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African Religions and Their Gods

African Religions and Their Gods

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African people are very spiritual and have diverse religious beliefs that connect directly to daily life. There are as many deities as the number of tribes, adding to the richness of African cultures. Some Gods are considered supreme and have the same features, while others are famous for specific works or acts. Also, the people have unique creation stories attempting to explain man’s origin. Although these myths vary from tribe to tribe, they all acknowledge the existence of a Supreme Being.

Religious and history books rarely mention African Gods and Myths about creation. That’s partly because religious conversions dealt a blow to the African way of worship when colonialism took hold of the continent. Historians have, by design or accident, ignored writing on this topic. It is important to revive it since it anchors the identity of Africans and people of African descent wherever they are across the world.

The African gods

Africans had their Gods even before Islam and Christianity. They used to pray in some sacred places like mountains and forests, convinced these places were close to their Gods and, for others, a “God.” There are thousands of tribes in Africa, each with its unique set of Gods. 

Nyame

Nyame is a sky God that the Akan people of South Ghana worshiped. His name means “omnipotent and omniscient sky God,” indicating that he sees and knows everything. The Ghanaians believed that Nyame was the one who created the forests, animals, birds, and kamunu (the first man). Nyame was a generous God, detached and distant. His right eye is the sun, which he opens during the day, and his left eye is the moon, which he opens at night.

Unkulunkulu

Also referred to as UKqili (wise one), Unkulunkulu is a self-originating god among the Zulu, a significant ethnic group in South Africa. The Zulu believed Unkulunkulu created everything on earth, including water, land, animals, and man. The mythology surrounding this God indicates that he is responsible for giving human beings their social institutions like chieftainship and marriage and teaching them life skills like making fire, hunting, and growing food.

Sango

Sango is one of the many Gods that the Yoruba people believe in. He is a mighty God of thunder who uses a double axe to strike offenders down using thunder and lightning. According to the Yorubas, Sango is one of the most powerful deities in Africa, and thunderstorms usually announce his presence. He is also the God of social order, vengeance, and protection.

Ngai

Have you ever heard of the Kikuyus? They are a famous tribe in Kenya, and Ngai is their traditional God. The Kikuyus believe that Ngai created the first humans, namely Gikuyu and Mumbi, who bore nine daughters, making up the nine clans of the Kikuyus. Ngai lives on well-known African mountains, fig trees, and other entities like the wind, stars, and moon. The tribe often refers to Ngai as “Mwene Nyaga,” which translates to the “Possessor of Dazzling Light,” and venerates him while facing Mount Kenya.

Mulungu

Mulungu is the God of the Nyamwezi, a Tanzanian ethnic group. He is thought to have created everything and oversees the earth. Although Mulungu is omnipresent, his believers only seek him in prayers during difficult times. He is very distant from his people and hardly relates with human beings. Mulungu lived on earth at some point but had to leave and make heaven his home after some people burned the landscape, leading to the death of many. A spider supposedly helped Mulungu to travel to the sky by connecting the earth to heaven.

Adroa

Adroa is a supreme being associated with the Lugbara community in Uganda and Congo. He is the creator of the twins, Gborogboro (the first man) and Meme (the first woman). Adroa has a dual nature, meaning he bears good and evil characteristics. He is depicted as earthly as he resides here along with humans, particularly in rivers. Despite being invisible, Adro appears to people who are about to die. This God is also responsible for establishing social order among the Lugbara tribe by communicating his laws to the ancestors.

Takhar

Takhar is known as the God of justice and vengeance in the Serer religion in Mauritania, Senegal, and Gambia. Believers also worship him to receive protection from bad omens, injury, and abuse. Takhar is said to reside in the highest branches, so worshippers leave sacrifices in the form of cattle and poultry under the tallest trees. Local communities fear Takhar’s vengeance, so they refrain from committing crimes.

Creation Myths from Different African Tribes

There are about 3000 tribes in Africa with varying myths on creation. However, an in-depth look into the stories reveals that most tribes believe deities created people. Below are the creation stories from some of the largest and most famous tribes in Africa:

The Yoruba

The origin of man, according to Nigeria and one of West Africa’s most prominent tribes, Yoruba, is quite exciting. Initially, the world comprised only the water, sky, and land, ruled by the God Olorun. Believing that the universe needs more, the God Obatala visits Olorun. He asks permission to create valleys, mountains, fields, forests, and solid land. After being granted his wish, Obatala seeks advice from Orunmila (the God of prophecy) on undertaking this mission. In response, Orunmila tells him he needs palm nuts, a gold chain, corn, a snail’s shell full of sand, and a special egg. After obtaining all these items, Obatala descends from the sky using the gold chain. Unfortunately, he realizes the chain is not long enough to reach the earth, so he decides to pour the sand on the land. In the process, he drops the special egg, releasing a hen. Obatala spreads the sand and plants the pine nuts on reaching the earth. After living on earth for a while, he feels lonely and creates humans to keep him company. He also forms Ife (the ancient Yoruba city). Happy with Obatala’s creations, the other Gods and Goddesses visit him regularly.

