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Beating the masculinity game: evidence from African Traditional Religion.

Religious observance in major religions and indigenous spiritual traditions is a resolutely male affair in both symbolism and hierarchy. In the words of David Kinsley: "What is claimed to be the religions or religious expressions of humankind were often (indeed usually) the religion and religious expressions of males" (3). In this sense, a religious world that is fundamentally masculine has been taken for granted and accepted as the natural order of things. In traditional Africa, religious beliefs and institutions matter most in shaping public and private understandings of masculinity. It is common knowledge that in African systems of thought, men have to a great extent constructed a religious language that describes a God of patriarchal family and ancestry. Although much scholarship has been devoted to male-centered religious imagery, there is evidence of a female focus of the divine in the African pantheon.

It is important to emphasize that while the aura of written sacred texts helps to strengthen and sustain the cause of masculine symbolism in Western religions, the same cannot be said about African Traditional Religion (ATR). To this extent, African people are free to hold different views and beliefs without the risk of heretical accusations. Perhaps this could help explain why female symbolism secured a religious space without controversies and perturbation.

But there was a need to claw back the advantage women had, which expressed itself in such phenomena as the suppression and distortion of feminine symbolism, the use of patriarchal patterns and social norms to construct a religious boundary that projects the male ways of being into the supernatural world, and the manipulation of the sexual identity of spiritual beings. Female deities, like their human counterparts, have a domestic rather than communal orientation.

Yet, despite such patriarchal power ATR still enjoys a flourishing female imagery on all levels of the supernatural. In this article I will argue that a multiplicity of vestiges of women's religious power and authority is entrenched in African systems of thought. I will demonstrate how the deep structures of and rocentric thinking and biases have been utilized to maintain a view that men matter more in the sacred spheres. Ninian Smart's (1988) seven-dimensional model of religion may be helpful here, dividing the phenomenon of religion into its practical and ritual, experiential and emotional, narrative and mythic, doctrinal and philosophical, ethical and legal, social and institutional, and material aspects. While these divisions may be artificial, Smart emphasizes that there are religious manifestations in which one or some of these dimensions might be either weak or totally absent. As regards ATR, the mythic, practical, and ritual dimensions are most important, and they will form the basis of my analysis.

Alolo (2007) acknowledges these aspects as fundamental to ATR as a whole and central to understanding and explaining the concept of gender. In this article, I draw comparatively from geographic areas of sub-Saharan Africa to appreciate and salvage the female dimension of ATR in a world that has become sensitized to women's concerns.

Inside African Traditional Religion

When we speak of ATR, we mean the indigenous beliefs, ceremonies, rituals, customs, and practices of Africans born out of the expression and deep reflection of their forebears. These traditions evolved over many centuries as the people of Africa responded to the situations of their life and reflected upon their experiences. Conner captures the scope of this religion when he associated its world with "natural elements (including earth, air, fire, and water, as well as particular plants, animals, and stones), life experiences (such as birth, loving union, and death), occupations (spiritual leader, artist and so on) and other matters including gender and sexuality" (2003, 6). This religion has served from the dawn of history as the ultimate source for men and women in Africa to understand their origin, position, and relationship among themselves and within the universe. Indeed, it is their own way of coming to terms with reality.

A result of the forceful missionary encroachment on the African continent, today most Africans are either Christian or Muslim. According to Monaghan, "approximately 10 percent of Africans practice traditional religions; although a statistical minority these practitioners number in millions" (2010, xxxii). However, a significant number of Africans who have embraced Christianity and Islam are still torn between these faiths and the religion of their forebears. ATR has survived in various forms in sub-Saharan Africa. In the predominantly Islamic North of Africa, Monaghan sees vestiges of indigenous religious practices among the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria and semi-nomadic people, such as the Tuareg of the Sahara.

Whereas Westerners conceive of religion as an independent system of beliefs or organizational structure, to Africans religion is a complete way of life that is present in every sector of everyday cultural experiences and human interaction. Mbiti sums up the importance of religion for Africans: "through the ages, therefore, religion has been for Africans the normal way of looking at the world and experiencing it" (1991, 14).

