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16.2: The African Worldview and Spirituality

  • Page ID
    12279
  • For many authors, a common African personality derives from a common African worldview.

    According to Khoapa (1980), an African’s existential reality is one of collective being, they seek to understand the world through their intersection with all aspects of the world and other people. This worldview is holistic and humanistic, and it focuses on interdependence, collective survival, harmony, an important role for the aged, the oral tradition, continuity of life, and rhythm. In addition, there is a fundamental belief in a metaphysical connection between all that exists within the universe, through an all-pervasive energy or “spirit” that is the essence of all things (Chatterji, 1960; Grills, 2002; Grills & Ajei, 2002; Khoapa, 1980; Mwikamba, 2005; Myers, 1988; Obasi, 2002; Parham et al., 1999; Senghor, 1965, 1971; Sofola, 1973).

    At the center of the African worldview is spirit, or life itself, a vital force that animates the universe and that imparts feeling to all things from God down to the smallest grain of sand. Although this spirit pervades all things, there is a distinct hierarchy among the things that make up the universe. At the top of the hierarchy is God, followed by the ancestors (including the founders of the tribes, aka the “god-like ones”) and the living. Then come the animals, plants, and minerals. Being in the center, humans hold a privileged position. As living beings, people are able to increase their being (using this term in the same context as in existentialism). The source of spirit, and the spiritness within each person, is divine, and transcends both the physical universe and time. Thus, it can connect us to any person, place, or thing. This is part of the basis for African veneration of their ancestors. In order for the ancestors to avoid becoming “completely dead,” they must devote themselves to strengthening the lives of the living. As a result, they can still participate in life. When a person recognizes that through spirit all things become one, and if they adhere to this realization, they lose all sense of individual ego/mind. Instead, they experience the harmony of collective identity and a sense of extended self that includes ancestors, those not yet born, all nature, and their entire community (Busia, 1972; Grills, 2002; Grills & Ajei, 2002; Jahn, 1972; Myers, 1988; Obasi, 2002; Parham, 2002; Parham et al., 1999; Senghor, 1965).

    Based on the previous paragraph, it should be clear that religion and spirituality are very important to Africans. We share a biological connection with animals, and an inherent spiritual connection with plants and minerals, but our privileged position at the junction of spirit and nature allows us to participate in a spiritual life that separates us from the animals, plants, and minerals. This is how Africans believe they are able to increase their being. According to Khoapa (1980), we link the universe with God, we awaken it, we speak to it, listen to it, and try to create harmony. This leads to a profound connection with the rhythm of the universe. Senghor (1965) describes rhythm as the “architecture of being…the pure expression of the life-force.” Rhythm has become an important aspect of African life, particularly in art, music, and poetry (also see Busia, 1972; Chatterji, 1960; Jahn, 1972; Mwikamba, 2005; Senghor, 1971; Sofola, 1973).

    African music, like sculpture, is rooted in the nourishing earth, it is laden with rhythm, sounds and noises of the earth. This does not mean that it is descriptive or impressionist. It expresses feelings. (pg. 86; Senghor, 1965)

    As noted above, the transcendent aspect of spirit leads to connections between past, present, and things that have not yet happened. This has led to a distinct relationship to time, one that differs dramatically from the Western world. Africans believe there is a rhythmic, cyclical pattern to life set in place by God, and God knows what is right. This includes the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun, and stages of life (birth, adolescence, adulthood, old age, and death). Events in the past are typically referred to in terms of reference points, such as a marriage or a birth. As for the future, in most African languages there is no word for the distant future, and plans for the near future are once again typically made around events rather than a specific time on a clock. Accordingly, time is something to be shared with others, there isn’t really any such thing as wasting time. Tribal elders are respected for the wisdom they have accumulated over a lifetime, and the “living” dead are kept alive by the tribe’s oral historian (Jahn, 1972; Parham et al., 1999; Sofola, 1973; Tembo, 1980).

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The African worldview focuses on the universe and all the people within it as an interconnected whole, and seeks harmony and rhythm. Do you see life in a holistic way, do you try to relate to others as if we are all part of one creation? Do you think the world would be a better place if everyone tried to relate to others in this way?