3.1. Heavenly Bodies
Many concepts in the African worldview associate God with natural objects and phenomena. It is generally assumed that God created the heaven and earth. Heaven is the counterpart of the earth, and it is considered by African people to be the dwelling place of God. There are stories told all over Africa, of how heaven and earth were originally either close together or joined by a rope or bridge, and how God was close to humanity. All African people associate God with the sky or heaven in one way or another. There are those who say that God reigns and lives in the sky and some even identify Him with the sky or consider it to be his chief manifestation. There are many people whose names for God mean sky, heaven or simply ‘the above’. For example, the Turkana word for God, Akay
means up above. Thus God and heaven cannot be separated [15
The majority of African religious thought forms is based on the notion that heavenly bodies such as the sun, moon and stars communicate the magnificence of God. The regularity of day and night and the constant rhythm of the seasons illustrate the unfailing sustenance of God’s providence. The sun, moon and stars feature in the myths and beliefs of many people. Most Kenyan societies consider the sun to be a manifestation of God himself. For example, the Luhya, Luo, Nandi and Turkana personify the sun as a divinity or spirit and the sun is thought by some to be one of God’s sons. There is no concrete indication that the sun is considered to be God, or God considered to be the sun, however, these may be closely associated. At best, the sun symbolizes aspects of God such as his omniscience, his power, his everlasting endurance and even his nature.
Similar concepts exist concerning the moon, although on the whole, there are fewer associations with God than is the case of the sun. Among the Luo, the moon is personified as a female divinity, or a companion of God, or the mother or sister of the sun, or simply as a spirit. However, a number of Kenyan societies like the Teso, Isukha and Kalenjin hold religious ceremonies monthly especially when a new moon appears. A few societies personify the stars as spirits. For example, the Gikuyu take them as God’s manifestations.
Rain is regarded by African people to be one of the greatest blessings of God. For that reason, He is commonly referred to as ‘The Rain Giver’. Some people like the Elgeyo and Marakwet personify rain as a divinity, a supernatural being, or a son of God. Others, like the Akamba, consider rain to be the saliva of God, this being a symbol of great blessings. Many societies make sacrifices, offerings and prayers to God in connection with rain, especially during periods of drought. Rainmakers are reported in all parts of the continent, their duty being to solicit God’s help in providing rain or in halting it if too much falls [17
]. The Banyore of Western Kenya, for example, are believed to be able to manipulate rain. They have the ability to cause rain or stop it from raining [18
Thunder is taken by many to be God’s voice. Others like the Gikuyu and Embu interpret it to be the movement of God. The Abanyala and Samia regard thunder as an indication of God’s anger. Thunder is personified as a divinity among the Abaluhya, Luo and Kisii. The Gikuyu take lightning to be God’s weapon by means of which He clears the way when moving from one sacred place to another [16
In a few cases, the wind is associated with God. Some people describe him metaphorically as being like the wind or air, or moving like the wind while others think that the wind is one of the vehicles by which God travels in great power through the sky. The Nyala, Hayo, Samia, and Marachi consider wind and storms to be God’s manifestations while The Wanga consider wind as the movement of God [16
3.2. Earthly Bodies
Like the heavens, the earth has many natural objects and phenomena and various concepts associate them with God or give them other religious meaning. In some areas, rivers and streams are personified or attributed to divinities. These beliefs are also held by the Luo, Nyala, and Samia [19
]. Oceans, seas, lakes and permanent ponds are often thought to be inhabited by spirits or divinities that generally have to be propitiated when people use the water in one way or another. The Nyala believe that Lake Victoria is inhabited by the Great Spirit called ‘nakhabuka’, hence offer sacrifices along the lake to appease the spirit.
The symbolism of water appears in rituals of blessings, marriages, healing and purification. The stream is a receptacle of cosmic forces and therefore, a preferred location for certain rituals. Rivers and streams are often accorded religious significance, especially when they are believed to be dwelling places of spirits. Water is responsible for the germination of seeds and sprouting of plants and therefore offers assurance for the formation of all new life. The Luo and Luhya consider River Nzoia sacred, hence holy for ritual purposes. The Giriama and Digo consider the Indian Ocean as sacred, hence it is venerated.
