The Divine Family – the Language of Divinity in African Family and Faith

Estimated reading time: 5 min

By George R. Evans

Across the African continent and its diaspora, the centrality of the family in one’s everyday life and general understanding of existence demands more exploration than academia has previously afforded it.

African modes of religiosity provide us with a fascinating point of departure in this conversation. Why do African communities refer to divine forces in familial terms? Why do African Communities venerate their ancestors as divinities in their own right? Through a focus on Yoruba Ifa and Haitian Vodou, a case is made here that in African consciousness the family itself is a divine force, and hence its parallels and manifestations in religious practice should not just be noted but expected. 

The Divine Family of the Lived Experience

In order to truly understand this, we must first break down exactly what the ‘divine’ is. Common understandings vary across cultures and time, but as a rule of thumb ‘divinity’ encompasses an extra-human greatness or pureness, usually associated with a God or multiple Gods. In line with post-secular understandings of the way we employ religious language, in the most basic sense what we hold to be ‘divine’ can be codified as what we deem sacred in our lives. In African consciousness, the family is one-such sacred aspect of life. Whilst being cautious of reductiveness, in a general sense it must be said that social organisation across the continent is based in kinship ties and familial linkages. In as much as European consciousness is commonly identified with the infamous Descartes quote ‘I think, therefore I am’, African consciousness can be conceptualised in line with the Southern African Bantu terms Ubuntu or Botho. As noted by historian Michael Eze, roughly meaning ‘I am, because you are’, Ubuntu or Botho is an idea of personhood centred around social and familial obligations and forms the basis for communitarianism across African societies. Thus, due to its centrality in the very fabric of African ontologies and general consciousness, the family structure constitutes a ‘sacred’ force in the lives of African people.

Explore our short course in Introduction to African Religion

The sanctity of the family in African consciousness manifests in diasporic communities as well. Referring to neighbours or members of the wider community in familial terms such as ‘brother’ or ‘aunty’ is common across human societies, known to sociologists as ‘fictive kinship’, yet recent demographic research has shown how it is particularly prevalent in African American and Afro-Caribbean communities. For example, within Pentecostal Christian churches in Black communities, congregants commonly refer to each other as ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. In Eurocentric Christian theologies this could be explained away as evidence of a recognition of a shared existence in the Christian heavenly kingdom. However, if we acknowledge the link between the divine and the family in African consciousness, this Eurocentric understanding of Black religiosity can be refigured and the African experience can be re-centred.

‘…How can the devil take a brother is he’s close to me’

– Tupac Shakur, from “Changes” (1998)

A further example of this is provided by Hip Hop. Hip Hop as a genre has been at the forefront of the reappropriation of the language of the Black experience and thus provides us with many examples of discourses set in the linguistics and semantics of ‘fictive kinship’. In the social consciousness anthem ‘Changes’, the African American rapper and poet Tupac Shakur, mediating on the painful intersections between race, politics and wealth in US society, refers to all his fellow African American men as his ‘brothers’. There is much to unpack here, but on the most basic level the idea that their shared membership of the African American experience renders all Black Americans ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ no doubt reveals the sacred position of the family in African consciousness. In one particularly striking phrase, Shakur, commenting on the loss of African American life to poverty and police brutality, laments: ‘how can the devil take a brother if he’s close to me?’ This supposes a divine attribute in the family, with the family held to provide not just physical protection but spiritual protection. 

The Divine Family of the Afterlife

These real world examples thus provide us with an opportunity to obtain a greater degree of understanding of African modes of religiosity. 

For example, in Haitian Vodou, below the creator God and supreme being Bondye, there are thousands of Lwa, spirits who exist to assist humans during their life on earth. The Lwa exist in 17 pantheons, including the Rada and Petwo, which are commonly considered to house ‘good’ and ‘bad’ spirits respectively. However, in actuality the deities in such pantheons are much more fluid in terms of moral content. Lwa take a variety of forms including aquatic spirits and deified ancestors. Like all Lwa, deified ancestors, also known as Gede (spirits of the dead), are venerated and worshipped in times of need. Interestingly, the importance of the family in Haitian Vodou extends much further than the deification of deceased ancestors. No matter their form, Lwa are commonly addressed in familial terms such as papa (father) and manman (mother). Devotees are also often married to Lwa in mayaj mistik (mystic marriage) ceremonies. The language of inter-human familial interaction is therefore applied to human-deity interaction due to the deification of both the family and extra-human forces in Haitian consciousness. 

Watch our lecture on African Religion

A similar pattern emerges when studying Yoruba Ifa, as one should expect due to the centuries-old inter-connection between Yorubaland and Dahomey, the birthplace of Vodou. 

Yoruba religion centres around Olodumare, also known as Olorun, the creator God and supreme being who is at once omnipresent and removed from earthly affairs. Olodumare created thousands of Orisha, similar in conception to Lwa, who exist in three forms: primordial orisha known as ala orun (people of heaven), natural Orisha mediating human relationships with lakes, streams and such, with deified ancestors forming the third and final category of Orisha. Deified ancestors are said to be members of the community who, after living exceptional lives as leaders or warriors, did not die but rather elevated to the status and consciousness of Orisha who are connected to and act on behalf of the divine centre, Olodumare. The centrality of African concepts of the family in Yoruba religiosity therefore makes sense given the concept of ancestor worship, yet the association of Olodumare with fatherhood should also be explored. He is given thousands of names, including eleda (creator), awamaridi (unfathomable) and Oba ti ki iku (the eternal king), but he is also called father, parent and God of our forefathers. Olodumare’s status as ‘father’ is a fascinating inverse parallel to the position of mothers in Black culture. Jamaican reggae provides us with telling examples. For example, in the ballad ‘Thank U Mamma’, Jamaican musician and poet Sizzla venerates not just his own mother, but all mothers, elevating them to an almost deified position. He thanks them for their struggle and love and admires their strength. Thus, the explaining of unfathomable greatness through the use of the familial terms ‘father’ and ‘mother’ in both Yoruba Ifa theology and Afro-Caribbean reggae reflects the innate tie between divinity and the family in African Consciousness. 

Africa’s Divine Families and the Human Experience

As you will no doubt have observed, labelling the supreme being as humanity’s ‘father’ is not confined to African modes of religiosity. Similar language is used in Western and Eastern traditions to convey the extra-human divine’s relationship to humanity. As Africanist scholars such as Cameroonian political theorist Achille Mbembe call for human understanding to be centred on Africa centrifugally due to the evolutionary record, we can therefore see the family-divine connection as a fascinating and exciting area of study in history and global anthropological theory. In line with Mbembe’s methodology, we must start to acknowledge that to understand language forms in all world religions we need to trace their origins in African religion, and arguably to African conceptions of existence in general. 

Overall, tracing the long history of divine-familial linkage in African consciousness provides an opportunity for greater understanding of contemporary African continental and diasporic modes of religiosity and social organisation. Re-centring the Black experience in African continental and diasporic political, social and theological narratives is of vital importance in academia. Thus, this piece is intended to be a conversation starter; through focussed research on the ground it can no doubt be advanced much farther. 

Further exploration

If you wish to explore African religion and consciousness further, why not enrol on our Introduction to African Religion Short Course or Foundation Certificate in Black Political Thought and Culture to embark on an exciting journey of discovery?