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Introduction (S. Mtetwa of The University of KwaZulu-Natal)

In bringing to a close the historic Pan-African Conference of Third World Theologians which was held from the 17th to the 23rd of December 1977 in Accra, Ghana, the organisers summed up the proceedings with an apt Final Communique. It states. We believe that African theology must be understood in the context of African life and culture and the creative attempt of African peoples to shape a new future that is different from the colonial past and the neo-colonial present. The African situation requires a new theological methodology that is different from the approaches of the dominant theologies of the West. African theology must reject, therefore, the prefabricated ideas of North Atlantic theology by defining itself according to the struggles of the people in their resistance against the structures of domination. Our task as theologians is to create a theology that arises from and is accountable to African people (1979:193).- NB: The views reflected here are not necessarily supported by Oink Midrand - Simply an interesting article.

Since the advent in Africa of the missionaries from what is today conventionally known as the First World, the quintessential substance, value and place of African Spirituality has at best been marginalized and at worst been regarded persona-non-grata. Much has been written on the study; the nature; the structure as well as the future prospects of the African Traditional Religions (the ATRs). Some of that material came with ideological bias from missionary theology and some of it emerged with the African theological response and initiative that sought to redress corrosion visited upon traditional religion and culture.

However, very little attention has been directly paid to the fundamental essence and role of African Spirituality; particularly its relationship with the Christian tradition. This work is an attempt to exposit the essential tenets and precepts of African spirituality and to search for its place within the context of modernity. It also sets out to highlight the theological opportunism of most Western theologians and anthropologists who have arrogated to themselves the right to being authorities on its content and its contextual relevance.

The Accra Final Communique alludes to the recognition by African theologians to remain vigilant with respect to the past and prospective onslaught on African life and culture from dominant Western political; economic and theological paradigms. It calls for the serious taking into account, by African theologians, of the context; sources and struggles of the African peoples. This clarion call is as true and relevant for African theology as it is for African Spirituality, which is itself a component of the African theological enterprise.

What is African Spirituality?

To operationalize the concept 'African Spirituality', there is an inherent imperative to construct a working definition of spirituality. Put differently, questions like - I) what in the main constitutes spirituality? ii) can we speak of spirituality in generalized terms? or iii) is all spirituality contextual and community-specific? - come to mind.

In his article "Spiritual writing in Contemporary Africa", Aylward Shorter (1978) argues that "the word `spirituality' is Christian in origin. Like many other words in the Christian vocabulary it has been devalued to the level of `anaemia' and banality, and denotes religion characterized by an interior or inward emphasis" (1978:4). He goes on to say that this individualistic, inward - orientation attached to the notion of spirituality is a gross misrepresentation of what the Early church and the contemporary African writers of the Christian tradition have always conceived spirituality to be.

He observes:

Spirituality is a dynamic and outgoing concept. The very word `spiritus', the life-giving force which stems from God, quickens the baptized Christian and transforms the relationships he/[she] has with his/[her] fellow human beings. There is nothing cerebral or esoteric about spirituality; it is the core of the Christian experience, the encounter with God in real life action (1978:4).

It is evident from Shorter's statement that spiritus is a force concerned with day-to-day human activity. The reference to the quickening of the baptized Christian presupposes radical change in one's view of the world; radical change in the way humanity relates to the created reality and radical change in the way humanity relates to humanity. This argument is further cogently crystallized by Shorter's assertion that spiritus plays a particularly transformative role in the shaping of human inter-personal relationships. This reality is especially true in Africa where life is perceived as a wholesome, holistic experience.

I will agree with Shorter that spirituality is the core of the Christian experience and that its centrality within the Christian faith community is a matter of life and death. However, I will argue in disagreement with him that the encounter with God - as Christians refer to the Supreme being - cannot and should not be conceptually confined to the maxim of the Christian experience only. In other words, Christians cannot lay a sole claim to custody of this Supreme being; for other faith communities also allude their faith experiences to some or the other `Force-Vitale' above and beyond their psycho-spiritual grasp. The Christian ambit is therefore not the panacea or barometer of all spirituality; it is only part of the whole.

