Tuesday, August 21, 2012
THE MEANING OF PEACE IN AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION AND CULTURE
The Meaning of Peace in African Traditional Religion and Culture
Godfrey Igwebuike Onah
Pontifical Urban University, Rome
I would like to begin this reflection with a prayer, a litany for peace, from
the Kikuyu of Kenya. It is addressed to Ngai, the Supreme Being:
Praise ye Ngai… – Peace be with us
[Say that the elders may have wisdom and speak with one voice.
Praise ye, Ngai. Peace be with us.]
Say that the country may have tranquillity
Peace be with us.
And the people may continue to increase
Peace be with us
Say that the people and the flock and the herds
May prosper and be free from illness – Peace be with us
[Say… (that) the fields may bear much fruit
And the land may continue to be fertile.
Praise ye, Ngai. Peace be with us.]
May peace reign over earth,
May the gourd cup agree with vessel – Peace be with us
May their heads agree and every ill word driven out into the wilderness,
into the virgin forest.
Praise ye Ngai… – Peace be with us.
It seems quite safe to assume that all human beings desire peace. What is not
always very clear is what each person means by peace and how it can be attained
and maintained. Religion and peace have been almost natural companions in the
minds of humans in different periods of history and in different cultures of the
world. This is because, although far too many adherents and leaders of the
different religions in the world have disrupted the peace in the society by
promoting violence and wars, the vast majority of believers still hold that true
religion is a source and guarantor of individual and societal peace. This paper
intends to examine the meaning of peace, how it can be attained and what it
takes to maintain it in African traditional religion (ATR) and culture. First,
we shall give a brief outline of the essential features of ATR and the
world-view that constitutes its epistemological framework. This will then enable
us to analyse the meaning of peace as a spiritual and moral value in ATR.
Finally, by way of conclusion, we shall take a forward look at the possibility
of world peace from the perspective of ATR.
Before proceeding with our examination, however, I think it would be helpful to
point out a few difficulties and to enter a caveat. One major difficulty that
any student of ATR encounters is the absence of scriptures. The world’s oldest
religious tradition has been handed down orally and through what one may call
some scanty religious fossils, preserved in the cultural and religious artefacts
of African peoples. Most believers – and this applies to all religions – are
normally concerned more with living out what they believe than with offering a
rational justification for their beliefs and practices. It is usually only a few
gifted persons (prophets, seers, thinkers) who attempt to probe the depths of
religious beliefs and try to persuade their fellow believers – often without
success at first – to accept the insights they have to offer. When the results
of such penetrating rational reflection are not documented in writing, their
diffusion among the members of a larger society and the possibility of their
surviving over a long period of time are greatly reduced. For all the positive
things that one may say about the dynamism of the oral tradition, especially
with regard to religion, it cannot be denied that the fluidity of such
traditions constitutes a formidable challenge to the scholar. It is impossible
to understand a religion properly if one does not know its history well. The
true meanings of present religious practices are often hidden in the layers of a
history too long to be vividly present in the individual and collective memory
of the believers.
Another difficulty lies in the fact that ATR is not a proselytizing religion.
Africans generally take the central religious issues to be so self-evident that
no normal human being would need persuasion by another person to accept them.
For instance, the Akan of Ghana have a proverb which says: “Obi nkyere abofra
Nyame,” meaning that no one teaches a child God; God’s existence is so evident
that even a child is able to know that without the help of another. When the
basic religious issues are taken for granted as self-evident truths, it is only
natural that each person is allowed to work out his or her own general ideas
about them, relying on the common heritage of the community, especially the
family. As a result, there is a lot of flexibility and variation, even within
the same cultural group, about the meanings of some important concepts,
especially the concept of God and of spirits. Although there is more homogeneity
with regard to public religious practices, since these are characteristically
communitarian, this homogeneity is also very much circumscribed within
particular clans and ethnic groups. Voluntary borrowing of religious practices
often occur between cultural groups and sub-groups. But there is no attempt to
forcefully harmonize religious practices. This has led some scholars to raise
the question whether we should talk of traditional religion or religions in
There is also the difficulty of examining a religion from outside. It is common
knowledge that the most vocal spokespersons of African traditional religion
today are people who are not its adherents. When adherents of other religions
study ATR, the starting point is usually the religion of the scholars. On the
one hand, there is the danger of reading in too much of one’s own religion into
ATR. On the other hand, there is also the tendency in some to assume that the
similarities found between some aspects of ATR and the corresponding aspects in
the scholars’ religions are due to the influence of the latter on ATR, rather
than the other way round. This problem touches both Africans and non-Africans.
The last difficulty I would like to mention is closely linked to the previous
one. It is the difficulty that arises from the enormous difference between the
conceptual schemes of African traditional religion and thought and the
Western-Christian conceptual schemes in which we are now carrying on this
These and other similar difficulties should make one very hesitant to take
dogmatic or quasi-dogmatic positions on African traditional religion in general
and on specific issues within ATR.
2. The Essential Features of African Traditional Religion
I would like to group the essential features of ATR under three
headings, which may be regarded as the three principal dimensions of religion:
belief, worship and morality.
