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African Religiosity In The Diaspora:

Caribbean Experience

By George Mulrain

The African presence in the Caribbean region dates back to the fifteenth century. The original inhabitants were Amerindian tribes of Caribs and Arawaks. It is from the name Carib that we get the term Caribbean. These indigenous people were virtually wiped out by European invaders and replaced by slaves to supply labour needs for the sugar plantations.

Historical research based on the period of slavery indicates that the new settlers were mainly drawn from West Africa. According to Curtin (1969), they came chiefly from eight coastal regions: Senegambia including modern day Gambia and Senegal; Sierra Leone; the Windward Coast, including Liberia and the Ivory Coast; the Gold Coast, chiefly modern day Ghana; the Bight of Benin, including "Dahomey" and present-day Togo; the Bight of Biafra, including the Niger, Cross and Duala rivers; Central Africa, corresponding with present-day Angola; South eastern Africa, including Madagascar.

To understand the nature of African religiosity in the Caribbean, one has to examine some of the African influenced religions and religious expressions that exist within the region. These include what have often been referred to as retentions or samples of African Traditional Religion. There is Shango, a feature of the Orisha faith in Trinidad and Tobago; Santeria in Spanish speaking Cuba; Vaudou in the French and Créole speaking republic of Haiti.

Ras Tafarianism is a religious phenomenon that emerged initially in the 1930s as a Jamaican cult in response to the need for persons within the diaspora to maintain an attachment to the ancestral homeland of Mother Africa. There are also those religious expressions that bear a strong African flavour and have been heavily influenced by Christianity.

Of note are the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Vincent and Barbados; Pukkumina and Revivalism in Jamaica. These constitute attempts to adapt the Christian faith to suit African cultural facets. The presence of all these religions and religious expressions has added new dimensions to Caribbean theological understandings.

God is perceived as interested in men and women being themselves, as products of their culture, as they seek to respond in worship and service to Him. The African perception of the universe is one that contains both visible and invisible worlds. This cosmos is spirit filled, with a supreme spiritual being, a number of lesser spirits, human beings and nature.

The cynics refer to this cosmology as tainted with animism, by which they mean the attribution of lifelike qualities to lifeless objects. Behind the idea of animistic beliefs, though, is an acknowledgment that truth is not confined to that which is empirically testable. There are spiritual truths. Although not visible, there are spirits pervading the universe.

It is equally the case that animists try to understand the reality of God and the invisible world with the help of physical, visible objects. Focusing upon visible objects can be of assistance in the process of meditating upon that which though unseen is real. Associated with a belief in spirits is a commitment to the idea that the life one enjoys in the visible, physical world is not all.

It is possible, through death as a rite of passage, for individuals to be ushered into a new existence in the spiritual abode. Caribbean theologians argue that the cosmological understandings that obtain within African Traditional Religion are in effect an extension of the biblical cosmos. The Bible makes mention of spiritual beings - angels, archangels, good and evil spirits, principalities, powers and forces.

According to New Testament writings, one can expect that there is life in the hereafter, itself quite likely a spiritual type of existence. There is the strong belief that the spirit world is one of power, hence to succeed in life, it is necessary sometimes to make appeals to those in the positions of privilege. Spirit possession is one way whereby the follower of African traditional religion acquires positions of power.

It is a means through which the individual, under the guise of a spirit, derives inner strength to perform remarkable feats that could not be performed under normal circumstances. In fact, there is an historical belief that the spirit world, with all its power, acted decisively in favour of Haitians during their struggle for independence against the French. Therein was proof enough about the liberating role of religion. Sometimes one thinks of religion as being merely an agent of social control, when in fact it is a very revolutionary force.

Perhaps chief among the components of African religiosity is an understanding that there is no rigid demarcation between the secular and the sacred. This is particularly so because all life is spiritual, in the sense that they are lived in full glare of the spiritual presence. Because African religiosity is committed to the idea that sacred and secular blend into one, it is not necessary for the individual to put life into different compartments. The individual is allowed to be himself or herself without having to ape persons of other religions or cultures.

He or she can make use in worship rituals of the language patterns of everyday life, the musical idioms of the people, including drumming and dancing. Myths, legends, proverbs, symbolism of movements, of colour, of language and of objects are all part and parcel of African religiosity. It is not always easy for the outsider to ATR to appreciate symbols and symbolism, with the result that some have been negatively critical, referring to African religiosity as superstitious and demonic.

African Traditional Religion is an honest attempt by persons to commune and to communicate with the celestial realm. The communication between God and human beings is possible through dreams, visions, spirit possession, prayers, libations, sacrifice, transmigration of souls. An interesting theological debate is whether in attempting to maintain communication links with the spiritual abode, adherents are worshipping or venerating the spirits.

In contrast to the view that Africans are worshipping the spirits is the idea that God is worshipped through the spirits. Whatever the dominant opinion, the reality is that worship is a virtual celebration. It involves all the energies that people can summon. It is a worship that posits quite the opposite to Quaker religiosity, where the emphasis is on silence.

African religiosity subscribes to a God who is not limited but all embracing. John S. Mbiti?s book Concepts of God in Africa helps us to appreciate that there is no one correct way of understanding God. On the contrary, God is perceived by the different peoples of Africa in ways that relate directly to their experience of divinity.

God is viewed, for example, as father, mother, creator, ancestor, the one who provides ? just to mention a few. The so called modern theological debates that are taking place, especially in the West, about the femininity of God or the liberating intent of God have already been dealt with by Africans. When a Caribbean worshipper within the African Traditional Religious sphere thinks of God as creator, it may include the idea that in the creation, there have been provided all that is needed for men and women to be healthy.

For this reason, health and wholeness figure prominently among the concerns of practitioners of African Traditional Religion in the Caribbean. Therein lies a challenge for western medical science to see what benefits might be derived from the use of herbs, folk psychiatry and other insights that derive from African based practices.

African religiosity in the diaspora has altered little. It is true, for example, that African Traditional Religion has been affected by syncretism, so there are equivalences established between the names of African spirits and those of Roman Catholic saints. However, there is a philosophical premise that has emerged and will continue to be genuinely African.

It is the positive approach to life that insists that nothing will be a real problem. Jamaicans say "No problem", Haitians say "Bondié bon" ("God is good"). These emphasize a fundamental philosophical belief among people of the Caribbean diaspora that God, the supreme being will always be on their side. As a product of African religiosity, one learns to perceive of the physical world as an ally rather than as an antagonist. And remember, that physical world is not purely secular; it is sacred too.


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Chevannes, Barry, Rastafari: Roots and Ideology, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1994 Curtin, Philip D. The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census, Madison, 1969

Hurbon, Laennec, Dieu dans le Vaudou Haitien, Paris, Payot, 1972 Kilson, Martin L. & Rotberg, Robert I., The African Diaspora ? Interpretive Essays, Cambridge,

Harvard University Press, 1976

Mbiti, John S. Concepts of God in Africa, London, SPCK, 1982

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Moreno Vega, Marta, The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria, New York, Ballanatine Publishing Group, 2000

Mulrain, George, Theology in Folk Culture: The Theological Significance of Haitian Folk Religion, Frankfurt, Peter Lang, 1984

Murrell, Nathaniel S., Spencer, William D., and McFarlane, Adrian A., eds, Chanting Down Babylon ? The Rastafari Reader, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1998

Sankeralli, Burton, ed., At the Crossroads: African Caribbean Religion and Christianity, Trinidad, CCC, 1995

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