5 Reasons Why Africanist Scholars Should Study African Traditional Religion

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“Religion is a way of life; it relates to culture and society as they affect the worldview of the African people,” says Professor Jacob Olupona, famed Harvard University theologian of African traditional religion. African traditional religion is an important part of African life and therefore its influence on African history, culture and politics cannot be ignored. 

From African traditional religion, the structure of African societies is derived – from births and deaths, marriages and family, to food, clothing, health care, and even governance, indigenous African beliefs shape almost all aspects of African life.

Thus, one just cannot claim to be studying Africans or their histories in any real way if one is not interested in understanding their indigenous beliefs.

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines religion as “the service and worship of God or the supernatural or a commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance”. We can say then that African traditional religion is the worship of God or devotion to a supernatural being as conceived by African people. While the manifestation of belief may differ from one religion to another, it is important to note that African traditional religion is the earliest religion to come into existence. Thus, to say that African traditional religion is demonic or occultic is to say that at its inception, humanity was demonic which doesn’t make much sense to anyone who believes that humanity is the creation of a benevolent or well-meaning god-force. 

“African traditional religion was condemned by early European scholars, travelers, investigators, and missionaries,’ says Dr R W Omotoye of the University of Ilorin in Nigeria, ‘the educated elite who were products of the schools established by the Christian missionaries in particular and the converts, in general, did not see anything good in African traditional religion”. 

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Thus, the continued dismissal of African traditional religion in the study of the history and politics of the continent is in keeping with colonial mentalities and should be resisted. 

It has become increasingly important to champion the study of African traditional religion because so few programmes in traditional universities offer a course in African traditional religion. Therefore, many Africanist, whether historians or social scientists, can complete their course of study without ever studying indigenous African beliefs.

Thus, there are a number of very important reasons why every Africanist should study African traditional religion:

1. By studying African traditional religions, Africanists will have a better understanding of world civilisations and will thus be able to nurture in their students a deeper understanding of Africa, its people, and their influence on the world. 
2. African traditional religion is the key to understanding religious practice in the diaspora. Black communities that emanated from Africa continue to practice African traditional religion in the Americas today. Their ancestors practised African traditional religion as they settled in new areas such as the Caribbean. Their belief grew and transformed into new but similar religions such as Haitian Vodou. These new religions continued to evolve and influence the social, political, and cultural lives of the societies. Thus, there should be no surprise when we see clear similarities between Yoruba Ifa and Haitian Vodou. 
3. African traditional religion provides a better understanding of how African societies are structured. The core structure of African societies is drawn from their belief in the supernatural. By understanding this, Africanists will have a grassroots understanding of the people of the continent and thus have the tools to teach and write more comprehensively on Africa.
4. Studying African traditional religion is key to understanding the psychology and worldview of African people. African traditional religion provides deep insights into the minds of African people particularly into the source of their morality, sense of self, sense of community and relationship with the natural and built world.
5. Studying African traditional religion is essential for anyone claiming to be an enlightened person or a “global citizen”. As the second largest continent in the world and home to some of its oldest communities, not studying African traditional religion also means not studying the philosophies on the continent. This seems like a pretty big part of human history to miss out!

Thus, there is a clear reason why all Africanists should study African traditional religion. It is an essential part of African consciousness, whether it is actively practised or not. By studying African traditional religion, Africanists’ research, writings and students will be deeply enriched.