African Cosmologies Past and Present

Hazel Ayanga. Science, Religion, and Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture, and Controversy. Editor: Arri Eisen & Gary Laderman. Volume 1. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Human beings are curious creatures. They ask questions about themselves and their social environment as well as about their origin and their destiny. Cosmology is one way in which human beings have sought to answer some of these questions. Specifically, cosmology tries to answer questions relating to human existence and why things are the way they are.

In trying to answer these questions, human beings are confronted with the existence of their physical environment and the possible existence of forces beyond themselves and beyond this immediate environment. Cosmology is an attempt to articulate the relationship between human beings, their physical and social environment, and other forms of existence. All human cultures try to do this in their own different ways. Consequently, one basic function of any culture is to give members of the cultural group information about their origin and their destiny. Cosmology is about events that have taken place from the beginning of time to the end. It is an articulation of the events by which the observable universe came into being, and how this same universe can be maintained or brought to an end.

The articulation of cosmologies makes use of another important product of culture: language, a creation of society in time. Language is a major component of the symbol system of any culture. Society uses language to explain what took place at the beginning of time. Cosmology therefore requires an element of imagination as well as the ability to analyze and understand the observable world in time.

Many cosmologies are intricately related to people’s socioeconomic experiences. For example, disease, sickness, and death are important aspects of people’s stories of the beginnings. How did sickness and death begin, and how will they be brought to an end? Scientific cosmology tends to be different. It uses research particularly in the physical world to find out why the universe is the way it is and what its future might be.

Sources of African Cosmology

Traditional African cosmology is not contained in books. It is not based on intricate scientific research and experimentation. Rather it is based on the life experiences of the people. It is an attempt to explain the reasons behind and the meaning of these experiences. It is the result of the people’s observations of their environment and the attempts to understand it. Thus, African cosmology is found in the stories that the people tell. It is found in the myths that are passed on from one generation to the other.

Africa is a large continent with over one thousand different linguistic and ethnic groups. Each of these groups speaks its own language. Sometimes each language has as many as ten variations. Each of the groups claims a different history and a different understanding of its own origin. Consequently, there are literally thousands of stories or myths of origin, not just of the tribal or ethnic group, but of the universe as a whole. However, the stories, varied as they are, reveal a general picture of African cosmology. Aspects of the stories are common to most if not all the groups in Africa. Some of the stories are merely variations of the same story. African cosmologies or aspects of them may also be found in proverbs and riddles. Rituals that the people perform may also be indicative of their cosmological beliefs. Rituals are generally a repetition of how things were at the beginning of time. They are a reenactment of the situation as described in the myths. Thus the sacrifices that are offered as well as rites of passage may be analyzed as reflecting the sources of African cosmology.

God as Creator

One of the basic teachings of African cosmology is that God created the universe. African peoples do not generally question the existence of God. Consequently, their myths of origin do not try to answer the question of the origin of God. The myths do not speculate about what or who existed before the creation of human beings. The beginning of African cosmology is always God, whose existence is assumed. The Swahili and others believe that God existed in a distinct kind of universe that cannot be comprehended by human beings. Others believe that God lived in the marshy waters before creating the sky to which he retreated. However, there are no myths that try to fully describe God’s abode.

African cosmology describes God’s being, actions, and emotions in very human terms. The use of human characteristics is common. This is clearly necessary in order to communicate information about God’s nature and actions as understood by human beings and in relation to the human experience. God is known or referred to by different names in the different languages of Africa. Often, there are many names for God. Several of them are descriptive and indicative of God’s creative power. The Shilluk of Sudan refer to God as Jwok, which means one God who created the world. The Yoruba of Nigeria speak of Eledaa the creator. The Gikuyu and Maasai of Kenya refer to God as Ngai, the apportioner. This implies that God has put everything in its place. This idea is also found among the Abaluyia of western Kenya, who refer to God as Nyasaye Khakaba, which means that God divides and apportions not just the personal attributes to human beings but also physical space to the different people of the world. The Akan of Ghana say that Onyame, or God, is Borebore, meaning that Onyame is the maker.

Although African cosmology is theistic, it is not necessarily monotheistic. The supreme being is often portrayed as the chief or master creator. But according to some of the myths, he may have been assisted by lesser gods or by his children. The Yoruba of Nigeria say that Orishanla assisted Oludumare in creation. The Pokot of Kenya and Uganda say that Tororot has a wife, Seta, as well as a younger brother, and these together participated in the creative process. Tororot and Seta have several children, who include Arawa, the moon, and Tapoh, the evening star.