In the scholarly discourse on ATR, views are polarized on the question of whether beliefs and practices can accurately be regarded as a single religion or should be seen as a series of expressions that reflect shared views of reality. Given that it is beyond the scope of this article to critically examine the various arguments about the singularity or multiplicity of African religions, I tend to view ATR in the singular, as seems to be the growing consensus among most scholars of the discipline. Though specific beliefs vary from one society to another, there is a basic worldview that fundamentally remains the same everywhere (see Ejizu 1989, Idowu 1973, Mbiti 1991, Parrinder 1974). Among other things, this worldview upholds the intrinsic or innate equality of all individuals and ascribes an absolute dignity to the person who is differentiated from other beasts by a self-cognizant, moral intelligence. These values are well encapsulated in the various myths and ritual practices of the people.

Masculine images in Africa

The question of what constitutes masculinity in the context of traditional Africa is particularly fascinating. But given the variety of cultures on the African continent it would be difficult, if not impossible, to make general statements about the notions of masculinity as there are often rival visions of what constitutes appropriate masculine behavior. More so, ideals or codes of conduct that are dominant in one context may be subordinate or complementary in another. Scholars point out that all societies of the world are gendered in one way or the other and, consequently, invest considerably in masculine and feminine attributions, complete with formal and informal rituals and rites that mark the coming-of-age. That being the case, masculinity (and masculinities) remains society-specific. Whitehead (2002) acknowledges this when remarking that masculinity is what any given society accepts as features associated with the male gender and expressions of maleness, implying those practices and ways of being serve to validate a masculine subject's sense of itself as a male, boy, or man.

A common thread, however, runs through indigenous values and experiences. Uchendu draws from various authorities to recognize common underlying attitudes symptomatic of much of traditional Africa. She asserts that "men in patriarchal settings were irrefutably the favoured class: an esteemed group that grew from childhood to manhood culturally imbued with notions that made them believe they were superior and had multiple privileges, including inherent rights to dominate" (2008, 13).

Perhaps this explains why men do not only dominate the socio-economic and political machinery and organizations but also are regarded natural leaders who are superior and born to rule over women (who are considered a weaker vessel and secondary human beings). While acknowledging that all lineages are not matrilineal in structure, Uchendu believes that significant areas that are matrilineal--particularly in Central and East Africa, with other matrilineal groups in North Africa (in Algeria) and West Africa (in Ghana and Nigeria)--exhibit most features found in patriarchal communities, with the only points of divergence relating to inheritance claims, which are transmitted through women, freedom of action, and a degree of public significance.

How the notion that only men are of consequence was extrapolated to the spiritual realm remains a hotly contested issue. But the fact of the matter is that the depiction of God as male is prevalent in Africa. Such depiction is reinforced with gendered pronouns and metaphors (Ekeke and Ekeopara 2010, Idowu 1973, Kilson 1976, Lugira 2009, Mbiti 1991, Parrinder 1974). Adedeji sums up the impression when he alludes that "God reveals Himself to Africans as a kingly Father who is dependable and a caretaker of the family, a friend who is trust-worthy for companionship, as a creator and life-giver who sustains and upholds the universe" (2000, 41). In effect, many Africans grow up with these concepts of God and do not need to learn them, since they are imbued in their folklores, myths, short stories, proverbs, and ceremonies.

Yet, in ATR human life is viewed from a total rather than a dichoto-mous and exclusive perspective. No one human component is stronger or more valuable than the other. None of the sexes is totally complete in itself or constitutes a unit by itself. Each constitutes the critical half that makes the human whole. Women and men from Akan religion, as Sackey (2006) observes, are equitable, interdependent, and interconnected variables that together make an individual a human whole. Viewed from a structural-functionalist paradigm, each constitutes the vital part that works together with the other to make a whole human being.

The narrative or mythic dimension: divine as female

Vansina describes mythical stories as those that "deal with and interpret the relations between the natural and the supernatural and are concerned with all that part of religious life that lies beyond the moral order"; consequently, they "attempt to explain the world, the culture, the society ... in terms of religious causes" (quoted in Shokpeka 2005, 485). African myths do not only elucidate the connections between the supernatural and the natural, but also organize the universe in relation to the individual's existence, life, and destiny. In most cases, myths provide explanations for certain aspects of society that history cannot adequately explain.

