African spirituality- Tales of our Ancestors.
“A religion that would be universal does not and cannot exist because any and every religion necessarily expresses a particular experience and worldview.”
This argument has been made many times, but I fear I have to reiterate it before delving into this essay. There can be no more substantial evidence of the world’s anti-blackness than when it comes to the demonisation of African spirituality. I grew up on Greek and Roman mythology obsessed with the stories of Hercules, Achilles and the Percy Jackson series. These stories and rich histories are celebrated and taught widely and openly in schools, with even more knowledge available with a quick Google search. Mythological stories usually contain critical moral lessons to learn and remember; it was often encouraged to pick up on those lessons. However, this is not the case for African deities and mythology. During colonial encounters, African religious practices and mythologies were discredited, demonised, and outlawed.
I have written this essay to reclaim the lost opportunity of learning about African spiritualities and mythology. It is a personal journey to discover the stories that colonisation took from me. I think many black people around the world can relate to this feeling of incompleteness, knowing there are vast parts of our histories that we will never discover and ways of being we will never get to be a part of.
Coloniality operates in “every arena and dimension (both material and subjective) of everyday social existence and does so on a societal scale.” Therefore, to decolonise, we must ensure we are constantly challenging these continued systems of oppression. I hope this essay acts as a guide and inspiration to seek out and reclaim as much as possible.
The Afro Spiritual way of life
“In the poems inspired by hunting, the hunter does not brag about killing. For his prey, he has only words of praise and respect. The man of the forest composes charming and sensitive songs, glorifying the antelope, which he sings and dances at the occasion of its death.”
- Ndaw (1997)
Before I delve into often forgotten stories and myths from our ancestors, I wanted there to be a complete understanding of what African spiritualties usually meant for pre-colonial Africans and how this, in turn, affected their approach to life. Even describing African pre-colonial belief systems as “religion” is problematic as it suggests a separation from other aspects of life, aka culture, society or environment. Spirituality informed everything in the traditional African community, from politics to art, marriage, diet, and dress. African spirituality acknowledged that beliefs and practices should touch and inform every facet of human life, and as a result, the term spirituality rather than religion is more suitable. African spirituality, unlike western religions, cannot be separated from the everyday.
When documenting African culture and philosophy, many studies discovered that the fundamental principle in African communities was the principle of the unity of being. They believed the energy of cosmic origin permeated and lived in everything, from human beings to animals, plants, objects, and events. The whole universe was a living connected unity, even the parts of the physical world we call inanimate, such as stones, minerals and water. Everything in existence partook and shared this common life. To quote Mufasa in the Lion King, “Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance…we are all connected in the great circle of life”. In the African context, people did not conceive themselves as separate from the cosmos but as integrated into the universe that was bigger than any of them, “and yet centred around them”.
Life was seen as infinite, knowing no end; death was simply seen as another form of existence. Death was a rite of passage that allowed one to gain a new existential status, the ancestor. From this perspective, there were no waterproof separations between the world inhabited by spirits and the world inhabited by the living. Life was viewed as one, and there was no dichotomy between the natural and supernatural world. It was believed that the main difference between the world of the spirits and the world of the living boiled down to visibility. This explains the age-old African tradition of burying the dead in their family compounds along with many of their belongings so that they could continue to be a part of the family affairs.
The dynamic nature of African spirituality was one of the key reasons for its success in the diaspora. African spirituality constantly adapted and changed to absorb the wisdom of other religions, like Christianity and Islam. For example, an African amulet could have written inside verses from the Qur'an or the Bible. Africans believed that there was room for a plurality of religious belief systems without one religious point of view excluding or compromising the other. The sky was large enough for birds to fly around without one having to bump into the other.
The rest of this essay will examine three Afro spiritual stories in the spirit of reclaiming lost stories and histories. Like Greek or Roman mythology, these stories focus on the interaction between deities and humans, offering fantastic tales. The first story is on Nyami Nyami, The Zambezi River God. Secondly, I discuss the story of the Chameleon and the God of the sea. Lastly, I explore the great foretelling of slavery and colonialism by the medicine man, Mugo Wa Kibiro.