Some other people, including those of east Guinea, believe that there were two creators: Alatangana and Sa. Alatangana lived just above the earth, while Sa’s dwelling place was on earth. Alatangana was responsible for creating the solid earth and for giving it vegetation. His marriage to Sa’s daughter resulted in the first human beings. Sa appears to have been responsible for more practical matters. For example, he gave his grandchildren tools and the ability to use them. These tools included a hoe, a machete, and an axe. He also gave them paper, pen, and ink. Sa created light in order to get rid of the darkness in which Alatangana and his children lived.

Origin of the Universe

God created both the universe and the natural environment, either singly or with the help of assistants. Many myths indicate that parts of the universe were a result of sexual union between God and the earth. This explains the respect many Africans give the earth. The Dogon of Mali say that the sun was god’s first creation. It was created from clay. The moon was the second creation. The shining black people (the Dogon) were created out of the sunlight. White people were made out of the moon. Another belief is that God made the earth in the shape of a female body. The head faced north, while the legs were toward the south. God, Amma, had sexual union with the earth. Different animals were born out of this union.

The rain did the second fertilization of the earth. This resulted in the birth of twins whose name was Namma, which means water. The twins became the grass and other plants. However, they still lived with their father in the sky. Looking down, they were saddened to see their mother’s nakedness. They clothed her with reeds and shrubs. Thus the vegetation of the earth was created. According to this myth, the stars were created by scattering pieces of the sun across the sky.

Origin of Humanity

According to many African stories of origin, human beings are at the very center of creation. The creative acts of God are centered on humanity and their well-being. The creation of the waters, the soil, the trees, and the animals is connected to the welfare of the people. God makes the waters so that people may drink from them and quench their thirst. He makes the fire so that they can cook their food and keep themselves warm. The earth is created so that people can till it and grow their food. Trees are intended for the construction of houses and the provision of firewood.

Some of the stories put the creation of humanity at the beginning of the creative process. Others put it at the end of the initial process. The Nandi of Kenya say that Asis, the creator, first made the world order by separating the earth from the sky. Other elements of nature like fire, water, thunder, and lightning were created before other living things. According to the Manda of Mali, God first created seeds out of which he made human beings. The Yoruba of Nigeria say that Orinshanla first created the earth, the palm tree, the coconut, and the kola trees before finally creating the people.

God created human beings either by the spoken word or from the earth. The Shilluk say that God created human beings from the earth. White people were made from white loam, Arabs from brownish earth. The fertile black clay found along the banks of the river Nile was set aside for the creation of black people, particularly the Shilluk. Some groups in Botswana say that the gods first created one man known as Tauetona followed by his brothers. Animals were made next. The first man was required to give names to the animals. Men and women were created separately and at first occupied different parts of the universe. With the help of the giraffe, they met and started families.

Other groups believe that the lizard was created first. The human being came next and initially looked like a lizard but without the tail. The creature was soaked in the river until God called it out. Other myths indicate that God first made semihuman creatures who later procreated, giving birth to human beings as we know them today.

Origin of Death

People have constantly sought to know the origin of death. They have wanted to know what happens after death and whether death is reversible. Many African myths have tried to answer these questions in different ways. In all the stories, death is described as not being part of God’s original plan for human beings. Many of the stories indicate that death came as a result of a mistake made either by the human beings or by some other animal. The chameleon features in most of the myths. The chameleon was sent by God to deliver the message of immortality to human beings. However, he was too slow. In the meantime, another animal was sent with a message saying that human beings will die after all. Some stories say that this message of mortality was carried by the fast-running hare, while others say that it was either a lizard or a bird. This later messenger arrived long before the chameleon. Thus, human beings received the message of mortality. Death was introduced as a part of the human experience. The chameleon did arrive, but God, who is unchanging, could not change his word, which the people had already received.

In some societies, death is linked to the separation of heaven and earth. The sky and the earth were originally connected. Human beings moved freely from the sky to the earth, ostensibly in search of food. Although death existed in some form, it was not a permanent state. Human beings would be rejuvenated after a while and would continue their normal life. However, at some point the connection between heaven and earth was severed. This made death a permanent feature of the human condition. The severing of the connection is sometimes attributed to the mischievous hyena, who was curious to see what would happen if the connecting rope was cut. Tired old people who would climb to heaven for rejuvenation used the rope. This may explain why, in many African societies, the death of the aged does not cause as much sorrow as that of a young person. Death as a result of old age is generally welcomed and even celebrated. The old people who die do not come back, but they move on to the world of ancestors. Since they have lived their lives to the full, there is no reason for regret. Explanations are often sought for the death of one in the prime of youth. The answer is often found in witchcraft, sorcery, and the evil eye.

