In the creation order woman is created after man. Man came from the dust, woman from man; from a more polished article to be a more polished outcome. In the context of marriage, woman was created for man (1Cor. 11:9). The Fall cast a new and intense dimension to woman’s desire for her husband (Gen. 3:16). Necessarily she needed to be attractive. Not surprisingly, beauty means more to a woman than to a man because this leverages her fundamental aspiration in the ultimate relationship, which is winning man’s attention, attraction and affection.

African culture fully understands this. It recognises the place of woman in society as primarily the family, however proficient she may be in other domains. The view looms large that marriage is the crowning symbol of a woman’s worth and success. It is here that her genius is on exquisite display. Correspondingly a single woman is perceived as somewhat morally deficient, a divorced woman worse. She incarnates scandal. A widow is both an object of pity and subdued scorn. She salvages a modicum of honour through maintenance of an attitude and dress code of mourning in perpetuity. Marriage is undisputedly made to be the woman’s ultimate social status.

Inevitably the woman is estimated through the marriage lens. From infancy she is chiselled into shape to be someone’s wife. Her marriageability is an obsession. When she does get married, pleasing her husband becomes the next obsession, if not to enjoy, at least to keep the marriage. She is encouraged and taught to fly to any height to keep her marriage. Woman is therefore a slave of society’s definition of her role and place.

Meanwhile the male has superintended over his own evolution from headship to domination. Without question our societies are not just male led, they are male dominated. In hierarchical authoritarian societies such as ours, this means tremendous power and influence. Such imbalance of power only weakens woman further, making her susceptible to male manipulation and exploitation. It intensifies woman’s desperation and reliance on man. This background is essential for a good understanding of the African woman.

It is not surprising then that a host of traditions surrounding womanhood presuppose marriageability and male appeasement. Sadly most of these practices are not only harmful to the woman’s physical wellbeing, they are downright degrading to her dignity as a human being, especially as God’s image bearer and man’s equal in this regard.

It is important therefore that time is taken to think through some of the traditions that are inimical to our women’s moral and spiritual wellbeing. These practices, it will be observed, are usually well intended, giving them an apparent innocence. Critical analysis nonetheless reveals that there are fundamental defects that reveal the fact that they are constructed on very shaky presuppositions. Not all that seems well is entirely well.

The material presented here is a product of several interviews with women who have been subjected to traditional teachings and information secured from women who conduct these teachings. Personal experience drawn from interacting with people of my culture from different tribes has been a valuable source as well.[1]

Synopsis of traditional practices

Although this article focuses specifically on practices in Zambia, there are close similarities across sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, there is also great diversity in the details of each practice from region to region and tribe to tribe. And for this reason, the few practices highlighted here are studied from a fairly general standpoint. In a paper of this length, it is impossible to cover many areas of culture that negatively impact on our women, so I will be very selective.

  1. Adolescence

(1) Initiation rites are observed to celebrate and safeguard the arrival of the girl into womanhood. In certain cases the girl would be quarantined as she is ritualised for spiritual protection that will guarantee her marriage and fertility. In other cases medicines or tattoos to enhance attractiveness and desirability are prescribed.

(2) Preliminary training to make the young lady’s waist flexible for future sex readiness is introduced in as innocent a form as certain cultural dances, long before pre-marital dancing lessons are conducted.

  1. Marriage

(1) Man-pleasing: Pre-marital counselling emphasises pleasing the husband at nearly any cost. Examples: (a) the woman is taught to please her man by preparing him good meals and doing good housekeeping, (b) she is made to do sex-act simulations before more experienced women, (c) the young lady is taught to expect a man to be unfaithful, underscoring her obligation to stick to the prescribed traditions in order to keep him enticed to her.

(2) Certification tests: The couple-to-be or the new couple is subjected to sexual engagement. In rare instances this will be done in the presence of a witness. This is both a virginity and sex-performance test. The Luvale people take no chances. Lest she embarrasses them, the bride-in-waiting must prove her sex prowess to her family by sleeping with her cousin or a chosen relative before releasing her to unite with her prospective husband![2]

(3) Love buying: Efforts to secure the love of the man takes some to getting so-called “love portions.” These may be in the form of herbs or observance of mystical rites.

