WOMEN IN AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGIONS
by Kenneth Kojo Anti
Faculty of Education
University of Cape Coast
Cape Coast, Ghana, West Africa
 
 
Presentation prepared for the Women's Center
Eastern Washington University
 

INTRODUCTION

The importance of women in African society is portrayed in a Ghanaian proverb which says, ‘A Woman is a flower in a garden, her husband is the fence around.’  Before we examine the role of ''Women in African Traditional Religion,” certain methodological issues have to be resolved.

For example, how do we define RELIGION? How do we sample the several religious systems in Africa?  And how do we cope with the fragmentary information we have at our disposal?  We  shall first attempt a description of religion  as the beliefs and practices associated with the supernatural which embrace a creed a code and a cult. The creed deals with the philosophy, beliefs, or faith of the people, the code with the ethical dimension, while the cult focuses on the ritual ceremonies of the religion. We shall look at all these aspects as they affect women in traditional African religion.

In selecting societies for our study we focused on GHANA, NIGERIA, and SIERRA LEONE for which  there is  some data on women in religion . Nonetheless, references will be made to other areas where appropriate
 

THE TRADITIONAL WORLD VIEW OF AFRICA.

With few exceptions African Societies have been described from a masculine perspective. However, a feminine perspective on women’s' roles in traditional religion can be richly illuminating .  This paper will therefore focus on the possibility of a feminine image of deity in African traditional religions and the functions of women, in a world which is fundamentally masculine.

Robin Horton has argued persuasively that differentiation in religious beings and their cults is related to differentiation in levels of explanation in African systems of thought [1].  This assertion applies to other World religions.  For example, we observe from the Oriental world that women are kept behind the veil.  Jewish thought, for example, did not regard women as a necessity but merely  as helpers to men. The Jews had a rigid masculine concept of God who was the 'God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob', but not the God of Sarah , Rebecca, and Rachael [2].  To St. Paul, it was a taboo for women to speak in the church. She was to ask her husband at home if there was anything that she wanted to know.  In Islam, women could only lead prayers for a congregation of women.  And in the mosque women are not to stand in the same row with the men but separately behind the rows of men. The situation is, however, not the same in Africa. In this paper, we shall examine the African world view in order to locate the role of women in the traditional religion.
 

CONCEPT OF GOD IN AFRICA

In the context of traditional Africa, people are surrounded not by things but by beings; the first in rank being GOD . Although in many parts of Africa, God is conceived as male, in other instances there are feminine images.  For example, the Supreme gods of the Ewe of Ghana are Mawu-Lisa.  They are twins.   Mawu, the female is represented by the moon, while Lisa the male is represented by the sun.  As husband and wife , Mawu-Lisa had seven pairs of twins which became the major gods of the Ewe.  What is of major interest to us is the red wooden statue with large breasts and a crescent  in one hand found among the Ewe. This image of Mawu is the only known image of the Supreme Being in Africa[ 3].

The Akan of Ghana have a similar view  of God.  The  Ashanti  for example, have sometimes thought of [Nyame ] the SUPREME BEING as both male and female.  The female principle is symbolized by the moon which created human beings with water.  The male principle is symbolized by the sun.  The sun shot life-giving fire into the human veins and made human beings live.  Generally however, the women is seen as the MOTHER of humankind, from whom all people originated.  The Akposso [of Togo] tell  that when God made human beings, he first made woman on the earth and bore her the first child, the first human being [3] .  The main idea here , says Mbiti, is to link human life directly with God through the woman.  The woman herself is created by God and in turn becomes the instrument of human life [4].

Although the life of the first human beings is generally depicted as having been in a form of paradise, with God providing all the necessities of life, this paradise got lost.  EARTH and HEAVEN separated from each other and God went to live in heaven while human beings lived on the earth. And in place of the lost gifts came diseases  suffering, and death. Incidentally, the blame for this unfortunate tragedy is always put on the woman [5].   These myths of origin however, often give us a picture of the woman as someone placed in a special relationship with God with whom she shares the creative process of life and also the misfortunes, and death which in various ways came into the world.
 

THE DIVINITIES

Apart from belief in the Supreme Being, Africans do recognize lesser categories of spiritual forces.  These are considered more responsive to the needs of human beings in their secular and religious lives.  These divinities were created by God to fulfill specific functions.  They are regarded as the children of God or the messengers of God, or his agents.  They may be male or female, good or evil, may have their abode in the environment, such as trees, rocks, rivers, the sea and even certain animals.  They are however not confined to the physical objects in which they reside, since they have unlimited mobility and can move anywhere.  They are treated with respect when they fulfill human expectations.  However, they may be despised when they fail to deliver the goods.  In the cult of these divinities, there are both priests and priestesses who serve at their shrines or temples. However, the sex of the minister is not an indication of the sex of the divinity.  Each sex can operate as the messenger of the deity.  African traditional religion, is therefore less sexist in its image of the spiritual world as compared to other world religions.

