African Traditional Religion

"Ubuntu" and the Ancestral spirits

Mfundisi Fano Sibisi
(A Christian that grew up in a Sangoma home)

1 Introduction

When I address this topic, it is no academic exercise. I speak because I hope to help clarify some issues for those who know what is right, but find that when faced with certain arguments their knowledge is inadequate. For those who might be sitting on the fence, I hope that this will make them realise that God wants everything or nothing from us. There might be those who have decided that they will not change their mind no matter who says what. It is their choice, but unfortunately they will not be able to choose the consequences of their choice.

This I do also out of personal gratitude to the Lord who visited my family back in 1970 at a time of great need, and led us out of darkness into His wonderful light. In all these years since then He has kept His covenant with us. The challenge is ours to remain true to Him to the very end.

2 Background

Let me first give you a background of what we have to do with when we speak of the African Traditional Religion (ATR).

The seeds of ATR are found in many other "primal religions" worldwide. ATR is a nature religion, close to what people see, and simple enough for them to understand. On the other hand, primal religion is a religion of people who have lost God, holding onto the nearest straws in search for answers that will satisfy their deepest need.

ATR is a spiritistic way of worship. I praise the Lord for men like Prof. Kurt Koch who studied the subject of the occult and recorded their personal experiences in different countries around the world. Prof. Koch visited and studied spiritism in countries like Brazil, Haiti and different parts of Africa. He also noted that spiritism was well and alive in the West; Los Angeles in California, England, Paris and Lyon in France, Hamburg in Germany and Basil and Zurich in Switzerland. Special mention is made of Appenzell in Switzerland. In East Asia, he writes, a billion people are influenced directly or indirectly by spiritism.

The puzzled look from countrymen was worth noting whenever Prof. Koch mentioned occult practices and experiences like spiritistic visions and spiritistic prophecy; table lifting; Ouija boards; speaking in trances and automatic writing; spiritistic soothsaying; conversations with the spirits and excursions of the soul. Their amazement knew no bounds when he told us of mediums in the West who can call up the dead for relatives who want to converse with them. Some of the mediums, we were told, could transfigure themselves to look exactly like the desired deceased. They were puzzled because that is the heart of ATR: Communion with our "living-dead!"

3 ATR's pillars

The following are some of the most important characteristics of ATR, commonly found in different variations in Africa:

belief in a Supreme Being

belief in a realm of spirits and

belief in the sanctity of a unified society.

3.1 A Supreme Being

There is controversy about the concept of God among the Africans before the coming of the missionaries. I tend to agree with those who say that our people had some idea of God, but their god was a deus remotus (a far-away god). He was not a personal God. Our people communicated with the spirits of the dead. It is claimed that they were just intermediaries between the living and God, but experience tells us that many people do not think beyond their ancestors.

3.2 A realm of spirits

These can be divided under the following categories:

3.2.1 Ancestral spirits

A belief in ancestral spirits appears to be most prominent in southern and central Africa. It is generally believed that only those who have married and produced offspring to remember them become ancestors when they die.

Family members remember their own ancestors.

It is believed that the dead continue to be part of the living (hence the term "living-dead"), and ancestors are supposed to be included and remembered in family functions and in the decision process. Family members rely on the ancestors for protection and prosperity.

ATR academics dispute the use of "worship"; they claim that our people do not "worship" ancestors, instead they "serve" and "honour" them in the same way they did whilst they were alive.

Yet they are praised and thanked when blessings flow, consulted in times of need and are appeased through sacrifices whenever they are displeased about some wrongdoing by the living.

3.2.2 Nature spirits

In addition to ancestral spirits, Africa also knows a relatively widespread belief in nature spirits. Generally speaking, the whole of nature and all of life are, in terms of African thinking, permeated with spiritual power. However, in a more particular sense, local manifestations of spiritual force and energy are to be found in certain mountains or hills, in specific rivers or lakes, or in special stones.

In some areas a tendency towards totemism can be found in that tribes may be given the name of a particular animal or element of nature. Certain snakes are also viewed as ancestral representatives.