Animals and plants constitute human food and their importance is obviously great. African people have many religious associations with them, some of which are linked with concepts of God, such as the beliefs that he has absolute power over the universe [20
]. The religious significance of a particular animal or plant may differ from one community to another. For example, the Luhya of Busia District, Kenya have religious practices often binding oaths or purification rites, which involves the use of certain animals [19
]. Hens and cocks may be used as sacrifices to God or mediators between God and humanity, including ancestors. Burnt offerings are widely considered to be essential. There are myths which tell how domestic animals originated at the same time or in the same way as man himself. Cattle, sheep and goats are found for sacrificial and other religious purposes and examples of this are found in most Kenyan communities. Many people have a sacred attitude towards their animals. Every day, the Nandi, Pokot, Samburu and Maasai pray to God for the safety and prosperity of their cattle [8
The snake is thought by some people, like the Luo, to be sacred, especially the python which may not be killed by people. A recent example was the ‘Omweri’ which was located in Nyakach, Nyanza, Kenya. A considerable number of societies associate snakes with the living dead or other human spirits and such snakes are given food and drink when they visit people’s homes. As per previous observations [21
], Taita Towett notes that if a snake visited a Kipsigis family with a pregnant woman, it would not be killed. The Kipsigis give it milk as a courtesy, then a hole is made somewhere on the wall where it could be passed through while people recited some words to send it off in peace. The Kipsigis think that ancestors take the form of living things, such as animals, reptiles or birds. Furthermore, among the Luhya, the common python is not killed as it is believed to bring more harvest to the community, whereas the green bush viper is believed to take care of sacred bushes in the forest. However, some snakes are associated with the devil and therefore, their appearance represents a bad omen. Of the birds, chickens are used in most societies for religious purposes, or thought of as lower spiritual beings and part of the living dead [8
Some plant and tress species are conserved due to their significance to the community, while some are treated with reverence and protected for future use due to their sacred value. Some are protected for their medicinal value, while others are utilized for rituals. Mythical trees feature in a number of stories. The symbolism of vegetation in black Africa centers on trees, which ‘speak’ the language of life and death. Some speak of their ‘tree of life’ to be the source from which all life emanates. For example, the Meru in Kenya talk about the forbidden tree whose fruit God forbade the early men to eat. When men broke that law and ate the forbidden fruit, death came into the world and God withdrew Himself from men. The fig tree is considered sacred by many societies all over Africa, and people make offerings, sacrifices and prayers around or under it. There are sacred groves and other trees, including the baobab tree used for religious purposes or associated with God and other spiritual beings. The Kikuyu consider the mugumo
tree as sacred and prayers and offerings are performed under it. The Swahili consider the neem (mwarubaine
) to be medicinal. The leaves, barks and roots of neem tree can be used to cure forty diseases, giving it the name ‘mwarubaine
’, meaning forty. The Maasai and Meru use grass in performing rituals, and also when reciting prayers and making offerings to God [8
]. The Luhya and Luo of western Kenya use some special grass (manyasi
) for purification and cleansing purposes.