Even at the level of the origins of the concept `spirituality', the issue remains contentious. The African peoples conceived of spirituality centuries before the advent of Christianity and its handmaid process of massive colonization of the African continent. The African conceptualization of spirituality may be at variance with the Christian understanding of spirituality but this does not presuppose the ignorance of the former on the subject as implied by Shorter. The praxis of African Spirituality was fully-fledged in the pre-modern world and will probably endure and survive the post-modern world, even if this means re-emerging in a transformed or modified form. It must be acknowledged that no form of spirituality remains static since it is largely informed by the dynamism of the culture of its operational context. In a nutshell then, spirituality did not emerge with the arrival of the white people in Africa; it was practised in the pre-modern era but was bequeathed to the modern world by Christianity through the written text.

In the book "Toward an African Theology", John Pobee argues that "myths, proverbs, invocations, prayers, incantations, rituals, songs and dreams" (1979:21) have created the religio-cultural world-view of the African. I will concur with both Pobee and Muzorewa (1985) that these phenomena belong to the realm of African Spirituality. These have also been transmitted through word of mouth from one generation to the next to the extent that African religion and culture have been articulated and practised largely through the oral medium.

Beginning with the various traditional notions of how the world and `the fullness thereof' (Psalm 24:1) came to be - (e.g. Mosima [the Big Hole] in the Setswana notion of Creation) (cf. Setiloane 1979) and uMhlanga [the Reed] among the BaNguni (cf. Lawson 1984:26) as places of human origin - incorporating the Biblical understanding of creation by the contemporary African Christian; through to life here and life-hereafter, almost everything that exists betwixt these realities relates to African spiritual consciousness. The way humanity relates to the environment and the nature of inter-personal relationships are also part of the spiritual make-up of the African. Issues of moral behavioural patterns; natural plagues and disasters; familial inter-connectedness; domestic animals; fields (the land ethic) and several rites directly linked to particular events in the life of the individual and the community, together belong to the African religio-cultural substratum. Social and economic relations, especially in the traditional society, continue incessantly to pervade the spiritual realm of the African.

The conclusion we arrive at with regard to what does and what does not belong to African Spirituality is the fact that there exists a very thin line of demarcation between the religious and the cultural phenomena in African cosmology. Religion and culture are inextricably intertwined. Most of the religious rituals are appropriated into the cultural scheme of things and the cultural domain shapes and influences the religious philosophy and practices. It is in this context and against that background that any attempt to dichotomize African Spirituality into the sacred and the secular; the physical and the spiritual; the individual and the corporate, results in gross distortion and misconstrual of its theology and its praxis.

African Spirituality and Modernity.

It is my submission that the phenomenal growth of the African Indigenous Churches (AICs) be ascribed, among other reasons, to the relationship between African Spirituality and the dynamism of modernity. Even though the modern world has almost succeeded in ridding itself of taking religious norms and practices seriously, especially those that have their origins in the Christian tradition, the struggle against modernity by African purists continues. This has resulted in a compromise stance by the African Christians (both in the AICs and the so-called Mainline Churches) who, in their attempt to hold on both to the African religious and cultural heritage on the one hand and to Christianity on the other, have resorted to what I call Transformative Syncretism.

Muzorewa conceptualizes the notion of syncretism thus:

By syncretism, some African theologians mean a tendency to combine Christian and African traditional beliefs which, in their view, do not belong together. Others, however, see syncretism positively - as a means of reconciling Christian beliefs with African traditional beliefs. According to this school of thought, syncretism means that African traditional religion is enlightened by the special revelation (1985:114).

My proposition is that both schools of thought have something to contribute to the emergence of the unique and new phenomenon, African Christian spirituality. Syncretism should be an attempt to both combine Christian and African traditional beliefs which for some do not belong together and to reconcile Christian beliefs with African traditional beliefs. I will argue though that this process warrants no `special revelation' in enlightening African traditional religions. Africa had its own identity; its own spirituality and its own civilization which in no way clamoured for some special revelation and/or enlightenment. Therefore, both the combination and the reconciliation approaches should be treated inseparably because that is the reality that most South African ethnic groups live out on the ground.

This whole process means that syncretism as an applied concept - mostly by Western theologians - has been incorrectly interpreted and re-interpreted to imply an undesirable "mixing up" of the Christian faith, precepts and practices with undesirable elements from other world religions. This short-sighted assumption should be challenged or even be discarded because it presupposes that Christianity as a religious phenomenon is a pure entity that is void of external religious and ritual influences. This presupposition is itself controversial and contentious because several outside factors brought Christianity into being. It was shaped and moulded, inter alia, by Hebrew customs and traditions; Greek Hellenism, Canaanite-Persian mythology, the Medieval Coptic church practices and to a large extent by the Early Church.

