The perils of being a traditional religion practitioner

African spirituality

If you are to randomly pick a stranger in a crowd of Nigerians, say, Kurmi Market Kano, and ask them, “Do you personally know someone who practices African Spirituality (traditional religion?)” their answer is highly likely to be, “No.”

This isn’t because the dominance of Islam and Christianity has reached all the nooks and crannies of Nigeria to the point of converting every single Nigerian to one or the other. Nor is it because 0.6% – which is the 2018 CIA World Factbook estimate of the percentage of traditional religion practitioners in Nigeria‘s population – is so tiny a population that most persons can’t have come across one.

It is a combination of both, plus other things we found out following this conversation with two cross-generational Nigerian traditional religion practitioners.

The expansion of Islam and Christianity is not solely by merit of the truth of their doctrines or their deities. Evangelism, often forced – in the case of Christianity – and coordinated and also sometimes forced conversion – in Islam’s case – have been the golden tools that helped the country’s two major religions gain the traction they did in mere centuries to wipe away the spirituality that was Africa’s heritage for aeons.

There is also the continued demonization of all things African Spirituality in the church and Mosque.

With that barrage of assault from multiple fronts, it is almost impossible for the small and fast-shrinking population of first-practitioner (a term used for this article to mean people who have only ever known traditional spirituality) to spread their beliefs.

Mati (50, M) is a first-practitioner with years of lived experience side by side Islam and he scuffs at the idea that anyone will even think he cares to spread his beliefs.

“We are not interested in teaching anyone our ways of life, we are a farming people who rely on the guidance of our ancestors, we just want to be left alone on this land – our land – where our roots run deepest,” Mati said.

Still, we rise…

Polytheistic religions are less likely to aggressively evangelise than their monotheistic counterparts. Ancestor worship even less so.

Yet, as we documented in this piece, African spirituality appears to be gaining ground among young people. Which begs the question, if the 0.6% isn’t working to convert people, how come younger people are finding their way back to their roots?

For some, like Enitan, one of the subjects of that piece, it comes to them as an awakening. Others however seek it out.

Bashir (28, M) who was a Muslim for most of his life is one such person. He had been curious about ancestor worship for over 10 years before he finally dared to attempt a ritual he said opened the door for him into something bigger than the Arabic religion of his parents.

“This may sound odd to most but it was reading the book series Sword of Truth that ignited my fascination with ancestor worship,” he said.

“It was a parallel realisation too. I wasn’t flipping through the pages of those tomes in awe after the first 6 books, I was angry that I was forcing my way through 1000+ pages to read the story of some Caucasians witch flexing superpowers passed down to her by her ancestor.

“Then one day it hit me while I was praying in the evening. My entire life had been about worshipping at the feet of foreign ideologies. Allah – I finally realised with a jolt – is as foreign to me as Jesus and Darken Rahl.

“From that moment I began toying with the idea of seeking my ancestors. I figured if there is a spiritual realm beyond here, and perhaps a super deity overseeing it, I may need the intercession of my ancestors – a language I also learnt from movies and books – to navigate it.”

Knowledge is not easy to come by…

BecauseAfrican spirituality has been pushed to the periphery of modern Nigerian life, and what’s left in the open daylight, like Ifa spirituality, is practised by many with a mix of Islam or Christianity finding information is not very easy.

“I tried to do research online and came across academic papers clinically analyses African Spirituality as this monolith alien that fascinates the white gaze. It didn’t help at all. 3 years of desolation later I decided to take matters into my own hands, so I ordered 3 sage-scented candles online because I read somewhere that sage can be used in magic for protection.

“I positioned them in a triangle and knelt near the apex and just prayed to my ancestors – summoned them more like. I was sceptical until minutes later – the heat from the candle making sweat pool on my forehead – when I felt a tingle in my spine and I saw clearly behind my closed lids things yet to come in my hometown of Kaduna.”

His conviction is something people of all faiths share about their beliefs and the interactions they have with the deities of those beliefs. It is no different from the convictions Muslims have when they pray for rain in the rainy season and it rains that very day or a few days later. Or Christians when they proclaim healing through faith.

A dangerous kind of belief…

Unlike Christians and Muslims – a group he once belonged to – Bashir could be executed for apostasy in a dozen northern states for leaving Islam. He could also be jailed for witchcraft across the country.

The criminalisation of African spirituality is a relic of colonial-era Nigeria that is yet to be rectified.

Section 210 of the Criminal Code Act provides that any person who:

(a) by his statements or actions represents himself to be a witch or to have the power of witchcraft; or

(d) directs or controls or presides at or is present at or takes part in the worship or invocation of any juju which is prohibited by an order of the State Commissioner;

is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment for two years.

The usage of the term Juju to blanketly describe traditional religious practices is a common practice in Nigeria. Not only does this vilify this minority group of Nigerians whose only desire is to establish and maintain a connection with their roots, but it also puts them in direct danger from likely mobs attacks and state persecution.

This concern may seem exaggerated, but as recently as 2020 about a dozen women were reportedly set ablaze in Cross River at the behest of the state governor’s aide, Thomas Obi Tawo aka General Iron.

It begs the question, could the term ‘Juju’ – as used by non-practitioners of traditional religion to describe things related to the religion or its practitioners – be classified as hate speech?

Hate speech is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation”.

Enough people have met violence over the language used around African spiritual practices that this seemingly desperate measure might be warranted.

The truth is far from sinister…

Mati wonders why the misconceptions persist.

“We don’t perform as heinous a sacrifice as our Muslim friends and neighbours do every year when they massively slaughter rams, goats, cows, even camels!

“It is usually giya – locally brewed beer – we sacrifice to our ancestors. That and bits of crops at harvest and a hen that we slaughter for its blood and share the meat among children.”

A vast majority of his Muslim neighbours will beg to differ on the harmlessness of his sacrifices to his ancestors.

Islam is unequivocal about the supremacy of Allah, with all other deitiesconsidered ‘Daaguut’ or false idols, and their open. worship a slight against him.

Bashir understands what Mati fails to grasp.

Perhaps that’s why people like him – who carry their belief delicately wrapped in their heart where he says his ancestors take shelter in his connection with them – may be the demography that will save African spirituality.

“Someday, I hope people wouldn’t have to fear practising ancestor worship,” he said.

“The logic is so clear to me, and while I understand why many can’t see it because I was once like them, I remain hopeful that that logic will prevail in the near future.

“Why worship and put your faith in some dead guys from the Mediterranean when you can just trust the ancestors without whom you won’t be here. The ancestors whose tricks of survival – passed down to us through our marrows – will ensure our continuity? It seems so simple to me. Isn’t it simple to you?”

It is.

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