Long before the arrival of Christianity and Islam, Africans practiced African traditional religion (ATR). It is the foundation on which the morals of pre-colonial Africa were built. During the colonial era, most of these traditional believes became a target of the colonial religion. One could argue that colonization began with mental slavery.
Today, several myths are mixed with facts in describing African traditional religion. For example, in many African cultures, intending couples MUST perform both “traditional” and “white” weddings. However, the so-called ‘white wedding’ is Western culture. So, while Africans easily adopt Western traditions, will the West also be willing to adopt African traditions?
The Colonization of African Traditional Religion
The colonial masters brought with them a new religion which they believe to be superior to African traditional religion. Slowly, they projected ATR as barbaric and dehumanizing. The colonial masters sold the idea that the long-held tradition and believes of the African people is savage, inferior, and primitive. Gradually, many Africans began to buy the narrative. Gradually, there was a shift from ATR to Christianity.
Colonization may seem to be over but for African traditional religion, it is not. Post-colonial Africa is yet to be completely free from the mental slavery and stereotype created by the colonial masters. They still hold onto their traditional beliefs, culture, and practices, but consider western values superior to theirs. However, African traditional religion is resilient which explains its continued existence after so many years.
There is a common saying in Africa “Don’t forget where you come from”. Regardless of where they find themselves, most Africans will always hold onto some form of their tradition, culture, and religion. Little wonder John Mbiti, a famous African theologian said, “Wherever the African is, there is his religion”.
Misconceptions about African Traditional Religion
History text fails to capture the depth of pre-colonial African Civilization. Most are watered-down versions of what was truly a thriving civilization. Perhaps this is because the traditional African system was dependent on the oral form of communication. What we know as African history today is mostly based on the interpretations of our colonial masters. Intentional or not, this interpretation creates a distorted and misconstrued view of Africans by the rest of the world.
Let’s take the killing of twins as a case study. Mary Slessor is accredited to ending this savage act in ancient Calabar, Nigeria. But this was not an “African” thing. It was just the belief of a few groups of people known as “Efik people”, the predominant tribe in Calabar. This view wasn’t held in many other tribes in Nigeria. However, the Efik people of Calabar were not the only ones who believed twin children were an abomination.
Beliefs Governed Traditional Practices
The Ndembu tribe of the Democratic Republic of Congo shared a similar belief. They held the view that twins were a symbol of excessive fertility which is a characteristic of animals. Because of this, rituals were done to prevent the birth of twins which the people believed to be an anomaly.
However, this was never a generally accepted idea. For instance, the Asante people of Ghana see twins as sacred beings. The Bambara and Malinke people of Mali believed that the primordial beings were twins. Therefore for these people, twins were treasures. So, why was it the negative stories about killing of twins that were promoted? Perhaps, it was a deliberate attempt to make Africans feel inferior about themselves. It goes a long way to show that information is power and the way a story is told matters a lot.
The Myths and Facts about African Traditional Religion
The story of Mary Slessor and the killing of twins is popular. Acceptably, this was a cruel act of ignorance, but like many other stories about African countries, this story is often generalized. Take for instance the story of poverty in Africa. If you take these reports at face value, you may start to believe that all Africans are poor. Especially if you have never been to Africa. These one-sided stories or reports are among the major roots of stereotypes and myths about Africa. Here are some 10 myths about Africa and Africans that are either an exaggeration of the fact or based on misguided information.
Myth #1. Africa is a Country
It is common knowledge that Africa is the second largest continent in the world. However, many people still refer to it as a country. Africans in different parts of the world are viewed as one, regardless of their nationality.
Africa is a continent that is made up of 54 countries, 1.3 billion inhabitants, more than 3000 ethnic groups, and 2100 unique languages. It is also the most diversified continent in the world. The culture believes and traditions of the people of Africa is vast and should not be oversimplified in a stereotypical way. It is misleading to say “Africa” when speaking about a specific tribe, ethnic group, or country in Africa.
Myth #2. Africa is poor
Africa is often seen as a poor “Country” and one that can’t do without the help of the western world.
Yes, poverty is an issue in Africa. But, the continent of Africa is far from poor. There are abundant natural resources scattered across the 54 countries of Africa. Also, about 30 % of the earth’s remaining mineral resources are in Africa. The problem of Africa isn’t wealth but the unequal distribution of wealth. Also, poverty is mostly concentrated among few nations in Africa or within few regions of each Nation. It is not unusual to see people living below the poverty line in nearly every country on earth. The problem is, this number is often collated for the whole of Africa, instead of each country of Africa.
Myth #3. Africa is diseased
There’s a globally shared perspective of Africa being full of diseases. Perhaps this is linked to the idea that Africa has an inadequate or substandard health care system.
Once again, this is far from the truth. Several African countries have good health care systems. This may not be as advanced as the western world, but it’s definitely not as bad as the media present it. South Africa, Tunisia, and Kenya rank among the top countries with the best health care system in Africa. African countries are also top the list of the 2021 WHO health care index.