The socio-cultural alienation and anomie which confronts people from the rural areas when they relocate to the cities for reasons related to the search for better employment opportunities and for better social amenities, among others, is counterfeited by the style of life that is all-pervasive in the countryside. This style of life, which still upholds the African value-systems; virtues; behavioural and religious thought patterns is an attempt to deal with the ravages of modernity at a level that African people can keep pace with. It is against this backdrop that African people, both in the townships as well as in the villages, find recourse to their indigenous cultural and religious heritage and yet manage to hold on to the Christian tradition. The exercise is made effective by the combination AND reconciliation of African beliefs and practices with Christian beliefs and practices. Indeed the resultant synthesis enables the urbanised African to survive the ravages of modernity.

Several lessons to be drawn from African Spirituality.

1. On "ancestral worship" :

Language has a way of consolidating or disbursing power - that is, it empowers or disempowers the incumbent. The notion of `ancestral worship' is foreign to African people. However, researchers have imposed it upon the Africans and consequently this has distorted their indigenous religious world view. Africans, throughout their history have NEVER worshipped their `ancestors'- they have loved them; respected their Living - Dead (Mbiti 1969), irrespective of age; honoured the way they carried themselves as examples in the community. They have also slaughtered goats/beasts/sheep in memory of or in remembrance of their departed. The ceremony is a celebration of lives well lived (not necessarily in accordance with the Christian expectations), lives from which those left behind can learn from for their own moral, social and spiritual nourishment.

The use of Western theological and anthropological categories in articulating African rituals and philosophies has to discontinue, precisely for their capacity to distort and confuse. Nyamiti's use of "ancestral veneration" which has been regarded by the Catholic Church and by many African theologians as an appropriate conceptual substitute for the anomalous "ancestral worship", is equally defective since the notion of veneration in Africa is both foreign and neo-colonial. It is a futile attempt to repair the damage effected upon the indigens by the missionaries. He states :

Many African Christians are still very much inclined towards unlawful ancestral veneration, especially in times of difficulties, serious disease or famine. Encouraging ancestral veneration in the Church might serve to confirm such believers in their practice of the illicit cult of ancestors (1990:145).

Nyamiti's contention is inappropriate, misleading and should be treated with suspicion because it assumes, incorrectly, that the Church operates within a culture-vacuum and value-free context. It counter-productively assumes that ecclesial practices should not be re-interpreted and inculturated in the light of religious practices of the Christian converts. In other words, the African should accept the imperatives of the Gospel without re-appropriating them to an Afrocentric environment. That, in my view, is exactly what accounted for the gross loot of the African heritage by the missionaries and colonists in the first instance and by the Western social anthropologists in the second.

The most contextual alternative to this impasse is to use the original and indigenous categories like UKUHLABELA AMADLOZI or UKUKHUMBULA IZINYANYA or GO PHASA BADIMO and only provide the approximate meaning of the ritual/event in question. For instance, the animal that is slaughtered for the BADIMO ritual is also intended to be shared as a communal meal by the extended family as well as by the entire immediate community. The ritual itself as a celebration of the lives of the departed is therefore multi-fold in both its execution and application. It engenders a spirit of communality and collectivity in the African society and also enhances the integrity of extended family relations. It also affirms each individual's profound sense of belonging which in itself negates the dominant Euro-American appraisal of individualism and privacy. It is pertinent therefore to communicate the essence of the ritual/event in its original language and thereby preserve its originality and meaning.

2. The use of African medicine

The medicinal use, in African Church and society, of herbs, roots, tree barks etc. should be encouraged for it is a significant dimension of African Spirituality. In any event, these phenomena are already being refined and used by Western scientists in the form of tablets. IMPILO/BOPHELO - what Nurnberger calls the "comprehensive well-being" of African humanity, is among the central themes of African Spirituality. It accounts for the primacy of healing and communitarian oneness in the African Indigenous Churches and also accounts for the steady depopulation of the mainline churches. The majority of missionaries castigated and demoted African medicine as both inferior and pagan; and advocated against its use among those converted to the Christian faith.

In this age when various diseases and ailments have been visited upon all of humankind, the medical struggle should be mounted from all fronts. IZINYANGA (approximately - traditional doctors) should be allowed to practise in conventional health institutions, without fear of reprisal from their Western counterparts, health authorities as well from Christian cynics.