Considering Africa as a whole, the main objects of traditional religious belief
are: God, the divinities, spirits and the ancestors. Belief in God, conceived as
one Supreme Personal Being seems to be shared by the majority of African
cultures. Nevertheless, there are a few cultures where the situation is not very
clear. Whereas in monarchical cultures, like among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the
Zulu of South Africa and the Ashanti of Ghana, Deity is clearly conceived as one
and supreme, in some republican cultures, like among the Igbo of Nigeria and the
San of Botswana, language and practice have left some scholars in doubt about
whether the people traditionally believe in one Supreme Being, or whether there
are several Supreme Beings one of which emerges as the primus inter pares. I
hasten to add, however, that in the case of the Igbo, only a handful of scholars
doubt the belief in God as one Supreme Being in the traditional religion. The
Supreme Being in ATR is personal, not an impersonal absolute principle. God has
a will, emotions and, of course intelligence. Among the major divine attributes
in ATR are omnipotence, omniscience, goodness and justice, although these
attributes are not expressed in mere abstract concepts. Sometimes he is thought
of in most cases however, Mother. ther, at other time she is thought of as a
Mother. asculine terms and even as a Father, at other times she is conceived in
feminine terms and as a Mother. But in most cases African languages do not
specify and gender categories are totally absent. Each local community has its
name for God, but the people believe that it is the one and same God who is
given different names and who is the ultimate source of all the other spiritual
beings, the universe and all that it contains. One can say that in ATR God is
the creator and sustainer of all that is, provided one allows that creation can
have other meanings in religion than the one that Scholastic theology has given
to it. God is manifested in some way in everything that exists and in every
event in life. There is, however, no risk of pantheism since the Supreme Being
is thought of and approached as a Person. Most traditional Africans are so
overwhelmed by the uniqueness, majesty and supremacy of God that they lack
images for the Source-Being. Daily prayers are addressed to God in most parts of
Africa and some peoples (like the Wachaga, the Lugbara, the Gogo, the Dinka)
have direct cult of the Supreme Being. In ATR God is at the same time
transcendent and immanent, but definitely neither absent nor even too distant.
Next to God are what one may call divinities, for lack of a better
expression. These are spiritual beings who owe their origin to and are dependent
on God. Some of them are personified attributes of the Supreme Being, like the
thunder divinity, which usually represents God’s wrath. Others are God’s
manifestation in some natural phenomena like the sun (regarded in many African
cultures as the God’s son), and the earth (which also represents the maternal
aspects of Deity), mountains, seas, and so on. Among the divinities one also
sometimes finds a few heroes and outstanding ancestors. It would be improper to
call the divinities “gods,” thus giving the false impression of polytheism. The
divinities are messengers or ministers of God and some of them may be very
prominent in some localities but totally unknown in others. While God, as we
have already mentioned, is believed to be known by all, albeit by different
local names. The divinities, although usually dreaded for their uncompromising
stance in some moral issues, are, nevertheless, in themselves good and just. As
God’s messengers and intermediaries between God and humans, they are the targets
of numerous cults and prayers.
There is yet another class of spiritual beings who are not always
good. Some of them are good, some are, to say the least, mischievous, while
others are outright evil. And they are innumerable! Some of these are human,
like the wandering spirits of some dead persons who due to some lack did not
make it to the home of the ancestors and also the spirits of witches and wizards
who, though still alive, are believed to be able to leave their bodies and
inhabit lower animals in order to harm other persons.
Perhaps the most dearly loved spiritual beings in ATR are the
ancestors, those “living-dead” (to borrow the expression of John Mbiti), who are
effectively members of the family and clan, now living in a state that permits
them to enjoy some special relationship with God, the divinities and the good
spirits. They are also believed to have some power over the evil spirits and are
therefore able to protect the living members of their respective families from
harm. To qualify to be an ancestor, it is not enough just to be dead. An
ancestor is one who died after having lived a life judged to be fully realized
and morally upright, an integral life. The ancestors are so dear to the heart of
Africans and so central in their traditional religious practices that some
outsiders have mistakenly described ATR simply as “ancestor-worship.”
Religion for the Africans embraces life as a whole and worship
touches every aspect of their lives. Strictly speaking, only God and the
divinities are worshipped and this is done through sacrifices, offerings,
prayers, invocation, praises, music and dance. In many localities in Africa
there is no direct cult of the Supreme Being, yet God is the ultimate object of
worship whom the people approach through intermediaries: religious
functionaries, the ancestors and the divinities. There is no clear separation
between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the profane.
Nevertheless, there is an abundance of temples, shrines, groves and altars used
for public and private worship in most parts of Africa. Some special trees, some
rivers, forests, mountains, considered manifestations of the sacred, often serve
as places of worship. This has led some scholars to imagine that it is these
natural objects that are being worshipped – to the amusement of the traditional
Some of the good spirits and all the ancestors are venerated and
constantly implored to intervene on behalf of humans. The evil spirits are never
worshipped, even though some evil persons are believed to align themselves with
the evil spirits in order to tap their evil powers and use them to harm others.
