What is the attitude of African traditional religion vis-à-vis oppressive rulers and oppressive institutions such as the slave trade, colonialism, or local dictatorship of our ancestors? Resistance to enslavement on how questions are raised and to address the problematic issue of whether religion per se is a force of progress and liberation or an obscurantist weapon of mass destruction.
The answer to such a question is made extremely complicated by the complex history of Africa. On the one hand, forms of slavery existed in Africa, apparently introduced by Islam, as they did in ancient Greece, Rome, Christian Europe, Asia, and the Islamic world.
On the other hand, the principle of Bumuntu, which stands at the core of African traditional religion, bears witness to high moral standards that condemn all forms of enslavement as contrary to the will of the ancestors and as a form of evil that hinders one’s ability to join the village of the ancestors and to enjoy a blissful existence in the afterlife.
It is clear that slavery in Africa was viewed as a form of punishment. To enslave another human being or to wage war recklessly was to partake in radical forms of social and moral evil. This is why slave traders and African dictators are referred to as witches by common folks.
In a world where historically Christianity and Islam have been heralded as paths of liberation from traditional oppressive customs, the liberating nature of traditional religion has been largely overlooked or obscured. Yet it is traditional religion that provided a moral compass to millions of people throughout centuries and that still guides the existence of many today.
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The fact that colonial regimes heavily targeted traditional religion as the breeding ground of rebellion is an eloquent acknowledgment of the African spirit of resistance to oppression. It is therefore imperative to make a careful distinction between the moral ideals of African spirituality and the deplorable behavior of individuals throughout history. Careful studies of religion will not recklessly identify the spiritual ideals of Hinduism with Sati and the caste system.
Hindus readily point to Brahman and the virtues of Ahimsa and Yoga. Likewise, when asked to define Christianity, Christians point to Jesus’ teaching on “loving the enemy” and turning the other cheek, rather than crusades, inquisition, colonialism, and persecution of women and members of other religions.
The same hermeneutical principle should be applied to Africa. African spirituality is to be found in the ideals of genuine person-hood (Bumuntu) and in the numerous examples of resistance, rather than the lapses of some ubuesque tyrants and caligulan dictators.
From time immemorial, religion as the soul and hope of hopeless people has always functioned as the ultimate source of liberation. This is particularly the case with a continent that for centuries has been trampled underfoot by all forms of oppression. Africans on the continent and in the diaspora have always turned to the ancestors and Shakapanga, the creator, to find refuge and the power to resist enslavement.
In 1791, enslaved Africans led a successful revolutionary war that propelled Haiti to become the first “black republic,” that is, the first black country to gain independence by throwing off successfully the yoke of chattel slavery.
Eightyfive years before this Haitian revolution, a young African lady named Kimpa Vita was burned at the stake in 1706 by Christian Portuguese authorities in the Kongo Kingdom for waging a resistance movement against the slave trade and for challenging the racist theological underpinnings of the Catholic Church and its complicit involvement in the slave trade.
These acts of defiance and rebellion were not an imitation of foreign ideals of democracy, but a genuine expression of traditional ideals of the good life. Indeed, Kimpa Vita’s revolution occurred 70 years before the American Revolution and 83 years before the French revolution, at a time when Western powers and their Christian missionaries were engaged in oppressive colonial ventures legitimized by the civilizing mission ideology.
Both the Haitian and Kongolese rebellions were steeped in a liberation theology profoundly shaped by African traditional religion. African traditional spirit of Bumuntu (liberty and human dignity) has crossed the Atlantic carrying the torch of liberation struggle into the Americas. It is now widely held in academic circles that the Haitian revolution was stimulated and sustained mainly by Vodu, a religion of African origin.
It is also largely understood that the most prestigious leaders of the Haitian revolutionary war, such as Toussaint L’Ouverture, Dessalines, Christophe, Boukman, and Makandal, were all steeped in Vodu rituals and philosophy. In fact, the plans for a war of liberation from slavery and colonialism were laid by the Vodu priestesses Mambo Mariesaint Dede Bazile and Cecile Fatiman and the Vodun priest Houngan Boukman during a religious service held on the night of August 14, 1791, at Bois Caiman in the northern part of Haiti.
Vodun, an African religion, had crossed the Atlantic carrying with it that revolutionary spirit that in Africa led the prophetess Kimpa Vita, Simon Kimbangu, and many others to articulate a liberation struggle that challenged slave traders and French, British, Belgian, German, Portuguese, and Italian colonial regimes as well as the colonial bourgeois Christianity that lent moral and spiritual legitimacy to foreign tyranny. The extraordinary role played by Vodu in the Haitian revolution is to be understood as the culmination of a liberation movement firmly rooted in the ethical vision of African traditional religions.
In fact, all over Africa, many charismatic leaders steeped in traditional spirituality rose to lead resistance movements against the slave trade and colonial enslavement.
The Maji Maji uprising resorted to the power of African religion. In so doing, it became the most serious challenge to colonial British rule in East Africa. In the colony of Tanganyika, Germans had to contend with the powerful prophet Kinjikitile Ngwale, who resorted to African religious practices and worldview to fight the colonial regime.
He preached that the war of liberation was ordained by God and that the ancestors would return to life to assist the African people in this war. God and the ancestors, he added, want the unity and freedom of all the African people and want them to fight the German oppressors. This war waged for more than 2 years, from July 1905 to August 1907.