3.2.3 Deities

In West Africaspirits that are elsewhere vague and undefined, have taken on the more explicit form of divinities. In contrast to those areas where a belief in ancestors predominates, the divinities of West Africa have special functions and attributes. Here deities have also largely taken over the function of mediation which is exercised by the ancestors elsewhere.

My people, the Zulus, pride themselves on the fact that they have never served idols of any man-made images; yet a careful study of ATR will reveal that communion with the spirits of the dead is just another face of idol worship.

3.3 A unified community

The claim is made by proponents of ATR that "from the time of birth an African is guided and trained with the purpose of achieving a full and complete life. However, in the process people are fully conscious of the fact that they have not been born in isolation but as part of a community.

Since life is communal, the individual almost automatically becomes integrated into a network of mutual relations with the community."

This is where the concept of Ubuntu comes in.

In its everyday use the word Ubuntu conveys a wonderful value associated mainly with Africa. Ubuntu has been defined as "the uncommon African way of really caring for one another."

Indeed, especially in the traditional structures, there are wonderful examples of co-operation and assistance to those in need. It is to be regretted that we are seeing less of that nowadays.

On the other hand, I believe that the greatest proponent of Ubuntu in its pure sense was the One who said, "Love your neighbour as yourself." (Luke 10:27)

His followers, guided by His Spirit, have taken His message to the uttermost parts of the world; serving (sometimes to the point of death) their "neighbours" in the remotest of places.

The complication comes when a religious angle is introduced to Ubuntu; where the "spiritual interconnectedness of people on a spiritual level" (as some explain Ubuntu) includes the "living-dead." If our interconnectedness in whatever units we find ourselves takes us back to the Triune God, then we are safe; but if it binds us to the deities and spirits, then we are lost!

4 Stark Realities

I have watched people debate some of these issues at an intellectual level and wondered if they knew what the realities were on ground level. From personal experience I understand something of the price one has to pay for this kind of life.

4.1 Fear and Suspicion

Whenever spring summer came we knew the family inyanga would be called to bring his imithi that were supposed to protect us against lightning strokes sent by abathakathi and our enemies. We as children used to be terrified of him with his sharp knife that he used to make incisions on different parts of the body. After the incision he would introduce the imithi, mingling them with our blood. One knife for my grandfather's whole big family!

I cannot begin to describe the fear that overtook us every time the clouds gathered and we knew a thunderstorm was coming! We had to quickly rush for different kinds of imithi to spray all over the yard and around the huts. The whole family then came into one main hut, and more imithi would be smeared on everyone for protection. There would be silence, and no one was allowed to lie down until the storm was over.

And then there was the constant fear and suspicion that there were people out to bewitch you. For every misfortune or illness there had to be somebody behind it. If the izangoma did not point a finger to a specific person, then it would be some unhappiness of the ancestors because of something that had not been done, or had been done in a wrong way. It is unfortunate that neighbours are often suspected of harming one.

Worse still is that in the big Zulu families with many wives, fingers are often pointed at one of the wives as being the one causing sickness or problems in the wives' huts. My wife's grandmother, who was one of three wives, was effectively banished from the family with her one daughter (my mother-in-law) because of such unfounded suspicions. She suffered a lonely, painful death. It was only later, on my wife's grandfather's deathbed, that he had conviction from above that his wife had been wrongly accused of witchcraft. He then called his family together, confessed, and pleaded for reconciliation.

Some people do not realise what nighttime brings for those still bound under such fears and suspicions. Many dread the night because of all the bad dreams and spirits that haunt them. Those who had been troubled by tokoloshe and such creatures can not praise the Lord enough for setting them free.

4.2 Deceit and exploitation

Even as early as the days of the great King Shaka, founder of the Zulu nation, he realised that there were many false 'izangoma' who "sniffed out" innocent people. Those sniffed out would be killed as 'abathakathi'. Shaka set a trap for 'izangoma', and he killed many of them when they failed the test.

Unfortunately there are many such today who exploit the sick and troubled who are desperate for healing or prosperity.