The Baganda of Uganda blame the forgetful woman for bringing death. When the first people set off for their journey to the earth, the first woman, Nambi, forgot to take with her the millet needed to feed her chicken. Although God had strictly told them not to go back once they started the journey, the woman felt that she had to do this. Nambi went back for the millet. She returned from heaven carrying the millet in a basket, but at the bottom of the basket was death. As a consequence of disobeying God’s instruction, death became an ever-present member of the human family.

The Bakongo of Zaire believe that death was part of the creator’s plan. But it was not intended to be permanent. However, the first couple disobeyed God, forcing him to make death a permanent feature of human experience. The couple had been instructed to keep the dead under layers of firewood rather than bury them in the earth. The dead would then be revived after three days. But because of the stench from their dead child, the couple decided to bury the body in the ground. By doing this, they invited the wrath of the creator, who punished them and their offspring by revoking their immortality.

African cosmology does not have the notion of the “end” of death. It would appear that once God spoke the word, there was no going back on it.

Modern Cosmology

Africa is a continent in transition. It is somewhere between traditional customs and modernity. This situation shows itself in every sphere of life. People desire to borrow Western ideas that are generally believed to be modern and progressive, but as Jan Knappert says, “The impact of the colonial period has been to destroy the fine fabric of beliefs and morality in the traditional societies.” Western Christian missionaries also contributed significantly to this destruction. Africans were incessantly told that they did not have a religion and that what they believed in was mere superstition. They were told that what they practiced was idolatry. The educated and those who had come in contact with Western culture did not want to be associated with what was seen as primitiveness. They therefore ignored and even publicly criticized or even denounced traditional beliefs and practices.

However, Africans have been known to tenaciously hold to some of their traditional beliefs, particularly in times of crisis. This is seen in the crises of childlessness and death. Although these conditions are regarded as unnatural states, contrary to the will of God, people tend to believe that they cannot happen without the help of evil men and women. Barrenness is often blamed on women with the evil eye. Whereas all death is unacceptable and painful, the death of a young person is viewed as possibly the worst tragedy for any family. It always sends the community back to reexamine the origin of death and its meaning. It is a constant reminder that death was not God’s original plan for humanity. Something or somebody else is always responsible for such a death. Although one may be quite aware of the physical and medical causes for a young person’s death, there is always another cause for it. These nonmedical reasons are generally related to cosmological beliefs about the origin of death.

When death occurs, the body of the deceased must be accorded all the proper funerary rites. This includes being buried on the ancestral land. Urban dwellers insist on transporting the deceased back to their rural homes for burial. There are two main reasons for this, and both are related to cosmological beliefs. One belief is that the departed must be laid to rest with the ancestors. The other reason has to do with the land that God gave to the people. In other words, it has to do with land ownership. Burial usually puts a permanent stamp of ownership on a piece of land by the surviving members of the family. No one would want to buy a piece of land with a stranger’s grave on it.

It would therefore not be entirely true to say that contemporary African cosmology is entirely divorced from tradition. There is an intricate interplay between traditional and contemporary scientific cosmologies. Traditional cosmologies have tended to be replaced by either Christian or Islamic ones. In general however, there is a tendency to mix or weave aspects of the three religious cosmologies together.

Scientific cosmologies seem to be relegated to academic lecture theaters and academic discussions. Knappert concludes that “In spite of the attrition by modern ‘civilization’ many religions are still alive or … still remembered by the elders of the clan.” But we can go a step farther and say that many of the religions are alive in people’s daily lives and experiences.

The thousands of stories of origin that form the basis of African cosmology all have their roots in the socioeconomic and political experiences of the people. They are an attempt to understand and explain aspects of the human condition. African myths do not tell us why creation took place. They do not emphasize the method that was used in the creation process. This may be because these aspects are not particularly important. What are important are the implications that the stories have for human life. They have implications for human relationships as well as human behavior. For example, the Maasai of Kenya believe that at the beginning of time, God gave them the cow. Consequently, cows are the most precious possession any Maasai can have. They claim that all the cows in the world actually belong to them. Thus, Maasai would do anything to protect the cows in their possession. They can also do anything to acquire more. The Gikuyu say that God gave their forefathers tools for agriculture and the knowledge to use them. Consequently the Gikuyu strive to excel in farming. They also lay great emphasis on land ownership. They buy it wherever it is available. They would do anything to protect their land.

Traditional African cosmology tends to agree with aspects of modern scientific cosmology. In some cases the creator molded the earth from the marshy waters; in some stories the chicken scattered the soil, creating dry land. The timeframe is opened ended, and in both cases the belief is that creation is still going on. Examples are found in the stories that say God first created semihuman creatures that became human with time. Creation in a moment of time, as described in the Christian tradition, is rarely found in African stories. This is why many Africans easily accept the idea that creation is a continuing process.