In the context of traditional Africa, people are surrounded not by things but by beings; the first in rank being GOD . Although in many parts of Africa, God is conceived as male, in other instances there are feminine images. For example, the Supreme gods of the Ewe of Ghana are Mawu-Lisa. They are twins. Mawu, the female is represented by the moon, while Lisa the male is represented by the sun. As husband and wife , Mawu-Lisa had seven pairs of twins which became the major gods of the Ewe. What is of major interest to us is the red wooden statue with large breasts and a crescent in one hand found among the Ewe. This image of Mawu is the only known image of the Supreme Being in Africa.
The Akan of Ghana have a similar view of God. The Ashanti for example, have sometimes thought of [Nyame ] the SUPREME BEING as both male and female. The female principle is symbolized by the moon which created human beings with water. The male principle is symbolized by the sun. The sun shot life-giving fire into the human veins and made human beings live. Generally however, the women is seen as the MOTHER of humankind, from whom all people originated. The Akposso tell that when God made human beings, he first made woman on the earth and bore her the first child, the first human being. The main idea here , says Mbiti, is to link human life directly with God through the woman. The woman herself is created by God and in turn becomes the instrument of human life.
Although the life of the first human beings is generally depicted as having been in a form of paradise, with God providing all the necessities of life, this paradise got lost. EARTH and HEAVEN separated from each other and God went to live in heaven while human beings lived on the earth. And in place of the lost gifts came diseases suffering, and death. Incidentally, the blame for this unfortunate tragedy is always put on the woman. These myths of origin however, often give us a picture of the woman as someone placed in a special relationship with God with whom she shares the creative process of life and also the misfortunes, and death which in various ways came into the world.
Apart from belief in the Supreme Being, Africans do recognize lesser categories of spiritual forces. These are considered more responsive to the needs of human beings in their secular and religious lives. These divinities were created by God to fulfill specific functions. They are regarded as the children of God or the messengers of God, or his agents. They may be male or female, good or evil, may have their abode in the environment, such as trees, rocks, rivers, the sea and even certain animals. They are however not confined to the physical objects in which they reside, since they have unlimited mobility and can move anywhere. They are treated with respect when they fulfill human expectations. However, they may be despised when they fail to deliver the goods. In the cult of these divinities, there are both priests and priestesses who serve at their shrines or temples. However, the sex of the minister is not an indication of the sex of the divinity. Each sex can operate as the messenger of the deity. African traditional religion, is therefore less sexist in its image of the spiritual world as compared to other world religions.
It is this factor which has made it possible for both men and women to perform their sacred functions in the worship of God and his functionaries, the divinities, who incidentally are in both sexes.
SPIRIT OF THE EARTH
Next after the Supreme Being is the EARTH DEITY. In most African societies, the earth is given a feminine image. The Akan of Ghana and the Igbo of Nigeria regard the earth as a goddess. Among the Akan, she ranks next after the Supreme Being and the second deity to be offered a drink during worship. Her day of rest is Thursday and severe punishment was meted out in the past to those who infringed this taboo. Although there are no temples, shrines or priests dedicated to her, because her bounty is accessible to all, She nonetheless receives offerings and sacrifices at the planting season.
The land generally cannot be farmed without asking for her permission. When a grave is about to be dug the Spirit of the earth is offered sacrifice. The Igbo of Nigeria, unlike the Akan, dedicate shrines and priestesses to the Mother goddess, the Queen of the underworld who is responsible for public morality. Homicide, kidnapping , stealing farm products, adultery and giving birth to twins or abnormal children are all offenses against her. Laws are made and oaths sworn in her name. According to Parrinder, Ani is the most-loved deity, and the one who is closest to the people. She helps them if they are in trouble with other divinities, but punishes hardened criminals. Also the most important festival, the yam [harvest] festival is held in her honor receives offerings during the planting season, and also when the first fruits are harvested.