Does this make a case for genuine 'izangoma' and 'izinyanga'? Genuine ones are those who communicate effectively with the spirit world, and get "revelations" from them. That is where the Bible states in very clear terms.

"Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord, and because of these detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you." (Deut. 18:10-12)

4.3 The calling of the spirits

Those identified and called by the spirits to train as 'izangoma' tell of their painful experiences, which almost without exception start with long illness or misfortunes of some sort. The presence of the spirits in a person goes with manifestations which are beyond the control of their subject. When such people meet with the power of Christ, it becomes a battle between heaven and hell for their souls. Biblical accounts of evil powers throwing people down and hurting them did not stop in the first century.

I would like to warn those who think this is all just superstition to realise that whilst there may be imitators and deceivers, there are genuine cases of those who are under the influence and control of powers from the other side.

5 Worrying factors

A few unsettling factors as I ponder on these important matters:

5.1 Heaven and hell in ATR

"There is no hell in ATR." And that is official from one of the leading authorities of ATR, Prof. Gabriel Setiloane. They believe that people who have done wrong are punished through misfortunes they suffer in this world.

When I challenged Prof Setiloane to reconcile this with his Christian beliefs, (Prof Setiloane is an ordained minister), his response was that he was speaking from the ATR perspective, and would not relate that to his Christianity.

He also admitted openly that he believes that when his people, the Tswanas, die, they go back to the original hole from which they believe they came originally. When he was asked what happens then with other nations, he said that they also need to find out for themselves where they go after death.

One of the first Zulu academics, Dr B W Vilakazi, in his poetry confirmed the belief by our people that when they die they go to the land of the ancestors, a land of green grass, fat cattle, beautiful maidens and warriors. That is why, when Zulu kings died, some of their wives, young maidens and senior advisors had to "accompany" the king to the land of the ancestors.

My heart breaks when I think of millions of people who live and die with this false hope.

5.2 Hypocrisy

Another worrying factor in modern days is the hypocrisy that manifests itself strongly when people die. Parents that have been abandoned by their children, suddenly become beloved ancestors, and a lot of money is spent on their funeral. Expensive warm blankets are piled on a dead body that in life experienced cold and loneliness. Parties are thrown in honour of those who, whilst they were alive, pleaded in vain for groceries. Most of this seems to be self-gratification or appeasement of a guilty conscience.

5.3 A question of terminology

A story is told of a man who, because of his religion, could not eat pork. One day, unable to control his love for pork, he stood a pig in front of him and pronounced, "I baptise you. Your new name is 'sheep'!" Did that change the facts?

Some groups of churches attract thousands of African worshippers by mixing elements of Christianity with those of ATR. ATR concepts get "christianised." Some sects come around an "altar" when they slaughter to the dead, and address the dead as "agents of God" or "angels."

Some Christians use civilised terminology for acts that amount to those performed by unbelievers. A 21st birthday party is also used as a "umemulo" (a ceremony where ancestors are informed that the girl has reached marriagable age). The unveiling of the tombstone is a euphemism to some for "ukubuyisa" (the bringing back of the spirit of the dead to protect the family).

We can deceive ourselves and other people, but God sees us for what we are. As the English say, let us call a spade a spade.

5.4 Playing with fire

I get very concerned when I see how, in the name of culture, many are led to delve into the world of the spirits. More and more we see young people being exposed to this world in what is supposed to be innocent games and entertainment. An exercise that involves the invoking of the dead is dangerous even to the most unsuspecting.

The late Pastor Duma was a respected man of God in South Africa. One day he was visited by two white missionaries who asked him to take them to an inyanga in the area. Without much consideration he conceded to their request. When they got to the inyanga's hut, he demanded from them a 20c piece as the custom is. Pastor Duma did not want to pay that, but one of the missionaries did not think much of that, and he paid the 20c. Suddenly the face of the inyanga changed, and became like that of an animal. The man overpowered the three ministers, and they fled from his house in different directions. Pastor Duma relates how, for weeks after this incident, his heart was dark and he could not communicate with God. In fact the evil spirits almost drove him into suicide. He only saw God's light again when in deep repentance he cried to the Lord. He regrets the fact that he went to that den of evil spirits completely unprepared spiritually.