African cosmological accounts submit that people are surrounded not by things but by beings. Robin Horton (quoted in Kilson 1976) argues that the different "beings" are related to differentiating levels of explanation in African systems of thought. Cultures recognize a Supreme Being, an all-powerful creator God, who is first in rank and is responsible for the emergence of humanity and the development of a community. In contrast to the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, Africans do not hold a rigid androcentric image of God. The concept of a Goddess Creator, the Mother of all people, is found throughout Africa, though her names vary.

Research concerning the female dimension of the divine in ATR is, however, impeded by the influence of Christianity and Islam with their misinterpretation and misrepresentation of mythical accounts of African people. For example, while different mythical sources provide accounts of a "high god," who, secluded from humanity, presides over life on earth from the sky, missionaries saw in this god a striking resemblance to the male god of the Abrahamic religions, ignoring the fact that such divinity could have been male or female, androgynous or even gender-less. Being attentive to female symbolism in the diverse contexts of ATR can be richly illuminating. It "will enable us examine how some of the above beliefs and ambiguities are reflected and manifested in the form of spirits and divinities" (Hackett 1994, 67). Let us, therefore, recover some of the feminine imagery of God.

I start with the tradition of earth goddesses who are often self-creating and creators of the earth. Hackett, who studied the Ijaw, a matrilin-eal people of the Niger Delta Region of Nigeria, found that they speak of God in strictly feminine terms. "They have four principal names for the Supreme Being namely, Temearu 'she who is the molder of all,' Ayegba ... 'the foundress of the universe,' Woyingi ... 'our mother,' and Oginarau, 'she who dwells in Heaven'" (1994, 68). A similar idea about a feminine primordial being exists among the Ashanti of Ghana, who speak of the goddess Nyame, the great mother, and associate her with the moon (Alolo 2007). In Ghana, the Akan revere the goddess "Ngame" as the divine principle of creation. Linda lies quotes J. B. Danquah: "The crux de-cussata or Female Cross (Mberam) (X), in several of its forms, is shown as the symbol for Ngame as the creator of the revolving universe" (lies 2010).

Talbort (1915/2007; see also Alolo 2007) found a corresponding belief in a female creator deity and original mother, Eka Abasi (Mother of God), who looms at the very fount of the religion of the Ibibio of south eastern Nigeria. She is believed to have begotten Obumo, the thunder god, from whom all people originated. According to Talbort, "Eka Abassi may not be spoken of among the other gods because she is so far beyond them all. From her has sprung all which exists-from Abassi Obumo the 'thunderer,' her son and consort, to the least of living things and every twig, stone or water-drop" (2007, 10). In her supreme attribute as bestower of fertility, women who are not childbearing pray to her so that the curse may be taken from them; also, people with different diseases and infirmities supplicate for her help.

The Supreme Being can be androgynous. Kuiye of the Batammaliba of Togo has both male and female genitals and is called "The Sun, Our Father and Our Mother." In Zimbabwe, Mwari, the god of fertility, is also androgynous (Mukonyora 1999, 283). Some writers on the Ashanti of Ghana also speak of god as having a duality of sex (see Alolo 2007, 19). Here, the female principle is identified with the moon and is assumed to have created human beings with water, while the male principle is symbolized by the sun, which is believed to have shot life-giving fire into human veins to make humans come alive. Paired as divine twin, "the woman is seen as the mother of humankind, from whom all people originated" (Anti 1996, 2). The Ewe people, who spread across Ghana and the Republic of Benin, recognize a powerful female-male combination of Mawu-Lisa Supreme deity.1 Mawu is the female symbolized by the moon; Lisa the male, identified with the sun. Mythical accounts, as Hack-ett reports, hold Mawu as the creator god, the elder, the mother, and occasionally the consort or twin of Lisa. Gentility and forgiveness are ascribed to her as exemplified in the oft-cited phrase: when Lisa punishes, Mawu grants forgiveness. The Ewe celebrate Mawu's religious significance through a red wooden statue with large breasts, holding a crescent in one hand, which symbolizes her creator role and her association with the moon. Anti (1996, 2) believes it is the only known image of the Supreme Being in Africa. Similar beliefs exist in parts of the Central Republic of Benin and neighboring Togo as well as the Yoruba of Nigeria (see Hackett 1994, 68, who cites Parrinder). According to Sackey, this "concept of duality not only emphasizes the African sense of the male-female shared responsibilities but depict the versatility that underlies gender relations in many aspects of African fife" (2006, 16).

