Ethnic African Religions

Diversified ethnic religions

Origins of the Religion (Animism)

Origin of the religions
  • Tribes throughout Africa use plants, animals, and other inanimate objects to describe events that they have no control over such as weather.

  • Animism has no known founder, yet it was believed to be created by tribes in Africa and Asia.
  • Animism is considered a folk religion. Animism is practiced all over the world, but is most prevalent to isolated, rural civilizations that are currently in stage two of the demographic transition.

Basic Religious Beliefs
  • Traditional African religion is extremely diverse.
  • Most religions include the concept of a high god or creator god as well as many other deities and spirits that can help or hurt human beings.
  • Rituals are practiced near rivers or waterfalls to appease gods or ancestral spirits.
  • Rites also mark incidents in the yearly cycle and such human transitions as birth, marriage, and death.
  • Healing and divination are widely practiced in a religious context.
  • Animism is the religious belief that natural phenomena, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence.
  • Animism is widely practiced throughout a majority of African tribes today.

Classification of Religion
  • Most traditional African religions are ethnic religions, and solely based in Africa.
  • Tribal religions such as Animism are polytheistic, as they are based on multiple gods and deities.

Branches of Divisions of the Religion
  • There are no branches of Animism because each tribe has developed their own beliefs and customs around the religion due to isolation.
  • This has lead to a countless number of beliefs based on different inanimate objects.

Below is an image of an animist drawing

Geographic Distrubution

How the religion Diffused
-Traditional african religions have not diffused
-Rather, Christianity and Islam, two universalizing religions, are now dominant.
-This is largely due to two things:

-Imperialism by european powers bringing their culture with them to africa, as well as islamic trade and culture in northern africa.

-Missionaries continually visiting the continent.

Holy places/relics
-Most animist religions hold very little regard for objects many universalizing religions would find holy: such as the burial site of a holy man or the place of a founder's death.
-Rather many religions place higher importance in daily things

-The sun, moon, rivers, mountains, and other natural phenomina are often considered spiritual or holy.

Where it is practiced today
-While Akanism is practiced today, missionaries converted Bemba from their traditional religion.
-Prior to conversion, Bemba was practiced in the northern province of Zambia, which is in south-central africa.
And Akanism is practiced in all of Ghana, which is in Western Africa, along the coast.
Number of followers
-As each tribe essentially has own ethnic religion, tribal size will be substituted for followers, as geographers can not keep track of tribal religions too effectively

Number of Followers

-There are about 15 tribal groups in africa with more than 10 million inhabitants
-Of these, many are prominently christian or islamic.
-All other tribes, which practice traditional african religions, are smaller than 10 million persons, and often much so: many with as little as 100,000 persons, if not less.
-Bemba has
-Akan has about 20 million persons in the tribe, although not all still practice Akanism
-Bemba has roughly 3 million persons, however all are no longer practicing their traditional religion

Map illustrating distribution of followers
Map of tribes in africa, most with their own religion. It must also be kept in mind that the areas are simply groups of tribes, not the tribes themselves: each has tens if not hundreds of individual groups within them. (Below)

Unique Features

Due to Africa's immense diversity, only general trends can be analyzed overall. However, these are two examples of tribal religions


·The Bemba have their own conventional religion.
·They believe in the existence of a higher god called Leza.
·He is not in the existence of the people, he is believed to live in the sky. He has control over such things as: thunder and women and men’s fertility. He is also supposed to be the source of magical powers.
·In the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Bemba were converted into Christianity by missionaries.
·Today, all but a few Zambians have totally dismissed their traditional belief system. So much that the religion of most Bembas is considered to be a transition from traditional systems to Christianity.
·Pre Colonial religious beliefs revolved around the worship of ancestral spirits (imipashi) and nature spirits (ngulu).
·These spirits controlled uncultivated land and were responsible for the harvest. Chiefs and clan elders prayed and offered sacrifices to the spirits at shrines, which were miniature huts housing relics or natural sites such as waterfalls and springs.
· Such rituals occurred at important economic events such as the cutting of trees (okutama) to prepare chitemene fields or before hunting or fishing expeditions.
· Although rare, these rituals are still performed in certain areas.