6 Possible Reactions

These are some of the reactions you are likely to meet up with as you discuss these issues:

6.1 "You do not understand"

This is one of the most powerful weapons in disarming those who did not grow up in a culture where sacrifices are made in honour of the dead. They get told that Whites have always looked down on Black culture, and that missionaries were used by colonialists to destroy the African way of life.

Whereas I do recommend that Christians take time to familiarise themselves with the culture and ways of other people, I believe that this must be done within a context of a clear understanding of what the Word of God has to say about the subject. Once we stand on this firm ground we can confidently face whatever criticism might be leveled at us.

Ours is not to make derogatory remarks at those who are still clinging to those ways; nor are we to compromise God's Word to please them.

6.2 "Those missionaries!"

African religionists have no good word for Western missionaries whom they accuse of despising and destroying ATR, and of imposing their culture and religion on Africans. One of them writes, "The earliest missionaries to Africa did not have the opportunity to get all the information we have today from Anthropology, Ethnology, History, Geography and even Theology of the Mission. The result was that adherents of ATR were dismissed as pagans, animists, pantheists, superstitious people, magicians, even devil worshippers. The first catechism book I ever read has ATR worship as the first in the list of mortal sins." The truth is that no amount of Anthropology, Ethnology or even Theology will change God's mind on this issue.

Of course one cannot deny or defend isolated cases of misguided missionaries, who, because of ulterior motives or personal failures, did harm to the cause of the gospel. On the other hand, painting all missionaries with the same brush will not erase the countless stories of self-sacrifice, commitment and heroism shown by men and women of God who heeded our Lord's call to make disciples of all nations. Only eternity will show how much nations of the world owe to them.

6.3 "You have been brainwashed"

Those Blacks that openly testify to the fact that they were once involved in Ancestor Worship, but after meeting with the living Christ they stopped worshipping other gods, are accused of allowing themselves to be brainwashed by foreigners.

The bringing in of race politics into this subject complicates things. We cannot run away from the fact that Western nations brought the message of Christianity to this continent. But they brought also many other things to which our people cling dearly.

The best part of all this is that many of us can read for ourselves what the Book has to say. Tens of thousands of us can today say, like the people of Samaria: "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves." (John 4:41)

6.4 "Into yakithi"

"This is our thing."

This you will hear very often from our people. For them the close communion with their dead is the preserve of the Zulu with his rich and proud past.

As a child I believed that this religion was restricted to the Zulus. Only as I began to read and understand the Bible did it dawn on me how old communication with the dead was. When I read wider and visited different countries, it became clear to me that we are dealing with the same powers, manifesting themselves in slightly different ways here and there.

Even now as I read the Bible and what it has to say about interaction between the living and the dead, I fear for my people. If this was so abominable to God that He decided to displace and remove nations because of it, then we need not look far for reasons why so many calamities befall us.

6.5 "What about the cultural side?"

When these matters are discussed the claim is often made "But this is part of our culture!" Are we then trying to destroy the African culture? Far from it! My answer would be the same as that given by Herbert van der Lugt (Our Daily Bread, 28 September 1997):

"It is true that when people become believers they abandon some of the practices that mark their culture. But that's the result, not the goal. For example, when people of the Udek tribe in Chali, Sudan, became Christians, they rejected the practice of burying a live baby with its mother if she died during childbirth. These new Christians did not set out to turn their culture upside down…The apostle Paul saw the gospel at work in the society of Ephesus. When sorcerers turned to Christ, they burned their occultic books valued at 50 000 days' wages (Acts 19:19). And the silversmiths who made shrines of Diana were almost put of business" (vv23-27).