Myth #4. Africa Is Not Safe
The stories of violence, kidnapping, religious and political war in Africa are so common. This creates fear and panic resulting in misleading assumptions about Africa.
War in Africa, either political or religious is mostly isolated cases. According to the Global peace index, Malaysia, Botswana, and Ghana are among the top 50 most peaceful countries, beating the United Kingdom and the United States that were ranked 45 and 128 respectively. The idea that Africa is unsafe while statistics say otherwise shows how much misconception there is about Africa.
Myths #5. Africans are Corrupt
Another generalization about Africa is that they are all corrupt. The unending political banditry and fraudulent activities by some individuals are the foundation of this stereotype.
The majority of Africans are hardworking and honest people. Most Africans at home and in the diaspora have made a name for themselves and praised for their contributions to society. They are known as upstanding citizens and have been entrusted with sensitive positions in society. This is a testament to the strong morals and principles of the African tradition. But, the bad eggs seem to get more attention. Hence the misguided notion that Africans are corrupt. The story is the same in the political sphere.
Myth #6. Africa has no history
The most common African history begins with the colonial era. It’s almost as if pre-colonial Africa never existed. With exception of those who take history classes, the majority of young Africans will fail to elaborately tell the story of their origin.
One reason that might account for the gap in African history is the unavailability of any written document. Prior to colonization, there was scarcely any form of writing in the majority of African tribes and cultures. Information was passed down mostly by oral communication in the form of folk tales. However, since Africans are known for their excellent craftsmanship, these artifacts do tell the story of the ancient African empires. An example is the Ancient Benin Kingdom, known for its impressive artwork which is now scattered across the world.
Myth #7. Africans lack innovation
Perhaps it’s the abundant wildlife, scorching deserts, or the vast uninhabited plainlands. Whatever it is, the assumption that Africa is lacking innovation is laughable.
African countries like Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya are among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Many economic forecasts predict the rapid growth in the African Market. Investors are moving to take advantage of the African market. Africans are eager to learn new skills and embrace new technologies. Examples are mobile innovations such as Flutterwave, Sproxil, and Paystack. When it comes to cryptocurrencies, African countries are leading as well. An article by BBC explains why Nigeria is a global leader in the Bitcoin trade. African leaders are also investing heavily in diversifying the economy. Since growth and innovation come as a pair, it is impossible to say that African countries are growing without being innovative.
Myth #8. Africa is always hot
Africa is given the image of a place that is hot and sunny all year round. No. This statement isn’t true.
Africa has 4 main climate zones. Each of these has its peculiar characteristics. Mostly, the temperatures of these zones vary between the extremes (Either very hot or very cold). Temperature varies from one country to another depending on the climate type. Countries like Senegal, Mali, and Burkina Faso that are close to the Sahara desert have the Sahel climate. These countries are often very hot. On the other hand, countries like South Africa, Morocco, and Tunisia sometimes experience snowfalls. In summary, it is not every part of Africa that is hot. While some countries are hot most of the year, other countries experience different types of weather. It all depends on the time of the year.
Myth #9. All Africans are the same
Another misbelief about Africa is that all Africans are the same. Again, this isn’t true.
Africa is not homogenous. In fact, the continent is the most diverse in the world. Every tribe and culture have their beliefs and way of life. The Hausa man is different from the Igbo man who is also different from the Yoruba man. Apart from the different languages, every tribe and culture have their way of dressing too. However, western culture has blurred to an extent the lines between African tribes. Some African countries even adopted the language of their colonial masters as the Lingua Franca. This unified the tribes in a way, making it seem as if they are all the same.
Myth #10. Africa Needs Help
Many foreign nations and organizations do send aid to African countries. There are key developmental projects in some African countries that would not be possible without Foreign aids. Thus, it is easy to see why it seems that Africa needs help.
Foreign aid has been helpful to many small African countries that are struggling economically. Most of these aids go into building infrastructures like schools and hospitals. However, some African nations have become addicted to these aids and seem unable to function without them. Corrupt government officials also capitalize on the generosity of the westerners to the point of looking like a panhandler. These leaders through greed and corruption ruin the image of their countries. Giving opportunity to stereotypes like Africa are poor and Africa is corrupt.
Africa is the target of western stereotypes. The battle between the African traditional religion and western civilization has been raging on for years. The reason for this is quite simply the misunderstanding of the relevance and foundation of the African tradition. John Mbiti in his book “African Religion and Philosophy”, argued that African Religion deserves the same respect as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. In his interview with the New York Times, the theologian said,
“The days are over when we will be carbon copies of European Christians, Europe and America westernized Christianity. The orthodox Easternize it. Now it is our turn to Africanize it.”
Whether these words carry weight or simply make for a good quote, the fact remains that Africans are unique. To understand Africans, one must understand the African religion. The west, by trying to learn more about the African tradition will avoid the bias and ignorance of being misinformed. The myths held by the west about Africa are mostly founded on misinformation. Without relevant knowledge, stereotypes are unavoidable.