Things that have been, in the main, cited as constitutive of their incompetence and unprofessionality, like inconsistent dosage, lack of cleanliness and absence of scientific equipment could be streamlined to fit in with the general demands of the new work environment. However, consultation (and it is happening already with the new political dispensation) should be the way forward instead of the arrogant imposition from outside of the African medical modus vivendi, which could potentially erode the traditional base. This compromise will engender mutual respect within the medical fraternity and will also take care of the prejudices that have been meted out against the African approach to healing in general.

3. On worship

This area of African Spirituality is unique both in its theology and in its praxis. African people express their daily experiences in music and dance. The use of African instruments enhances the event in question - whether it be a rite of passage, naming ceremony, a wedding ceremony or a burial, is immaterial. The fact is that the music and dance repertoire are integrally interlocked with the African cultural and religious experience.

The use and recognition of the African material in worship should be harnessed. From dress, through participation to the instrumentation, the African approach is not trapped in Western and modern rigidity and individualism. The ethic is again communal and collective, and inculcates a sense of belonging. It is this belonging, in worship and outside of it, that affirms the being-ness of UBUNTU/BOTHO in the African view of the world. Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" is aptly substituted by "I belong, therefore I am". It is in worship (Christian or traditional) that the latter dictum makes social sense.

The utility of ISIGUBHU or UKULELE (African drums) and other forms of African indigenous instrumentation in Christian worship in particular, should be affirmed and consolidated. They enhance the quality of worship and give meaning to the participants. This phenomenon also meets modernity pound for pound for it provides those engaged in worship with a profound sense of identity as well as originality in the face of the confusing modern environment. Even the music should reflect the indigenity of the context; not the inherited translated versions of spiritualist, irrelevant songs of the West.

Take again for example the use of incense during worship among Anglicans and Catholics. The practice is to utilize the grain incense that most BaNguni (amaZulu; amaSwazi and amaXhosa) call in day to day Church lingua franca IMPEPHO YAMAROMA. There is nothing vehemently at variance with the use of this substance among the three above-mentioned ethnic groups since there is a herb which is used in religious rituals by the elders of their communities and families called IMPEPHO YESINTU (Helichrysum miconiaefolium) or the frankincense. It is representative of the perceived ever-presence of the BADIMO/IZITHUNZI (shades) within the family homestead or the community (Berglund 1976:112-115) The herb does not wither as are understood the BADIMO/IZITHUNZI.

The use of the grain incense in the Church could without fear of contradiction be replaced by the use of IMPEPHO YESINTU - the herbal incense - exactly for the same reasons that the former is ritualized. For both the symbolic omnipresence of MODIMO, (approximately God for the Christian) as well as the therapeutic effect it has on those who believe in its impact, the IMPEPHO would be aptly applicable; and even make more religious sense to the African syncretist. It will relate more intimately to his/her realm of spirituality and overall religious consciousness.

4. African sense of life-in-community

One of the most remarkable and tangible dimensions of African Spirituality relates to the unique notion of communality and collective solidarity that the African society exhibits in all spheres of life. There is a profound sense of interdependence, from the extended family to the entire community. In a very real sense, everybody is interrelated; including relations between the living and those who have departed. Explicating this life-in-community phenomenon Oosthuizen succinctly argues :

In the context of traditional Africa, people are surrounded not by things, but by beings - the metaphysical world is loaded with beings. Thinking in this context is synthetic rather than analytically orientated, which implies that everything is interdependent and in the end has religious value (1991:40-41).

He goes on to say that traditional Africa does not accommodate religious neutrality. Religious value is attached to everything that happens in society. In a particular sense therefore, one is born into a religious environment and is nurtured through it as such. It is also within this framework that "gross deviants [sorcerers and murderers] are proscribed, cut off or destroyed, not only for their correction, but for fear of the threat they offer to the healthy flow of community life" (Setiloane 1976:32).

Oosthuizen further maintains that "for the traditional person in Africa, a communal unity of essence is possible - an individual is never a mere individual, but is also the other [who is not merely another]" (1991:41). Harmony in interpersonal relationships is premised upon the old adage: UMUNTU UNGUMUNTU NGABANTU / MOTHO KE MOTHO KA BATHO - (approximately translated as A PERSON IS A PERSON THROUGH OTHER PEOPLE). This community ethic undergirds the quintessence of African Spirituality in more ways than one.

