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"While inter-ethnic problems and conflicts have occurred within the context of traditional African religions, the religions themselves cannot be considered to be the primary cause. For example, two groups enter into a conflict; one group conquers the other but the victorious group never imposes its religion on the defeated group. Such imposition has never been demonstrated. This is an important point. It shows that traditional religions advocate equilibrium, relationship and harmony"


 


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Home » Features » A Dialogue with Boubacar Traore

Religion and Spirituality in Africa
by Juan Carlos Benegas and Dolly Basch
Translated by Bill Poehner and Michael Danciger



What role do these traditional African religions (in which there is a God, two worlds and a circular concept of time) play in the everyday life of the average person?

The question is important because we frequently interpret the attitudes of others incorrectly. The first clarification we would make with respect to the traditional religions is that they are "vital" religions.

Can you explain that?

I previously said that there is unity in African diversity. This diversity is readily visible and takes on specific characteristics according to both historical and circumstantial factors, but there is a common foundation. When I talk about the vitality of traditional religions, I am alluding to their common sense, to the importance they give to life. That is an element common to all of them.

Could we discuss this a bit further?

What is practical about these religions is that they were created to find solutions to humankind's "human" problems. This is why they all state that, once the Supreme Being (or God or the Unbegotten) created the world, this Being remained veiled and is not that important to our lives.

In other words we cannot ask this Supreme Being to fix our problems; we must fix them ourselves.

Yes.

And this is one of the functions of religion.

Of course! Once the world was created, God was done with His task. For this very reason, these religions are responses to the problems that human beings confront in their life: how to adapt, how to fit into the Cosmos, etc. This is why these religions are called vital, because they all share the fundamental aspect of the propensity to elevate life to a superior range according to their particular situational/cultural needs. For the most part, each group will try to create a religion that responds to the specific problems it faces. The religion of a particular group cannot be exported because it has been created to solve the problems of that group.

So if a group that lives in the desert faces particular circumstances and problems different from those of a group that lives in the rain forest, their religions will also be different because they arose as a response to the different conditions of their lives.

This is seen in all aspects of a religion from the divinities to the accessories used in the rites. For example, a nomadic people cannot carry masks for rituals because they are very heavy and the people are continually on the move. On the other hand, for a sedentary group in the rain forest, masks may have a role in ritual. The determining factor here is that the latter group is always in the same place. Therefore, these two groups, which do not share the same geographical setting, are going to have different ritual practices.

So if these religions arise from the special circumstances of life in specific contexts, members of one religion don't try to proselytize or to make converts out of members of another religion.

Yes. That is the approach that traditional religions have because a group living in a particular area has a religion that addresses problems specific to that context which cannot be the same for other groups. This is why there is generally no tendency to make converts of others.

Do people who practice a particular religion sometimes separate themselves from others because they practice a different religion?

We cannot deny that there have been or still are problems when speaking of human beings. This is why there are religions. Surely religions as well as all spiritual works that can be carried out depart from a single element, the human being him/herself. The religions are to help human beings resolve their inner conflicts. Once one has recovered a degree of inner equilibrium, he/she can relate suitably with his/her peers. I would like to make a clarification which is important to me: when I speak of "all the rest," I am including human beings as well as all living creatures, because life is comprised not only of human beings but of all beings that exist.

Animals, plants...

Yes, and I believe that we must always keep this in mind. Going back to the topic of conflicts, undoubtedly problems exist between different groups, problems that can originate, for example, in a land dispute or for some other reason; there is always a cause. But if we try to see what happened without considering the internal problems of groups of people, which always have influence in conflicts, it is remarkable that even when one group of people conquers another, the defeated are never asked to adopt the religion of the victors. I am personally very interested in what happened with the great conquests, such as those in America and Africa. Although it was not apparent at first, in time it became evident that religion was used by conquerors as an instrument of domination. It was used to force conquered peoples to embrace Christianity. This happened in America and in Africa. In Africa, approximately at the beginning of the ninth century, Islam was introduced to the continent from the North. This occurrence demonstrated a very important difference between revelation-based religions and traditional religions and allows us to return to our point of departure. Traditional religions do not try to expand, export themselves or make converts. On the other hand, as history has clearly shown, revelation-based religions have always looked for ways to expand.

While inter-ethnic problems and conflicts have occurred within the context of traditional African religions, the religions themselves cannot be considered to be the primary cause. For example, two groups enter into a conflict; one group conquers the other but the victorious group never imposes its religion on the defeated group. Such imposition has never been demonstrated. This is an important point. It shows that traditional religions advocate equilibrium, relationship and harmony.

One of the characteristics of traditional religions is the importance they give to life. There is a Mandingan saying: "saya ti nibanna," which means "death is not the end of life." This is very important in the world view of an African because it immerses him/her in a Cosmos where the present life is neither the first nor the last. When they say "saya ti nibanna," what they mean is that death allows a being to pass from one state to another. It does not mean that one's life has ended. On the contrary, this shows the fundamental importance of life to the African.

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