(4) Sex investment: Various efforts are exerted to make a woman sexually magnetic:

  • Body heating: With the assumption that the man prefers a “warm” female body, medicines are inhaled by smoking or drunk to raise the warmth level of the body.
  • Wearing of beads: A string of beads is worn around the waist. The man is believed to enjoy rubbing these in the foreplay process. In some cases medicines are inserted in the beads to instil greater physical activity in the woman and attraction from the man. As early as age 5 girls are made to believe that beads add shape to the waist.
  • Uku kunkula:” After the sex act a woman is expected to smear her husband’s semen on her thighs and briefly roll left and right to symbolise her deep appreciation of his performance. Some require her to clean him up.
  1. Pregnancy and childbearing
  • Disclosure of pregnancy is not done directly to parents but through aunts or grandmas.
  • No wearing of maternity belt for fear of suffocating the foetus.
  • No eating of eggs in pregnancy for fear of bearing a bald headed child.
  • No sex in pregnancy as this may harm the baby or it may suffer skin peels when born.
  • Traditional medicines to propel quick labour and delivery are prescribed.
  • Touching of a newly born baby to be avoided in case touched by visitors recently having sex. This may harm the child.
  • Bellybutton must be disposed of in a particular way (not permitted to fall on its genitals and given special burial) otherwise (a) harm may be caused on baby, (b) this may lead to future impotence or barrenness, (c) it may be used for purposes of witchcraft.
  • A ritual before first sexual union after birth of baby is required. Some cross baby over fire or father’s thighs during the act. Others smear it with semen. This is all for its protection.
  • Hair of the baby (a) must be cut in the shortest possible time else it may fall ill, (b) the cut hair must be properly disposed of, lest it be used for witchcraft.
  • The baby’s unformed skull requires protection – hence the prescription of traditional medicines and head coverings, the weather regardless.
  • Names given to children are often those of their ancestors. Benign though this may be in some cases, in a good number of others it is a spiritual act of perpetuating ancestral existence through these children. Such children are expected to enjoy the protection and goodwill of their forebear namesakes. Society too eagerly anticipates the re-living of the renamed dead, with all his or her idiosyncrasies, in the new life.

To ensure that these rituals are observed, mothers to the child-delivering woman are advised to oversee the pre and post-natal weeks, among other reasons.

  1. Death and bereavement
  • No eating or feeding of warm meals to widow until after burial.
  • Widow’s dressing must be drab and dark for weeks or months.
  • No bathing by bereaved family until after funeral.
  • Bathing of members of bereaved family after burial is in “medicated” (herbal) water.
  • Early morning visit to the grave is required to ensure that the deceased slept well.
  • Ritual cleansing of the widow/widower is a critical issue (though this paper only considers the woman). Several things need to be said in its connection.

Its purpose

(i)     To server ties between the deceased and the spouse. The belief is that death does not terminate a marriage. Marriage outlasts the superficial separation engendered by death. A formal ceremony must therefore be acted to terminate this mystic union, lest it perpetuates with ghastly consequences to the community at large. Rev. Joe Simfukwe notes that “the ritual cleansing may even require the surviving spouse to have intercourse with a relative of the deceased in order to protect himself from the spirit of the deceased coming to seek sexual union, which is believed to be both possible and dangerous.”[3]

(ii)    To protect the family from harm. The belief is that the dead may have been offended by something. More worryingly is the danger posed by his ghost, which possesses potency for harm – inflicting horror dreams, insanity, haunting, etc. Until a widow is ceremonially cleansed, she is believed to carry with her the spirit of the dead or a ghost. The cleansing rites are therefore propitiatory and exclusionary – they placate the dead and respectfully dismiss them. Often the cleansing is insisted on not by the deceased person’s family but by his or her in-laws, who would be desperate to secure the emancipatory blessings of the deceased, never mind those of his family.

Its forms

Cleansing takes different forms in different places. These include:

(i)     Sprinkling maize meal on the widow.

(ii)    Kucuta (Tonga), i.e. the act of skipping over a tied cow or sitting on it.

(iii)   Cutting of the widow’s hair for some ritual.

(iv)   The padding of private parts by use of the deceased husbands clothing (e.g. a shirt), until full cleansing is done, to barricade sexual intercourse with dead husband.

(v)    Sex with a relative of the deceased. The man’s relatives play a vital role in formalising the spiritual termination of the marriage, being indispensible players in its initial enactment.