In my work amongst people of different races and nationalities I soon learned that Christians need to use the Word of God as a yardstick for measuring any tradition, culture or religion. This is the lesson our Lord taught us when he asked those who accused His disciples of not keeping to the tradition of the elders. "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition," He asked them. (Matt. 15:3). There are jewels in African culture and tradition (respect, hospitality, good neighbourliness and holding virginity in high esteem, to mention but a few). Wonderful values that can only be enhanced by the true message of Christ. But as soon as you bring the dead into the picture, God draws a clear line and puts up a STOP sign!

6.6 "My grandfather - a demon?"

Our people take pride in their family history. If you want to please a Zulu you must not only know his surname, but the family history that goes along with it. It is with feeling and sentiment that the same history is recited when addressing the deceased during a ceremony in their honour. That is why some Zulus get annoyed beyond measure when they are told that ancestor worship is demon worship. They ask you, "Do you mean to tell me that my grandfather (they might even mention his name and praises) is a demon?"

The challenge then is to make it clear to them that their ancestors are not demons; but when the devil uses their precious memory and faces as masks for his demons, then we need to expose his works of darkness.

7 Why my past?

After one of the sessions at a Unisa conference I was approached by one of the leading African religionists, who asked me why I had a problem with the fact that my grandmother and my aunt had been izangoma. My response was: "I have no problem with the fact that they were izangoma - the point I am making is that that belongs to my past." To which he replied: "Why is it not part of your present?" The answer is simple, both my grandmother and my aunt met with the saving power of Christ, were soundly converted, and got freedom from the shackles of sin and the tormenting communication with the dead. I got converted after my aunt's life-changing experience and had the privilege of sharing with my grandmother as the Lord was challenging her about her life.

7.1 Unusual authority

As a child I could not help but notice the authority male members of the family had far above that of the females. But there were instances during family gatherings when my aunt would go into a trance; there would be reverent silence as we all listened to what she would say. Her voice would change and she would sound like a man with a lot of authority. Whatever she said then was obeyed by whoever was called upon by the "idlozi" (the spirit of my great-grandfather) in her.

One sad moment during such a ceremony was when my aunt, during one of her trances, announced to us that one member of our deceased ancestors failed to be present at the feast because of the long distance from my birthplace to KwaMashu Township, where the family was staying then. This ancestor complained that because she was not used to cars, she would start walking when others got into cars. By the time she got there, the event would be over.

My aunt's conversion was a very radical one. As she was convicted at the preaching of the Word, she cried like a baby and sought help for her poor soul. She knew instantly that she needed Christ's saving grace, that the other powers on her had to go. As the Christians prayed for her she was set free from the spirits that had ruled over her life for years. For me one of the striking things about her life to the very end was her shining face and testimony of a cleansed life.

7.2 In His Light

My grandmother's story is a striking one. She was a practising isangoma from the time when she was a young woman, and she was very proud of it. She was well known in the area. Some would come to her for consultations, and others would invite her to their homes. For us as children the nicest part was the meat she would bring home from the sacrifices people made. Even after the conversion of part of our big family (like my aunt, my father, I and a few others), she continued in her ways.

Once I paid her a visit after she was seriously ill. She told me a moving story of her near death experience. I realise that such experiences can be used of the devil too, but I know of a reasonable number of cases where one can testify of God's hand in those people's lives.

During this experience my grandmother saw the Lord in His glory and light. She told me how the Lord told her those things in her life that would hinder her from coming to that wonderful beauty and light. From there she saw her old world of izangoma, imithi and beer, and some of the deceased members of the family calling her. She ran away from that with these words: "I have nothing to do with dead people." And her life had been one of communicating with the dead. She expressed a strong desire to live in such a way that she would see that place of beauty and light again.

I encouraged her to make a decision for the Lord, and to my joy, some time later she gave her life to Christ and repented from her past. And old as she was already, she joyfully followed the Lord to the end. One of her favorite songs was: "Walk with Jesus all the way."

7.3 Skins under the blouse

My mother was a trusted church-woman, but by her own admission she was a nominal Christian. She still took part in all the activities of the rest of the family that involved the dead, izinyanga and izangoma. At one stage she got sick, and she was told by sangomas that the spirits of her forefathers wanted her to be an isangoma. A special ceremony was arranged where my grandfather on my mother's side pleaded with the spirits to let her go. She still had to wear skins worn by izangoma for some time. But because she still went to church she was advised to hide the skins under her blouse.