It is this factor which has made it possible for both men and women to perform their sacred functions in the worship of God and his functionaries, the divinities, who incidentally are in both sexes [6] .
 

SPIRIT OF THE EARTH

Next after the Supreme Being is the EARTH DEITY.  In most African societies, the earth is given a feminine image. The Akan of Ghana and the Igbo of Nigeria regard the earth as a goddess.  Among the Akan, she ranks next after the Supreme Being and the second deity to be offered a drink during worship.  Her day of rest is Thursday and severe punishment was meted out in the past to those who infringed this taboo.  Although there are no temples, shrines or priests dedicated to her, because her bounty is accessible to all,  She nonetheless receives offerings and sacrifices at the planting season.
The land generally cannot be farmed without asking for her permission.  When a grave is about to be dug the Spirit of the earth is offered sacrifice. The Igbo of Nigeria, unlike the Akan, dedicate shrines and priestesses to the Mother goddess, the Queen of the underworld who is responsible for public morality.  Homicide, kidnapping , stealing farm products, adultery and giving birth to twins or abnormal children are all offenses against her.  Laws are made and oaths sworn in her name.   According to Parrinder, Ani [or Ale] is the most-loved deity, and the one who is closest to the people.  She helps them if they are in trouble with other divinities, but punishes hardened criminals [7].  Also the most important festival, the yam [harvest] festival is held in her honor receives offerings during the planting season, and  also when the first fruits are harvested.

Temporary houses [Mbari] made to accommodate sacred sculptures and other statues representing deities always contain  the statue of Ani which stands in the middle.  Here, she is depicted as a mother with a child in her arms or knees and a sword in her hand.  Facing Ala is the storm god a subordinate counterpart of the goddess [8].  The Mende of Sierra Leone also regard Mother earth as a goddess, the common mother of mankind  and the wife of God [Maa-ndoo].  Like the Akan, the Mende do not worship the Spirit of the earth, although she is invoked together with God [NGEWO]  during important occasions.  Laws are made to protect her sanctity, for example, sexual intercourse in the bush is a violation of her sacredness and offenders were severely punished.  Apart from the Earth goddess, several other deities are found residing in bodies of water.

 
SPIRITS OF WATER

It is alleged that the sexual identity of spiritual beings suggest that female deities like their human counterparts, ordinarily have domestic rather than communal orientation [10] . Evidence at our disposal, however does not in any way point to the subordination of female deities to male deities.  All over Africa, water bodies like the sea, rivers lakes and lagoons are regarded as the habitats of deities and are thus treated with great reverence and sometimes worshipped at shrines with specially appointed priests and priestesses.  Yemoja,  the most prominent of the river divinities among the Yoruba, for example, is not only the mother of numerous river deities, but also the ruler of the Ogun river in Abeokuta.  She is also the mother of fishes  and the giver of children.  Women therefore pray to her for children, with yams and fowls.

There are other prominent river goddesses like Oya the goddess of the Niger river who is believed to be the companion , or one of the wives of SHANGO, the god of thunder [11].  She is so fierce and terrible that no  one can look upon her.  Oya is often identified with the wind that blows when no rain follows.  There are others like Orisha OKO, an important farm goddess.  Temples erected for her are the  most common of all the Yoruba divinities.  Women are her principal worshippers, especially during the yam festival.  There is no doubt that African traditional religion is life- affirming.

The religion seeks  to insure the fertility and vitality of human beings and the land on which  their own and other creatures' livelihood depends. It is therefore reasonable that women pray to these divinities who are in direct control of fertility.

 
RITUAL SPECIALISTS

[a] The Priesthood

In the area of ritual services, women are never left behind or relegated to a subordinate position.  For example, the priesthood, which is a highly respected office in African societies, is open to both men and women.  As a rule they are formally trained and commissioned.  Each candidate usually receives a call to the priesthood before embarking on training.  Spirit possession usually indicates a call.  The training includes instructions in the laws, taboos, dances, songs and the idiosyncrasies of the divinities, as well as general priestly duties.  The initiate also acquires knowledge of herbs and roots and other medicinal values of the environment.  There  is also training in traditional methods of psychiatry.
Their duties include making sacrifices, offering prayers and conducting private and public rites and ceremonies.  They give advice and perform judicial and political functions, in addition to caring for the temples and shrines  to which they are attached.  They also fulfill their obligations as intermediaries between their people and the spirit world.  In Ghana [at the AKONEDI shrine] for example, and other places, special convents  are established where only women are trained to become priestesses [12] and these are accorded great respect in the society.

