What I have learnt about the Spirituality of Africa

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

This quote simply sums up what I have come to understand about myself and why I am on this planet called earth. This understanding started as a journey yearning for something more fulfilling, something outside what was my reality; something richer; so I went on a journey with self, a journey to connect with the vital animating force within me.

I wanted to have a better understanding of who I was and what my purpose is. I needed this understanding to not be defined by the set of Christain religious beliefs or practices that I grew up with, simply because these beliefs and practices had left me confused and disgruntled. At this point, I had already reconciled my relationship with “God” through the Conversations with God (CwG) sequence of books written by Neale Donald Walsch which I read in my late teens. I now understood that God was not some male being outside of me but was inside me, that God is not revealed through outward observation, but through inward experience. Even with this understanding I was yet to experience God and desperately wanted to know how I could experience what I already knew, so I embarked on a forced spiritual pilgrimage in late 2016. I say forced because then I did not know that I was going through an awakening; it soon became a very lonely, alienating but humbling experience.

This desperate yearning led me to the teachings of Deepak Chopra; an Indian-American author and alternative-medicine advocate; Eckart Tolle; a German spiritual teacher and author and Thích Nhất Hạnh; a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and peace activist.

Through their teachings, I learnt about alternative therapies such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, and Ayurveda. I also began to understand that I had spent most of my time studying religions overlaid with extraneous matter but with little spiritual substance.

My magic moment came through the book Living Buddha Living Christ, by Thích Nhất Hạnh, the book connected me to my Christian upbringing once again, I now began to understand the religion I had since come to loath for its crimes against my people, I finally got to understand Jesus but most importantly I started to understand the importance of connecting to uMdali through my roots.

In Living Buddha, Living Christ. Thich tells us that there is very little difference between Christians and Buddhists and that most of the boundaries we have created between these traditions are artificial and that truth has no boundaries

Thich says we should practice our religions in a way that will help us go back to our traditions and get re-rooted; that when we respect our blood ancestors and our spiritual ancestors, we feel rooted and we find ways to cherish and develop our spiritual heritage; we will also avoid the kind of alienation that is destroying society, and we will become whole again. He further says that learning to touch deeply the jewels of our traditions will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions. 

Through this book, all the answers I had been seeking all these years finally flashed before my eyes and I was introduced to African Spirituality, a concept I knew zero about and I had never considered fitting into my eclectic rituals and practices.

I started to learn about indigenous African religions and native religious beliefs of African people before the Christian and Islamic colonisation of Africa. This was mind-blowing because my entire existence found meaning in my passion and love for Africa and her people. 

I am here now, still learning, still trying to understand. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of reliable information on African Spiritual practices. Most of the available information is very subjective (understandably) and is also widely misunderstood, even by myself but I did manage to find some insightful and rich teachings and insights through the work of the great Sanusi uMkhulu VusamaZulu Credo Mutwa and Dr Bhedlindaba “VVO” Ka Lu Phuzi Mkhize

Before I can get into what I have learnt about the spirituality of Africa, maybe it is important that I define Spirituality as a concept and then African Spirituality. The definitions below are a combination of definitions from various sources that I have combined to bring a better understanding.

Spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. In general, it includes a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, and it typically involves a search for meaning in life. As such, it is a universal human experience – something that touches us all. Spirituality’ then is not defined by an explicit set of religious beliefs or practices, it does not need religion to be defined and is more about how people identify themselves, how they view the world, interact with others, and make decisions.

Here are the 6 marks of authentic spirituality as described in the Ogbomoso Journal of Theology XVI(2), 1-24 by Amanze, J.N. in his journal article ‘Contextuality: African spirituality as a catalyst for spiritual formation in theological education in Africa’

  1. Contemplative Awareness
  2. Effective action in the world
  3. Emphasis on community
  4. A disposition to openness
  5. Non-dualistic thinking
  6. Discernment

Amanze goes as far as indicating that African spirituality adheres to these six marks.

African spirituality can be described as beliefs, practices, ceremonies and festivals, religious objects and places, values and norms that touch on and inform every facet of human life. It is recognisable in almost every aspect of the life in Africa and it is found in rituals, ceremonies and festivals of Africans, in shrines, sacred places and religious objects, in art and symbols, music and dance, proverbs, riddles and sayings, names of people and places, myths and legends, beliefs and customs – in every aspect of life. African spirituality simply acknowledges that beliefs and practices touch on and inform every facet of human life, and therefore African religion cannot be separated from the everyday or mundane making African spirituality truly holistic. 

So here is what I have learnt about the Spirituality of Africa.

 

SPIRITUALITY IN AFRICA IS DYNAMIC & DIVERSE

For most, African Spirituality is ubongoma and traditional healing, something that I also believed before I embarked on this journey. I knew very little about iZangoma and had never been exposed to them until I embarked on this journey but I somehow concluded that iZangoma were African Spirituality; little did I know.

Through engagements with various teachers and teachings, I soon realised that African Spirituality is not connected to a single religion or concept but is rather plural, varied and characterised by constant change. African traditional beliefs and practices are highly affected by our diverse ethnicity and each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals; from Bantu mythology, Kemetism, West African Vodun, Waaqism, Hausa animism and Zulu mythology; the diversity we see from Cape to Cairo is symbolic of the diversity we should expect to see in our spiritual practices, traditions and way of being. 

African spirituality adapts easily to change and absorbs the wisdom and views of other religions hence we see African healers using the Bible to divine and African-initiated churches that are rooted in Christian doctrines such as the Zionist churches which have seamlessly merged elements from different religious backgrounds—traditional religion and Christianity. 

THE SPIRITUALITY OF AFRICA IS ROOTED IN NATURE

“Africans see the earth as their mother and themselves her children.”

Our history connects us to nature and God, and historically Africans have always found themselves closely connected to the universe as a whole and believed that all human beings exist in this connection to the universe. African belief systems recognise that though spirit, man, and nature are distinct, they are interrelated and interdependent. The core of African beliefs is that all things, animals, plants, rocks, rivers, weather systems, human handiwork, and perhaps even words as animated and alive; that objects, places, and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence.

THE SPIRITUALITY OF AFRICA IS EMBEDDED IN FAMILY 

In Africa, life is part of a community; in other words, African spirituality is not individualistic but communal. ‘The community is responsible for the preservation and continuity of traditions and charisms’ (Amanze 2011:3).

We are Ubuntu and generally, African traditions and ways of being are oral and passed down from one generation to another. Therefore, our family history, traditions and rituals form an important part of our spiritual wellness; this is what is known as Impânde in isiZulu. Family in Africa is also much broader than in western cultures and includes the deceased and even those to be born, this is where Ubuntu is given meaning; I am because you are and because God is’. Our family values, principles, morals and beliefs provide a sense of purpose and meaning to life and we use these principles to guide our daily actions and thus achieve spiritual wellness.

As I continue to learn through the many teachers I am connecting to along my journey, I can’t help but play back a conversation I had with a white lady in a metaphysical store, she reminded me why being African is so magical. Our religions and way of being as Africans are practical and focused on achieving meaningful outcomes while shaping how we identify ourselves, how we view the world, interact with others, and make decisions.

Flawed or not your family tree and your families traditions and rituals remain the most reliable source for your spiritual enlightenment; this is because oral tradition is an integral part for the transmission of our history, customs and traditions from one generation to the next and they contribute significantly to reaching our fullest potential and to living our purpose.

Get your pen and notebook and start to build that family tree so you are able to truly discover why you are HERE. 

Namste & Amen

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