“Who made the Drum knows what is inside it”
INTERPRETING SACRED MESSAGES IN PLURALIST CONTEXTS.
The Example of Adherents of African Traditional Religion
By CHIDI DENIS ISIZOH
INTERPRETING SACRED MESSAGES IN PLURALIST CONTEXTS.
The Example of Adherents of African Traditional Religion
By CHIDI DENIS ISIZOH
Ogbunike is a small town in Eastern Nigeria, known generally by name and not because of any special characteristics of the people. It is famous in the area because of a natural cave which, in the local language, is called Ogba. Inside this cave, it is believed that, many years ago, a powerful divinity lived. Historians dispute whether it is the divinity’s name that is Ogbaor that of the cave. Whichever is the case, one of the prevailing opinions is that it was from Ogbathat the town got its name.
But why do I talk about this town? The reason is simple. It was there that I was born. There I spent a good number of my childhood days. I talk about the town because Christianity reached the people towards the end of the 19th century: first, the members of the Anglican Church Missionary Society arrived in 1890, and then, the Catholic Holy Ghost Missionaries followed in 1912. By the end of the 20th century over 90% of the people were Christians. The people of this town received the Gospel preached by divided Christianity – Protestants and Catholics.
For a good part of the early period of Christianity in the town, Protestants emphasized the use of the Bible. Catholics relied on the preaching of the Missionaries, who generally discouraged the reading of the Bible. I remember some of the Protestants coming to my home to challenge us to prove some of the practices and traditions of the Catholic Church from the Bible. We did not have answers because we were given the impression by some of the missionaries that quoting from the Bible, carrying the Bible around, and reading vernacular translations of the Bible would be an indication that we were about to join the Protestants.
It was great relief when, after the second Vatican Council, Catholics were positively encouraged to read the Bible, even in local languages. But we did not yet have answers to the questions, which our Protestant brothers and sisters posed to us concerning some of the practices of the Catholic Church. It was here that a Dominican Priest, Father Jude Mbukamma, came to our help with the pamphlet he published in the local language, Oleenga o di n’Akwukwo Nso? (Where is it in the Bible?). In it, he listed various practices, which Catholics were taught to follow without any reference to Biblical sources. He then gave Biblical quotations to support each. We devoured every line of the pamphlet and went out to face those who wanted proofs from the Bible for our practices and traditions. It worked! At least, we could provide biblical quotations to support what we were doing.
Eventually we began to use the same Bible to tell the Followers of African Traditional Religion around us that what they were worshiping were idols. We called them pagans and looked down on their religion. Our understanding at that stage was that because they had no Scriptures, their religion was inferior or even no religion at all.
It took us many more years to begin to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: What makes a religion a religion? Does the possession of a sacred book make a religion a religion? Or, is a religion first a religion before sacred books come?
The Scripture of every religion we know began at some point as oral tradition. How the contents of the oral tradition came to be written down is and has always been a very important theme for theological reflection and writing on revelation and divine inspiration of the sacred books. Jesse Mugambi writes:
The written form of a text is always a reduction from its articulated form, whether the articulation is through orality or gesticulation, as is done in sign-language. There has been a tendency to regard literacy as an end in itself, especially among the elite.
And Peter K. Sarpong gives the following interesting testimony:
A religion is not a religion or a high religion because its tenets are written down. On the contrary, the tenets are written down because it is already a religion. To, as it were, insist on the book as the evidence of religion or, worse still, classify a religion as great or small on the basis of scripture would appear to be wrong.
Yet we have entered the paper culture. What is written down is glorified. Some take what they read in the newspapers as the Gospel-truth. We need certificates to prove our ability. We require tickets to board a plane. If at the last checkpoint we do not produce the boarding card, we cannot enter the plane. We insist on receipts.
These pieces of paper are needed for empirical reasons. They may serve as records for the future. They remind us of what has happened. They help to prevent mistakes. But, by and large, they indicate the decadence of the present age. In most cases they are meant to prevent fraud. We are in a world where one could, without any qualms of conscience; pose as a medical doctor when one does not know the first letter of the dictionary of anatomy. Without a ticket or a boarding pass, few would feel obliged to pay for their travels. So in a way, written evidence exhibits the worst in humanity.
Religions with scripture make sure that their teachings are not distorted, and that they are obeyed. This does not make them, therefore, superior to others.
African Traditional Religion (ATR) is one of the religions without “canonical” scriptures. Has it sacred messages? The answer is definitely “yes”. Where can these messages be found? What is the attitude of the followers of the religion towards such sacred messages? It is in attempting to answer these questions that I hope to contribute to the discussion on the theme “Reading the Scriptures in Pluralist Contexts” or should I say “Interpreting Sacred Messages in Pluralist Contexts” in order to accommodate the religions that do not have sacred scriptures.
SETTING THE CONTEXT
It seems to me important to say at the very beginning of my presentation that Africa is not a monolithic society. There is a tendency for some writers to make sweeping statements about Africa, African society, and ATR and culture. There are remarkable differences in religious expressions among various ethnic and religious groups from Cairo to Cape Town and from Dakar to Djibouti.