The Shona

The Shona is one of the most prominent ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, and like other African tribes, they have a unique story that explains their origin. The making of the first man (Mwedzi) by the God Mwari marks the beginning of the creation story. Mwedzi feels lonely, prompting Mwari to create a wife for him—Hweva or Morning Star. Initially, Mwedzi is to live with her for only 24 months, after which Hweva returns to heaven. The couple sleeps together in a hut at night, and her belly grows big the following morning. You would think Hweva would give birth to a child, but she doesn’t. Instead of having a child, Hweva births all kinds of vegetation we see on earth today. When Hweva’s time with Mwedzi lapses, she returns to her creator. Her replacement, Vhenekeratsvimborume, or Evening Star, is sent to marry Mwedzi. Her belly swells up after sleeping with Mwedzi, and she gives birth to goats, cattle, and sheep. Surprisingly, the following morning sees her give birth to girls and boys. When Mwari demands that Evening Star return to heaven after the two years end, Mwedzi sleeps with her again. She gives birth to leopards, snakes, lions, scorpions, and other dangerous animals. Eventually, Mwedzi rules the earth.

The Kuba

Did you know that the Kuba people in Congo believe the universe is a product of vomit? The folklore goes like this: at the beginning, Mbombo, the creator, lives alone, surrounded by darkness. Folklore has it that Mbombo had been sick for millions of years due to loneliness. At some point, he experiences a sharp pain in his belly and vomits up the moon, sun, and stars. The sun’s intense heat consequently causes the water to evaporate, forming clouds in the sky. Later, dry hills come out of the water. Mbombo suffers another indigestion, but this time, he vomits animals like the eagle, leopard, fish, tortoise, crocodile, etc., which go on to bring forth other creatures. Mbombo’s last vomit produces men. He hands the creation to humankind and retreats into the heavens. Loko Yima, Mbombo’s first son, is appointed to be a God on earth.

The Unique African Way of Worship

In a general sense, worship is how humans honor God. In the African tradition, the people worshiped their Gods in different places, including caves, under sacred trees, graveyards, riverbanks, hilltops, etc. During these occasions, they would carry out a variety of activities. Sacrifices are a good case in point, and they entail slaughtering an animal or a human being to the Gods. The people performed these acts to appease the Gods as the life source, thank them for blessings, and invite them to participate in family or community functions. The offerings helped to avert evil and seek help during trying times, among others. Sacrifices were common during marriage, cleansing initiation, reconciliation, and birth and naming ceremonies. The people also offered sacrifices when installing leaders, burials, before going to war, and after a good harvest.

Another common worship activity among those who practiced the African religion was prayer, which involved verbally communicating with the Gods. Prayers were usually short and direct and offered during important religious occasions. Participants could pray in various ways while standing, bowing, facing specific directions, kneeling, prostrating, etc. Giving offerings is also a way of worshiping the Gods in the African tradition. The participant took foodstuffs like water, honey, or milk and offered them to the Gods as a sign of appreciation.

If you thought only Christians sang and danced, you are in for a rude shock. Singing and dancing were vital to the African worship in praising and thanking the Gods. Most of these songs and dances were accompanied by drumming, clapping, and playing musical instruments. These practices connected the worshippers emotionally to supreme beings and brought harmony.

How Africans Honor Their Gods Today

Despite the introduction of foreign religions (Islam and Christianity) in Africa, some ethnic groups worship their traditional Gods. These communities spread across West, Southern, East, and West Africa—where native cultures still thrive. Overall, their spiritual practices manifest in communal rituals or divinatory practices. On such occasions, community members fall into a trance after being overcome by a particular spirit from the rhythmic singing or drumming. For example, several Bantu ethnic groups in Cameroon and Gabon practice a religious rite known as Okuyi. Respected musicians unique to a specific God play instrumental rhythms. Participants personify a supreme being or state of mind by engaging in different ceremonial dances or movements to enhance their heightened consciousness.

Sacrifices to honor the Gods continue today, with only animals, vegetables, flowers, and precious stones offered. Killing people is now a crime, so those honoring traditional Gods avoid the practice. Libation is also a popular ritual currently. The ritual entails pouring grains or liquid as an offering to a God. Participants use various substances; the most common are wine or other alcoholic beverages, honey, and olive oil. Libation is usually poured onto an altar or into the earth.

And finally, African worshippers in traditional religions still pray to the Gods. These supplications sometimes point toward secondary divinities believed to be mediators between the physical and spiritual realms. The prayers aim to seek the attention of deities to receive assistance on specific issues.

There is never a dull moment when learning about the different aspects of African culture. In this case, the continent’s Gods and mythology about creation are fascinating. The people’s creativity is brought out nicely through the stories they formulate to explain their origins. The people believe supernatural beings are the center of the creation process, without whom humans wouldn’t exist. Although the Western culture has constantly threatened to erode these African religious stories and practices, the ethnic communities continue to hold on to them dearly. In any case, Africans must be proud of and zealous about their culture and traditions to withstand the influences of Christianity and Islam.

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