[b] Traditional Doctors

Women like men, also train hard to become  traditional doctors, healers ,or herbalist’s . They are often wrongly described as Witch doctors.  These are well trained in traditional medical practice, psychology and psychiatry and ‘symbolize the hopes of their society; hopes of good health, protection and security from evil forces, prosperity and good fortune, and ritual cleansing when harm or impurities have been contracted'. [11]
Every village in Africa has a medicine-man or woman within reach.  As friends of the community they are accessible to everybody and at all times.  They are concerned first and foremost with disease, sickness and misfortune which in the African experience are caused by mystical forces. The traditional healer has therefore to diagnose the nature of the disease, discover the cause of the sickness and apply the right treatment, together with a means of preventing its re-occurrence.  Here, both physical and spiritual methods are applied to assure the sufferer of good health .Furthermore, they protect people from witchcraft  and sorcery by supplying charms and other medications.  It is important to note that many diseases especially those related to mental disorders which cannot be cured in the modern hospitals are being treated in the homes of these traditional healers.

[c] Mediums and Diviners.

In general, women practice as mediums and diviners.  Through mediums  and diviners spiritual beings make their wishes known to human beings.  They relay messages from  the other world and also reveal the secrets of the past, present and the future when they are possessed by their deities.  People resort to them freely for  both private and public consultation and when in crisis or stress.  Like the traditional doctors, they are regarded as friends of their community.  They play the role of counselors, judges, advisors, fortune-tellers and revealers of secrets.  They are highly respected in the community and cannot be described as ''inspired auxiliaries'' [12].
 

W0MEN IN RITES OF PASSAGE

Women frequently play important roles in personal rituals of status transformation associated with  birth, puberty and death.  At childbirth, women express gratitude to God with prayers and sacrifices, and at death they sing dirges to express their sorrow.  The most significant role of women is seen during girls nubility rites.  Marion Kilson has observed that "Wherever they occur  the principal officiants and participants are women.  Moreover, the symbolism of these rituals  vividly portray the essential cultural meaning of mature womanhood.  Such rituals express the dualistic  nature of women's sexuality and the means by which the positive aspects of fertility may be harnessed for  social good and the negative aspects  of sexuality may be contained and socially controlled. [13]

In Ghana,  the most well-preserved female puberty rites are the Dipo of the Krobo, and the Bragoro of the Asante.  So important were the ideals of these rites that its violation in former times constituted a crime.   A girl who became pregnant before the performance of the puberty rites was banished together with the man who was responsible for it.     Purification rites were performed to rid the society of its evil consequences [14].   It must be noted that not only did the puberty rites prepare the young for marriage, it also prepared them for procreation without which marriage was incomplete.  The ceremonies therefore, marked the entry of young girls into adulthood.  During the period of their ritual seclusion the young girls are taught the secrets of the society and also brought closely to the supernatural forces which are supposed to ensure their protection, blessing and fertility during their period of motherhood.   Mothers of such concerned girls usually pray that their daughters grow to full maturity and bear children.
 

MUSICAL ROLE OF WOMEN IN TRADITIONAL RELIGION

A lot of festivals  abound in African traditional religions.  A good number of them are in honor of the most important divinities and ancestors.  Of relevance to us is the phenomenon of singing and dancing by well-dressed women during the celebrations of these festivals.  Although the songs and dancing add luster to the  celebrations, they have a veiled but more important effect of curbing recalcitrant and criminally minded members of the community who during the year had broken the norms, convictions and customs prevalent in the community.  The songs are deliberately composed to highlight the abuses and crimes committed and expose the criminals [15]. The singing groups, protected by the community's traditions, perform the role of 'the people's court'  to whose verdict the culprits and their relations cannot pretend to be indifferent and against which they have no appeal.

In Ghana, the popular APOO festival  and others  share the same characteristics with some festivals in Nigeria.  The gaily dressed women, armed with well- rehearsed abusive songs move from house to house, mentioning names and coming down heavily on the social miscreants within the community.

Under the immunity graciously conferred by tradition ,the women boldly call out in songs the names of the offenders in front of their houses and contemptuously pour down condemnation on them.  By so doing these women help to cleanse society of social misfits by bringing to the open the sins committed under the cover of darkness.  Furthermore, with their ritual dances and singing women warm the hearts of the gods who by their nature, hate evil and always want to get rid of them.  Disarmed by the traditional immunity enjoyed by the women social non- conformist are either compelled to mend their ways or flee from the community.  This indeed, has been a very significant and effective mechanism of social control in many African countries.  It is important to note that as part of these celebrations, traditional rulers offer sacrifices to purify the community to remove the evils accumulated during the year, thus renewing the society.
 