Its application

Ritual cleansing is done by the family of the departed person. The person to be cleansed (i.e. the surviving spouse) is ordinarily granted the liberty by the cleansing party (the family of the departed person) to select the means most comfortable to her. Any of the acceptable methods of cleansing carries equal efficacy. Some insist on one method. Strictly it is negotiable.

  • Marriage inheritance. Kunhiyop addresses this point, when he says, the widow “may be inherited by a relative, along with her husband’s property, or she may have to marry someone from the husband’s family so as to continue bearing children in his name. She may be forced into such a marriage regardless of whether she likes the man or whether he already has a wife or several wives.”[4]
  • Property forfeiture. The widow may forfeit property to her husband’s relatives. In some cases even her young children may be shared among his relatives.

There are several other practices that can be discussed, all of which we must be aware. However, as I have already stated above, we can only accommodate traditional practices whose dominance and spiritual ruin demand quickened attention.

Objections to the stated practices

As can be seen, the stated practices are pretty elaborate. They are an integrated system whose trajectory knows little ambiguity. They boast a rich heritage that has held firm the sense of identity for our people.

It is not my intention, in stating my objections, to be dismissive of everything traditional, or to suggest that no good indwells our culture. I am proudly African. The objections are an attempt to invite God to weigh these cultural beliefs and practices on his holy and righteous scale. In this lies their validity. Principally two objections are raised.

These traditional practices are inherently flawed

  1. 1. Practice: Use of medicines or tattoos to enhance attractiveness and desirability

      Objection: In principle any attempt to transform one’s body that is not deformed is a rejection of the creation order (cf. Lev. 19:28), an affront to God’s wisdom and will. Use of herbs to enhance attractiveness is indulgence in magic.

  1. Practice: Ritualising puberty and waist flexibility exercises for future sex readiness

      Objection:

  • Adolescence can be privately celebrated by parents without rituals and crisis training on hygiene, femininity, sexuality and moral purity. Moreover, this does not need the involvement of “foreign” women, much less Alangizi or Nafimbusas (traditional moral-spiritual guides – Imbusa being transmitted historical wisdom). No publicity is needed at all. Any teaching must be integrated in the ordinary training of children throughout their development, by parents (Prov. 22:6).
  • Sex performance belongs to the department of instinct. And nature must be allowed to take its course, to an extent. Beyond basics related to health, hygiene, considerateness and tips on pleasure enhancement and mutual satisfaction, the essentiality of routine romance, patient foreplay and sound communication, there is little need for lurid sex simulations or demos. Too much explicitness in sex counselling boarders on profanity and immoral speech.
  1. 3. Practice: virginity and sex-performance test

      Objection:

  • If this is done before marriage it is sinful; the sin of fornication. If after marriage, it is irrelevant, seeing that the couple covenants to stick together for better-for-worse. Marriage cannot be dissolved upon discovering that one is not a virgin or that one is a shoddy sex performer. No such ground for divorce exists (Mt. 19:9).
  • Understandably virginity is the apex of virtue among African people. However the issue of a bride’s virginity is one to be settled between the couple-to-be during the premarital phase. If it is a non-issue between them, it should be a non-issue for everyone else. Why? Because while virginity is to be esteemed highly and its antithesis strongly denounced, there is forgiveness and moral restoration in Christ for those whose virginity was regrettably lost by sin (cf. 1Cor. 6:9, 10, 11).

Proof of virginity required in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 was done after marriage. And note that it was not simply a test of virginity but a test of fidelity, purity and sincerity under the exigencies of the laws then regulating sexual purity. Failing the virginity test proved the guilt of fornication. The penalty of death by stoning arose not barely from the guilt of fornication (v. 28, 29 cf. Ex. 22:2), but from its aggravation by the sins of deception and pretence of virginity (v. 20, 21). This punishment safeguarded the sanctity of the marriage covenant. Use of Old Testament parallels to our culture should always take into account the laws governing violations of the day. For this reason, this case fails to serve as a model for our situation.

  • At any rate, it is none of the family’s business to pry into the conjugal privacy of two adults consenting to marry, be this through demanding proof of virginity or witnessing sex acts, directly or remotely.