My mother's case is perhaps the most common one amongst many nominal Black Christians. They fill churches on Sundays, but in many ways they are just like the rest of their family members who have never heard the Good News. Some respected churchmen and - women somehow believe that even God should understand that when it comes to this, He cannot expect them to deviate from the ways of their forefathers. That is, of course, until God's full Light breaks through in their lives!

7.4 The turning point

My father, like many of our people, was obsessed with the quest for good luck and prosperity which are associated with being blessed by the ancestors. He sought to see the "smiling faces" of his forefathers; and dreaded being told by izangoma that his ancestors had "turned their backs from him." The belief is that unhappiness with something in the family can cause the dead to turn their backs on the living. On the other hand, it is also believed that enemies can use witchcraft to turn one's ancestors against you.

Izangoma are the ones who will enquire from the ancestors how the situation could be remedied. In most cases sacrifices have to me made to appease the dead and imithi used to neutralise attacks by the enemies.

After years of prosperity which my father reciprocated by sacrificing as often as he could to thank his forefathers, a point came where everything seemed to go wrong in business and in the family. By then he had taken to heavy drinking, and his marriage life was strained to the limit.

There was always advice from izangoma, izinyanga and senior members of the family. He tried all he could, even to the point of borrowing money to make sacrifices, in the belief that once he had succeeded in turning the faces of his forefathers towards him, all would be well, and blessings would flow again.

All this ended in a dramatic way when, one day after a big significant ceremony of ukubuyisa (to bring back the spirit of my late grandfather), the hut especially built for the occasion went up in flames with some of the meat from the feast. Three of my siblings nearly died in that inferno. As the hut went up in smoke, so did my parent's belief and hope in what they thought would spark off new life for the family. And that was when God's clear hand became visible as my converted aunt, her family - a missionary farmer they worked for brought us the Good News of salvation and total commitment to Christ.

The turning point in the family was radical. When my father accepted Christ, it was a "perfect submission." Never again did he go to the izinyanga and izangoma for help. Sacrifices to the dead became a thing of the past. All fetishes left by izinyanga were removed and burned. When thunderstorms came, the family looked to the Lord for protection. God gave my father an additional fourteen years to be a living testimony to the rest of our big family and the area where he lived.

8 Conclusion

I believe that no South African can claim to be immune from some of the influences of ATR. When it comes to izangoma and izinyanga there are those who, in the words of Dr Ntato Motlana, regard their operations as "mumbo jumbo" and superstition. Some regard ATR as part of the African culture, a private issue that has nothing to do with Christianity. Biblical Christianity, on the other hand, knows we are dealing here with evil powers that can only be broken down by the power of the Cross. The ultimate joy comes when victory is won through Christ's power; just watching the face of the liberated soul is sufficient reason for praise!

I have heard of African leaders who are quoted as saying that they would be prepared to go even to the devil for assistance if that would help their people. My question is: why would our leaders go to the devil when God invites us to come to Him for the key to success in this life, in this world and the next?

We would do well to listen to this serious warning by Wilbur O'Donovan (Biblical Christianity in African perspective): "Failure to make a definite and permanent break with the beliefs and practices of traditional religion has greatly weakened the church in Africa. Failure to completely put away non-Christian practices is a serious sin and brings God's judgment."


Isangoma (singular) - diviner

izangoma (plural)

Inyanga - traditional medicine man

izinyanga (plural)

Note: The term often used today for izangoma and izinyanga is traditional healers

Umthakathi - one who uses black magic to harm others; abathakathi (plural)

Umuthi - traditional medicine/mixture

imithi (plural)

Utokoloshe - tokoloshe

Umemulo - a public ceremony to inform the ancestors and the

community that the girl has reached marriageable age.

Ukubuyisa idlozi - ceremony to bring home the spirit of the deceased