Country Listing

Zaire Table of Contents


Traditional African Religions

The wide variety of African indigenous beliefs and practices makes generalizations difficult, but some commonalities may nonetheless be noted. In general, Zairians believe themselves to be subject to a number of unseen agents and forces. Most indigenous communities recognize a high god, and many attribute to him the role of creator; otherwise, he has few specific characteristics beyond that of ultimate cause.

Far more significant are ancestors, who are believed to continue to play a part in community life long after their death. In general, the living are required to speak respectfully of ancestors and to observe certain rites of respect so that the dead will look favorably on their descendants' activities. Africans do not engage in ancestor "worship;" rather, the living address and relate to their deceased elders in much the same way that they relate to their living ones. Often the terms of address and the gifts given to placate a dead elder are identical to those accorded a living one.

Nature spirits live in particular places, such as rivers, rocks, trees, or pools, or in natural forces such as wind and lightning. A typical practice involving a nature spirit in much of northern Zaire is the commonplace tossing of a red item (palm nut, cloth, matches, etc.) in a river before crossing it, particularly in places where the water is rough or turbulent. Thus placated, the spirit will refrain from stirring up the waters or overturning the boat.

Nature spirits play a minor role in negotiating everyday life compared with that played by witches and sorcerers. Witches are individuals who possess an internal organ giving them extraordinary power, generally malevolent power. The organ and its powers are hereditary. Witches can bring death and illness to crops, animals, and people, and their actions can be voluntary or involuntary. A witch might dream an angry dream about a friend or relative, for example, and awake to find that person struck ill or dead by the agency of his or her dream. Sorcerers are the possessors of nonhereditary powers that can be bought or acquired. A sorcerer might be consulted and paid to provide a medicine or object that strengthens the client in the hunt (or, in contemporary life, in taking an exam) or that brings misfortune on an enemy.

In the event of illness, or of crop failure, or of misfortune in some other sphere of life, the stricken party may consult a diviner in order to identify the agent responsible for his or her affliction. The diviner is a specialist skilled in identifying the social tensions present in the community of the afflicted, and, for a fee, will identify the agent responsible for the individual's misfortune. By obtaining details of the afflicted person's life and social situation, the diviner will diagnose the misfortune by citing the agency of angry ancestors, nature spirits, sorcerers, or witches. Different ethnic groups add or subtract from the set of agents of affliction, but these are the most common. Once a diagnosis has been made, the diviner will then prescribe the appropriate cure. Diviners' powers are beneficent and their role highly valued.

From an outsider's perspective, the most striking aspect of indigenous belief and practice is its determinism; accidents are virtually unheard of, and there is always a cause behind any misfortune. In many indigenous societies, for example, a death is always followed by an inquest at which the cause of death and the identity of the killer are determined. Measures are then taken against the alleged miscreant, even when someone dies of disease in bed at an advanced age.

Data as of December 1993