Some people hold that rocks are a manifestation of God. The Akamba believe that the first men were brought by God out of a rock, an area they have kept sacred to date. They claim that God left His footprints on Nvaui
. These are rocks considered to be sacred and are used for religious rites and observances. Sacred stories are often employed in rainmaking ceremonies. Many consider rocks and boulders to be the dwelling places of the spirits, the departed or the living dead [8
]. The Luo consider ’Kit-Mikayi’ rocks sacred and a special place for ritual observances. Clay is said by some communities to be or to have been used by God to form human beings. Therefore, the Wanga and the Bukusu use special clay during circumcision ceremonies. The initiates apply clay all over their bodies to symbolize unity with the ancestors [22
Outstanding mountains and hills are generally regarded as sacred and are given religious meaning. For example, the Luo consider Got Ramogi and Got Alila to be the place of God’s special manifestation and as such are sacred and viewed as the dwelling places of God when he visits the earth. The Nyala and Samia consider the Wanga and Odiado hills, respectively, as God’s abode. A study portrays Mount Kenya and the fig tree (mugumo
tree) as phenomena conserved by the Gikuyu ethnic community [23
]. People worship while facing these two phenomena and it is the role of this community to preserve them since they believe God lives on Mount Kenya. There are particular points where people do not cut trees or hunt on the mountain for reasons of sanctity. Mugumo
trees are conserved through taboos and beliefs. The tree gives a site for communal meetings, worship and ceremonies. The Saboowaet in Western Kenya consider Mount Elgon to be sacred.
The Gikuyu make prayers facing Mount Kenya, the chief of their sacred mountains. Mountains, hills and other high standing earth formations are in no way thought to be God; they simply give a concrete manifestation of his being and his presence. Furthermore, they are physically ‘closer to the sky’ than ordinary ground and in that sense, it is easy to associate them with God. They are on earth next to the sun and to a lesser extent the moon and stars are in heaven. They are points of contact, drawing together not only people in a given region, but also men, spiritual beings and God. Among many societies, mountains and hills are associated with spirits or divinities. Thus, for example, the Akamba say that they see fumes of the spirits at night on the sides of some hills [8
Certain caves and holes are given religious meaning. In many societies like the Akamba, it is said that God brought the first men out of a hole or cave. The Bukusu legend claims that once God lived in a deep hole on Mount Elgon which is volcanic [8
Different religious meanings and uses are given to various colors. However, different colors are considered sacred according to different communities. A number of people regard black as their sacred color; for example, the Luo and Luhya communities in western Kenya, while white is sacred to some other communities. Among the Luo, Nandi, Teso Bukusu and Kisii, black animals are sacrificed to God or used in religious ceremonies. Most Kenyan communities offer white and black animals and birds for sacrificial purposes. Among the Luhya, black and white represent ancestors whereas spotted hyenas represented evil ancestors.
Space in relation to humans is equally important. Throughout Africa, the four cardinal points of the compass enter into the play of symbols in daily life. Men and women sleep in directions appropriate for each and are also buried in the same way. However, the specific symbolism of directions is linked to the particular set of values in each society. For example, the Bukusu turn their dead towards the west where God withdrew after the drama of the primordial separation [24
]. Most communities, for example the Luos and Luhyas, bury female on the left side of the house, whereas men are buried on the right.
Soil in itself signifies life and attachment to the supernatural. The Luhya, Luo and Nandi believe in red ochre soil to be able to drive out evil spirits. It is smeared on objects or people to signify purity, fertility and sanctity. After death, the corpses were smeared with the soil to supply blood for life after death. The Bukusu also use some special soil from a special river during the circumcision ceremony. In the Bukusu, the initiates are smeared with the soil to signify unity with forefathers/ancestors. The soil is collected about 40 kms in an underground tunnel referred to as ‘the tunnel of spirits’ in Nandi district. Indigenous trees of medicinal importance surround it, and nobody is supposed to cut down any of the vegetation around the sites as it belongs to the ancestors.
Clans were responsible for taking care of and protecting their land, sacred sites and their members’ welfare. Some sites were conserved for special rites, such as circumcision, worship, and hunting. The forest was central to people’s existence and all community members were obliged to protect it against ruin. The most common form of protection was through religious taboos and the restricted use of forest products [25
]. The soil was also used during or when taking oaths/cursing ceremonies and when blessing and making covenants. This provides support for the reasons why ancestral land is highly protected, since it is believed that it is God-given. All produce from land and the first fruits were first offered to God as a sign of thanksgiving for a bumper harvest. Land was also spiritually utilized by making libations and pouring blood onto the ground as a sacrifice(s) to appease God. The buried sacrifices would then produce smoke which ascends to heaven, implying that God has gratefully accepted the sacrifices offered.