Let us take, for example, the group therapy approach that applies mainly to a situation of bereavement among the BaNguni and among the BaSotho/BoTswana. Grief is not a private, self-based enterprise as is the case in the individualist and nuclear family orientated Western philosophy. It is carried by the whole community from the time of the death occurrence to post burial rituals. A group of widows, who have trodden the way of loss before, keeps the new widow company - day and night - acquainting her with the immediate and long-term implications of what has happened and of what lies ahead. They relate their own stories; how they approached material and psycho-emotional difficulties after the death of their husbands; questions of authority in relation to new decision-making processes that the new situation demands and many other helpful advices on facing the distant future. This, in my view, is the most demonstrable meaning and practice of the understanding of African life-in-community which encapsulates the finer intricacies of African Spirituality.


It is therefore prudent for us to concede to the fact that modernity in all its dimensions has indeed made inroads, somewhat permanently, into Africa. It is also significant to acknowledge the good as well as the damage that modernity has brought to bear upon the African in his/her context. Again, it would be extremely naive to wish away the potential corrosion it could still visit upon the African religious and cultural heritage. It has launched its offensive first through massive colonization and second, through expansive urbanization throughout Africa. Thus, Africans will have to transform and contextualize it, mainly to the end of containing its deadly effects. This might help to retrieve the now almost depleted African spiritual experience and identity and the whole enterprise of African religion and culture.

However, it is equally imperative to acknowledge the fact that African conventionalists are waging a battle against modernity, using in particular religious and cultural weapons in their endeavour. To what extent this struggle will be sustainable is not immediately determinable. It is obvious though that with Transformative Syncretism, as has been outlined earlier, the African Christian communities have discovered a way of handling both their indigenous religious complexities on the one hand and Christianity on the other. What they have done in the process is to rid the latter of Eurocentricity and they have fervently engaged in Africanizing and indigenizing its content.

Secondly, it is also important to understand that both the city and the village are involved in Transformative Syncretism. The process is not only confined to areas where lifestyles are still largely traditional. Conversely, the ethos of syncretizing is all-pervasive and has been effective in the townships as well. The living-out of African Spirituality will obviously be influenced by the geo-social context; (that is, by the city or the village). None the less, the essence of and meaning attached to those particular religio-cultural practices and philosophies that obtain in African Spirituality, will remain much the same.

Finally, Transformative Syncretism as a catalyst in the make-up of African Spirituality is an African theological corrective to the distortion of the African religious world view. Because syncretism has been incorrectly understood to be the "mixing up" of the sacred with the profane and thus presupposed the swallowing up of Christianity by religious phenomena that had been labelled paganistic, the corrective is even more indispensable and pertinent. It will remain a challenge to dominant Western theological paradigms for what it is worth to the African Christian practitioner.


APPIAH-KUBI, KOFI & TORRES, SERGIO (Eds.).1979 : African Theology en Route. Maryknoll NEW YORK, Orbis Books.

BERGLUND,AXEL-IVAR. 1976 : Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. BLOOMINGTON & INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana University Press.

LAWSON, E. THOMAS. 1984 : Religions of Africa - Traditions in Transformation. SAN FRANCISCO, Harper & Row Publishers.

MBITI, JOHN S. 1969 : African Religions and Philosophy. LONDON & NAIROBI, Heinemann.

MUZOREWA, GWINYAI H. 1985 : The Origins and Development of African Theology. Maryknoll NEW YORK, Orbis Books.

NURNBERGER, KLAUS. 1994 : An Economic Vision for South Africa in the Post Apartheid Economy. PIETERMARITZBURG, Encounter Publications.

NYAMITI, CHARLES. 1990 :"The Church as Christ's Ancestral Mediation" in MUGAMBI, J.N.K. & MAGESA, LAURENTI (Eds.) : The Church in African Christianity - Innovative Essays in Ecclesiology. NAIROBI, Initiatives Publishers.

OOSTHUIZEN, GERHARDUS C. 1991 :"The Place of Traditional Religion in Contemporary South Africa" in OLUPONA, JACOB K. (Ed.) African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society. NEW YORK, Paragon House Publishers.

POBEE, JOHN. 1979 : Toward an African Theology. NASHVILLE, Abingdon.

SETILOANE, GABRIEL M. 1976 : The Image of God Among the Sotho-Tswana. ROTTERDAM, A.A. Balkema.

------------------- 1979 : African Theology - An Introduction. JOHANNESBURG, Skotaville Publishers.

SHORTER, AYLWARD 1978 :"Spiritual Writing in Contemporary Africa" in SHORTER, AYLWARD (Ed.) : African Christian Spirituality. LONDON, Geoffrey Chapman.

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