Using Yoruba traditions as a reference, Foluke Adebisi explores the centuries’-long intertwining of religion and tradition in many African societies.
Increasingly, we see culture, religion and tradition being used as justification for legislative actions, administrative actions and executive policies. The effect of this is a blurring of the lines between the personal and the political spheres in African society. I suggest that this confusion is dangerous as it ignores necessary demarcations and leads to the abdication of responsibility for making measured and logical decisions for the good of the state. To understand how we arrived at this pretty pass, we have to understand the history of religion in Africa.
Prior to the European intervention in internal African affairs, most African polities made no distinction between religion and tradition. Which is why you would see sayings such as the following proverb:
Ibití ènìyàn kòsí, kò sí imalè
Literally: Where there is no person, there is no divinity
Meaning: There is something divine – supernatural – about humanity
Such belief systems conflated the natural and the supernatural, but worked well for smaller political entities. This was especially so because the understanding of the divine was predicated upon the cyclic understanding of society. For example: The core value of Yoruba philosophy is based on the concept of the good person or person of good character (ìwà rere), known as Ọmọlúàbí. The good person is defined by her good character, knowledge, humility, respect, hard work and wisdom; in this sense the value ascribed is cyclic. This is because the preservation of community is paramount; the community consists of good persons, however it is the duty of the community to collectively ensure that individuals become good persons. A person who is not good, ọmọlasan, is of no social worth to her community; the community thus has self-interest in discharging this duty to create people who conform to the standard of Ọmọlúàbí. Ọmọlasan is a shame to the community, because it means that the community has failed in its duties.
This changed when Eurocentric Judaic religion was introduced to Africa, and vice versa. External religions introduced a rift between culture and religion and between individual and community that Africa is still trying to grapple with. This was compounded by arbitrary state creation and the introduction of socio-political institutions incongruent with pre-existing ones.
So Africans find it difficult to separate religion from culture/tradition. We try to attribute the immutability of religious mores to the fluidity of cultural expectations. African traditions religions (ATRs) were not inalterable and responded to the needs of society. Since the wants of society were paramount, ATRs were essentially flexible. As shown in the following proverb:
Kán-ún ni ọmọ Hausa; asárá ni ọmọ òyìnbó; gombo lọmọ Onírè.
Literally: the Hausas love Potash; the white man loves snuff; the Ìrè person loves his facial marks.
Meaning: Different peoples need different things.
However, Judaic religions are very much built on firm adherence to specific rules, rather than a tolerance or openness that accepts that individual needs within a community will differ. So this marriage is evidently an inter-species one.
Secondly, this marriage fails to account for linguistic limitations and variations. Languages carry a people’s worldview. Therefore, when we translate religious texts from one language to another, we unwittingly transplant different and disparate worldviews. Religious texts of necessity will occasion dangerous marriages because of failures in communication. Texts written in Hebrew, translated into Latin, Greek, English and then Yoruba, entertain unintended and mostly unobserved mingling of worldviews.
Let us take the word ‘head’ for example, in English this could mean, the upper part of the human body, chief; principal. or to be in the leading position on.
In Yoruba, rendered as ‘ori’ it could mean the upper part of the human body. It also alludes to the principle of human divinity and predestination, as well as individuality.
Another example is the English word ‘husband’ which means, married man considered in relation to his spouse.
Translate this into Yoruba, you get ‘ọkọ.’ which also means married man, but it also means ‘person exercising domination over something or someone.’ As in the phrase- ‘òfin l’ọkọ ọràn.’ Which means, ‘the law is made to overcome trouble’. So we see that words and translations have inherent connotations that we fail to account for without in-depth thought or analysis.
Finally, due to the fact that cultures are very much an integral part of society, there is little choice open to members of society but to adhere to them. Non-adherence to societal norms leads to isolation within society. Conversely, religions are (or should be) mostly preached as predicated on choice – the choice to believe, to have faith. Logically, you cannot be forced to have faith. By marrying culture with religion we have a situation where being non-religious leads to isolation. Political arguments are also predicated on religious normativity rather than communal needs.
As a postcolonial decolonial Afro-feminist, who is also a Christian, I recommend an amicable divorce of African religion from African cultures. Africans can be religious and cultural if they want, but we must understand the difference between the two. Africans can be cultural and non-religious, or religious and acultural, or neither. We should always have a choice. What we should not do is destroy our societies and ourselves by acting in ways that misunderstand what it means to be African. We should not impose our personal beliefs on other people. Africans have always had a sense of the divine, we have always believed that humanity itself is synonymous with divinity. But we have always had a sense that our collective happiness supersedes individual discomfort or pride. The innate African inclination to perpetuate collective happiness is the casualty of this unsafe marriage. And the evidence is all around us, like so much blood on the ground.
This article was first published on Foluke’s African Skies.
Dr Foluke Adebisi (@folukeifejola) is a Teaching Fellow in Law at the University of Bristol.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog, the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa or the London School of Economics and Political Science.