversion of a vast majority of Igbo people to Christianity as nothing short of an epic" (23).

    The current proliferation and attraction of Pentecostal and Evangelical groups in several parts of Africa is no doubt, one of the intriguing aspects of Christianity in the Continent today. The development is particularly manifest in urban centres. The groups excite, attract and draw their clientele mainly from among the youth and the middle-aged, both employed and unemployed. The founders/leaders are usually charismatic individuals, literate, and often loud and flamboyant in their life-style. They adopt very modem methods of preaching employing electronic gadgets and modern music. Their overall bearing in life is generally Western-oriented. Some of them employ all kinds of modem means of promotional advertisement to propagate their message. Vigorous evangelical bible study, deliverance from evil and demonic forces and counselling are some of their major schemes. 'They propagate the so-called 'prosperity gospel', assuring theirfollowers of quick success and material prosperity. The Pentecostal and Evangelical groups are probably the fastest growing churches in many parts of Africa. Many of the mainstream Christian churches including the Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Methodists have been provoked and challenged by the fast rate of growth of the Pentecostals to devise schemes to counteract the drain in their numbers. While a considerable number of people who attend the Pentecostal churches appear to experience deep personal religious conversion and are committed to the ideals and mores of their new faith, it is must be pointed out that very many of the people who crowd into the rallies and fellowships of the new groups ostensibly go to search for quick miracles and wonders.

    Conversion of millions of former adherents of African indigenous religions to Islam in various parts of the Continent has been no less spectacular. Berber and Arab commercialists and pastors brought Islam to sub-Saharan Africa several centuries ago. In Northern Nigeria for example, it arrived the ancient Kanem-Bornu empire about the 11th-century A.D. Through living together, trade, promotion of holy pilgrimage, Islamic law and learning some indigenous groups gradually began to embrace the Islamic religion. It was however, through jihad that Islam achieved a break-through in the religious conquest and conversion of millions of former traditional adherents to Islam especially in West Africa as well as in Somalia and the Horn of Africa. Sheikh Usman dan Fodio inaugurated his jihad 1804 that won numerous indigenous Hausa groups to the side of Islam as well as purified the prevalent syncretism religious practice of the people. Similar developments occurred among the Wolof of Senegal led by Amadou Mbake Bamba, 1850-1927 (24).

    Christianity and Islam are clearly the two dominant faiths in Africa today, while the law of diminishing returns have befallen the indigenous religions. A vast majority of former members of the traditional religions have abandoned the ancestral rituals and symbols to embrace Christianity, or Islam or some religious systems. The statistics of the current religious affiliation in an African country like Nigeria, provides an interesting example. Out of an estimated total population of about a hundred (100) million, some forty-eight per cent (48%) or fort-y-seven million people are professing Christians. Some forty-seven (47%) or forty-five million are Muslims, and a little over six million or five per cent (50/o) are traditional religionists (25).

    Discontinuity And Continuity
    The mass conversion of former adherents of indigenous religions in Africa to Islam and Christianity has evidently brought about the discontinuation of several aspects of the traditional religious culture of the people. 'The homogenous traditional religious background in which the indigenous religions undergirded all aspects of life including the social, political and economic aspects, has more or less disappeared, making way to religious plurality which now prevails in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Huge cathedrals, churches, schools, mosques, and public buildings now rise on the former sites of sacred groves and shrines dedicated to powerful traditional deities. Certain brutal rituals like human sacrifice, traditional customs and taboos that discriminated against individuals and groups like women, outcastes, people suffering from various kinds of sickness and disease, the killing of twins among some African groups have been eradicated (26). In lgboland for instance, most traditional communities had, prior to the advent of Christian missionaries reserved dreaded places, Ajo Ofia, 'bad forests' as such places were called, where people dumped away tabooed persons and those who had seriously infringed the approved norms of behaviour to die miserable death. Such individuals like leprosy patients, sorcerers, witches, notorious persons were abhorred by the physically living human beings, ancestors and the gods. Today most of those dreaded places and forests have been cleared. They are now the location of many churches, schools and public institutions. Some important traditional institutions, including priesthood of some prominent deities, initiations and festivals have been abandoned since the people to uphold and continue them have left the indigenous religions of their people to embrace one or the other of the missionary religions.

