The Story of Africa| BBC World Service

October 30, 2015 – 09:07 am

Chief Isekure of Benin, chief priest of the Edo people in Nigeria's Delta regionOne God And Many Deities

A supreme power, ruling over everything and everyone appears to be a feature of all African religions. This supreme power is the prime mover and creator, who is all knowing and eternal, and was there at the beginning of time. It goes under many different names, and it varies considerably from society to society, as to how near or how remote this supreme power is.

The Abaluiyia of Kenya, the Bambuti of the Congo area, and the Galla of Ethiopia are among those who pray directly to the supreme deity on a regular basis. Here is the example of a common prayer of the Nandi, in Kenya, which reflects the importance of cattle in their community:

God guard me, the children and the cattle,
God guard for us the cattle,
God give us good health!
In other cultures, the supreme being cannot be approached directly. The Igbo, of southeastern Nigeria, talk about 'the rich man' who can only be approached through his many servants.

Most societies have a host of different intermediaries who can be consulted.

In Yoruba belief, the prime mover is Oludmare, who gives life to the newborn and consigns the wicked to a place of punishment after death. But beneath Oludmare are hundreds of deities, or 'orisas'.

Each has a different province, for example, Orunmila knows every language of earth, Ogun is concerned with iron making and hunting, Shango (or Chango) is a manifestation of Oludmare's anger, drawing on thunder and lightening to express this.

Listen here to Professor Jacob Olupona of the University of California on the Yoruba creation myth
Similarly in Uganda, Katonda is the supreme deity of the Baganda. But beneath him are fifty or so guardians or 'balubaale', including Walumbe a figure of death, Kibuka presiding over war and Nagaddya, who deals with marriage and harvest.

There are many stories which explain conflict, sin, disorder in this world and the general alienation of human beings from their Creator. Often this has resulted from humans acting in some way to disappoint or anger God. The Judaic-Christian tradition takes up the same theme with Eve breaking the harmony of Paradise by eating from the tree of knowledge. The Barotse, of Zambia, were similarly punished for eating animals, when they were expressly forbidden from doing so.

Besides praying to God and the deities, there is a common theme of sacrifice in African religions, echoed in ancient religions throughout the world. Sacrifice is about giving something up that is very precious for any number of reasons including continuing good fortune and avoidance of disaster.

The sacrifice may be in the form of food, or drink (home made or imported from the West), it may be an animal, or even a human being. With the Dinka, of Southern Sudan, the sacrifice will be their most valued possession: cattle.

Sacrifice can be something you only do in a time of crisis or something you do every day, a form of insurance policy to guard against things going wrong. Yoruba blacksmiths sacrificed a dog, every fortnight. The Barotse, for example, give up a ration of water every day.

The Soninke people of the ancient empire of Ghana believed that all their wealth and prosperity, which derived largely from gold, could only be ensured if a young maiden was sacrificed annually to the snake Bida. But one year the intended victim was rescued from the jaws of Bida by her fiancé. The snake retaliated by punishing the Soninke. Their source of gold dried up and their empire was afflicted with drought and famine. This story is echoed in northern Europe in the legend of St. George and the dragon, which could only be kept from terrorising a kingdom by being given a young girl to devour.

Listen to Abdoulaye Bathily, minister of energy and resources and a Senegalese historian, speaking about Soninke myths and religious practices
In the beginning, in the dark, there was nothing but water, and Bumba was alone. One day Bumba was in terrible pain. He stretched and strained and vomited up the sun.

After that, light spread over everything. The heat of the sun dried up the water until the black edges of the world began to show. Black sandbanks and reefs could be seen. But there were no living things. Bumba vomited up the moon and then the stars, and after that the night had its light also. Still Bumba was in pain.

Listen to Chief Isekure of Benin, Chief Priest of the Edo people in Nigeria's Delta region, speaking about the deity Ogun

Supreme Deity
Location Akan speakers Nyama Ghana Luba Kalumba Congo Baganda Katonda Uganda Yoruba Oludmare (Olurun) Nigeria Zulu Nkulunkulu South Africa Fulani Dondari West Africa Igbo Chuikwu or Chukwu Nigeria Bashongo Bumba Zambia
Listen to Dr. Elom Dovlo, Religious Studies Lecturer, University of Ghana, speaking about sacred myths and taboos


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