Matters of the bridal price, often tied to the virginity-status of the girl, would have to be resolved in a manner that recognises (a) the legal autonomy of the couple-to-be (cf. Gen. 2:24), (b) the inviolability of the covenant of marriage (Mt. 19:6), (c) the objective and subjective sanctity of the marriage bed (its privacy and sacredness – Heb. 13:4). 

  1. Practice: “love portions” to secure the love of a man

      Objection:

  • This can be a danger to health and it often slides into the neighbourhood of witchcraft.
  • Love was never secured by laboratory means. The Bible teaches that love is a learnt behavioural process aided by the Spirit of God who gives the grace of obedience to His law (Rom. 13:10; 1Cor. 13:4-7; 1Tim. 1:5; 1Jn. 4:7; 5:2). And love elicits love.
  1. Practice: herbal body heating for sex attractiveness

      Objection:

  • Highly traditional women have a tendency to want to fix things that are not broken. Before a man even complains that his wife’s body is cold and in need of sizzling heating, why should she be pushed to tamper with her body temperature? To attempt to cure that which is normal is not only ridiculous; it is harmful.
  • For couples to whom body heating, for the purpose stated, is important, the simple counsel is to adopt safe methods of achieving this. And grandmother’s pharmacology is not just an ideal starting point. Conventional wisdom suggests that prescription of herbs whose side-effects are not clinically proven can be dangerous.
  • Such actions predispose to desperate solutions such as seeking the prescriptions of witchdoctors or other underhanded tricks. Where there is secrecy (spouse unaware of herb use) and superstitious deeds, the dark world has been entered.
  • On the other hand, the man disposed to this preference must ask, is this really necessary in the African summer with sweltering temperatures? What is the loving response to a wife who is uncomfortable with chemically enhanced sex (1Cor. 10:24; Rom. 14:21, 19)? Is there room for the man to be the one to “heat” up his body? And what does he do to a wife already discomforted by menopause heat waves?
  • By resorting to these herbs the woman concedes the lie that she is deficient and inferior to the man whose sex preferences must be desperately met at whatever cost. In so doing she spites the wisdom of God, who set her body temperature (cf. Ps. 139:13, 14).
  1. Practice: Drying women’s private parts, wearing of beads to enhance sex experience and post-sex obeisance

      Objection: There are six dangers:

  • Generalisation danger – there is no such thing as universal preference. Not all men prefer the assumed condition or practices. These are matters to be decided between husband and wife.
  • Health danger – even where herbs are effective in drying women’s private under natural laws of medicine, how are dosage and toxicity issues resolved? (Consider case of the woman whose blood clotting system was stalled by use of such herbs). There is the danger of bruising too, with the exposure to infection this brings. Surely there are safer, straightforward and healthy ways to enhance the sex experience.
  • Syncretism danger – husband how sure are you that there is no spiritual force secretly involved by your wife or the supplier of her beads? If beads originate from the husband as a gift to the wife, it would make just a wee bit of peace of mind. But what does this say about the man’s view of his wife’s anatomical completeness? And how sure is the wife that the husband is himself not motivated by superstition (Rom. 14:16; cf. 1Cor. 8:13)?

For those who contend that beads are purely decorative or they fall in the class of entertainment toys, they do well to bear in mind the principle that you can only vouch for the innocence of what you author and control. As a general rule, every practice whose history is steeped in superstition should be subjected to suspicion and thorough biblical scrutiny, whatever its popularity, apparent innocence and advantages (1Thess. 5:21, 22). African beads, like tattoos, have generally had a history of being conveyers of medical cures or protective charms, be they on children’s or adults’ wrists, necks, or waists.

  • Superstition danger – lots of these practices are imbedded in mystical beliefs (and not faith cf. Rom. 14:23; Rev. 21:8 – the faithless).
  • Addiction danger – even if these where innocent or morally neutral practices, should the church make them integral parts of pre-marital counselling, thus binding Christian consciences to adiaphora traditions? The more natural the physical practices, the greater the likelihood of their being God honouring. Christians should be wary of any form of compulsion in things neutral (1Cor. 6:12b; 10:23).
  • Objectification danger – women are turned into sex objects by most of these activities requiring almost nothing from men. And yet, on the contrary, scripture requires and expects husbands to satisfy wives sexually in exactly the same way wives satisfy husbands (1Cor. 7:3, 4).
  1. Practice: Funeral rites and ritual cleansing

      Objection: Let it first be reiterated that all the taboos and rituals associated with the African funeral assume that death potentially or actually casts a spell on the bereaved family. This belief is rooted in the hushed perception that spirits of the dead leave this terrestrial realm under protest, thus inclining them to vengeful wrath on their surviving family. Proof of this displays itself in the fact that no death is accepted as natural, in strict traditional thought. Where death occurs, the spirits of the dead will not be alienated from their native connections. So they diffuse into neighbourhood nature, joining up with their ancestors. This is the ethos behind protective and cleansing rituals.

