Traditionally, African peoples believe in a supreme being who is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, and who is manifested in nature and natural phenomena.
They are aware of their spirituality, and the relationship between themselves and this almighty supreme being (God), who pervades all aspects of their existence, and who is far removed from them (transcendental) and is within them (immanent) at the same time. They respond to this awareness by worshipping through deeds and sayings that vary from community to community.
Some people worship God throughout the entire day, as they believe God is everywhere, seeing and hearing them, while for others, formal worship is arbitrary, unnecessary even, as they feel their awareness and acceptance of God’s omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence are within themselves worship. Worship is by way of utterances mainly, and not meditative, and comes in many forms, such as sacrifices and offerings; prayers, invocations, blessing and salutations; and intercessions.
Sacrifices and offerings are common acts of worship. The former involves the killing of an animal, which is given in parts or entirely to God. Offerings to God include things that are not sacrificed. Offerings and sacrifices are given as gifts to appease God, to have communion with God, and to thank God. But importantly, they are done to restore the balance between man and God. “It is also an act and occasion of making and renewing contact between God and man … ,” John S. Mbiti says in African Religions and Philosophy.
Praying is the commonest form of worship among traditional African peoples. The prayers are usually short, extemporaneous, and succinct, and may be accompanied by sacrifices and offerings. They are mostly requests to satisfy a particular need or to give thanks. Invocations are calls for God’s intervention into a particular matter. Blessings are good wishes being asked of God, such as, “God be with you”.
And since Africans live in a religious universe, proverbs and songs that express reverence for and gratitude to God are everywhere. Singing is very common in religious gatherings and ceremonies, “which not only helps to pass on religious knowledge from one person to a group or another, but helps create and strengthen corporate feelings and solidarity”.
Sometimes the worship of God is done through intercessors. It is a common feeling among traditional African peoples that direct communication must not be made with God by just about anybody, but through special people or spirits. “The reason for this feeling and practice seems to derive mainly from the social and political life of the peoples concerned. This pattern of behaviour is by no means found in all societies, but the concept of intermediaries is found almost everywhere,” Mbiti says. These intercessors include elders, ordained priests, seers, prophets, oracles, diviners (links between God and mankind), medicine-men, and rainmakers, and the spirits of the living-dead (people who have recently died). All these persons serve different purposes.
Among African peoples, the worship of God takes place at any place and time. There are no strict rules governing when people should worship, but the practice and customs of worship vary from place to place, and people worship for special reasons, such as harvest festivals, the rites of birth, initiation, marriage and death, planting time, times of national need, before or during hunting, gathering and fishing, the blessing of cattle, unusual phenomena, and the coronation of chiefs and kings.
Though there is no strict time and place of worship, worship takes place in special shrines, temples, altars, groves and other sacred places used for public sacrifices and prayers. Shrines are sanctuaries for animals and humans. Temples are huge houses, generally cared for by a priest. Altars are sacred spots used for offerings and sacrifices, and can be found in shrines and temples or in the open air. Caves and sacred mountains, river banks, waterfalls, ruins, special trees are also used as sacred places where worship takes place.
“There is no limit as to where and when African peoples perform one or more act of worship. God is omnipresent, and he is reachable at any time and in any place. People worship him whenever the need arises,” Mbiti says.