African Spirituality Part 1 by Ndumiso Cain

This blog post is an extract from the authors upcoming book Cognitive Dissonance: White Lies-Balck Stupor.

African spirituality has been and remains the most difficult concept to define because the languages and those who seek to define it have never viewed Africa in a positive light. As such, to try and subject African Spirituality to the Eurocentric definitions of spirituality would be a travesty of justice. The practitioners and custodians of African spirituality are already classified under voodoo and witchcraft therefore we will need a stronger detergent to cleanse these demonized views of African Spirituality.

African Spirituality-2

The uniqueness of African spirituality is that it does not subscribe to the schizophrenic Eurocentric categorisation of human life which splits the human life into disciplines that humans must subscribe to and to subscribe to more than one category would require one to have multiple personalities. For example, a scientist is not expected to be religious neither is a politician. But in Africa, African spirituality is the fabric and forms the integral part of the African’s life. It is there at the inception of life to its expiration, from the womb of the mother to the womb of the earth (death). The rites of passage from birth to death are all informed by African spirituality, which Africans cannot divorce themselves from. It informs our marriages, cultures, dance, politics, farming and even our interactions with nature, therefore making it difficult for a Eurocentric mind to define African Spirituality and the essence of it.

African Spirituality is interchangeable with African Traditional Religion and since both have been difficult to define, an attempt to tell them apart for now would be a wild goose chase. Many have attempted to tackle this mammoth reality. The mere mention of African Spirituality or African Traditional Religion leads the mind to the notion of ancestral worship, and the tainted name of its practitioners makes this notion reasonable.

Jacob K. Olupona, author of African Religions: A Very Short Introduction shares an interesting list of 15 facts on African religions but we will focus on just but two

  1. African traditional religion refers to the indigenous or autochthonous religions of the African people. It deals with their cosmology, ritual practices, symbols, arts, society, and so on. Because religion is a way of life, it relates to culture and society as they affect the worldview of the African people.
  2. Traditional African religions are less of faith traditions and more of lived traditions. They are less concerned with doctrines and much more so with rituals, ceremonies, and lived practices”.

Just like African Traditional Religion, African Spirituality is less concerned with doctrines but lived practices. Jaco Beyers in the article ‘What is religion? an African understanding’ makes this observation “Although varied in outward appearance, African religions display similarities. There have been many attempts at describing African Traditional Religion according to its main characteristics. Turaki lists the following main characteristics: belief in a Supreme Being, belief in spirits and divinities, the cult of ancestors, the use of magic, charms and spiritual forces”.

Whichever way Africa Traditional beliefs are defined, at the core of these definitions, the “elephant in the room” is the question of ancestors. Amongst the scholars who have dared to skin the elephant, central to the ongoing debate is the question, did Africans worship ancestors?

John Mbiti is one of the African writers who was willing to air out his views on the matter. When attempting to answer the question, in my opinion he tried to sanitise the situation and had this to say “it is wrong to interpret traditional religion simply in terms of ‘worshipping the ancestors’ … Libation and the giving of food to the departed are tokens of fellowship, hospitality and respect… Worship is the wrong word to apply in this situation … It is almost blasphemous, therefore, to describe these acts of family relationships as ‘worship” a view point he shares with Hammond-Tooke W.D in the book ‘Do South-Eastern Bantu Worship Their Ancestors’. Mbiti’s view point is understandable in the sense that he himself comes from a Christian theological background and his critics have accused him of trying to Africanise the bible by trying to interpret the African religion and philosophy in the eyes of Eurocentric interpretation of the Christianity and the bible.

Mbiti and Hammond-Tooke replaced the word worship with veneration in an attempt to give the African practice a seat at the table of world religions. Unfortunately, the word veneration is still synonymous to the word worship. Some who wish to dismiss the notion of worship bring an intercessory view point like the Catholic would about their saints. Others who concur with Mbiti refute the idea of worshipping ancestors, and in the Southern part of Africa the word “ukukhonza” meaning worship seems to be a word influenced by missionaries, instead the word “ukuthetha” meaning to talk to, is a better description of the practice. To the Zimbabwean Ndebele community, the common term used to describe the practise was “ukuthethela” not “ukukhonza”.


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What makes the subject dicier is the similarity in the words that refer to ancestors and God. In the Venda, Shona and Sotho/Tswana languages including Nguni languages the word for ancestors and God seem to share a similar root. In Venda God is “Mudzimu” and ancestors are “vhadzimu” and in Shona “Mudzimu” is spirit and the Holy Spirit is “Mudzimu unoyera”. In Sotho/Tswana “Modimo” is God and “badimo” is ancestors. In Zulu and other Nguni languages there is an unknown supreme spirit called “Idlozi” and ancestors are called “amadlozi”. What seems to be a common thread is that for one to be called by this title he must be outside of flesh, and whoever is being addressed in veneration or worship is spirit. To then acknowledge which spirit is guiding and protecting the family is now based on religious socialisation.

An African who believes in “ukuthethela” which is talking or praying to his or her ancestors finds it difficult to be ridiculed by a Christian who worships the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob because to him this God is “Idlozi” (Spirit: “God is Spirit” – John 4:24) of this particular family. Though the expression “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” does not seek to express exclusivity but instead it is an expression of intimacy.

To be continued…



Ndumiso Cain Sibanda is young black African man on the quest to understand God through the lens of Africa. An accountant by profession but a teacher of The Word by calling. Ndumiso is also currently working on book that explores the metamorphosis of Africans consciousness titled Cognitive Dissonance: White Lies – Black Stupor

Above all else, Ndumiso is a devoted husband and passionate about the mental emancipation of the black child.

It is when we rid ourselves from the enslaving idea that anything not western is heathen,  then we will begin to appreciate the beauty of connecting with the divine on a higher and spiritual level. We want to thank Ndumiso Cain Sibanda for this thought provoking piece on African Spirituality. Surely this is not the last time hearing from him, his wealth of knowledge and insight is very inspirational. May God increase his wisdom and give him the desire and hunger for knowledge.

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