The veneration of the ancestors, which usually takes the form of libations,
offerings and prayers, sometimes also becomes more elaborate and intense leading
to the blurring of the line which usually separates worship and veneration. But
this is not peculiar to ATR, as Christians who also have the cult of the saints
can testify to.
(The story is told of a lady who went everyday to her parish church to pray.
Each time she entered the church she would go straight to where there was the
statue of the Our Lady, light a candle, kneel in prayer for a very long time and
at the end would leave, without even as much as a bow in the direction of the
Blessed Sacrament. The sacristan, who had watched this go on for several months
and felt irritated by this misplacement of emphasis, one day decided to play a
trick on the lady. He hid behind the altar and just as she began her usual
prayers he started saying in a voice meant to rouse awe: “I am Jesus! I am
Jesus! I am Jesus!” The lady, unable to bear this any longer burst out: “Shut
up! I am talking to your Mum!”)
The practical aspect of belief in ATR is not only worship but also
human conduct. Belief in God and in the other spiritual beings implies a certain
type of conduct, conduct that respects the order established by God and watched
over by the divinities and the ancestors. At the centre of traditional African
morality is human life. Africans have a sacred reverence for life, for it is
believed to be the greatest of God’s gifts to humans. To protect and nurture
their lives, all human beings are inserted within a given community and it is
within this community that one works out one’s destiny and every aspect of
individual life. The promotion of life is therefore the determinant principle of
African traditional morality and this promotion is guaranteed only in the
community. Living harmoniously within a community is therefore a moral
obligation ordained by God for the promotion of life. Religion provides the
basic infra-structure on which this life-centred, community-oriented morality is
based. John Mbiti’s famous phrase “I am because we are; and since we are,
therefore I am,” captures this ethical principle well. The implication is
that one has an obligation to maintain harmonious relationships with all the
members of the community and to do what is necessary to repair every breach of
harmony and to strengthen the community bonds, especially through justice and
sharing. And this is not simply a social need but a religious obligation
since God, the divinities and the ancestors, the guarantors of this order of
things, are quick to punish defaulters. Any person who infringes a moral norm in
traditional African societies has not only the members of the community to fear
for reprisals but also God and the spiritual beings. “In order to aid man in
ethical living, God has put in him the ‘oracle of the heart’… the ‘inner
oracle’… This ‘oracle of the heart’ is a person’s conscience, the law of God
written in him. A person is at peace when he obeys his conscience.” On the
contrary, when he disobeys this ‘inner oracle,’ he lives in constant fear,
especially in fear of all natural manifestations of divine power. The Igbo
express this in a proverb: “Ọbụ onye ñụlụ iyi asị ka egbe igwe na-atụ egwu” (It
is only one who has committed perjury that is afraid of the thunder). It has
been noted earlier that thunder is believed by many Africans to be a
manifestation of divine power and is even sometimes regarded as a divinity.
People often swear by this divinity, asking him to visit his wrath on them if
what they say is not the truth.
Perhaps because of their strong attachment to the community, Africans have a
very strong sense of justice. Without justice, life in the community would be
impossible; there would be no harmony. A victim of injustice often makes a
direct appeal to God. Africans believe that God, who is just and who sees and
knows everything, hates injustice as is illustrated by the following Akan
proverb: “Nyame mpe kwaseabuo nti ena wama obiara edin” (It is because God hates
injustice that he has given each one a name). Traditional African morality
has cosmic dimensions which will emerge from our brief look at the world-view
implicit in ATR.
3. The World-View Implicit in African Traditional Religion
While examining the objects of belief in ATR, we have already seen
that traditional Africans believe in the existence of God, the divinities, other
lesser spirits and the ancestors. Below these beings are humans, animals, plants
and other inanimate objects. All these realities are believed to exist in a
hierarchical order established by God who is the Source of all. In this order,
the human being is at the centre. Two things can therefore be said of the
traditional world-view of the Africans, namely, that it is permeated by the
spirit and that it is anthropocentric. It is a spiritual world-view because all
the spiritual beings are believed to be constantly in action in the world of
humans. It is anthropocentric because the actions of God and the other spiritual
beings are generally directed towards humans for their sustenance and
well-being; and infra-human realities are thought to be ordered towards the
promotion of human life. Things and events that may seem to be life-threatening
are often seen as arranged either by divine wisdom or through the benevolence of
the ancestors for the good of human beings, sometimes as a warning and sometimes
as punishments for human misconduct. For this reason, extraordinary events are
not taken at their face value. There are spiritual and religious experts who are
consulted to decipher the hidden meanings of such events.
All the elements in the material universe are believed to be
intimately connected to one another and all of them are connected to God and to
the other spiritual beings. Nothing is attributed to chance or necessity. In
fact the concept of chance is alien to the traditional Africans. Rather than
chance, they talk of unknown invisible causes. But the orderly arrangement of
things is attributed to God: day and night, the seasons, the rhythms of life,
the varieties and chains of dependence and so on. God is the ultimate source of
harmony in creation. Humans, for their part, have a vocation to respect this
universal cosmic order and any deviation is believed to be fatal. Being at the
centre of a universe so ordered, the human being establishes a network of
relationships, according to the hierarchical order of things in order to
maintain the primordial harmony and equilibrium. It is immoral to upset this
equilibrium and thus breach the harmony either in the human society or in the
In a spiritual vision of the universe and Nature, the African soul has perceived
the moral obligation to collaborate with the ordered harmony in creation so as
to preserve that equilibrium which visible and invisible forces must maintain.