To the Christian the fallacy of these assumptions is made plain by the teaching of Luke 16:19-31 and all scriptural teaching on death:

  • Death spells the separation of body and soul; the former decomposing into its original earthy elements, the latter returning to God for consignment to its eternal abode – hell or heaven (v. 22; Eccl. 12:7; Rev. 14:13).
  • Death instantly terminates a marriage (Rom. 7:2, 3). Affirmation of this requires neither ceremony nor ritual. Spiritism (also known as spiritualisme. communion with the dead), is not to be expected, much less encouraged (Duet. 18:11). It is actually met with stern judgement (e.g. King Saul’s séance in 1Sam. 28:5-20 cf. 1Chron. 10:13). Consulting Ng’angas is strictly prohibited (Lev. 19:31; 20:27).
  • The death of a husband does not cast the widow and her children into a state of social or moral impurity requiring cleansing. It does not expose them to spiritual danger necessarily, although Satan often uses its mystique to instil terror. Thinking of the dead and dreaming about them is natural, since they were a part of us for long. It should not be interpreted as encounters with the dead or ghosts. While haunting of people and places does take place occasionally, this is on account of heightened demonic activity sometimes impersonating the dead. It is no proof of ancestral reconnection.
  • Cleansing of the widow, of the funeral house and other funeral rites based on spiritism are a repudiation of faith in God and the teaching of his Word on death and the dead (cf. Eccl. 12:7; 2Sam. 12:23).
  • Biblical teaching nullifies the need for spiritual or ritual cleansings (cf. Duet. 14:1), mystical perpetuation of the deceased’s name, dialogic wailing to and for the dead and humiliating (or victimisation) treatment of the widow before and after burial (i.e. dress, meal, sleep, bath, association codes, ritualistic visits to the grave, etc.).
  1. Practice: property and child forfeiture

      Objection: Traditionally property belongs to the man and not his wife, whatever her contribution in its acquisition. When he dies this naturally transfers to his relatives. The only way his wife could redeem it is by remaining in his family through a levirate marriage. Where she declines such a marriage, she forfeits the property and, in some cases, the children.

Obviously the biblical teaching of conjugal oneness is violated by such action. Furthermore, the dynamics of property acquisition in this modern setting are more complex than they were when some of these practices were established. Today the wife, for instance, contributes to the acquisition of assets as much as the husband. Even where the wife works as a domestic manager (housewife), bringing no cash to the home, her role has been re-evaluated and duly recognised as indispensable to the wholeness of the family.

These practices are built on dangerously defective presuppositions

With varying degrees of awareness, belief in ancestral spirits underlies the African belief system being discussed. Here is its summary:

  1. Turaki rightly observes that, “…ancestors are believed to be the custodians of kinship, religion, morality, ethics, and customs and are expected to bless the community when traditional customs and beliefs are upheld.”[5] As such, the spirits of our ancestors are not too far removed from us. They reside in nature around us – in some trees, hills, mountains, rivers, etc., as our invisible overseers. Thus births, initiations, family relationships, marriages, cures, burials, etc, must be conducted in the traditional way, that is, in a way that does not offend them.
  2. The blessing of ancestral spirits is critical to the wellbeing of a community. Blessings would be invoked via some sacrificial practice. “Most traditional sacrifices were linked to common human experiences. Thus they were offered to mark stages in life (conception, birth, naming, circumcision, and so on), the agricultural cycle (planting and harvesting), hunting (as hunters set out and as they returned), and in times of distress resulting from such things as epidemics, droughts, sickness and bareness. Sacrifices thus seem to have been offered in response to circumstances in people’s lives or to request that some circumstance be changed. They were almost never made simply to worship God for who he is.”[6]

Even where no formal sacrifices are offered, the spirit of sacrifice to ancestral spirits and the psychological preoccupations behind the practice govern modern African attitude. Nowhere is this more felt than when misfortune like death strikes the family.

