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What did Africans believe about dead ancestors?

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What did Africans believe about dead ancestors?

When Damilola’s (Dami) dad died in the early hours of June 2, 2008, he was beside himself with grief. Well-intentioned condolence messages and gestures from close family and friends, instead of relieving his pain, only served to exacerbate the deep sense of loss he felt in the first few days after his beloved father breathed his last. Dami, a first-year university student, could not fathom how his stay-at-home mother and five young siblings would survive without their provider whose lifeless body was now lying in the mortuary.

Fast forward 14 years later and Dami was already a cybersecurity expert living in Canada. He travelled in 2018 on a student visa, completed his master’s degree and got some cybersecurity certifications. With a monthly salary running into several millions when converted to naira, he could fend for his widowed mother, who refused to remarry despite entreaties, and his siblings, some of whom were already taking to tech too.

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Dami, a Yoruba man from Ondo State in South-West Nigeria, never failed to explain to anyone who cared to listen how one single, supernatural incident changed his life. On the day his father’s remains were to be buried, he often narrated, he knelt before the wooden coffin and prayed. And like a dream, he saw a shadow that was his father’s spitting image. And this shadow, which he later found out only he saw, spoke to him for the briefest moment. Its only remark – I will not leave you. He said this was the impetus he needed to turn his life around and become his family’s pillar of support despite his age at the time.

In Africa, beliefs about dead ancestors form an integral part of many cultures and societies. These beliefs are not just religious or spiritual practices but are woven into the very fabric of everyday life, influencing social structures, moral codes, and communal relationships. From the arid deserts of North Africa to the lush forests of Central Africa, the reverence for ancestors is a unifying thread that transcends geographical, linguistic, and ethnic boundaries.

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The concept of ancestor veneration in Africa predates many contemporary religions and philosophies. Archaeological evidence suggests that early African societies practiced elaborate burial rituals and maintained sites for ancestral worship, indicating a deep-rooted belief in the afterlife and the continued presence of the dead among the living.

These practices were not monolithic but varied widely among different communities. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed in a detailed and complex afterlife, where the dead would journey through the underworld and be judged by Osiris. Meanwhile, the Yoruba of West Africa believe that ancestors (known as “egungun”) are mediators between the living and the gods, capable of influencing the fortunes of their descendants.

In many African societies, ancestors are considered guardians and protectors of the family and community. They are believed to possess the power to bless or curse the living, and thus maintaining a harmonious relationship with them is crucial. This is achieved through various rituals, offerings, and ceremonies designed to honour and appease the ancestors.

Among the Shona people of Zimbabwe, for instance, rituals known as “bira” are performed to invoke the spirits of the ancestors. During these ceremonies, which involve music, dance, and the consumption of traditional beer, the spirits are called upon to provide guidance and protection. Similarly, the Dogon people of Mali hold elaborate funerary dances known as “dama” to honour the dead and ensure their safe passage to the afterlife.

The belief in ancestors plays a significant role in maintaining social order and moral conduct. In many communities, the ancestors are seen as the ultimate arbiters of justice, capable of punishing those who deviate from societal norms. This belief fosters a sense of accountability and encourages adherence to communal values and traditions.

For the Zulu of South Africa, ancestors (or “amadlozi”) are deeply involved in the moral and ethical decisions of the living. It is believed that disrespecting ancestors can lead to misfortune and illness, while honouring them brings prosperity and well-being. This system of belief reinforces familial bonds and ensures the transmission of cultural knowledge and practices across generations.

With the advent of Islam and Christianity in Africa, many traditional beliefs about ancestors have undergone significant transformations. In some cases, these beliefs have been syncretised with new religious practices, while in others, they have been suppressed or adapted to fit within the frameworks of the dominant religions.

In Nigeria, for example, many Yoruba Christians continue to practice traditional ancestor veneration alongside their Christian faith. They see no contradiction in honouring their ancestors while worshipping the Christian God, often integrating elements of both traditions in their rituals and ceremonies. Similarly, among the Swahili-speaking communities of East Africa, Islamic practices are often blended with traditional beliefs in ancestor spirits, resulting in a unique cultural synthesis.

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional African spiritual practices, including ancestor veneration. This revival is partly driven by a desire to reclaim cultural identity and heritage in the face of globalisation and cultural homogenisation. It also reflects a growing recognition of the value and wisdom inherent in these ancient practices.

African diasporic communities in the Americas and Europe are also reconnecting with ancestral traditions as a means of fostering a sense of belonging and continuity. This reconnection often involves the revival of rituals, the study of indigenous knowledge systems, and the creation of spaces for communal remembrance and celebration of ancestors.

The beliefs and practices surrounding dead ancestors in Africa are a testament to the continent’s rich cultural and spiritual heritage. They underscore the importance of memory, continuity, and respect for those who came before. As these traditions continue to evolve and adapt to contemporary contexts, they remain a vital part of African identity and social cohesion, offering valuable insights into the universal human experience of life, death, and the eternal connection between the past and the present.

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