It is from the Supreme Being the divine creator and author of order and harmony.
It is therefore a sinful serious transgression to attempt to break or interrupt
the free, harmonious and orderly functioning of the god-given peace which
guarantees life, growth, survival in creation.
Bearing in mind this world-view and the essential features of ATR,
let us now try to understand how peace is conceived in ATR.
4. Peace: A Religious and Moral Value
In traditional African societies, peace is not an abstract poetic
concept, but rather a down-to-earth and practical concept. In ATR peace is
conceived not in relation to conflict and war, but in relation to order, harmony
and equilibrium. It is a religious value in that the order, harmony and
equilibrium in the universe and society is believed to be divinely established
and the obligation to maintain them is religious. It is also a moral value since
good conduct is required of human beings if the order, harmony and equilibrium
are to be maintained.
a) Peace as Fullness of Life
It was earlier noted that the promotion and enhancement of life is the central
principle of African traditional morality. The goal of all moral conduct is
therefore the fullness of life. Human life is considered full in Africa when it
is marked by spiritual, material, and social blessings; when the network of
relations with the spiritual, human and material beings is as it should be. And
this is what is meant by peace in ATR. “Peace is good relationship well lived;
health, absence of pressure and conflict, being strong and prosperous...
Peace is the totality of well-being: fullness of life here and hereafter, what
the Yoruba call alafia…[that is] ‘the sum total of all that man may desire: an
undisturbed harmonious life.’” If one is therefore lacking in any of the
basic things that are considered essential to life in an African society (like
good health, a wife or a husband, children, means of sustenance of one’s family)
or if one, though possessing these things, does not enjoy a good relationship
with the other members of the community (living or dead), one cannot be said to
have peace. Mere material wealth or progress that is not accompanied by an
integral moral life is neither regarded as fullness of life nor is it envied in
traditional African societies. Any action that is capable of hindering another
from attaining the fullness of life is considered a breach of peace. A selfish
or unjust person, even when he or she is not violent, is anti-social and is
therefore regarded by the Africans as an enemy of peace. In the Kikuyu litany of
peace which we recited at the beginning, Ngai is asked for some of the things
associated with the fullness of life: increase in population, prosperity not
only of the people, but also of the flock and the herds, freedom from illness
and a fertile land.
b) Peace as the Result of Harmonious Living
Harmony is a fundamental category in traditional African religion
and thought. No attempt is made to deny or cancel out differences, rather all
effort is devoted to finding a way in which differences can continue to
harmoniously co-exists. In personal life, such a harmony consists in the ability
to reconcile one’s desires with one’s means, coordinate one’s thoughts,
sentiments and their verbal expressions as well as the ability to discharge
one’s religious and social duties. One who is able to do this will experience
inner peace. In the community, harmony entails smooth relationships between
persons and other beings.
The goal of interaction of beings in African world-views is the maintenance of
the integration and balance of the beings in it [the world]. Harmonious
interaction of beings leads to the mutual strengthening of the beings involved,
and enhances the growth of life. A pernicious influence from one being weakens
other beings and threatens the harmony and integration of the whole.
Turning again to our opening prayer, we notice the centrality of harmony in the
prayer for peace: elders speaking with one voice, tranquillity, agreement
between the gourd cup and the vessel and the banishment of every ill word. These
are all fundamental requirements for the realization of the peace prayed for.
Since human beings come in different shapes, sizes and with all sorts of
different ideas in their heads, traditional African societies go to great
lengths in trying to accommodate the various opinions of their members. Africans
are known for their long drawn-out village discussions (les parlabres
africaines) in search of consensus. The terms “majority” and “minority” have
little place in traditional African debates, since the goal is always to take
everybody along in any decision that will be binding on all. And in the interest
of harmony, the discussion is continued until the last sceptic has been won
over. It often happens that the few who do not share the opinion of the many
voluntarily give up theirs, still in the interest of harmony.
Any person who causes a breach on the harmonious co-existence of the
members of the community is made to make up for it through just reparation or
restitution, depending on the offence committed. We may recall here what was
said earlier about justice. In ATR peace in the community cannot be separated
from justice. Peter Sarpong underlines this inseparable relationship between
justice and peace within the context of Ashanti culture: “Justice produces
peace… there can be no peace without justice… Peace is honourable… peace can
never be achieved when you are disgraced or when you disgrace another person.
People must relate to one another on equal terms.” And Theophilus Okere,
writing about the Igbo goes even further. He says: “Peace is not something that
happens but rather a situation that arises when justice happens. It is a happy
state of things that happens when the state of things is just… the result of
order and right alignment… It is not only that peace is based on justice,
rather, peace is justice and justice is peace.” The unwritten moral code of
the Africans contains not only things that are forbidden but also things that
must be done as compensation and in reparation for the injury which immoral
conduct inflicts on individuals and on the society at large. Such compensation
and reparation are usually based on past experiences. People are usually at a
loss when a person commits a sin or an immoral act hitherto unknown in the
The harmony that is to be maintained for humans to experience peace
is not only social but also spiritual and cosmic.
