Religion and Spirituality in Africa

A Dialogue with Boubacar Traore
by Juan Carlos Benegas and Dolly Basch
Translated by Bill Poehner and Michael Danciger

xviii3 2 traore How should we begin a discussion of the subject of spirituality in Africa?

We can begin by attempting to define "religion" and "spirituality." I believe it is very important to recognize that, when we are talking about religion, we are not always talking about spirituality. It seems to me that human beings have always had the need to commit themselves to an inner work that not only gives them equilibrium, but also helps them relate to the world around them. By "the world around them," I mean not only other human beings; I include those beings that are not human that also form a part of the Whole. This is important-humans should not be considered the determining or fundamental element of the Cosmos. Rather, humankind can be seen as one element among all that make up the Whole. Therefore, all of humankind may participate in the building of the Cosmos according to its place and possibilities. I think that many times only the work of those who are religious or who are members of a religion is considered "spiritual"; from my point of view this is incorrect. It would be interesting to extend the use of the term spiritual to all groups that are not part of a religion (in the sense that we use this term today), but that work in their own way for harmony, good relationships and equilibrium. These groups and beings, then, are doing a religious work based on the true meaning of the word religious.

How is this work related to the true meaning of the word religious?

It is related because we humans are religious beings, and that has a lot to do with discovering that we have a need. It is precisely through spirituality that this need expresses itself when we become conscious that we are not complete. In this way, inner work allows us to search for what we are missing, which in some way has to do with our dissatisfaction.

So this quest for spirituality enables us to look at our feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction with life as it is and causes us to look for something more?

Absolutely. Perhaps to sum it up, we can say it is the need to give meaning to life.

Can we refer generally to spirituality in Africa or is that too broad a subject? Must we be more specific?

Most of us from the western world know about Africa only through what we have heard or read or seen in the movies. Therefore, many of the ideas we have about Africa would change if we actually had first-hand experience of the place.

I believe that the question is an important one in that it helps us to begin to see Africa more realistically. Africa is frequently seen as a homogeneous continent, and of course, this is far from the truth. There is a diversity of religions throughout the continent. They differ according to their location, be it in the savanna, the rain forest, or along the coast.

This is to say that it is not a homogeneous continent but rather that, in the whole of Africa, there is great diversity.

Yes, there is a lot of diversity, but you could also say that there is unity in that diversity, a common ground. It is worthwhile to enumerate the common points that all the religions share in order to demonstrate this unity.

All traditional African religions share a belief in a Supreme Being, God, and each group has a word for this Supreme Being. The Bambara (an ethnic group from Mali), for example, use the word "Mannala"; the Wolof (from Senegal) call the Supreme Being "Yala"; the Serer (also from Senegal) refer to God as "Roxet"; etc. Therefore, we can say that the traditional African religions have a concept of God in spite of the widespread belief that this is not so. This is one thing all traditional religions have in common.

They share a belief in a Supreme Being to whom they assign different names according to where they live and, surely, to whom they attribute different characteristics also depending upon where they live

No, the characteristic is the same-the God who created the world; it is the Supreme Being, unbegotten. This perception is shared by all the religions. A second characteristic is that all traditional religions believe in two worlds.

Could you explain what you mean by "traditional" religions?

Without a doubt the traditional religion is a way of life; it is a response to concrete situations, and therefore it is not a religion based on revelation. I believe there is a fundamental difference between what we know as religions based on revelation and traditional African religions.

The religions based on revelations would be religions such as Islam, Judaism and Christianity?

Of course.

Traditional religions must be those which have been practiced in certain places for a long time but which do not have a revelation book.

Yes, evidently they are of an oral nature, and although they have theoretical components, they are transmitted orally. These traditional religions believe in two worlds: the world that we are in at the present moment, which is the world of the living, and the world of the dead. There is a duality, but what is interesting is that the two worlds are complementary. The complementary relationship is so important, so essential, that each act carried out in this life requires the blessing of the other world in order to unfold fully. This underscores the interdependence of these two worlds.

The third thing that unifies African religions is respect for hierarchy, not only for the hierarchy that we can see in a community, but also for the hierarchy of the Cosmos. Thus, there are two fundamental elements with respect to the hierarchy that must always be considered: the community and the Cosmos. There is a certain order which must govern the whole mechanism and which must be respected in order to avoid the risk of disequilibrium. This is why this hierarchy is fundamental.

