What role do these traditional
African religions (in which there is a God, two worlds and
a circular concept of time) play in the everyday life of
the average person?
The question is important because we frequently interpret
the attitudes of others incorrectly. The first clarification
we would make with respect to the traditional religions
is that they are "vital" religions.
Can you explain that?
I previously said that there is unity in African diversity.
This diversity is readily visible and takes on specific
characteristics according to both historical and circumstantial
factors, but there is a common foundation. When I talk about
the vitality of traditional religions, I am alluding to
their common sense, to the importance they give to life.
That is an element common to all of them.
Could we discuss this a bit
What is practical about these religions is that they were
created to find solutions to humankind's "human" problems.
This is why they all state that, once the Supreme Being
(or God or the Unbegotten) created the world, this Being
remained veiled and is not that important to our lives.
In other words we cannot ask
this Supreme Being to fix our problems; we must fix them
And this is one of the functions
Of course! Once the world was created, God was done with
His task. For this very reason, these religions are responses
to the problems that human beings confront in their life:
how to adapt, how to fit into the Cosmos, etc. This is why
these religions are called vital, because they all share
the fundamental aspect of the propensity to elevate life
to a superior range according to their particular situational/cultural
needs. For the most part, each group will try to create
a religion that responds to the specific problems it faces.
The religion of a particular group cannot be exported because
it has been created to solve the problems of that group.
So if a group that lives in
the desert faces particular circumstances and problems different
from those of a group that lives in the rain forest, their
religions will also be different because they arose as a
response to the different conditions of their lives.
This is seen in all aspects of a religion from the divinities
to the accessories used in the rites. For example, a nomadic
people cannot carry masks for rituals because they are very
heavy and the people are continually on the move. On the
other hand, for a sedentary group in the rain forest, masks
may have a role in ritual. The determining factor here is
that the latter group is always in the same place. Therefore,
these two groups, which do not share the same geographical
setting, are going to have different ritual practices.
So if these religions arise
from the special circumstances of life in specific contexts,
members of one religion don't try to proselytize or to make
converts out of members of another religion.
Yes. That is the approach that traditional religions have
because a group living in a particular area has a religion
that addresses problems specific to that context which cannot
be the same for other groups. This is why there is generally
no tendency to make converts of others.
Do people who practice a particular
religion sometimes separate themselves from others because
they practice a different religion?
We cannot deny that there have been or still are problems
when speaking of human beings. This is why there are religions.
Surely religions as well as all spiritual works that can
be carried out depart from a single element, the human being
him/herself. The religions are to help human beings resolve
their inner conflicts. Once one has recovered a degree of
inner equilibrium, he/she can relate suitably with his/her
peers. I would like to make a clarification which is important
to me: when I speak of "all the rest," I am including human
beings as well as all living creatures, because life is
comprised not only of human beings but of all beings that
Yes, and I believe that we must always keep this in mind.
Going back to the topic of conflicts, undoubtedly problems
exist between different groups, problems that can originate,
for example, in a land dispute or for some other reason;
there is always a cause. But if we try to see what happened
without considering the internal problems of groups of people,
which always have influence in conflicts, it is remarkable
that even when one group of people conquers another, the
defeated are never asked to adopt the religion of the victors.
I am personally very interested in what happened with the
great conquests, such as those in America and Africa. Although
it was not apparent at first, in time it became evident
that religion was used by conquerors as an instrument of
domination. It was used to force conquered peoples to embrace
Christianity. This happened in America and in Africa. In
Africa, approximately at the beginning of the ninth century,
Islam was introduced to the continent from the North. This
occurrence demonstrated a very important difference between
revelation-based religions and traditional religions and
allows us to return to our point of departure. Traditional
religions do not try to expand, export themselves or make
converts. On the other hand, as history has clearly shown,
revelation-based religions have always looked for ways to
While inter-ethnic problems and conflicts have occurred
within the context of traditional African religions, the
religions themselves cannot be considered to be the primary
cause. For example, two groups enter into a conflict;
one group conquers the other but the victorious group
never imposes its religion on the defeated group. Such
imposition has never been demonstrated. This is an important
point. It shows that traditional religions advocate equilibrium,
relationship and harmony.
One of the characteristics of traditional religions is
the importance they give to life. There is a Mandingan
saying: "saya ti nibanna," which means "death is not the
end of life." This is very important in the world view
of an African because it immerses him/her in a Cosmos
where the present life is neither the first nor the last.
When they say "saya ti nibanna," what they mean is that
death allows a being to pass from one state to another.
It does not mean that one's life has ended. On the contrary,
this shows the fundamental importance of life to the African.