African Traditional Belief System

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African Traditional Belief System

In ancient times increasing stress had been laid upon the widespread African belief in psychic power. Father Tempels called this "vital force", and Edwin Smith prefers the name "dynamism". The latter describes it as "The belief in, and the practices associated with the belief in hidden, mysterious, supersensible, pervading energy, powers, potencies, forces". The supreme value of the Bantu, says Tempels, is "force, forceful living, or vital force". Many strange practices were done because people believe that "they serve to acquire vigour or vital force, to live forcibly, to reinforce life, or to assure its continuity in their descendants". (Junod, 56)

In many parts of West Africa there is a word nyama, which European writers have sought to translate as energy, power, force vitale, triebkraft (Kuper, 44-54). From the western Sudan down to the Guinea Coast one finds variants of this word, sometimes used as a title for God, sometimes of human or animal strength, or again as the mysterious force in medicines. Nyama is often conceived of as impersonal, unconscious energy, found in men, animals, gods, nature and things. Nyama is not the outward appearance, but the inner essence.

A medicine-man distinguishes between the tangible leaf or root, and the inward quality and power which is enshrined there. The medicine-man himself has nyama, as do outstanding men in special degree, such as woodcarvers, blacksmiths, hunters, orators, priests and chiefs. Witches were supposed to possess a similar power, purely psychically and independently of the use of any material means of harming their enemies; a look can kill. The psychic force may be used for conveying justice, vengeance, or hatred, it survives death and never perishes. Other words have similar meaning in different tribes: baraka, kofi, ire, aske. (Davidson, 14-23)

In East and Central Africa we find the concept of bwanga, which a Rhodesian writer calls "the power for healing or for destroying, for protecting or for hurting". This dynamism is found in the potency of charms and medicines, in rites of secret societies, in the preparations used by hunters and warriors, in ancestral ritual, and in the secret power of witches. A sinister feature of the belief is the conviction that sorcerers can tap this power for their nefarious purposes. As another writer says, it is essentially the unseen power behind the concept of sorcery the magical element of potency located in some material, the otherwise inexplicable.

The medicine-man is called by a cognate title, nganga, he is a manipulator of the power and he prays to God that it may come into the medicine that he is preparing. The doctor fills horns with his potent medicines and sells them as protections against all manner of evils. Priests may use them in their ritual and oracles. More than twenty Bantu languages use this term bwanga, and it is found on the other side of the Atlantic among the negroes of Carolina.

These beliefs were scarcely animistic, in the sense of attributing a personal soul to all beings and ...
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