African traditional worldviews are diverse. After all, Africa is not a single country but a continent with 54 sovereign countries. Some countries are inside another country. And others are surrounded by an ocean. Importantly, each country has more than a dozen distinct cultures.
Oftentimes, each culture has a distinct language, geographic location, and religion. Thus, people from different parts of a country or people who speak different languages normally have different worldviews. That is, they view and interpret the world differently.
The differences in African traditional worldviews is often shown by differences in cultural practices. For example, in Shona cultures, you shake hands with the bereaved at a funeral. But if you do that at a Ndebele funeral it’s unacceptable and disrespectful. Because a handshake is reserved for happy moments.
However, cultural practices are a tip of the iceberg. Beneath the handshake often lies a monstrous root. That is a lifetime of lessons on ethics and morals. So, being conversant with cultural practices doesn’t mean you understand the African traditional worldviews.
Regrettably, this is the mistake some missionaries make. They learn a local language, which is good. And master the cultural practices of their host community. But then assume they understand the worldview of the community. But a good captain of a ship knows you don’t judge an iceberg by its tip.
5 Characteristics of African Traditional Worldviews You Need To Know
Although diverse, studies by theologians such as John Mbiti and Yusuf Turaki have shown African traditional worldviews share similar key characteristics. I believe it is important for both local and international workers to understand these key characteristics as they answer their God-given call for missions.
1. Belief in Supreme Creator
African traditional worldviews are unique because they’re deeply religious. The Supreme Creator is central in how we view the world. Therefore, most of the ‘unreached people’ in Africa have a concept of God. Hence, as a worker, you should try to learn if the local concept of God is Biblical.
2. Belief in many divinities
Some objects and places are often viewed as sacred. For example, I grew up hearing of the sacredness of Chewore River in Hurungwe, Zimbabwe. And we were told some behaviors were not permissible in that river. But looking back, I realize the laws were nothing but a way of avoiding polluting the river. However, some people worshipped the river gods and credit them for their prosperity.
3. Belief in spirit beings
Oftentimes, Christian workers have become agents of the disenchantment of the African continent. African traditional worldviews acknowledge the existence of spiritual beings; good and bad. Good spirits are the ones responsible for any good fortune, evil spirits for bad fortune. However, some Christians believe bad spirits are the one that can make them sin.
4. Hierarchy of spiritual beings and powers
This is the belief that both demons and angels have hierarchies. Isn’t that what the Bible teaches? However, the key difference lies on the identities of the spirit beings. Whereas in the Bible they are created by God, in African traditional worldviews they are normally spirits of the dead. The oldest ancestor is believed to be closer to the Supreme Creator. The problem with such belief is it creates distance between the Creator and the believers.
5. Belief in impersonal powers
The power of the Spirit beings and divinities is often believed to be accessible to a certain few – spirit mediums. Everyone else can access these impersonal powers as charms or omelets. However, when an African becomes a Christian belief in personal powers may persist. Hence, unhealthy view of the Bible and the purpose of Christian disciplines may arise.
Seeing beneath the tip of the African traditional worldviews iceberg
Spiritism is like the skin color of African traditional worldviews. It is the first thing you see when you’re first confronted with African cultural practices. However, beneath the Spiritism is a longing for a distant Supreme Being. But if you focus on spiritism you might miss out on the heart cry of the local African people.
Because spiritism is merely a tip of the iceberg. African traditional religions morph into other complex beliefs such as dynamism, holism, and communalism. After a year living in an African village, you won’t fully understand how the lives of local people are influenced positively and sometimes negatively by:
- Holism – the belief that a person is not just physical but spiritual too.
- Communalism – the belief that we are in this together.
- Dynamism – the longing to bridge the gap between the spirit realm and the physical.
A missionary in Mayamba, Hurungwe often ask local Christians about local cultural practices. This might not be helpful because most Christians were taught their culture is evil. However, visiting a local beer hall and sitting with non-Christian elders at a funeral might offer more valuable information.
If you love books, Christian books on mission work by your foreign peers might not be very useful. You need to read local Christians and organizations such as Langham Partnership are at the forefront developing local authors and preachers. They understand local people know the culture better because it’s their way of life.
Besides reading local theologians and listening to local preachers, read local non-Christian writers. Read their memoirs, novels, and even history textbooks. Reading Paul’s letters and Luke’s historical account, you can notice that the apostles studied local cultures. Above all, they trained local leaders. Isn’t this the ultimate purpose of missions?