Practical and ritual dimension: feminine imagery in religious practices

African Traditional Religion is not codified in sacred texts but expressed through spiritual practices. Central to these practices is communication with the supernatural through rituals that include prayer, divination, offerings, and sacrifice. Spiritual healing and spiritual maturity (e.g. becoming a spiritual specialist) are also vital in the religious life of Africans, and so are rituals which mark the phases of life: birth, puberty, adulthood, marriage, parenthood, and death. These ritual practices are linked to gender and sexuality.

Both women and men have unimpeded access toward the realization of social and spiritual aspirations in ATR. (2) We can appreciate this more within the framework of certain scenarios. The importance of child bearing in African culture and spiritual tradition, for example, is well documented (Adongo et al. 1998, Caldwell and Caldwell 1987, Conner 2003, Mbiti 1991). Scholars generally agree that throughout sub-Saharan Africa, traditional religious beliefs and practices embedded in lineage and descent systems influence high fertility (see Adongo et al. 1998). The lineage is seen as a descent group stretching infinitely far back and reaching indefinitely ahead into the future. Since only a small proportion of people is alive at any one time, it is appropriate that the extension into the future should be the central concern for those alive now alive as well as for their dead ancestors. Because the lineage assures ancestors of means of communing with this earth, giving birth to children is thus revered as a sacred act that culminates not only in preserving and propagating the human life but also in ensuring that the ancestral line is perpetuated. The implication of this perspective is that "high fertility (and a considerable number of surviving children) is associated with joy, the right life, divine approval, and approbation by both living and dead ancestors. Conversely, low fertility is only too easily interpreted as evidence of sin and disapproval" (Caldwell and Caldwell 1987, 416). Women are thus seen as producers of life; even in those cultures where they are not respected as equals, they are honored as mothers. Since low fertility is generally regarded as sign of disapproval, couples in dire need of children pray fervently to fertility deities such as the Igbo goddess, Ala (Ani), Mawu of the Ewe and Fon, and the Yoruba Osun. Sacrifices aimed at finding a lover or spouse, aiding fertility, becoming pregnant, and bearing healthy offspring are also directed to these goddesses.

The deep value of fertility in ATR culture is exemplified in the Osun festival in Oshogbo in southwestern Nigeria. Thousands of people assemble every year to attend a special annual festival to honor the goddess of fertility. At this festival, many women supplicate for health and reproduction. The festival has become the central pillar of Yoruba spiritual life and is a clear indication that fertility is a vital aspect of African religion and culture.

In traditional Africa, both males and females go through different rites of passage to mark each life cycle. Despite the tendency among non-Africans to look at these rites as secular, they are profoundly spiritual in nature. For example, rites commemorating the passage of adolescents and young males or females into adulthood begin with training that typically involves a period of seclusion. In this period, members of the same sex and age group with their elders (who are often, but not always, of the same sex) guide the young initiates through the initiatory process. Young men are trained in male mysteries; young women are trained in female mysteries, sexual etiquette, and the religious significance of womanhood and female power.

For example, the bukut (or men's initiation) of the Jola people of Casamance region of southern Senegal is associated with rituals that illuminate gender complementarity. To attain adult status and eligibility to marry and start a family, a man must go through the bukut, which is usually held once every twenty to twenty-five years. The process involves the seclusion of the initiates along with mentor elders and spiritual leaders in the sacred forest, where the acquisition of secret knowledge is combined with strict discipline. When the participants emerge from the forest, they are regarded as men.