Each ancestor has specific objects dedicated to them individually, for which reason they are considered sacred. The objects can be anthropomorphic (human like) images of the ancestor or can be an emblem. Some of the objects remain in the shrines, only to be brought out during festivals, when they are carried in procession with great ceremony and dignity. The examples of the common symbols and emblems are calabashes, stone carved images, pots, axe-heads, metal snakes and those objects carried to resemble gods or ancestors or which have meaning only in connection with the worship of the ancestors. These objects are believed to contain certain supernatural powers and are signs of the gods’ or ancestors’ presence. In themselves, the objects are not important, nor do they possess any meaning, except for the association with the ancestors. Similarly, among the Baganda, as outlined in Benjamin Ray’s work titled "Myth, Ritual and Kingship in Buganda", only the ‘Katikkiro’, a spiritual leader amongst the Baganda, was allowed to visit the shrine where the spirits of the royal ancestors dwelled [26
Most African communities in general are divided into clans and each clan is named after certain totem animals or plants to create respect for some totemic animals, reverence for sacred forests, rocks, mountains and rivers. Totemism is a complexity of ideas, practices, legends, fears and kinship patterns which refer to the connection of human beings and animals and plants. It is the practice of taking a particular natural object or animal and making it the symbol (totem) of a particular special group/clan. Totemism is a worldview which holds that the environment is dominated by human beings who maintain spiritual relationship in which there is no sharp distinction between humans and other things, such as animals, plants and minerals. At the core of totemism is the belief that the whole world has spirits. The totem object provides categories by which relationships are based. The recognition of this relationship leads to special social groupings and also rituals, binding together a particular human group. For example, the Samia, Nyala, Marachi Teso, Luo, Kisii and Bukusu have certain totem animals. It is the role of each clan to protect their totem animals and plants. All the clans have different myths explaining how the relationship with their totem animals and plants started [27
African spirituality is expressed in shrines and sacred places where sacrifices can be offered. A shrine is a place marked off for religious objects and where sacrifices could be offered [28
]. As per previous observations [14
], it is noted that some shrines belong to a family, such as those connected with departed family members or their graves. Others belong to the community, and these are often in groves, rocks, caves, hills, mountains, and under certain trees. People respect such places and in some societies no bird, animals or human being may be killed if it or he or she is hiding in such places. At the shrines and sacred places, people make or bring sacrifices and offerings, such as animals, food, utensils, tools and fowls. They regard such places as holy and sacred where people meet with God. These places are protected from desecration or misuse by unauthorized individuals. Religious articles and objects are found in many religious places. They are of different shapes, kinds, sizes and colors. Some are kept in the houses while others are kept in the forests. The graves of ancestors usually serve as shrines. These objects are material expressions of religious ideas, beliefs and practices like praying, making offerings and sacrifices and major ceremonies and rituals [14
Most African communities believed that the environment was the abode of the spirits, the living dead and ancestors. Natural phenomena have spirits that define the relationship between humans and nature, which is linked and are interdependent [10
]. In some communities, rites of passage were connected to the environment. For example, among the Bukusu, during the circumcision ritual, initiates are bathed in a stream, river or swamp to wash away childhood. Special soil is then applied on the body before circumcision to symbolize entry into adulthood. During circumcision, blood flows into the soil. This signified the symbolic binding of the initiates to the ancestors. While at birth, the placenta was buried in the ground and upon death the body was buried in the same ground, meaning that life emanates from the soil which is fertile and continues to produce life. Land was therefore used responsibly and with much respect and reverence [22
God used the environment to communicate messages to the people. For example, the movement of animals and birds to herald rain, the noise of insects, swellings of the soil, a rainbow, the movement and color of clouds and utterances from domestic animals all symbolized important aspects of God’s communication. For example, among the Luhya, the appearance of a black African duck brings rain to the community, the olive pigeon brings blessings from ancestors while the cape grass owl indicated that a person was to die [22