A man’s well-being consists… in keeping in harmony with the cosmic totality.
When things go well with him he knows he is at peace and of a piece with the
scheme of things and there can be no greater good than that. If things go wrong
then somewhere he has fallen out of step… The whole system of divination exists
to help him discover the point at which the harmony has been broken and how it
may be restored.
In many African societies, there are specific periods of the year marked out for
the promotion of peace. During this period, which may last for a week or a
month, litigations are suspended while quarrels and all forms of violent and
unjust acts are avoided for fear of incurring the wrath of God, the deities and
the ancestors. This sacred period sometimes precedes the planting season and
it is believed that any breach which is not adequately atoned for would lead to
a poor harvest. If a person breaks either the spiritual or the cosmic harmony,
the lack of peace that ensues reverts on the entire community. Sometimes
individual reparations in terms of sacrifices are not enough to restore the
harmony and all the members of the community are called upon to right the wrong.
There is thus a strong sense of the social dimension of immoral conduct. Sin is
often only apparently a private affair as the following story illustrates.
Once upon a time, a squirrel sat on a palm tree, eating palm fruits with gusto.
He was so delighted by the meal he was having that he sang loudly and cracked
the nuts very noisily. Under the tree, a python was trying to get some rest.
Unable to sleep because of the noise the squirrel was making, the serpent called
out to his little friend, asking him to be more reasonable. “My dear friend,”
said the python to the squirrel, “could you please make less noise. Look, you
have disturbed my sleep with the noise you are making up there.” To which the
squirrel replied: “Why are you so intolerant? If you are sleeping, it is because
you have had your fill. Now that I want to put something in my little stomach,
you are already complaining.” “This is not a question of intolerance, my dear,”
the python continued. “I am only asking you to be considerate of others. Nobody
denies you the right to eat. But that does not mean you have to disturb
everybody else while eating. Besides, the noise you are making could put us in
some trouble.” “Listen to that!” shouted the squirrel as it burst out laughing.
He laughed so vigorously that he nearly fell from the palm tree. Then he
continued: “I am here above, you are there below, and you tell me that what I am
doing up here could put you in trouble down there. Come on, do not make yourself
ridiculous.” There was also a cocoa-yam plant nearby. It had only one leaf. At
this point the cocoa-yam leaf joined the discussion and said to the squirrel:
“Yes dear, the python is right. The noise you are making could be dangerous for
us all.” The squirrel, visibly irritated, shouted: “Won’t you keep quiet there?
Who called you into this? If you guys want to climb up here, feel free to do so.
There are enough fruits for us all. Otherwise, you should let me eat my meal in
peace. Whatever I do here is strictly my business and should there be any
danger, it would be only for me, not for you. Period!” Thus, the squirrel
continued to enjoy his favourite meal of palm fruits, singing louder than ever
At that very moment, a hunter who was passing by was attracted by the
noise that the squirrel was making. Looking up, he saw the little animal, lost
in his meal, oblivious of the world beyond the palm fruits. The hunter drew
nearer the palm tree, took aim and with a single explosion from his gun, the
squirrel came tumbling down to the bottom of the tree. As the hunter bent down
to pick his game, he saw the big serpent lying nearby. He drew back sharply and
with the agility of a good hunter, he quickly drew his sword and killed the
python. The sudden sight of the python was sufficiently scaring even to this
daring hunter. It made him perspire. While cleaning the perspiration from his
brows, he thought of how to carry the dead animals, since his hunting bag was
two small for the two. Then he caught sight of the large cocoa-yam leaf. With a
smile of relief, he cut the leaf and with it made a neat parcel of the squirrel
and the python. So it was that the noise made by the squirrel caused the death
of all three: the squirrel, the python and the cocoa-yam leaf.
On the theme of peace one sees very clearly the very close relationship existing
between religion and morality in Africa. Immoral or bad behaviour disturbs the
peace of the community: it makes the ancestors angry, provokes the divinities
and may even annoy God. This explains why “one of the main means of restoring
peace in society is to find out what has gone wrong spiritually, and through
special rituals to restore the state of equilibrium.”
Of all the breaches of social and cosmic harmony in traditional
Africa, interrupting human life (whether one’s own or another’s), which the
harmony is meant to enable and promote, is about the most serious. Life is
sacred. It comes from God and God alone has the right to interrupt it at any
stage. Spilling of human blood defiles the murder and the earth. There is a
difficult case in some local African cultures about the treatment of strangers.
