There’s a ritual that happens in Cameroon where a mother takes her four-month baby to get blessed by an okuyi – a symbolic representation of ancestral spirits. The okuyi is a man who will wear a mask made of ikuza wood to hide his identity. She will sit in the middle of a stage surrounded by people in the community. The okuyi will dance around her and her child, carrying palm leaves and singing prophesies of good fortune.
In northeastern Tanzania, if a Maasai woman is experiencing infertility or sickness, her husband may go to the 7,650-foot-tall Ol Doinyo Lengai volcanic mountain and offer the mountain god a sacrifice – a pure black female sheep that has never reproduced. The man will worship the god throughout the night. The god of the Maasai spews lava when angry. The same god dropped cows from the sky as a gift to the Maasai. The Maasai believe that they are the caretakers of all the cows on earth.
In the days before Christianity and Islam captured the hearts of people in northern Ghana and southern Burkina Faso, the Dagara people of the region anchored their spiritual beliefs around a secret society called bagr. Members of the bagr were responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the people, calling upon nature and ancestors to guide the community and heal illnesses.
In Senegal, brotherhoods merge indigenous spirituality, mysticism and Islam to form vibrant associations of devout Muslims who take on political power to keep their neighborhoods together and address social needs. In southern Africa, inyangas and sangomas yield power for their ability to apply their understanding of human psychology, mental health, botany and biology to alleviate the pains of people who solicit their help.
These are just a few examples of the diverse religious and spiritual practices across Africa. [Religion and spirituality are similar concepts – though there are differences – and I will use the terms interchangeably in this post.]
Religion and spirituality are so deeply embedded into the everyday lives of millions of Africans. It’s a continent where myths, religion, superstition, God, the divine, the supernatural and spirits come alive. The incredible array of spiritual beliefs in Africa is truly mind-boggling. There’s no way to quantify it. Spirituality in Africa is endlessly fascinating to me. I’ve spent years studying it and I still feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface. Moving to Africa gave me a chance to get up close and report on it, but… I have to be careful when it comes to reporting on this.
Because, few topics get people as bent out of shape as religion does. Religious identity goes to the core of what billions of people believe about themselves and what they’re willing to fight, live and die for. Reporting on religion, I believe, takes a certain finesse, tolerance and curiosity. I am interested in how religious beliefs can shape a person and drive them to extreme behaviors to defend what is in their heart.
In Africa, it’s easy to see how global influences, politics and history have influenced spirituality and caused clashes and rifts between people. Dr. Ali Mazrui described these forces as a triple heritage, meaning that Africans must manage the competing influences of Christianity, Islam and indigenous religions. Mazrui goes into depth on this idea in episode 3 of his groundbreaking documentary, The Africans: A Triple Heritage.
We’ve seen how religious beliefs have led to deadly violence, oppressive customs and human rights abuses. It’s important to document all this. Nowadays, these clashes often take the form of sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in places like the Central African Republic, Sudan and Nigeria. Reporting on these issues takes an incredible amount of care so as not to inflame situations that are already tense. But religion has also been a force of good in many aspects. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has practiced environmental sustainability for hundreds of years, preserving forests across Ethiopia. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of these type of stories in the news media.
Reporting on religion in Africa is crucial, because it plays monumental roles on the continent, in communities, in the lives of individuals and even in governance. Not understanding this would be a major blind spot for a journalist covering Africa.
I recommend having an open mind when it comes to reporting on this, taking the time to watch people practice their faith and that means going to the temples, the forest sanctuaries, the ceremonies, mosques, churches, weddings, initiation rites and whatever you can attend. If the rules mandate that you wear all black, or all red or cover your head, sure, follow the rules. It’s not the time to be an activist and start citing ideas of patriarchy or sexism. Just wear the hijab! Our job at that time is to be a journalist, not an activist and I can’t emphasize this enough.
The bottom line is this – to understand many places in Africa, you’ve got to understand the religions there. Pay close attention to the rites being observed and the beliefs that people speak of. Listen to how they talk about the mundane parts of life like the weather or going to work. Are you hearing people say things like, “I will go to the office tomorrow, God-willing?” Pay attention to that. Then take note of how people react to unfortunate news like the death of a child or a motor accident. All of these things will reveal so much about a place and the people who live there.
In 2010, a Kenyan colleague of mine from the Kamba ethnic group told me about spiritualists who create love potions to attract a lover for their clients. I never got a chance to visit one of these potion-makers, but I’d be curious to see how men and women use that service and explore love, divorce and marriage in Kamba communities. Religion is the way of life.