Nyami Nymani The Zambezi River God.
African tale in Zambia and Zimbabwe
Nyami Nyami lived in Lake Kariba, which lies along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and is believed to be a serpent-like creature, he is presumed to be about 3 meters wide, and no one dares guess his length. It was often thought that the water stained red when he swam past. Chief Sampakaruma saw him twice many years ago. However, the river god went into hiding when the white men arrived in the country. According to legends, Nyami Nyami lived under a large rock close to the present day Kariba dam wall. He was so revered that no tribesman would venture near it, and those who did were believed to be sucked into whirlpools never to be seen again. They called the rock ‘Kariwa,’ a trap. However, the rising water of Lake Kariba covered the rock Kariwa, and it now lies 30 meters below the surface angering Nyami Nyami.
City dwellers mocked the stories of Nyami Nyami; however, by 1958, the laughter had turned into chilled apprehension, especially for workers on the dam wall. Work began on the dam wall in the late 1940s. Then, on the night of the 15th of February 1950, a cyclone from the Indian Ocean swept up the valley. No such thing had been heard of in this landlocked land; fifteen inches of rain, with a hurricane, fell in a few hours. The river rose seven metres that night, and as a result, several villages were swept away. When the rescue team arrived on the site three days later, petrifying bodies of antelope and other animals were seen hanging from the tops of trees.
Construction of the dam began in earnest in 1955; however, on Christmas Eve, an unprecedented flood stormed down and washed away the foundations of the coffer damn and recently constructed bridge. The flood peaked, receded, then peaked again! Such a thing had never happened before, and all talks on the river god resumed. Nyami Nyami struck a third time in November 1956 when a flood that should occur on average every 1000 years hit; during this flood, the largest digger truck believed hard to remove disappeared instantly. Lastly, in January 1958, a flood expected to occur once every 10,000 years swept down the riverbed, wreaking havoc in its path. Sixteen million litres per second exploded over the suspension bridge, which buckled and heaved, with the North tower collapsing.
The Chameleon and the Sea god
Tale from West Africa
Once upon a time, on an autumn day when the sun shone brightly, the sea sighed with immense pleasure and kicked its waves as the fish tickled its belly and the sun-warmed it's head. It slapped playfully against the shoreline rocks. “Ah”, sighed the sea. “I am so happy to be in this world, and to my luck, I am also the most powerful being in the world”.
When the sky heard the sea’s words, it let out a mighty thunderclap, exclaiming, “You are not the most powerful being in the world, I am. After all, it is I who is filled with the stars, moon and the sun. It is I who am the most powerful being in the world”.
The sea laughed at the sky and said, “Surely, you know you are not; everyone knows the sea is more powerful. I can make powerful waves”. “And I can roar”, cried the sky. Suddenly the sky grew dark, and a ferocious thunderclap was heard. “We shall see who is the most powerful; I will be sending a messenger to your sea god, Olokun. From this, we shall see just how powerful the sea god is”.
“Do as you please”, bubbled the sea.
The sky carefully contemplated whom to send as a messenger. The clouds danced begging to go to sea; the stars twinkled brightly, calling out, “choose me, choose me!”. The moon rocked and hoped the sky would choose him. However, the sky had other plans, none of them pleased him. It decided the chameleon would speak to the god of the sea.
This was a wise choice as the chameleon can change its colour to match its surroundings and imitate whatever is near. Pleased with his decision, the sky laughed as he sent the chameleon off to the earth.
The chameleon moved as quickly as he could towards the sea god’s water palace, and there he met Olokun, god of the sea, who ruled all underwater creatures.
The chameleon was amazed when he saw Olokun's palace. He wandered through the vast, twisting corridors, gazing at the pearls and coral and jewels that studded the walls. Then, at last, he came to Olokun's throne, and there he stood, awaiting the sea god.
Soon, Olokun entered the room. He was dressed in a fine robe laced with pearls; he was a vain god and smiled to think what the chameleon would say about his clothes. But as he looked at the creature, he could not believe his eyes! This was not the lowly messenger he had expected to find. Instead, the chameleon was dressed in robes equally as beautiful as Olokun’s. It was a replica of the great god.