Whereas the killing of a kinsman, even inadvertently, is always a grave crime,
when it comes to strangers, several distinctions are made. Limited space here
does not allow us to go into details. It seems however to be a widespread moral
norm in Africa that one has to be hospitable to strangers, especially when they
come quietly and peacefully. This is because, although kinship relations are
usually clearly defined, Africans believe that all human beings are children of
God. In some cultures, like among the Yoruba, it is even believed that creation
took place in a definite location, Ile-Ife, and that all humans ultimately
originate from there. The so-called stranger is thus sometimes regarded only as
an unknown relative. Furthermore, given that divinities often take human forms
to bring some important messages to communities, one is careful not to harm a
stranger for fear of unknowingly harming a divinity, with all the consequences
that would definitely come in its trail. African hospitality is proverbial and,
with the benefit of a hindsight, some even think that it has cost Africans their
continent. Nevertheless, strangers are frequently victims of kidnappings and
killings, and those captured during warfare were often used for ritual purposes
in those rare and extreme cases where human sacrifice was deemed expedient. Yet,
human life, all human life, is still regarded as sacred. Even though some
distinction is made between the killing of a kinsman and the killing of a
stranger, killing, even in wars, is usually abhorred. The warrior may be hailed
for his valour and for defending his land and its people, yet he is still
considered defiled by the blood he spills at the war front and in some
localities warriors are not allowed back into the community after a war until
they have undergone ritual purification. The courageous and the brave man is
admired and respected in the community because his courage and bravery may be
needed when the society is threatened from outside. But to expose one’s life or
that of other persons to unnecessary danger is never regarded as a sign of
courage or bravery. Similarly, the warrior is also expected to be
self-disciplined. No intimidation of innocent or disadvantaged persons is
War was usually not sought for its own sake. Even in the event of
provocation by a neighbouring community, attempt was first made to negotiate and
resolve the problem without resorting to armed conflict. There were, of
course, several inter-clan wars and raids in Africa ever before the slave trade,
colonial conquests, neo-colonialism, and now globalization, raised them to
dimensions never dreamt of in traditional African societies and made them
permanent features of the reality of contemporary Africa. But the traditional
religious view of life makes war always morally unacceptable, since it is a
total collapse of social and cosmic order and harmony. Traditional Africans know
this well enough. But as Sarpong rightly points out, “in the realm of moral
value… mere knowledge is not power.”
c) Peace as a Gift of God
Since human beings are aware of their limitations in attaining and
maintaining peace in their persons and within their societies and also aware of
the fact that God is the source of universal order and harmony, they regularly
turn to him to ask for peace. While recognizing their co-responsibility in this
regard, traditional Africans equally believe that true peace is a gift of God.
One of the main purposes of sacrifices and offerings is expiation. Expiatory
sacrifices are supposed to make up for an evil act, remove an abomination,
placate the deserved wrath of God, the divinities or the ancestors and thus
restore the equilibrium that was disturbed by the sinful act. In offering
expiatory sacrifices, human beings are asking God and the other spiritual beings
to intervene and help restore the peace that has been violated. “The fundamental
meaning of sacrifices and offerings,” writes Laurenti Magesa, “lies in their
efficacy to restore wholeness. If wrong-doing causes a dangerous separation of
the various elements of the universe, sacrifices and offerings aim to
reestablish unity and restore balance.” Sometimes, sacrifices and offerings
are made explicitly to ask for peace even when no infringement of a religious
moral norm has occurred, or to ward off the evil spirits capable of harming
Whereas sacrifices and offerings come at intervals, prayers are very frequent
indeed. And peace is a regular item on the Africans’ list of petitions.
The following is an example of a morning prayer said by the Boran of
O God, thou hast let me pass the night in peace,
Let me pass the day in peace.
Wherever I may go
Upon my way which thou madest peaceable for me,
O God, lead my steps.
When I have spoken,
Keep off calumny from me.
When I am hungry,
Keep me from murmuring.
When I am satisfied,
Keep me from pride.
Calling upon thee, I pass the day,
O Lord who hast no Lord.
A corresponding prayer, which could actually be regarded as the conclusion of
the morning prayer, is said when one retires at the end of the day:
O God, thou hast let me pass the day in peace,
Let me pass the night in peace,
O Lord who hast no Lord.
There is no strength but in thee.
Thou alone hast no obligation.
Under thy hand I pass the night.
Thou art my mother and my father.
While addressing their prayers for peace to God, the Boran are not silent over
the role that humans themselves must play for them to obtain what they ask of
God. Calumny, murmuring and pride are listed as obstacles to peace, for they are
capable of upsetting the harmony in the community.
Even when peace is not directly mentioned in prayer, it is often implied in the
intentions which have to do with life in abundance and divine justice. An
example of such can be seen in the following morning prayer of an Igbo
paterfamilias while offering and breaking kola nut:
Olisa, the long-sighted one,
You hold both the yam and the knife,
Whomsoever you give a piece will eat.
Grant us health;
Grant us long life;
Give us food and drink.
Bless our children:
May the father train his child;
And may the child in turn take care of his father.
May it work out for everyone according to his thoughts:
Whoever thinks good, may it be good for him;
But may evil follow the one who thinks evil.
Like in every other aspect of the religious life of the Africans, the divinities
and the ancestors are very close collaborators of God in the administration of
the universe and especially of human affairs. Prayers and sacrifices are also
directed to them in order to obtain peace. Besides, since all are involved in
watching over the moral order, they are also guardians of peace. “They all
uphold righteousness, kindness and holiness – the very essence of peace.”