· As a rite of passage girls go through an initiation ceremony called Chisungu. This rite of adolescence is intended to teach girls the traditional roles women.
·Rites representing the duties of the girl as cook, gardener, hostess, and mother are carried out. ·During the ceremony there is much drumming, dancing, singing, and drama.
·When a girl begins to menstruate, she is taken into the bush by a ritual specialist called Nachimbusa (the mother of sacred emblems) and instructed in the duties of womanhood through songs and sacred clay figurines and paintings called mbusa.
· Men are not allowed to attend the ceremony.
· After initiation the girl is considered ready for marriage.
·Although it is still practiced in both rural areas and cities, the Chisungu ceremony is slowly disappearing.
· Most girls grow up in Christian families and attend modern schools, which has become a new rite of passage.

·Older people are given greater respect in Bemba society, where a person's age has much to do with how others treat him or her.

· Shaking hands is the normal way of greeting, especially among members of the same age group.

·Most Bemba are Christians.
·The United Church of Zambia (previously the London Missionary Society), Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Seventh-Day Adventists are important denominations.
· Biblical stories and proverbs are popular.
· The name for God is Lesa, although the etymology of the term is unclear. Christianity has been fused with older religious practices.
·For example, the Lumpa Church, founded by the prophetess Alice Lenshina, spread across Bemba country in the 1950s and was repressed by government in the 1960s.
·At least since the spread of the bamuchapi witchfinders in the 1930s, witchcraft accusations have combined ancestral and Christian belief systems.

·Chiefs, clan elders, and other ritual specialists prayed and made sacrifices to the spirits.
·Precolonial prophets such as Bwembya claimed to derive their prophecies from the ancestral spirits of kings.
·Christian prophets such as Alice Lenshina claimed to hear the voices of God and Jesus. Witchcraft purification and detection are still performed by witchfinders (abashinganga), often on behalf of traditional chiefs and councilors.
·Church congregations led by elected church elders exist in most villages.


Key figures

· The highest god is called by some to be Brekyirihunuada

· Brekyirihunuada translates to: he who knows and sees everything

· There are no priests that serve him directly

· The name of the god can change based on the location in which he is worshipped but the name stays the same

· Some other names are Otweidiampon, Kokroko, Onyame, Awurade, and Odomankoma.

Below: A photo of an animist goddess

Holy Objects

A holy food:

According Akan mythology the Akan god used to interact with man, but that after being continually struck by the annoyance of an old woman pounding fufu, a traditional Akan food, he moved up into the sky. Below is such a is a fufu.

Religious Symbols

  • a religious symbol of the Akan culture is a libation which translates to a drink or liquid
  • libations are poured over the graves of the dead in order to pay respects during prayers almost every day.
  • Below: an example of a man pouring a libation on to honour a deceased family member:

Places of Worship

  • All Akans participate in daily prayer, which includes the pouring of drinks into the ground as an offering to both the ancestors who are buried in the land. (below)
  • the prayers take place wherever the deceased ancestors lived

Impact on Social and Family Structures

This is a picture of an Akan Family living in Ghana.
  • as a member of the Akan family grows up he/she receives an inheritance from the mother known as an Abusua
  • Akans also believe the father decides what traits their child receives known as Ntoro
  • later in the life of an Akan they receive a Kra from god also known as a soul

Impact on Cultural Beliefs and Expectations

Akan prayers are performed every day and every time they pray they feel that they are making their ancestors proud by doing so. This video is such a ceremony which is also done to honour ancestors.
West African Dancing at a local Animist Ceremony in Ghana

Essential Question

How does isolation promote religious diversity in Africa?