This paper will not discuss these differences, which are so many. It will not even cover the entire continent. Perhaps it is advisable that I only bite off as much as I can chew. I would like to present some samplings from the situation found among some peoples of sub-Saharan Africa.
In this chosen area, despite the differences, many points of unity can be detected. There is deference to the Supreme Being and spiritual forces. Generally, the word religion is not translated literally into local languages. In talking about religion, what instead is expressed is what the people do. It is a way of living: way of giving birth, way of weaning a child, way of eating, way of dancing, way of working, etc. From cradle to grave a traditional African follows this way.
My fieldwork has again and again confirmed that most Africans see life in its wholeness. Every human activity has its religious implication. It is worth noting that some of the home videos produced in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and, perhaps South Africa, frequently feature religious themes in the scenes. There is almost always a spiritual solution to every problem.
Understanding this African religious orientation and religiosity is a key to explaining the attitude of followers of ATR toward the Supreme Being, spirits and sacred messages in their religion and in any religion at all. At the centre of it all is the Supreme Being, the creator of the world.
The Ngombe (Congo) word Edandalacaptures the fairly common African image of the Supreme Being. God is the unexplainable. Like the proverbial blind people touching an elephant and describing it from each person’s feel of it, human beings cannot exhaustively describe the Supreme Being. God isNjinyi or Nui - He who is everywhere, He who sees and hears everything (Bamum, Cameroon), Ebangala-e-mokonda - the One who began the forest (Ngombe, Congo), Borebore - Excavator, Originator, Inventor, Carver, Architect (Akan, Ghana). In almost all African societies, God is the creator: Mumbi (Akamba, Kenya), Cuta (Ambo, Zambia) Kagingo (Ganda, Uganda), and uDali (Xhosa, South Africa). As the creator, he acts freely. He is Distributor of gifts (Mwatuangi), Owner of everything (Bigirimana), Owner of all powers (Nyeninganyi). He is Kamanyimanyi - Omniscient (Tumbuka, Malawi).
According to the Tenda people of Guinea, God is Hounounga – the Unknown (Tenda, Guinea).After a long research, John Mbiti came up with the following conclusion:
God is described as shrouded with a mystery deeper than can be fathomed. His real nature is absolutely unknown, so that even his personal name is also a mystery. To know his proper name would in effect amount to penetrating into his mysteriousness and incomprehensibleness. People might, and indeed do, know some of his activities and manifestations, but of his essence they know nothing. It is a paradox that they "know" him. He is not a stranger to them, and yet they are estranged from him; he knows them, but they do not know him. So God confronts men as the mysterious and incomprehensible, indescribable, and beyond human vocabulary. He is the Mystery of mysteries, the Marvel of marvels, the very Mysterium Tremendum par excellence.
This sense of awe before God evokes in traditional Africans profound respect for God, which demands some distance and occasional approach through a proxy. Some attributes of God are personified as divinities or divine spirits. There are also in the spiritual realm spirits (good and bad) and ancestors. Mentioning the presence of these last two could confuse outsiders, who may consider it as evidence of polytheism. Yet distinction is made among many ethnic groups between God, on the one hand, and the divinities and spirits, on the other.
Through his manifestations, God is in everyday life and is of practical importance. God is the Leaf that covers the whole world; the Fountain of water that never dries up, the Source of full satisfaction. All the essentials of living (“cultivation, beer-making, and cooking”), according to the Acholi people of Uganda, are taught them by God. For animal rearers of Akamba in Kenya, God gave them cows, goats and sheep.
SACRED MESSAGES IN ATR
This God in ATR speaks. There are expressions to affirm this: ŋwinyéle (God speaks), Alèwi-lêşe(“The one who says and does”). OkwuChukwuandOlaOjoboth mean “word of God”.
God speaks through special events and circumstances in life, natural phenomenon, in dreams, etc. He speaks from the sacred caves, by means of echoes and through such manifestation as thunder. The Lango people of Uganda affirm that in one of his manifestations, God speaks their language. The Lunda people hold that “God speaks to the weak whom he also protects and aids”.
TRANSMISSION OF SACRED MESSAGES IN ATR
Like Christian biblical stories, some of the themes that feature in ATR sacred messages include: origin of the world and human beings, destiny of human beings, use of the earth’s resources, family life, taboos, true religious devotion, etc. Most of these are transmitted through folklore stories and songs.
Oracles and other solemn messages are often transmitted through religious officers: Inyanga, UkoChukwu, Sangoma, Babalawo, Dibia, etc. These are traditional priests, healers, etc. They are divine agents/bearers of sacred messages and are highly respected in African societies, though their authorities vary from place to place. Those who serve at the shrines of more powerful deities enjoy pre-eminence in the society. But, all in all, divine messengers are treated with great respect in most African societies.