  1. Certain members of the village community, especially in communities with strong chiefdoms, would be agents in reaching out to the respective spirits through séances (meetings to contact the dead). These would be specialised linkmen to the ancestors avenues such as ritualistic drum playing, praying through song, through mourning, libations, etc.

The relationship between the living, the ancestors and the divine, needs to be stated more accurately. It is not fully acknowledged that ancestral spirits are extremely touchy about nonconformity to the traditions over which they preside as invisible custodians. Such is their petulance that enslavement to their appeasement, through performance of countless rituals, best describes the duty of the living towards them. It is hard to resist the thought that ancestral spirits are fearsome embittered wrath-prone persons needing constant placating. It takes little to offend them but much to appease them.

Noticeably, the divine being is overshadowed by the spirits of our fathers. Beyond being intermediaries between God and man, they substitute God in routine social trade and spiritual enterprise. God is the transcendent being; the power of last resort closely resembling ancient Israel’s revered Yahweh. Even with mediation, he is that being who is nearly inaccessible. Unsurprisingly, he does not feature in African ritual and rite enforcement, as much as he does in its religious talk. After all, African worship is utilitarian, observes John Mbiti; “African peoples do not ‘thirst after God’ for his own sake alone. They seek to obtain what he gives be that material or even spiritual; they do not seem to search for him as the final reward or satisfaction of the human soul or spirit.”[7]

Rather, strangely, this transcendent God is paradoxically not wholly removed from the realm of humanity. The God whom the African of old encountered through nature (cf. Rom. 1:20), never quite left nature. The creator diffused into creation to be worshipped as the god of the sun, of the moon, of the water, of the mountain, of the tree, etc., in Modalist style, joining himself with the spirits of the ancestors, but still on a higher plane. Functioning as spirits of first contact or mediums, these spirits inadvertently dislodge Christ, of whom they are poorly acquainted and quietly eclipse his Father. Content with deifying creation, the African has not gone beyond to embrace the personal transcendent God who is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In a sense, the African lost his way to the transcendent God and settled for the nearest natural phenomena exhibiting his divine attributes (cf. Rom. 1:23). Adeyemo shares this perception: “The fact of the existence of God does not present any problem to the African peoples; their waterloo is that of how to reach Him”[8]

The keen student of the doctrine of God will not have failed to notice a supratranscendent view of God resembling the Deist’s view (a no-show god), but not exactly, because it paradoxically has strands of Pantheism (in his being part of nature) and Polytheism (there being several deities distributed in nature’s elements, be they demigods or not).

Conclusion

  1. Parents should cease surrendering training of their daughters to Alangizi or Nafimbusas. Mothers should take up the challenge of training their adolescent daughters in the school of Christ. The theory that these traditional teachers go deeper than Christian teachers must perish forthwith. Christian parents ought to alter their view of the status of their sons and daughters in relation to marriage. Male domination must be downsized to simple biblical loving headship.
  2. Pre-marital counselling curriculum for both men and women must be scrutinised by the leaders of the church if not set by them so as to ensure theological consistency. Only authorised teachers must practice.
  3. Time has come for a wholesale re-look at all our cultural practices affecting our social lives, in order to cleanse them from all mystical elements and meaningless enslavement. Spiritism may be dismissed by some as empty primitive superstition. God, however, takes a stronger view than this. But before stating God’s view, let us appreciate the two expressions of spiritism. The first is “traditional spiritism” or simply ancestral spiritism, of which Africans are well acquainted. The second is “classical spiritism,” assuming its modern character through Kate and Margaret Fox (New York) in 1848.[9] While loosely accommodating God, angels, immortality and the hereafter, communion with spirits of the dead is its essence. This is a pretentious attempt to systematise mysticism and modernise dabbling in the psychic phenomena of clairvoyance and séances. Traditional and Classical spiritism are essentially the same. The only difference is that one is practiced in a Western cultural context, the other in an African.

As far as God is concerned, spiritism is intrusion into his domain (Gen. 40:8; Dan. 2:22), rejection of his revelation and courting demonic association. It is therefore both sinful and dangerous. In no stronger terms is a practice condemned than this (Ex. 22:18; Lev. 19:31).

