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AfricaMyth And Cosmology, Gods And Spirits, Religion And Possession, Religious Authorities, Worship Spaces

The modern academic study of indigenous African religions began with the publication of ethnographic, missionary, and travel monographs by Leo Frobenius, R. S. Rattray, H. A. Junod, W. C. Willoughby, Edwin Smith, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, John Middleton, Godfrey Liendhardt, Geoffrey Parrinder, and Marcel Griaule, among others. The African scholars Bolajii Idowu, John Mbiti, and Gabriel Setiloane also published works on African religious life and practice. These studies explore religious life and the social history of specific communities. Studies that stress the historicity of African religions draw on oral traditions and archeological records (Terrence Ranger, I. Kimambo, Wim M. J. van Binsbergen, Matthew Schoffeleers, Thomas Blakely, Walter E. A. van Beek, and Dennis L. Thompson).

The encounter with modernity and with other religions such as Christianity and Islam affected African religions in two ways. Positively, this encounter demonstrated that African religions share common features with other religions in the quest for ultimate and communal values. Negatively, the new religions dominated African religions through their massive social services, which they used for conversion. The messengers of the faiths introduced into Africa derided indigenous religions, competed with ritual experts, and were also impatient that changes they demanded in some aspects of African rituals did not take place soon enough. A good example is the case of circumcision among the Kikuyu. Conflicts arose in the Kikuyu area of Kenya because they practiced this rite, and escalated to the point where some mission organizations barred circumcised Kikuyu children from attending schools.

African religions were often seen as preparatio evangelica (preparation for the Gospel), and the encounter with modernity sharply curtailed and stunted the growth of African religions. In response, however, Africans continued to practice their religions. Africans converted to the new religions practiced a bricolage, combining elements of their religion with the new faiths. Africans also used their religious beliefs to confront newcomers. In East Africa, the Nyabingi cult of the nineteenth century, the Maji-Maji movement, the Mambo cult in Kenya, the Mwari cult in Zimbabwe, and the Poro cult in Sierra Leone, all resisted colonial incursion into their territories.

African religions are local faiths and have no sacred book, although scholars have collected texts such as Sixteen Cowries and Ifa Divination (William Bascom) and Texts on Zulu Religion (Irving Hexham). Collections of prayers by John Mbiti and Alyward Shorter, and Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmeli, are also rudimentary religious texts. Although there is no uniformity of African religious thought, it is possible to summarize key components of African religious life and history.

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