The reclusive retreat is preceded by ritual dance, in which the initiates wear horned masks. They march to the surrounding wards to dance at the compounds of their maternal relatives, where they are formally presented to the family of mother or grandmother to re-enact the marriage ties. The highlight of this dance is the presentation of the jebil gdhin: the initiate's eldest maternal uncle takes a cloth from the woman's head and ties it like a broad belt around the young man's waist as a reminder of his link with the maternal relatives. Women compose the initiate's song and provide the musical beat with which he performs a vibrant dance in the center of the compound to the admiration of his maternal family. This aspect of the bukut reinforces the marriage ties and recognizes the role of women as the linchpins that connect the initiate to his maternal relatives in a patrilocal society (Mark et al. 1998).

The norm requires that other initiates form a phalanx with swords and initiation sticks brandished like weapons. They will be quickly surrounded by their sisters, who had accompanied them, and by female cousins from the compound they are visiting. The young women would form a circle around the men and become the chorus, clapping their hands or rhythmically striking pieces of wood and metal while everyone begins to dance. Throughout the performance, the dancers follow one another in complementary pairs: first female, then male. Mark et al. (1998) argue that this dance is not given over entirely to the initiates. Rather, it expresses the interdependence of men and women. Though men are considered superior to women in legal and political domains in Jola society, women also have considerable amount of power both inside and outside the family realm.

In Dogon religion, children are considered neuter probably due to the belief that they mirror certain deities and ancestral spirits, which are neither male nor female. It is likely, therefore, that one of the primary reasons for both male and female circumcision is to sacrifice this gender ambiguity so that both can assert their respective gender identity and finally participate in a culture that insists on gender dichotomy and childbearing for the majority of its members. "This sacrifice occurs when the physical correlates of the female's masculine energy--her clitoris--and the males correlates of the feminine energy--his foreskin--are ritually severed" (Conner 2003, 12). In this way, the children become male and female and assume collaborative gender roles in society. It is important to stress here the emerging campaigns by individuals and organizations with respect to the physical and psychological effects of female circumcision. But such concerns, Conner argues, create a dilemma between the desire to respect religious and cultural differences and the need to protect the rights of the individual who must undergo this practice.

Among the Manjaco of Guinea Bissau, women cannot become ancestors because they "wander." They leave their natal kinship homes (the Manjaco refer to it simply as the "house" or kato) to marry and bear children in their husband's house. Yet, women as mothers or as fathers' sisters seem to be more concerned than men with the relationship between human beings and the dead. Among the Manjaco, "the people who seem to have the greatest stake in conversing with ancestors--the people who 'speak to' them--are women, specifically, out-marrying fathers' sisters" (Gable 1996, 105). It is an indication of the location of authority in the ritual sphere of society.

Hackett observes that all Gussi diviners in Nyasongo of Kenya are females. In another account on the Baluba of Democratic Republic of Congo, she found numerous women among those who serve as intermediaries between the souls of the dead and the living. But for the Temne of Sierra Leone, "a distinction between male and female is reflected in the contrast between private/public and individual/social divination" (Hackett 1994, 77). Here, only a handful of women are engaged in the private sphere of divination whereas the public sphere remains a predominantly male preserve. That divinatory rites conducted in public are in male hands is an indication that they are more positively valued and associated with upholding and protecting the community's welfare. It is against this background that Kilson states that "women are relegated to subordinate ritual roles in African traditional religious structures as suppliants, ritual assistants, and most importantly mediums" (1976, 138). It may be too simplistic, however, to discuss women's ritual roles as subordinate, since they dominate in the realm of personal rituals regarding status and life cycle transformations. There is a need to guard against the imposition of Western values and interpretations with respect to the study of female symbolism in ATR. After all, "exclusion from the religious life ... may not necessarily entail exclusion from the spiritual life, since it may be held that women naturally carry spiritual knowledge with them" (Hackett 1994, 89).

Unmasking androcentric bias in gender roles and relations

For Mbiti, female imagery of the divine is part of a "social organization [that] is centered on the home and position of the mother" (1991, 53), a veiled reference and allusion to underlying matrilineal foundations. Many Afrocentric and ATR scholars (Amadiume 1987, Bey 2006, Diop 1978, Hackett 1994, Ogbomo 1997, Olupona 1991) tend to associate Africa's social system with a matrilineal past. Their work uncovers the hidden matriarchal history of Africa and assumes the existence of a prepatriarchal past, where goddess images correlated with women's power and/or religious leadership. The supposition here is the conception of goddess symbolism as an outgrowth of the primordial African matriarchy that gradually faded into oblivion with the transition to patriarchy As the matriarchy controversy continues to stir lively debate among scholars (see Farrar 1997), the issue that concerns us here should not be whether a general matriarchy existed in Africa, but whether we can acknowledge that religious ideas are rooted in time and space and are affected by power and gender relations.