Although Kinjikitile was captured and hanged by the Germans, his brother picked up his mantle, assumed the title of Nyamguni, one of the three divinities in the region, and continued to administer the Maji, a religiously blessed water aimed at rendering the warrior invulnerable. This practice of blessed water is widespread in Africa. Among the Baluba, it is referred to as koya kisaba (taking a bath in a magical water blessed by the ancestors to gain extraordinary strength and invulnerability on the battlefield).
It is worth noting that the traditional role played by women in African religion brought them to the forefront in resistance movements. In the Zambezi valley, the Shona mediums instigated the famous rebellions of 1897, 1901, and 1904.
In the Congo, the notorious case remains that of the Christian independent church of Dona Beatrice, Kitawala, and Simon Kimbangu. Kimpa Vita’s struggle for freedom in the Kongo kingdom was so passionate that historians have Eurocentrically called her “Jeanne d’Arc du Congo” in reference to the spirit of French revolution. But Beatrice is not an isolated case. In Congo-Brazzaville, the priestess Maria Nkoie instigated the Ikaya rebellion, which lasted for 5 years, until 1921. Many other women have played a crucial role in the struggle for freedom.
Almost all wars waged against forces of domination and oppression were backed by religious belief in justice and just cause. It is worth noting the role played by African “abolitionists,” especially those famous “enlightened kings.”
In 1526, Affonso, King of Kongo, sent a letter of protest to the King of Portugal (Dom Joao). The letter first describes in detail the evils of the slave trade and then concludes with a decision to abolish it. “It is our will,” he wrote explicitly, “that in these Kingdoms there should not be any trade of slaves nor outlet for them” (Hoschild, 1998, p. 4).
It is remarkable that King Affonso did not wish to abolish only the enslavement of noble people, but rather wanted to see the whole slave trade come to an end. He made it clear that he did not want his kingdom to be crossed by slaveholders and their caravans of victims. Affonso’s analysis of the impact of the slave trade on Kongo contradicts also the argument often used by some scholars who claim that Kingdoms of Africa flourished because of the wealth gained by African kings through the slave trade.
But this phenomenon of enlightened Kings is not unique to Central Africa. Another notorious case is reported in West Africa in the 18th century by the Swedish traveler Wadström. In a report to the British Privy Council Committee of 1789 on the political chaos caused by the slave trade in Africa, Wadström evokes the case of the enlightened King of Almammy, who, in 1787, enacted a law that no enslaved person whatever should be marched through his territories.
Angry French merchants remonstrated and attempted to corrupt the King with gifts. But the King returned the presents that had been sent to him by the Senegal (French) Company and declared that “all the riches of that company should not divert him from his design (to end the slave trade)” (Isichei, 1978, pp. 474–475). This case sheds a splendid light on the notion of moral character in traditional Africa. This same passion for moral rectitude led the Asantehene of Ashanti (Ghana) to reject a European demand for enslaving people. In 1819, he replied to a European visitor that it was not his practice “to make war to catch slaves in the bush like a thief.”
Such are the traditional roots of the resistance spirit that animated Simon Kimbangu, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, and the African Nobel laureates such as John Luthuli, Wangari Matai, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu. This is an eloquent illustration of the pervasive spirit of resistance to oppression and enslavement that has characterized Africa since time immemorial.
As Tutu’s focus on the traditional virtues of Ubuntu shows, even those Africans who converted to Christianity and Islam have turned to the ancestral spirituality of human dignity in their struggle against local and foreign forces of enslavement.
In a world where Christianity and Islam were often complicit in European and Arabic systems of domination and exploitation, the importance of ancestral spirituality in African resistance movements can scarcely be overstated. The fact that millions of Africans find meaning not in Christianity and Islam per se, but rather in “Africanized” Christianity and Islam, points to the centrality of ancestral spirituality as the fundamental moral guidance of the African people.
Like many other world religions, African religionis based on the notions of Bumuntu, justice, purity, and respect of human dignity. Shakapanga the creator is largely celebrated as the king of justice and is viewed as good and pure (Vidye kadi katonye: “God is spotless,” say the Baluba). Life, which is his supreme gift, is to be honored, protected, and promoted in every creature.
Hence, the Kishila-kya-Bankambo (the will of the ancestors) commends a virtuous life, an ethical conduct that prohibits all forms of dehumanization. Enslavement therefore stands as radically antithetical to fundamental religious values. Although the practice of slavery is overwhelmingly attested in African history, there is no evidence that such a practice was indigenous to Africa and was sanctioned by African religion as a virtue. Its endurance therefore is to be viewed in terms of what people refer to as mucima mubi.
It is “evil heart” that leads people to enslave others. Initially, slavery was conceived of as a punishment and was largely applied to prisoners of war. African religion, with its emphasis on Bumuntu (genuine person-hood), generated two fundamental attitudes vis-à-vis the slavery phenomenon. First, it commanded that the humanity of enslaved people be acknowledged and honored by a humane treatment.
Hence, although slavery has always been an unjust and cruel reality, African history is replete with instances of enslaved individuals who were integrated in the family of their masters and regarded as sons or daughters, some even becoming figures of authority by virtue of their excellent character and competence.
Second, traditional religion triggered a massive resistance movement to the European slave trade and colonial oppression. This same ancestral spirit of dignity and liberty exploded again in the 1980s and 1990s to stimulate struggles against dictators and promote collective liberty. In this era of ambiguous globalization, African traditional spirituality is likely to stimulate a new path of “liberation theology” against modern forms of enslavement.