“Excuse me one moment”, Olokun said and hurried back to his chamber, where he changed into a more beautiful robe. This was the colour of the sea at dawn, with golden threads and shells and a coloured coral woven through the clothes. He smiled at his reflection, pleased, and stated, “No one dresses as well as I”. Then, he returned to the throne room to speak with the chameleon.
When he entered, he could not believe his luck. There sat the chameleon in the same robes as he. “Wait!” he cried and went to change into yet another, even more beautiful robe. This one was so beautiful even the fishes bubbled with delight at the sight of their god. “Surely you are the most magnificent of all”. Satisfied, Olokun returned to the throne room.
You can imagine Olokun's amazement and then despair when he saw that the chameleon, too, had changed. Again the chameleon wore a robe exactly like Olokun's!
Four more times, Olokun excused himself and changed. He returned four more times, each time dressed more exquisitely, and four more times, the chameleon proved himself to be Olokun's equal.
At last, Olokun hung his head in shame. "The sky god must be more powerful than I," he said sadly. "Even his lowly messenger dresses in robes as gorgeous as mine."
And thus, ever since, the people of the earth have called the sky the greatest power in the world, and the sea though happy in its splendour, has never again challenged the sky.
The great Medicine man.
Sourced from Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta.
Once upon a time, there lived in Gikuyuland a great medicine man known as Mogo WA Kibiro. His role in society was to foretell events and advise the nations on preparing for what was to come.
One early morning, the prophet woke up trembling, unable to speak. His wives, on seeing him, were very frightened and in a state of hysteria, not knowing what happened to their husband, who went to bed in perfect health the previous evening.
Horror-stricken, the family summoned the ceremonial elders to his side to offer a sacrifice to Ngai (God) and inquire on what the great man had foreseen that had him so frightened. When the ceremonial elders arrived, a male goat was immediately slaughtered, and Mogo was seated on its raw skin. Next, a senior elder took the animal's blood, mixed it with oil and then this mixture was poured on the head of the great seer as an anointment. The ceremonial elders also sang religious songs as a supplication to Ngai, and soon after, Mogo regained his speech.
He told the elders that Ngai had taken him away to an unknown land during his sleep. There the Ngai had revealed to Mogo what would happen to the people of Gikuyu soon. When Mogo heard what Ngai had to say, he was horrified; he fought and tried to persuade Ngai to avert the evil events he saw; in the process, he was bruised and exhausted. Finally, after fighting to no avail, he could do nothing else but obey Ngai’s command to come back and tell the people what would happen.
In a hushed tone, he began the tale of what would happen to the Gikuyu people. First, he said that strangers would come to Gikuyuland out of the big water, the colour of their skin the tone of light coloured frog, which lives in water. Their dresses would resemble the wings of butterflies; these strangers would carry magical sticks which would produce fire. These sticks would be more advanced than any weapon they took, even more, potent than a poisoned arrow. The strangers, he said in a sad and low voice, would then bring an iron snake that could spitfires and stretch out from the big water in the east to another big water in the west of the Gikuyu country.
He further stated that a big famine would come, and this would be the sign to show that the strangers with their iron snake were near their land. He said that when this came to pass, the Gikuyu and their neighbours would suffer greatly; the nations would mingle with a ruthless attitude towards each other, and the result would seem like they were eating one another.
The great medicine man advised the people that it would be best to treat them with courtesy mingled with suspicion when these strangers arrived. Above all, he urged the people to be careful, not to bring them too close to the homesteads. These strangers were filled with evil deeds and would not hesitate to covet the Gikuyu homeland and take everything from the Gikuyu land.
However, when the strangers came to shore, whilst they were regarded with suspicion, there was more pressing their pity for the Europeans; the pity of someone who was far away from home but eventually wanted to return to where they came from. So, disregarding the recommendations from Mogo (to avoid bringing the Europeans to the homesteads), the Gikuyu allowed the Europeans to set up camp, eventually losing a lot of their people to slavery and all the rights to their land.