African Traditional Religion and its interpretations are often heavily gendered. If we accept gender as a given, imbued with the notion of differences that perceive and evaluate maleness and femaleness in terms of hierarchy, opposition, and inevitably power relations, we must agree with Olajubu that "the underlying basis of African gender issues could be located in the people's mythology, especially cosmological myths" (2005, 3400). Because Africans had no written literature in the past, orally transmitted myths served as guardians of cultural heritage. But the problem is that while we may romanticize the colorful imagery and value-carrying roles of myths, we usually ignore the prejudiced ideology they have produced and continue to reproduce.

As conveyor of meaning for that which history offers no explanation, myths offer paradigms for gender construction and power relations in the religious world of traditional Africa. Talbort provides a good example in her reflections on the profound change that has transformed the religious history of the Ibibio, when men stole the secrets of the women's society Ekkpo Njawhaw. In former times, she argues, Ibibio women were more powerful than men and were esoterically privileged with the mysteries of the gods. They had established awe-inspiring secret societies and were the prime movers of creation. With that knowledge, women were able to keep all males as servants, employing them to do the heaviest work. Their physical strength and greater endurance qualified them also to be used as fighters. "Regarded as a jealously guarded secret that, in earlier times it was woman, not man who was the dominant sex and source of creation" (Hackett 1994, 69), the secrecy ended when men surreptitiously appropriated the mystical secrets and violently wrested power from women, thus reversing the religious orientation of ibibio people. Amadiume (1987) also observes the suppression of female symbolism among the Nnobi Igbo of south eastern Nigeria. She argues that a goddess had the more prominent place in the Nnobi myth and religion, but that the original supremacy of the goddess cult of Idemili declined in favor of the patriarchal ancestral cult, when Idemili was domesticated and transformed into the wife of a less powerful male god. Similar reports of gender twisting of the divine are found in the Mwari religious cult of Zimbabwe's Shona people (see Mukonyora 1999). These and other examples point to gender dialectics in African mythological accounts, which "prescribe and entrench" not only "complimentary" but also unequal "gender relations that find expression in the religious interactions of men and women as well as in their relations in the polity" (Olajubu 2005, 3400). It is important to add that the majority of these myths were created by men, while those of women were often suppressed.

In almost all cases, these narratives create traditional distinct spheres for men and women. "The delimitation of these spheres is fluid and varies according to ethnic, social, geographic and historical factors" (Hackett 1994, 64). Hence, the mystery and secrets of the African religious universe is not in the sole custody of either men or women, and there is evidence that African spirituality has influenced the womanist movement in diasporic lands (Monaghan 2010). This movement seeks to empower women through the feminine imagery of divinity following especially African goddesses.


African Traditional Religion addresses the power relations between men and women by ensuring that it is not appropriated by one category for the domination of the other. This explains why the philosophy of complementary gender relationship is central to the people's cosmic experience. ATR is less concerned about asking which sex is dominant and more about focusing on areas where the sexes enjoy prominence. The prominence that one sex enjoys in a particular sphere of human endeavor does not translate to independence. Since the position of women in any culture is measured by the relation between women and men, it is time that male principles retrace their steps and begin to collaborate with female principles for the good of everybody.

Indeed men and women have and need complementarity, despite the possession of unique features. Hence, I align myself with (Oduyoye's proposal 2000) to intensify the study of women in African religion with a view to understanding more about women's global issues.

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(1.) Hackett (1994) provides the account associated with the Ewe of Benin Republic, while Anti (1996) deals with the account of the Ewe of Ghana.

(2.) "Although one's gender might determine the specific spiritual role one plays, it really prevents one from attaining spiritual authority" (Conner 2003, 6).
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Author:Ebere, Charles
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Date:Dec 1, 2011
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