Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.    

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors? 

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

[To be continued: Part 2.]

© 2008 Andy A. Alo

Andy hails from north-eastern Congo and is currently writing his dissertation at NEGST on translating the metaphor of light.

13 thoughts on “Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective

  1. Andy has spoken precisely about an African’s or say majority of Africans’ misrepresented living-dead relationships. Starting with semantics, when Christianity came with our very good missionaries, they had to use African semantic categories to explain and communicate Christian categories which had already been watered down either by Latin, French, English, German, etc. So what did they think? Africans are animistic or pagans because they worship ancestors and ….

    For sure, Africans relationship with ancestors is not anything removed from Israel’s relationship with her patriarchs! Did Israelites worship their patriarchs? What about Christians, why do they sometimes pray in the God of ABRAHAM, ISAAC, JACOB? Are these guys dead or living. Where is the spirit of say, ISAAC?

    If Christianity is going to stay in Africa for long, we must reclaim African semantic categories, and ever ceasing African concept of life after death. It must be brought to account in Christianity. E.g. I live a good life because it is worthy of the people I most value, my Dad and Grand Pa who are now departed. I can then see how it is important to God. Otherwise, there is no motivation for morality, for communal living/responsibility, and for being a good Christian. Ask me why Christianity is dying in the West?

  2. steph says:

    When I studied African religion as an undergrad, we understood the honouring of ancestors not the worshiping of them. I thought that theory was overturned in the mid twentieth century. ?

  3. steph says:

    As far as I remember honouring ancestors is also observed in Native American, Aboriginal, Hindu, Chinese and other religions. Your research sounds interesting. I always wanted to study African religious music and took “World Music” but I never got to Africa. 🙂

  4. Ben says:

    Thanks Nelson for kicking off the discussion. I hope other people will respond as well.

    Steph, that may be true in some circles, but it’s still a quite popular notion, and it is hotly debated even within many African circles. Just Google “Africa ancestor worship” for example.

    You are absolutely right in your assessment of it as a global phenomena. In a couple of recent posts, I have tried to make the point that it is also not as far from our modern Western traditions as we sometimes like to think. Think also of flowers on a grave (or at a funeral) and people talking to our beloved departed. Some interesting similarities can also be seen in recent news items of sports heroes in America football (e.g. the first game after the death of Sean Taylor, Washington Redskins, or Brett Favre’s father.) Sorry, I know that’s a long way from good ole Kiwi rugby.

    I hope you get to enjoy the African experience some day.

  5. steph says:

    Oh yes we all honour our ancestors but aren’t some are more organised than others? I hope I get to the real Africa one day. By the way I hate rugby. Glorified wrestling match between brutes. The only bit I like is our haka. 🙂

  6. Thanks for this fascinating interview. This is very important for the West to understand African Theology. If you don’t mind I’m going to link this post.

  7. […] 12 Sep 2008 · No Comments This is part 2 of a guest post by Andy Alo. Yesterday in part 1, Andy called the belief that Africans worshipped their ancestors a theological myth. Based on field […]

  8. […] Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective (Part 1) Guest post by Andy Alo […]

  9. Makiwa says:

    Hi Andy

    Interesting concept – I am sure it is based on a very logical assessment and personal experience. I choose to believe in the spirit world and have had many encounters that are ‘unexplained’. I grew up in Africa – ‘white child of Africa’ and with the Zulu’s in South Africa up into the then Transvaal and Eastern Cape (Xhosa people) before spending years in Zimbabwe farming and then up onto the Belgium Congo border and the Copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia now Zambia. As you have gathered by the names I am no longer young but never the less believe in African culture, spirtuality and their witchcraft. I have found this site while looking for information to confirm African behavour in a book I am writing that includes African beliefs. This concept has thrown me a little – a bit like ‘Santa is not real’ or there are no fairies at the bottom of the garden. I love fairy stories, goblins and dragons etc and heaven. Let us at least believe that we will go somewhere wonderful full of all your loved ones or to hell if you are bad. You cant take the spirit world away from me without more of an explanation. You are African it is your culture to believe these things, and I know that deep down dispite all the facts in front of you that you feel the hair rise at the back of your neck and your senses scream out. There is someone there, you know there is. I have seen them, felt their presence and so will you if you are not afraid, beleive in your heart not cold facts? Someone wants to talk to you, did you know that?

  10. Andy A. Alo says:

    Dear Makiwa,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I have been reflecting on the difference between ‘facts’ and ‘beliefs’ in my ethnic community. What they consider real ‘facts’ sometimes are ‘beliefs’ for me. It has made me humble and tolerant about people’s opinions.

    For instance, I met a boy from another ethnic group (Alur) who offered to take me to his home area where, with the approval of the elders, I could go to a see specific mountain and see a snake that has light/fire.

    Two weeks ago, a man from my own ethnic group (Lugbara) came to Nairobi for business. He mentioned to me that the son of a pastor has been killed by a snake that has fire. I pretended not to know anything of the snake he was talking about. He is the one who used the word ‘dragon’. To convince me he added that the corpse was black like a charcoal, evidence of that the corpse was carbonized the fire of the snake. Another person managed to take the stone.

    During my field trip, I heard from more than ten people the story of a child who was taken into the ‘second world’ as child-worker for loading lorries of some business men. People have evidence that some of the goods sold in local market do not come from Dubai. they are imported magically from the ‘second world’.

    Reality and Sur-natural reality meet in their stories.

    I am encouraged by your African experience. I have meet some friends in Wycliffe Bible Translation Organization who have been trained to think ‘rationally’. They do not believe at all in experiences beyond physics and chemistry. I am sure what you write will be very an ‘eye-opener’ for those who are limited in their scholastic experience. Life by itself is a school where we learn, sometimes more than in school.

    Our role in this worldview would be to bring out the stories, document them in order to make them contribute to the knowledge inheritance as beliefs or supra-senses facts.


  11. […] also take “fear of the ancestors.” In my own life experience I have never been to a more fearful place in world than the good […]

  12. Abduraghman says:

    Being a Muslim i always believed the above view to be the case as explained by Andy Alo becos of my friendship with an African family i grew up with in South Africa .We used to invite each other to our respective traditional functions ,that is our islamic Thikr- “”rembrances”” ( in which we honour our deceased ) and their honouring the ancestors .So the understanding was always that we both did not worship our Ancestors but simply honouring them.

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