Later we can discuss the presence of the cult or the ritual in African religions. All these religions have a ritual aspect. This is because ritual is the definitive means by which the human enlivens, refreshes, revives and revitalizes life, but always passing through the original point, the original beginning. This would be the way of giving more energy, more strength, and more vitality to life.

What is this original point?

The original point is the original creation. When we make reference to it through ritual, what we are searching for is precisely to re-energize ourselves, to draw energy from that original force of creation.

This leads me to believe that we are aware of the danger of empty ritual if it is not in contact with that original force. Empty ritual could become a form bereft of meaning.

That depends on the way one thinks about ritual. In traditional African religions, ritual always is related to that force. This is because every aspect of the ritual is taken from the characteristics of that force. Because this original force is manifested in the ritual, there can be no ritual that does not have its characteristics. Therefore, there is little risk that the ritual will become empty. Now, if our intention is to give ourselves energy and strength through ritual, then surely we are aware of the interdependence of the two worlds. It follows that we cannot solve problems alone. Hence, the fundamental idea of the two worlds being complementary arises.

One is the world of the living, and the other is the world of the dead. Does the latter in some way encompass all that has been until the present?

We could say that the world of the living is the present world and that the world of the dead is the world of the past. This leads us to the interesting subject of the concept of time in these religions. First of all, there is a concept of circularity within which ritual makes sense and has a place. For example, when performing a ritual, the idea is to get to the origin, i.e., to depart from a point along a path that leads back to the same point. The circle symbolizes this. It is interesting to note that within the concept of circularity the past is very long, and the present and future are virtually non-existent.

Why is there virtually no future?

We will come back to this point later. What is interesting here is that the past is very long, and the present is short in comparison. This allows us to deduce the importance of the past as a cemetery, as a time of myth. In these religions, myth has the definite function of serving as an ontological base, the foundation of all that takes place in life.

The place from which everything arises.

Everything, it is the time of the end. This is important in the perspective of traditional religions for this present is a part of the past. Also, this same present becomes the past.

It becomes the past instantly.

It becomes the past instantly, but at the same time it has the possibility to be the present because the function of ritual is precisely to bring the past to the present. There is an overlap between the present and the past; hence this circularity. In this sense it is clear that one who leaves returns, and therefore nothing is lost. This is not the linear time that leads us to believe that what goes never returns. There is virtually no future.

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 further?

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 ourselves.

features xviii3 2 e Yes.

And this is one of the functions of religion.

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 exist.

Animals, plants...

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 expand.

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.

Is this related to the idea of reincarnation, or is it a different concept?

Yes, it must be related to reincarnation in some way. Traditional religions take the view that generally those who are now divine beings were once hard-working and dedicated human beings. As a reward, they became divine beings after they died. That divine beings are not abstract concepts but rather beings that once lived and fulfilled certain requirements demonstrates the idea that life is central to the traditional religions.

Which is why after death they are transformed into divine beings.

Another way to think of this is that their work and dedication had a trajectory that led to this transformation. Many times beings such as these have been called "creator ancestor," "first ancestor," or "original ancestor." Everything that I am trying to explain here has content that is practical, content that has been lived. It is not an abstraction. Accordingly, these divine beings are very close to human beings. This is why it is important to be aware that Africans regard the Supreme Being as an abstract entity, a rational entity. Because of this, they don't call upon the Supreme Being when trying to solve everyday problems. Rather, they call upon the divine beings that had the privilege to live and to return in some way.

And who therefore have a close relationship with the living.

Absolutely! Also, the fact that they once lived enables them to better understand what is going on.

They know what they are dealing with.

Of course.

In general, is there a need for an intermediary between an average person and one of these divine beings, or can the average person relate directly to the being?

I think that to speak of intermediaries between the African and the divinities would be to somehow disregard what we have been saying about traditional religion. African traditional religions constitute life itself. Consequently life and everyday activities are immersed from the start in a religious context-while one is eating, working or relating to others. All of these acts are religious because they are life, which is why it would be inappropriate to speak of an intermediary (with regard to day-to-day religion). However, while it is true that life and activities are immersed in a religious context, there are priests who can get closer to divine beings in given moments, not just any moment, because of their initiation. They interpret certain events or situations and ask of the divinity solutions for problems.

