Indigenous Religious Systems

Indigenous Religious Systems

There were as many indigenous religious systems in Angola as there were ethnic groups or even sections of ethnic groups. Two or more ethnic groups might share specific elements of belief, ritual, and organizational principle, but the configuration of these elements would be different for each group or section. Nevertheless, certain patterns were widespread.

Most traditional African religions claim the existence of a high god, but this deity's attributes vary. For example, some groups emphasize the high god's role as a creator, while others do not. Specific events in the human world are not usually explained by reference to this god, nor is a cult addressed to it.

The active entities in indigenous religious systems are ancestral and nature spirits. Ancestral spirits are considered relevant to the welfare of a descent group or its members, and nature spirits are considered relevant to the welfare of a community in a given location. However, specific individuals may be directly affected by one of the nature spirits resident in rocks or trees or in natural forces such as wind or lightning.

Ancestral spirits, especially those of recently deceased kin, must be honored with appropriate rituals if they are expected to look favorably on the enterprises of their descendants. Only some of these rituals are performed by the descent group as a whole. More frequently, they are performed by and on behalf of a segment of the group or an individual.

In theory, nature spirits are not generally considered to have led a human existence, but there are exceptions. Occasionally, the spirits of local rulers or others are detached from specific descent groups or are considered to have the characteristics of other nature spirits in that they are resident in features of the landscape.

The spirits of the ancestors of a kin group are looked to for assistance in economic and social matters, and some misfortunes-- famine, poor crops, personal losses--are ascribed to failure to have performed the appropriate rituals or to having misbehaved in some other way. Not all misfortunes are attributed to ancestral or nature spirits, however. Many people believe that magical powers inhere in things and that these powers, though usually neutral, may be used malevolently to afflict others or to prevent others to deal with affliction, particularly illness and death. It is further thought that individuals, sometimes unconsciously and without the use of material or technical means, can bring illness or other affliction to human beings. Such persons, usually called witches, are thought to be marked by the presence of a substance in the stomach or other organ. The terms witch and sorcerer have been applied to those who use their power malevolently, and the distinction between the two is based in part on whether the power is inherited (witch) or acquired in exchange for something of value (sorcerer)--whether the power is mystical or technical and whether the power is used on one's (the witch's) own behalf or on behalf of others, at a price. In fact, this distinction is made only in some societies and may be linked to certain features of community social structures and associated with patterns of accusation--whether kin by blood or marriage or non-kin are held to be responsible.

Individual difficulties are attributed to witchcraft, sorcery, or the acts of ancestral or nature spirits. The determination is usually made by a diviner, a specialist whose personal power and use of material objects are held to be generally benevolent (although there are cases in which a diviner may be accused of sorcery) and whose sensitivity to patterns of stress and strain in the community help him or her arrive at a diagnosis. A diviner-- widely called a kimbanda--may also have extensive knowledge of herbal medicine, and at least part of the work of the kimbanda is devoted to the application of that knowledge.

The kimbanda is said to have inherited or acquired the ability to communicate with spirits. In many cases, the acquisition of such power follows illness and possession by a specific spirit. The proficiency and degree of specialization of diviners varies widely. Some will deal only with particular symptoms; others enjoy broad repute and may include more than one village, or even more than one province, in their rounds. The greater the reputation of the kimbanda, the more he or she charges for services. This widespread term for diviner/healer has entered into local Portuguese, and so central is the role of the kimbanda to the complex of beliefs and practices characterizing most indigenous religions that some sources, such as the Jornal de Angola, have applied the term kimbandism to indigenous systems when cataloging Angolan religions.

In general, the belief in spirits (ancestral or natural), witches, and sorcerers is associated with a worldview that leaves no room for the accidental. Whether events are favorable or adverse, responsibility for them can in principle be attributed to a causal agent. If things go well, the correct ritual has been performed to placate the spirits or invoke their help. If things go badly, the correct ritual has not been performed, or a spirit has been otherwise provoked, or malevolent individuals have succeeded in breaching whatever protective (magical) measures have been taken against them. This outlook often persisted in Angola among individuals who had been influenced by Christianity or secular education. With some changes in particulars, it seemed to pervade urban areas, where a kimbanda rarely lacked clients.


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