  1. Samuel Kunhiyop makes a valuable observation that should trouble every serious pastor: “Values are underlying, fundamental beliefs and assumptions that determine behaviour. In Africa, as in the West, these beliefs and assumptions often remain unchanged even after there has been a religious conversion. Thus many African societies may have converted to Christianity or Islam but they still cling to traditional beliefs and assumptions that determine how they act morally.”[10]

The observation was made that the more bible-conscious people “draw a safe line between the Bible’s teaching and traditional African beliefs, with respect to matters related to salvation and direct worship. Regarding ethical matters in which meticulous application of biblical principles is required, they capitulate to cultural norms; to what provides them social safety.” The mega-question is how do we respond to this unfortunate reality? Several ways:

  • We should study and understand our traditions, rites and rituals and their origins well.
  • We must take cognisance of the principal concerns behind these traditional practices, however ridiculous or unchristian they may seem, as these may be points of intersection with the Christian faith offering opportunities to supply superior alternatives through Christ, our sufficiency.
  • We should recognise the full implications of the Lordship of Christ over culture (Col. 2:8-10, 20-23; 1Pet. 1:18, 19). This means that we should examine each practice not just against common prudence but against the teaching of scripture, distinguishing the good from the harmful. There must be (a) a readiness to question the status quo, (b) a readiness to openly disagree with your beliefs and their avowed upholders, (c) a readiness to dare your people in standing for what is right, even if this means refusing to participate in questionable practices – The righteous are as bold as a lion (Prov. 28:1). But this must be with gentleness and respect, thwarting slander (1Pt. 3:16, 17), (d) a readiness to be ostracised and persecuted for taking a stance against family traditions and beliefs that are subversive of the faith, (e) in the end we must obey God in everything, whatever the consequences (Acts 5:29; Gal. 1:10). This implies having a broad and firm grasp of Holy Scripture and habituated fear of God.
  • Always we must be in prayer for boldness, wisdom and God’s intervening power when handling the highly sensitive matters of traditional practices and beliefs. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:12, 18).
  • Let us glory in the sufficiency of Christ (2Cor. 3:5; 1Cor. 3:21-23), who provides us companionship and makes up for the relatives who may disown us, who supplies protection from spells cast, vindication for standing up for truth and reward for faithful obedience. Cultural deficiencies offer opportunities to market Christ’s sufficiency.

Culture distinguishes a people from others and it earns them respectability. By all means it should be preserved. African culture is unique and rightly boasts great virtue in many respects. Tenaciously it must be held on to, especially where its traditions retain medical propriety, social prudence, moral and spiritual rectitude and broad progressiveness. There is in fact scope for ritualising key phases of human development in a non-spiritist manner (cf. Lk. 2:24; Jn. 19:40). A ritual is a custom, a tradition, a routine. Ultimately still, scripture must prescribe and proscribe ethical practices. Scripture is upheld bearing in mind that Old Testament ritualism, which is outwardly very similar to African ritualism in a good number of areas, was all anticipatory and transient. It was typical and was to cease with the coming of Christ, through his death (Col. 2:13-23; Heb. 7:12, 18; 10:1). Consequently, Christ’s redemptive work nullifies religious symbols and rites among those who subordinate themselves to his lordship, whatever their culture. To him be praise and glory.

[1] Thanks to Agnes Kapwepwe, whose discussions with me widened my breadth of awareness on these themes

[2] Yizenge A. Chondoka, Traditional Marriages in Zambia, p. 102, Mission Press, 2001

[3] Funeral and Burial Rites, in Africa Bible Commentary, p. 1462 (ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo, WorldAlive Publishers, 2006)

[4] Samuel Kunhiyop, African Christian Ethics, p. 261, Hippo Books, 2008

[5] Yusufu Turaki, The role of the ancestors, in Africa Bible Commentary, (ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo, WordAlive Publishers, 2006),  p. 480

[6] Samuel Ngewa, The place of traditional sacrifices, in Africa Bible Commentary (ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo, WordAlive Publishers, 2006),  p.1502

[7] Salvation in African Tradition, p. 36 (ed. Tokunboh Adeyemo, Evangel Publishing House) 1979

[8] Tokunboh Adeyemo, Salvation in African Tradition, p. 92, Evangel Publishing House, 1979

[9] Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, p. 264, Bethany House Publishers, 2003

[10] African Christian Ethics, p. 5