There are no intermediaries but there is a place for interpreters.

That's the way it is.

Each person has a direct relation to the divinities in a religious realm, which is all of life. In this context then, what type of situation would require an interpreter?

One example could be a country where there has been no rain for more than a year. In this event it is thought that there is a reason for the drought, but the reason is unknown. This takes us to another level because we are no longer dealing with a common, everyday event such as getting food. We are faced with a situation beyond that, which threatens the stability of the group. What is called for then is an interpretation of what is happening. For this it is necessary to resort to someone who has had some initiation or spiritual training, someone who is versed in matters that go beyond the religious relationship that the ordinary person has with the divinities and who can give explanations of what is happening in critical times. Such a person is one who has received an initiation that enables him/her to penetrate the mysteries of creation. Clearly, everyone does not resort to intermediaries for the problems of everyday life. However, during critical times such as the case of a prolonged drought, the people may turn to those who can penetrate the mysteries of creation. Only they are able to explain what is happening by virtue of their intimate relationship with the divinities.

At the beginning of our conversation, you said that we can consider spirituality as something that arises from our need to be whole, to go a bit beyond our ordinary experience and search for the meaning of life. From this perspective, how do you see spirituality expressed in Africa?

Spirituality, that is, the need to give meaning to one's life, is expressed in what we could call the "triple sensitivity"-three elements of participation. The first is sensitivity to the harmony of the Universe; the second, sensitivity to dynamism or the internal energy and interplay of forces; and the third, sensitivity to the symbolic nature of all beings. These three sensitivities combined allow one an effective and efficient participation in the Cosmos.

The harmony of the Universe refers to a fundamental point: the internal harmony of the Cosmos and one's relationship to that. From an ontological standpoint, without such a relationship the being within the Cosmos and the Cosmos itself would be in danger. Without this sensitivity to harmony, participation appears impossible.

With regard to dynamism we can say that although we frequently think that the human being is the fundamental element of the Cosmos, this is not so. Rather, all the elements in the human being's surroundings have life. Human beings are not the only beings with life. Trees, for example, have life.

According to this view humans are not the center of creation.

While human beings may be considered to be at the center, they are certainly subject to everything happening in their surroundings. If you wish, we can think of humans as in the center, but this does not mean that they are the only beings and that there aren't other elements in their surroundings.

features xviii3 2 c And regarding the third element, symbolism?

Symbolism is something very interesting, especially when one relates it to art. When during rituals a priest dons a mask and through it conjures the devil, for example, the mask itself does not have its own strength. Rather, what is being shown through this act is that something positive can be rescued and received for a specific purpose. In this case the mask may be converted into a receptacle of strength, a certain energy that will transmit something necessary for solving a problem or for re-energizing something.

At the same time the mask implies mystery. A person wearing a mask distances him/herself from those participating in the act.

The pretense that the masks are magic or religious objects always exists. But according to the concept of the traditional religions this is not true since a mask is always referred to with a person behind it giving it a particular movement, a particular energy. Therefore, as I stressed earlier, the mask is a receptacle, but only momentarily, because it ceases to be so once its function is fulfilled. This is the reason why it cannot be considered a magic object or a divinity or a fetish. The mask is only symbolic, but I believe that the symbolism itself is very rich. The modern branches of anthropology point out the symbolic nature of words, supporting my belief. This understanding of symbolism allows one to see to what extent one can participate in forming one's environment. All those elements we have already spoken of that are in this environment, as well as human beings, participate in its formation. However, for participation to be effective and efficient, it is necessary to have the three sensitivities that I just developed: sensitivity to the harmony of the Universe, to the dynamism of things, and to symbolism. These are the three fundamental aspects of participation.

You were saying that traditional religions arise as a practical answer to difficult situations in life. What are the problems that a person living in this context deals with through religion?

The problems that these religions try to resolve are everyday situations. They are not, for example, problems having to do with death or with the promise of a better world. Instead, they are concrete problems that are found in life itself because traditional religions are those that are relevant to life, not to what will happen after death. This is a very important aspect of traditional religions.

What would be an example of problems of this type?