God spoke to African ancestors and He still communicates to the people of today. His sacred messages are not written on papyrus or paper or tablet of wood/stone but in the hearts of the believers. The patrimony of the sacred messages in African Traditional Religion is preserved in the collective memory of the people and passed down from one generation to another in personal names, through folklore stories, proverbs, symbols and rituals. A father transmits to the children what he has learnt from his own father. Elders in the society teach the younger generation about the ethos of the community; taboos; how to please God, appease the Spirits and ancestors; and their history, etc.
ATTITUDE TOWARDS SACRED MESSAGES
I would like to illustrate how sacred messages are received in a typical African traditional religious setting. My mind goes to a scene from Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, the best known and read African English literature, to illustrate the attitude of followers of ATR to sacred messages. Although the story in this book is a fiction, what is described is rooted in the experiences from many African villages. The response may vary from place to place, but the basic points here apply universally in Africa, and particularly in West Africa.
Agbala, the divinity of the hills and cave, wants to see Ezinma the daughter of a traditional Chief, called Okonkwo. The divinity sends the Priestess Chinelo. The name of the mother of Ezinmais Ekwefi. The Priestess arrives in Okonkwo’s compound and has the following verbal exchange with the family members:
“Okonkwo, Agbalagreets you…. Agbalawants to see your daughter Ezinma.”
(Okonkwo pleads with the Priestess that the girl has been ill of late and is already asleep.)
“Beware Okonkwo! Beware of exchanging words with Agbala. Does a man speak when a god speaks?”
(The Priestess moves to the hut of the mother of Ezinma. Okonkwo follows, resigned to the will of Agbala)
Now another exchange takes place between the Priestess and Ekwefi (mother of Ezinma).
“Ekwefi, Agbala greets you. Where is my daughter Ezinma? Agbala wants to see her”.
“Where does Agbala want to see her?”
“Where else but in his house in the hills and the caves?”
“I will come with you, too.”
“Tufia. How dare you, woman, to go before the mighty Agbalaof your own accord? Beware woman, lest he strike you in his anger. Bring me my daughter.”
(Ekwefi went into her hut and came out again with Ezinma. The priestess takes Ezinma to the shrine of Agbala).
The reaction of Okonkwo and his wife Ekwefi is typical of the attitude of followers of ATR towards divine messages. A number of observations could be made. Sacred messages are received with deference. ollowers of ATR dare not question the veracity of such messages. It is enough that the priest/priestess announces the oracle and every person is bound to take note of it and obey it. A believer can only plead with the divine messenger to intercede on his/her behalf.
Sacred messages are not interpreted according to the disposition of the recipients. They are to be accepted and obeyed because it is believed that God knows what is best for human beings!
SAME ATTITUDE, DIFFERENT CONTEXTS
How would the adherents of ATR interpret sacred messages from other religions? I think that one answer could be found by considering what the adherents do when they convert to another religion. Let us take the example of the African Christians who come from the worldview heavily influenced by the traditional religion.
It is observed that there is a remarkable difference between European and African expressions of Christianity. In Europe, Christians are generally found inside the Church where they are expected to be “well-behaved” — a formal congregation — where people sing in chorus accompanied by a pipe organ. In Africa, Christianity is becoming more and more evangelical and Pentecostal in expression. It is now a religion full of spontaneity in parks, where powerful preachers emphasise the presence of God here and now in the community.
It has been said that, in ATR, sacred messages are taken very seriously. They are respected and obeyed. So in Christianity, African Christians show great deference to the Bible as the Word of God. They interpret it in the present. They do not regard the contents of the Bible as something of the past that are no longer relevant today.
Christians in Africa like followers of ATR hold that God’s word is not subject to interpretations according to the convenience of the listeners. It is authentically presented by the bearers of the messages. The words of the Bible have immediate application and must be obeyed. Recently I read an inscription on a local bus in Ghana: “God’s case, no appeal”.
In ATR, it is acknowledged that God speaks to human beings. His words, his sacred messages, demand full attention, total obedience and complete respect because He himself is Kamanyimanyi, Mumbi, Chineke, Cuta, Kagingoand, according to the Swahili proverb, He is “the drum maker who knows what is inside the drum He has made.
 Cf. Isizoh C.D., The Dawn from on High: A Brief History of the Catholic Church in Ogbunike 1912-1994, (Rome, 1995), pp.22-25.
 “Mapping the context of Old Testament Studies in Africa,” in Interpreting the Old Testament in Africa, edited by Mary N. Getuiet al. (Nairobi, 2001), p.12.
 Cf. www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/sarpong.html
 I know that some Christian missionaries are concerned about the misleading contents of some of the productions.
 See a comprehensive list of God’s names and attributes at www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/afnames.htm
Concepts of God in Africa (London, 1970), p.27.
Dialogue and Proclamation, 168.
Dagari people of Upper West, Ghana.
 Yoruba people of South West Nigeria.
 Igbo, Nigeria.
 Yoruba, Benin& Nigeria.
 Shona people. Cf. J. Mbiti, Op. cit., p.97.
Sidoma people. Ibid.
Bambuti, Bavenda and Bena peoples. Ibid.
 Angola, Congo and Zambia.