    Some analysts have easily concluded, based on these visible features of the prevailing religious situation in the Continent, that the demise of the traditional religions is a "fait accompli" (27). But statistics do not tell the full story. Religious conversion is such a complex and fluid matter. Particularly in Africa, with the tremendous resilience and adaptability of the indigenous religions, the persistence of vital beliefs among many converts to Christianity or Islam, it is extremely difficult to be categorical about the state of religious conversion of the majority of people. Theastonishing stories of phenomenal achievements of the missionary religions and of heroic lives of faith by numerous converts to Christianity or Islam ought to be taken together with the constant complaints against shallowness of faith, nominal membership, syncretic practices among a large segment of the population of new converts. The traditional world-view, including a strong belief in the dynamic presence and activities of spirit beings and cosmic forces in people's lives, belief in re-incarnation persist among most Africans.

    The scenario depicted by Bishop (now Archbishop) Albert K- Obiefuna about Igbo converts to Catholicism could easily be said of most other sub-Saharan African groups. In a fifty-one paged pastoral letter titled Idolatry In A Century-old Faith published in 1985 to mark the first centenary celebration of the Catholic Church in Eastern Nigeria, the Bishop called attention to the two sides of the picture.

    Christianity has made an impact on our people. There is no gainsaying it. Thousands come to our churches. Many also avail themselves of the Sacraments. But times without number the remark reaches us that our Christians are worshipping 'idols'', false gods. They swear on idols. They erect shrines in their homes, in their compounds. They hide fetishes in their shades in the market places and in their workshops. Catechists, Seminarians on apostolic work in the towns and villages are stunned at the degree of idol worship and superstitious practices that still exist among a people that are mostly baptised Catholics.
    At every retreat, Catholics bring out from their homes fetishes and charms of all kinds. Idol worship, superstitious practices, fear of witchcraft, charms, and all sorts of vain observances are realities among our Catholics. We cannot simply deny they obtain (28)

    The indigenous religions remain very much the living faith of many rural dwellers in Africa. Both in urban and rural areas the religions continue to adapt to the changing circumstances of life of the people. Modem houses built with cement and zinc now feature as shrines of deities. People use such contemporary items like rice, mineral drinks, pieces of cloth as materials forritual sacrifice. Traditional priests, diviners, mediums and shrine attendants dress in decent outfit for traditional religious cult of deities in present-day African societies. In another development, the beliefs and rituals of several traditional African deities like the Yoruba Orisha continue to be maintained by many adherents and practitioners of the Voodoo, Santeria and Cumina cults in the CaribbeanIslands, Cuba, and parts of the United States of America (29). These forms of religious practice by Africans in the diaspora combine indigenous African religious stuff with elements from Christianity. Furthermore, the effort at modernisation of the traditional religions themselves is manifestly evident in such contemporary religious systems as Godianism of Chief G.O.K Onyioha in lgboland, the Ogboni Fraternity and EruosaNationalChurch among the Yoruba and Edo peoples of Nigeria respectively. The African Independent and Aladura churches, including the Kimbangu Church of Congo, and the Cherubim and Seraphim groups, have also greatly contributed to keeping alive certain vital aspects of the indigenous religious culture of the people such as the belief in the dynamic presence and influence of ancestral and other spirit beings in people's lives, divination, belief in magic and the practice of traditional rituals.

    Both in the traditional homogenous religious background as well as in contemporary plural society, religion has always been a major determinant of life of African people. The fluid and complex nature of religious conversion is clearly a reflection of the characteristic dynamic nature of religion itself among the groups. Prior to the encounter with Islam and Christianity, the traditional religions of Africa pervaded and permeated all vital life-interests of people, investing the social, economic and political facets of life with meaning and symbolic significance. Religious change had proceeded not in any dramatic and radical way, but rather in a slow-rate manner. The religious and spiritual fervour of people flowed and ebbed in response to changing circumstances of life. Significant historical situations brought about novel religious ideas, values, beliefs, symbols, taboos and rituals. The cosmology of the different groups was particularly accommodating, as the size of the pantheon of the different groups enlarged or diminished in response to varying stimuli. Individuals and groups had experience of genuine religious conversion. Their cumulative spiritual heritage and religious insight were preserved and handed on from one generation to the next through such oral media as speech-forms, including myths,legends, stories, proverbs, and names, art-forms including sculptures, carvings, and festivals, and important institutions like shrines, masquerades, kingship institution and so on.