They could be health problems. Let's say a person finds him/herself in a situation in which his/her body does not respond. The first interpretation might be that the person has a physical disequilibrium or an organic dysfunction. However, the problem is seen not merely as an organic one, but rather as a break in a whole chain. The symptoms and organic dysfunction are simply the most visible manifestation of this broken chain. What tends to emerge first is the fact that there is an area of life that the person does not have under control, and therefore he/she turns to a "healer," one with relationship with the divinities, who tries to figure out what is happening. The healer tries to see, for example, if this illness is the consequence of the failure of the ill person to carry out a responsibility. Once the probable cause has been determined, a therapy specific for the person will be implemented.

A while back you mentioned a Mandingan proverb. Who are the Mandinga?

The Mandinga are an ethnic group found in West African countries, including the Mali Republic, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Guinea. They live in an area that is very important in West Africa, and they had their "moment of glory" during the Mali Empire. Their name varies from country to country so that in Senegal, for example, they are called "Mandinka," and in Guinea they are referred to as "Malenque."

I would like to say something regarding the sense of time or of death, and it is that the importance of the afterlife does not lie in death but in life itself.

Could you expand on this?

What is fundamental is that death is not something that permits us to reach paradise. Rather, what is important is life. Everything is in life; one has nothing that one did not receive from life. Paradise may be a totally abstract creation and, according to traditional religions, abstract paradise does not hold much weight in comparison to concrete life. This is why they say that the afterlife is not rooted in death but in life itself. This is a fundamental aspect of traditional religions. To say it in another way, one does not live in order to benefit from the gifts of the other world. One lives here and now.

Considering that the cultures and traditions of the world are so varied and that every human being is different, do you believe we could find a truly common basis from which we could work for a true union of humanity? Or is it enough for each group or country to profess its religion and have its beliefs or spiritual concepts? If not, what would be the point of departure for the development of a common spiritual language that transcends the religious history of each country or each human being?

I believe that the idea of unity implicitly carries with it the idea of diversity and that it is important to keep in mind that diversity is part of equilibrium. Many times we think that diversity is a factor contributing to disequilibrium, but the contrary is true; it contributes to equilibrium. To clarify this, we can understand diversity as the way each being appears to other beings. And by "other beings," I mean not just other human beings-and here I believe I am returning to my original point-but all the beings of the Cosmos. Regarding the way each being appears, humans are different from animals, and animals in turn are different from plants. We humans know that we are different, but we also know that the Cosmos is made up of more than just human beings. Therefore, I believe that diversity is the form in which each being appears to others and that this form cannot be denied. I know at this moment that a tree is a tree because of the form in which this tree manifests itself to me. This allows me to be conscious of my being and of the responsibility that I have to the process of building the Cosmos. Now, when we speak of union, we frequently see it as something that should be mechanical in the sense that everyone should orient himself or herself toward that point. I believe there is a certain preoccupation with orienting all these diversities toward a point or in a single direction, and that this undermines what we could call unity.

That would be to ignore differences, and if differences were ignored, harmony would not appear to be possible.

That is precisely what I am getting at. Many times we speak of unity without asking ourselves, "What does unity consist of?" I believe that unity is life itself. It is harmony. That is to say: it is the Cosmos. In the sense that we all know that we belong to a single Cosmos, unity is a reality. Therefore, we share something in common, and just as we are conscious of sharing something in common-the Cosmos-we must also be conscious of the fact that we are already united. Unity has existed from the first moment. But it happens that, when we talk about unity, we don't talk of it in this sense: as life, as the Cosmos. It seems that there is a propensity to create another unity that is not the one that relates to life.

That would be an artificial unity or, as you were saying, a mechanical one.

When I say "mechanical," I mean that frequently one thinks of the development of this unity without keeping in mind the dynamic component, that is, the contributions made by the different sensibilities and by diversity. It is in this sense that I speak of something totally mechanical. From the beginning a unity exists, which in fact is life. But it is not enough to know that unity is life and that we are here for a reason. If we do not stay conscious of this truth, but rather think about a unity that has nothing to do with life, then clearly we are undermining life itself. And life is energy, energy of the being, not only of human beings, but energy of the being-participation. Participation means being part of the Cosmos without putting equilibrium in danger, not only one's own but also that of one's surroundings, the equilibrium of relationship. All of this gives rise to harmony, and harmony is definitely life. I believe that harmony is the most plausible union to which all human beings can aspire. There is no other union that is worthier than harmony.