WOMEN, RELIGION AND TABOOS

We have in this paper, drawn attention to the significant role women  play in African traditional religions, both as ritual specialists and upholders of community norms and traditions.  We cannot however overlook the apparent prejudices shown to women in religion by virtue of their sex.  Though they are regarded as producers of life, they are also seen as spiritual sources of danger.  The ritually 'dangerous' nature  of women is expressed in notions about the polluting nature of blood, especially the blood of menstruation and of childbirth.  It is such notions of pollution which underlie rituals intended to separate ‘unclean’  women from contact with others or to neutralize the sources of pollution.

Thus in connection with religious functions menstruating  women are banned from the shrines, neither are they allowed to handle or touch religious objects or personalities.  For instance, among the rules to be observed by trainee priestesses is one which stipulates that she should voluntarily absent herself from the shrine for seven days each month during her menstrual period.  This ban stems from the belief that menstrual blood is impure and dangerously harmful to sacred objects. Hence during this period women are banned from entering palaces, shrines and other places where rituals are performed.

It is interesting to note that though women serve as mediums, a virgin, preferably before she attains puberty, is chosen for this office. Otherwise, a woman of advanced age or one who has ceased from childbearing and cohabitation is qualified to hold this office [16].  Sex with a woman in her period is also forbidden.  And in the olden days [and even now in some rural areas] menstruating women have to move to an outer house meant for those regarded as ritually unclean.  They were also forbidden to cook for their husbands.

To illustrate this position of women, we consider an Akan proverb which says, ''A woman does not pour libation on a stool''.  If she does the stool will become polluted.  According to Dickon ‘this is not to be taken to mean that women have no ritual role whatsoever in the practice of traditional religion.  Indeed they may have very important roles  not only as custodians of their own personal shrines as among the Ibo of Nigeria , but as mediums whose word is depended upon’  [17].  The stool is regarded as an important element in Akan traditional spirituality.  It is seen as the embodiment of the ancestors.   Hence the need to avoid its contamination in order to avert any disastrous consequences on the victim and her community.  This proverb therefore stresses the need to safeguard the solidarity of the group which  is symbolized by the stool.  A similar proverb states that a woman does not climb a tree.  If she does the tree will die.  The principle here, like the previous one, is that  the women in her impure state may pollute the tree and cause it to die.
 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF BLOOD

It might be useful at this point to draw attention to the significance of blood  in African traditional religion. In African society life is closely associated with blood.  For instance, when blood is shed in making a sacrifice.  It means that human or animal life is being given back to God who is in fact the ultimate source of life  [18].  Indeed, blood is used to cleanse society and individuals and to propitiate or pacify the spiritual powers.  It is used to establish links with the spirit world.  Hence the practice of circumcision and clitoridectomy, now banned as a violation of human rights.  .According to Mbiti, the blood which is shed during the physical operation binds the person to the land and consequently to the departed of his society.  The circumcision blood is like making  a covenant, or a solemn agreement, between the individual and his people.  Until the individual has gone through the operation, he is an outsider. Once he has shed his blood he joins the stream of his people, he becomes truly one with them..[19]   We must add however that the royals of the Ashanti of Ghana, on the other hand were forbidden to mutilate their body or shed their blood, since the royal blood represented the soul of the nation.
 

EDUCATION

In spite of our lengthy explanation on the significance of blood, there is an urgent need to eradicate all forms of discrimination against women based on their natural biological functions.  Already Christianity and urbanization are changing the attitudes of many people.  However, it is only through education, both formal and informal that the minds of people can change for the better.

‘Customs’ it is said, “die hard.”  And only conscious and consistent educational programs mounted at all levels and on all fronts can defeat the tyranny of obnoxious customs and traditions which discriminate against women.  We therefore call on parents, teachers and religious groups and on-governmental organizations especially those dealing with women’s affairs to get involved in the campaign to liberate women from all forms of sexual discrimination.
 

CONCLUSION

We have in this paper attempted to combat the patriarchal image of God and the spirit world by providing a feminine approach to deity in African traditional religion.  Our conclusion is that women in addition to having an intimate knowledge and experience of the spiritual world play within the religious milieu a very functionally significant and economically relevant role in the religious life of their people as ritual specialists and upholders of the moral values of the community.  However, the negative attitude towards women coming from the concept of impure blood, should be eradicated through education.