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  • Fidel Namisi

On Devotion To The Ancestors

One of the mild culture shocks I had when I first arrived in South Africa from Kenya was the prevalence of ancestral devotion.


"Impepo" or incense, is a vital part of many rituals invoking the ancestors in Southern African cultures.

I have a Nigerian friend who told me that the first time he met an African who was atheist was here in South Africa. According to him, being atheist is not part of African culture. In that regard, I think there is something positive about the prevalence of ancestor devotion in South Africa. In a world where many people believe that there is nothing but nothingness after death, rituals that show respect towards those who have come and gone before us are like one more soldier standing in the breach against practical atheism.


The Christian perspective though, elevates the ritual by believing that the greatest ancestor, the ancestor of ancestors came amongst us, and told us that he is so incredibly great that no sheep, goat or bull is worthy on him. It's like a girl who cannot be impressed by any diamond you offer her, because they are beneath her. Even if it is a mere symbol, what it symbolizes is beneath her. God is so incredibly great, that nothing other than he himself, is a worthy sacrifice to him. Nor can anything even symbolize him. Hence he sacrificed himself to himself as an offering, both literal and symbolic, to say 'Thank you," "Forgive us,", "Please help us.”


What people call “inculturation” has been a lot on my mind over the past several months. In many ways, I think that Africa, from the evangelization perspective, is where Europe was in the fourth and fifth centuries AD. Many African people feel that their self-esteem depends on their affirming their identity, which implies sticking firmly to their cultural roots. And religion is always at the core of culture. Africa and Africans are battling for their identity and self-esteem. And some people use their traditional culture as a weapon to fight in this struggle. But I think that there is a meeting ground between traditional culture and the Christian religion. A true meeting ground, not a random mash-up. If I have time, I will develop this idea in other posts.

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©2019 by Fidel Namisi.

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