Part of the religious functions of family heads and political
leaders in most traditional African societies is peace-making: settling
disputes, offering sacrifices and prayers for peace. Similarly, peace-making is
a major task of religious functionaries. Among the Nuer of Sudan, a sacred
person with no political authority (the leopard-skin-chief) acts as the chief
arbiter in settling disputes. It is on this ground that Robert Rweyemamu
says (and I agree):
In African traditional religions the peace-maker represents divine power on the
one hand and social harmony on the other. In his person he expresses the divine
origin of peace, a peace that is associated with the virtues of loyalty, honesty
and trust in God.
If an Igbo, a Nuer or a Dinka had been in the audience when Jesus delivered the
sermon on the mount, he would have recorded the seventh beatitude in the Gospel
according to Matthew as: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are [not shall
be called] sons of God.”
d) Peace as a Precondition for Progress
If justice is the prerequisite for peace, peace is the precondition
for progress. Africans of all creeds hardly ever talk of progress without
founding it on peace. A Yoruba song expresses this in very simple and straight
terms: “I want to build a home/ I want to have children… Without peace, these
things are impossible.” In a culture that sees progress as divine blessing,
it is impossible to think of true progress in the midst of moral, social and
cosmic disorder. From what was said earlier regarding peace as the fullness of
life, it may appear that one who has peace already has everything and does not
need to make any further progress. If one’s life is already full, nothing can be
added to it. In reality, however, this kind of fullness of life is never totally
realizable in this life. The Igbo have a rhetorical question that has become a
name and also a proverb: “Onye ka o zuuru?” (For whom is everything perfect?)
The answer is emphatic: “Nobody!” The best that one can hope to obtain in this
life is only an approximation of the fullness of life. This then always allows
some room for progress. When an individual or the community has peace within,
the terrain is prepared for yet more peace, and this brings the individual or
the community closer to the fullness of life. This is the true meaning of
progress. It is just another word for more peace. And there cannot be more peace
unless there is some peace already.
5. Conclusion: Prospects for World Peace from the Perspective of African
Traditional Religion and Culture
In a world so full of injustice, so short of harmony among humans as
well as between humans and God, the divinities, the ancestors and other beings
in the universe; in a world where billions profess faith in God but few have any
regard for the divinely established moral order; in a world where human blood
flows constantly like steams and so many innocent lives are taken in many ways,
some violently and some subtly; in such a world as ours today, what
possibilities does African traditional religion see for peace? How can humanity
purify our blood-soaked earth? Where will humanity begin to make restitution and
reparation for the injustices and the imbalance resulting from the permanent
exclusion of the weak majority by the powerful minority? The picture looks so
dark and world peace as it is understood in ATR may seem impossible. But it is
not so. Adherents of ATR know that some injuries can never be fully repaired.
With regard to the loss of human life, for example, the only complete
restitution that could be made would be the restoration of the dead person to
life – which is not possible. Hence, Africans readily admit that reparations and
restitutions are in most cases only symbolic. What is important and
indispensable is the admission of guilt on the part of the offending person,
accompanied by a declaration of the readiness to make reparation and at least a
symbolic gesture of restitution. For there to be peace in the world today and
tomorrow, human beings must face the issue of justice; there must be some
confession of guilt and some form of reparation. There has to be some form of
ritual cleansing for every human life that has ended through the agency of human
beings. When they disagree, humans must be prepared to reason it out rather than
fight it out. Above all, humans must recognize their total dependence on God and
their mutual dependence on one another.
It is often argued that because humans are by nature competitive and aggressive,
there will always be wars as long as there are up to two human beings on earth.
However, a closer study of human nature shows that humans are so constituted
that they naturally seek the friendship and cooperation of their neighbours. By
nature, the human person is an open being. This openness, makes the person
constantly reach out to the other. Human beings are so made by nature that they
can only realize themselves and their common destiny in collaboration with one
another. The breakdown of this collaboration is a distortion of the natural
order. The uneasy feeling that normally accompanies a quarrel or a fight may be
a pointer to this fact. For it does seem that no creature feels uneasy in its
natural state. If humans feel so uneasy when they quarrel or fight, it may be
because it is not natural for them to do so. And what can be said of individual
persons can also be said of nations, and other groups of persons.
Competition and aggression are not quite the same, even though the former has
the potential of degenerating into the latter. Competition seems to be the
communitarian form of the person’s natural tendency to move beyond already
realized goals. Human beings may be naturally competitive, but they are not
naturally aggressive. Aggressive behaviour is often a result of the failure of
reason, and extreme aggressiveness is sometimes a symptom of ill health. If
today this aggressive behaviour has become so widespread and so
institutionalized, the cause has to be sought not in human nature itself but in
the unbridled greed of some. For, as Frank Buchman rightly said: “There is
enough in the world for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”
The sharing commanded by African traditional moral norms is capable of keeping
competition healthy and preventing it from degenerating into aggression. Rather
than force Africans to abandon their traditional moral and religious values of
sharing and communion to embrace the individualistic and aggressive attitude of
some other culture, the rest of the world should learn these values from the
Africans and humanity in general will be enriched. Is it possible to globalize
some African moral and religious values, or are we resigned to a unidirectional
globalization of values and non-values?
