Religion in sub-Saharan Africa

"Religions in Africa are religions of living people - and not for the museum." [1]

The importance of religion in Africa

In Africa, Religion has a great impact on the cultural life of the continent. It is very multifaceted. It influences the entire life of the people and plays a central role for them. They love their religion. Celebrations are also very important to African Traditional Religion. African Traditional Religion belongs to the African ideology. Daily, it plays a decisive role for the inhabitants, as they are very religious and spiritual.

Religions in different parts of africa: Religionen in den verschiedenen Teilen Afrikas

Christianity and Islam in Africa

Most people belong to either Islam or Christianity. About 1600 AD sub-Saharan Africa was reached by Christianity, which is the predominantly practised religion in most areas there. The first historical evidence of Christianity in these regions was found in Ethiopia. Islam spread via passages through the Sinai Peninsula and Egypt and through Islamic Arab and Persian traders and sailors to Africa 1 / 2(and so to the sub- Saharan- areas). Values of Islam are seen to have much in common with traditional African life(For example, the roles of men and women are clearly defined). [2]

Christianity reached the sub-Saharan areas through trade, through explorers and also through missionaries and the administrators of colonies and passed through several stages of cultural integration. [1]

The relations between Christianity and Islam in sub-Saharan Africa are complex. In some areas the relationship is harmonious, whereas in other countries there are many difficulties. In both religions, those groups that take an intolerant position seem to expand (because of the influence of radical groups). At the same time, the increased polarization has also stimulated more moderately minded Christians and Muslims to work together to strive toward peaceful coexistence and mutual respect. They have accepted the religious diversity on the continent as a part of the African reality. [3]

Traditional Religion

The European Christians did not find infidels when they came to Africa. People there did not know the term "religion". Religious buildings (for example, mosques or any churches) or written religious texts (as we can find them in the Koran or the Bible) did not exist. The people had been deeply religious and pious, adhering to their own rituals.

Ein alter Brauch in Afrika: Das Trommeln

Today, these traditional religions are still practised as well as the two monotheistic religions Christianity and Islam which is the most common religion. People have a very high sense of the sacred. There are sacred objects, places and persons. [1]
Traditional African Religion encompasses a wide variety of traditional beliefs. Even many people that are adherents of Christianity or Islam maintain some aspects of their traditional religions [2] and thus hold syncretistic beliefs or a mixture of both.

In Traditional Religions there doesn't exist a defined difference between life and afterlife. Life moves from birth to death and to rebirth. [1] In contrast to Christianity and Islam, the African Traditional Religions also have other deities. The spiritual view of life represents the foundation of the Traditional Religion in Africa. Human life is always related to the after-life. [1] In this context it should be mentioned that God is regarded as a Higher Being and as the reason of all things. This worldview affects African life at a very basic level.

Traditional Religion in African society

While in some countries (such as Ghana, Togo, Benin) public adherence to African Traditional Religion is appreciated, in other places (like Somalia) the traditional forms of religion have been suppressed in public life. That is why in many African countries people identify themselves publicly with either Christianity or Islam, but privately practise Traditional African Religions at various stages in their lives. [1]

Relative to the presence and also the practice of certain rituals of Traditional Religions, there are many differences in the diverse countries of Africa. Certain persons are said to be magicians, who are able to heal other people with herbs, but can also injure them. Bad magicians are extremely feared. The belief in witchcraft is also quite common among African communities. It is impossible to determine how many people give any credence to witchcraft and mystical journeys (e.g. into the underworld), but the indications are that many do so. [4]

The role of women in African Traditional Religion

Women are very significant in Traditional African Religion. They are regarded as the producers of life and as the mothers of humankind. Through the women human life is directly linked to God. God has created the woman and in turn she has become the creator of human life. Because of this, every woman has a very special relationship to God with whom she shares the process of creating life but also the misfortunes and death. When a tragedy happens, the women are blamed. [5]

In almost every African village, there exist medicine-men or - women, who are considered as friends of the village. A healer must diagnose the nature of the disease, discover the cause of the sickness and apply the right treatment. Physical and spiritual methods are applied. The healers also protect people from witchcraft. In general, women serve as mediums and diviners (both spiritual beings). Those women relay messages from the "other world" and are highly respected in the community.

Women play important roles in personal rituals associated with birth, puberty and death. They are "ritual specialists" and the upholders of community norms and traditions. [5] The symbolism of the rituals indicates the essential cultural meaning of mature womanhood. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, fertility remains high and stable. This cannot solely be explained by a lack of development or ineffectiveness of family planning programs, but by the religious belief system that operates directly to sustain high fertility. The essence of the traditional belief system is the importance attributed to the succession of the generations, with the old tending to acquire even greater and more awe-inspiring powers after death than in this world and with the most frequent use of those powers being to ensure the survival of the family of descent. [6] And so there exists the "cult of ancestors": Many Africans venerate the spirits of their ancestors.

Many festivals derive from African traditional religions and many of them are in honor of the ancestors and the most important divinities. It is very common that well-dressed women sing and dance during the celebrations of these festivals. Furthermore, the ritualistic dances and the singing of the women warm the hearts of the gods.

But women are also seen as spiritual sources of danger because of the "polluting nature of blood". That is because of the special significance of blood. The blood of menstruation and of childbirth is the "pollution" and the "unclean" women have to be separated from the "clean" women. Menstruating women are not allowed to touch religious things and they are banned from the shrines and other places where rituals are performed. During her period, a woman is not allowed to have sexual relations and in some rural areas she mustn't cook for her husband. [5]

The attitude of the Catholic Church towards African Traditional Religion

For a long time the Christians, especially the Catholic Church, did not want to deal with the traditional religions in Africa. Direct contact with followers of African Traditional Religion had to wait until the papacy of John Paul II who had shown not only his appreciation of traditions and cultures but also respect for and interest in traditional religions.

Interreligious dialogue portrayed African Traditional Religion and Culture in good light. Pope John Paul II introduced a new dimension to the dialogue with the followers of the Traditional Religion. He sent a message to the whole world: "The adherents of African Traditional Religion should […] be treated with great respect and esteem […]". [1]

So much has been achieved in the dialogue with African Traditional Religion, but there are still "many rivers to cross". [1]

Daniela Meusel


  • [1]Chidi Denis Isizoh, Dialogue with African Traditional Religion: The changing attitude of the Catholic Church, (Zugriff:30.12.2009)

  • [2]Africa-Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, (Zugriff:29.12.2009)

  • [3] Dr. Martha Th. Frederiks, Let us understand our differences: Current trends in Christian-Muslim Relations in sub-Sahara Africa, (Zugriff:11.06.2010)

  • [4]Stephen Ellis & Gerrie ter Haar, JO-Abstract-Religion and politics in Sub-Saharan Africa, (1998,Zugriff:01.01.2010)

  • [5]Kenneth Kojo Anti, KKAnti: Women in African Traditional Religion, (Zugriff:30.01.2010)

  • [6]John C. Caldwell & Pat Caldwell, JSTOR: Population and Development Review, Vol.13, No.3 (pp. 409-437), (1987,Zugriff:29.12.2009) Agnes Loteta Dimandja,The Role and Place of Women in Sub-Saharan African Societies, (2004,Zugriff:29.12.2009) Williams Edia, African Culture And Women: African women's role in Society and Governance, -society-and.html (2008, Zugriff:29.12.2009) Gerrie ter Haar & Stephen Ellis, Verbunden mit der Welt der Geister,, (2008,Zugriff:30.12.2009)
  • to top
    Legal notice