    The advent and spread of Islam and Christianity precipitated a different kind of religious situation in contemporary Africa. A vast majority of the population have abandoned the religions of their ancestors to convert to one or other of the missionary faiths now available in the Continent. In spite of the many problems and difficulties confronting the converts, it is unarguable that both Islam and Christianity have sunk deep roots in Africa. 'They have made irreversible impact on the Continent's religious and spiritual landscape. The faith of the vast majority of the population now lies mainly with Islam and Christianity. The religious hunger for the sacred which has evolved from the traditional religious background to the contemporary plural society still persists. This is the central value that must not be wasted, but ought to be vigorously preserved and sustained by all well-meaning religious people in Africa.
    1. Booth (jr), J.S. "An Approach to African Religion' in J.S. Booth (jr), African Religions, A Symposium (New York, NOK Publishers, 1977), pp. 1 -1 1; Also, lkenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies of African Traditional Religions (Onitsha; Imico Publishers, 1987), pp. 13-23.
    2. Mbiti, J. S. African Religions and Philosophy (London; Heinemann, 1990 2nd ed., p. 3
    3. Nock A. D. " Conversion", Quoted in, Christianity In Tropical Africa, by C. C. Baeta (ed.), Oxford, 1968, Oxford University Press, p.3
    4. Chambers Twenty Century Dictionary, 1972 (ed.), p. 284.
    5. Ejizu, C.I. "Religion and Social Change, The Case of the Igbo of Nigeria", Neue Zeitschrift Fur Missionswissenschaft, ( Vol. 45, No. 2, 1989), p. 1 10.
    6. Quoted in Ikenga-Metuh, E., The Gods in Retreat, Continuity and Change in African Religions, (Enugu; F.D.P. 1986), p. Xiii.
    7. Ibid
    8. Idowu, E.B., African Traditional Religion, A Definition (London; S.C.M Press, 1980 ed.), pp. 103ff.
    9. Mbiti, J.S., Op. Cit. p. 223.
    10. Ray, B., African Religions, Symbo4 Ritual and Community (New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 11.
    11. Ranger, T.O. And Kimambo, I.N. (ed.) The Historical Studies of African Religion (Berkeley; Univ. Of California Press, 1972).
    12. Alutu, J.O., Nnewi History (Enugu; F.D.P. 1985 ed.), pp. 4-5.
    13. Alutu, J.O., Op. Cit. pp. 272-293.
    14. Arazu, R. "A cultural Model for Christian Prayer" in A Shorter, African Christian Spirituality (London; Chapman, 1978), p. 115
    15. Ibid
    16. Ray, B. Op. Cit. p. 68
    17. Ray, B. Op. Cit. pp. 65-68
    18. Mbiti, J.S., Op. Cit. p. 216
    19. For detailed information on early Christian religious history of parts of Africa, Confer such works like; O.U. Kalu, The History of Christianity in West Africa (London, Longman, 1980); J.F.A. Ajayi, Christian Missions in Nigeria 1841-1891, (London; Longmans, 1965). E.A. Ayandele, The Missionary Impact on Modem Nigeria, 1842-1914, London; Longmans, 1966).
    20. Nwosu, V.A. The Catholic Church in Onitsha, People, Places, and Events (Onitsha; EPL, 1985), pp. 16-41.
    21. G.O.M Tasie, "Christian Awakening in West Africa, 1914-18, A Study in the Significance of Native Agency", in Kalu, O.U. Op. Cit. pp. 293-306.
    22. Nwosu, V.A., Op. Cit. pp. 16-41
    23. Ayandele, E.A. "The Collapse of Pagandom in Igboland" in Journal of Historical Society of Nigeria, (Vol. Il, No. 1, Dec. 1973), pp. 126-7.
    24. Booth (jr), J.S., "Islam In Africa" in J.S. Booth Gr.), Op. Cit. pp. 297-343.
    25. Barrette, D.B.(ed.), World Christian Encyclopaedia (Nairobi; O.U. P), p. 529.
    26. Ejizu, C.I. "Continuity and Discontinuity in African Traditional Religion, The Case of the Igbo of Nigeria', Cahier Des Religions Africaines, (Vol. 8, No. 36, 1984), pp. 197-214.
    27. Ejizu, C.I., Op. Cit. p. 198.
    28. Obiefuna, AK., Idolatry In A Century-Old Faith (Enugu; Cecta Ltd., 1985), p. 11
    29. Holloway, J.E. (ed.), Africanisms in American Culture, (Bloomington; I.U.P. 1990).