I started this reflection with a prayer. I would also like to end it
with a prayer, a rather short and dense one. It is a prayer of the Serer in
Senegal which, in my opinion, sums up all that we have seen so far about the
meaning of peace in African traditional religion and culture. It acknowledges
that God is the source of peace; that peace means fullness of life in this world
and in the world to come – a life that is long and deep, that is, based on real
and not ephemeral values. Our concluding prayer recognizes that peace is a
result of the harmonious co-existence of all human beings on earth, of all
possible colours, and it asks for a spiritual guide (represented by a white hen)
in our journey towards humanity’s final home, designated in the prayer as the
May God grant us peace and health of the body,
Let the black and red people live on earth in peace
And live in the world to come in joyful heart
May our life be long and deep
And a white hen guide our way towards heaven (the sky).
 I found two versions of this prayer, one in Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the
Religious Traditions of Africa, Oxford University Press, Nairobi 1975, pp.
125-126 and the other in John S. Mbiti, The Prayers of African Religion, SPCK,
London 1975, pp. 162-163, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace (An
Experience with African Traditions)”, Studia missionalia, 38 (1989), p. 394. I
took the version offered by Mbiti but added some lines (enclosed in square
brackets) found in the version by Shorter but missing in Mbiti’s.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace (with Special
Reference to Ashanti),” Studia missionalia, 38 (1989), pp. 351.
 E. Bolaji Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, SCM Press,
London 1973, pp. 180-182.
 John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, Heinemann, London 1988, pp.
 Laurenti Magesa, African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life,
Orbis, Maryknoll 1997, p. 65.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 361.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 356.
 Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 391
 Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 381.
 J. S. Awolalu, The Yoruba Philosophy of Life, in Présence Africaine, 1970,
p. 21, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 382.
 Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies of African Religions, IMICO
Publishers, Onitsha (Nigeria) 1987, p. 78.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace (with Special
Reference to Ashanti),” Studia missionalia, 38 (1989), pp. 353-355.
 Theophilus Okere, “The Kite May Perch, the Eagle May Perch: Egbe Bere Ugo
Bere – An African Concept of Peace and Justice,” Paper read at the World
Congress for Philosophers, “International Philosophers for Peace,” Boston
University, 1998, pp. 9-10. The expression “Egbe bere ugo bere; nke sị ibe ya
ebela, nku kwaa ya” – “May the kite perch and may the eagle perch; whichever
says the other must not perch, may its wing break,” is common in Igbo morning
and community prayers. See Francis A. Arinze, Sacrifice in Ibo Religion, Ibadan
University Press, Ibadan 1970, pp. 25 & 104; Marius Chukwuemeka Obiagwu, Our
Praying Fathers, pp. 40-41.
 Chinua Achebe mentions the situation in a clan where no one knew the
punishment prescribed for one who intentionally killed the sacred python, since
no one ever imagined that it could ever happen. See Chinua Achebe, Things Fall
Apart, Anchor Books, New York 1994, pp. 157-158. There was also the recent case
of a Maasai man whose gnitalia were completely bitten off by his angry jealous
wife. In addition to his physical pain, the man was also in a state of total
confusion because nobody knew what reparation could be made for such a crime. It
never happened before. As the victim told a BBC reporter “If you kill somebody
you must pay 49 cows, even if you’ve removed somebody’s tooth – it’s one sheep.
But this has never happened to a Maasai.” With no precedence to follow, members
of his family “planned to slaughter a sheep in the homestead in order to remove
any dangers of a curse.” Story accessed electronically at
 J. V. Taylor, The Primal Vision, S.C.M. Press, London 1963, p. 67, quoted
in Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies of African Religions, p. 79.
 An example of the sacred week of peace is given in Chinua Achebe, Things
Fall Apart, Anchor Books, New York 1994, pp. 29-32.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 360.
 See Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart, pp. 9-12.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 365.
 Francis A. Arinze, Sacrifice in Ibo Religion, Ibadan University Press,
Ibadan 1970, pp. 34-37.
 Laurenti Magesa, African Religion, p. 203.
 Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa, p. 122.
 Aylward Shorter, Prayer in the Religious Traditions of Africa, pp. 122-123.
 Marius Chukwuemeka Obiagwu, Our Praying Fathers: Prayer in Alor Traditional
Religion, Exercitatio Practica, Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, Privately
published by the Author, Rome 1983, pp. 39-40. This English translation from the
Igbo is mine and is slightly different from the one offered in the text.
 Peter K. Sarpong, “African Traditional Religion and Peace,” p. 359.
 Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 376.
 Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 376.
 Cf. Matthew 5: 9 (RSV).
 J. S. Awolalu, The Yoruba Philosophy of Life, in Présence Africaine, 1970,
p. 21, quoted in Robert Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 383.
 H. Gravrand, in Présence Africaine, 1962, p. 70, quoted in Robert
Rweyemamu, “Religion and Peace,” p. 400.
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