Temporary houses [Mbari] made to accommodate sacred sculptures and other statues representing deities always contain the statue of Ani which stands in the middle. Here, she is depicted as a mother with a child in her arms or knees and a sword in her hand. Facing Ala is the storm god a subordinate counterpart of the goddess. The Mende of Sierra Leone also regard Mother earth as a goddess, the common mother of mankind and the wife of God [Maa-ndoo]. Like the Akan, the Mende do not worship the Spirit of the earth, although she is invoked together with God [NGEWO] during important occasions. Laws are made to protect her sanctity, for example, sexual intercourse in the bush is a violation of her sacredness and offenders were severely punished. Apart from the Earth goddess, several other deities are found residing in bodies of water.
SPIRITS OF WATER
It is alleged that the sexual identity of spiritual beings suggest that female deities like their human counterparts, ordinarily have domestic rather than communal orientation. Evidence at our disposal, however does not in any way point to the subordination of female deities to male deities. All over Africa, water bodies like the sea, rivers lakes and lagoons are regarded as the habitats of deities and are thus treated with great reverence and sometimes worshipped at shrines with specially appointed priests and priestesses. Yemoja, the most prominent of the river divinities among the Yoruba, for example, is not only the mother of numerous river deities, but also the ruler of the Ogun river in Abeokuta. She is also the mother of fishes and the giver of children. Women therefore pray to her for children, with yams and fowls.
There are other prominent river goddesses like Oya the goddess of the Niger river who is believed to be the companion , or one of the wives of SHANGO, the god of thunder. She is so fierce and terrible that no one can look upon her. Oya is often identified with the wind that blows when no rain follows. There are others like Orisha OKO, an important farm goddess. Temples erected for her are the most common of all the Yoruba divinities. Women are her principal worshippers, especially during the yam festival. There is no doubt that African traditional religion is life- affirming.
The religion seeks to insure the fertility and vitality of human beings and the land on which their own and other creatures’ livelihood depends. It is therefore reasonable that women pray to these divinities who are in direct control of fertility.
W0MEN IN RITES OF PASSAGE
Women frequently play important roles in personal rituals of status transformation associated with birth, puberty and death. At childbirth, women express gratitude to God with prayers and sacrifices, and at death they sing dirges to express their sorrow. The most significant role of women is seen during girls nubility rites. Marion Kilson has observed that “Wherever they occur the principal officiants and participants are women. Moreover, the symbolism of these rituals vividly portray the essential cultural meaning of mature womanhood. Such rituals express the dualistic nature of women’s sexuality and the means by which the positive aspects of fertility may be harnessed for social good and the negative aspects of sexuality may be contained and socially controlled.
In Ghana, the most well-preserved female puberty rites are the Dipo of the Krobo, and the Bragoro of the Asante. So important were the ideals of these rites that its violation in former times constituted a crime. A girl who became pregnant before the performance of the puberty rites was banished together with the man who was responsible for it. Purification rites were performed to rid the society of its evil consequences. It must be noted that not only did the puberty rites prepare the young for marriage, it also prepared them for procreation without which marriage was incomplete. The ceremonies therefore, marked the entry of young girls into adulthood. During the period of their ritual seclusion the young girls are taught the secrets of the society and also brought closely to the supernatural forces which are supposed to ensure their protection, blessing and fertility during their period of motherhood. Mothers of such concerned girls usually pray that their daughters grow to full maturity and bear children.
MUSICAL ROLE OF WOMEN IN TRADITIONAL RELIGION
A lot of festivals abound in African traditional religions. A good number of them are in honor of the most important divinities and ancestors. Of relevance to us is the phenomenon of singing and dancing by well-dressed women during the celebrations of these festivals. Although the songs and dancing add luster to the celebrations, they have a veiled but more important effect of curbing recalcitrant and criminally minded members of the community who during the year had broken the norms, convictions and customs prevalent in the community. The songs are deliberately composed to highlight the abuses and crimes committed and expose the criminals.The singing groups, protected by the community’s traditions, perform the role of ‘the people’s court’ to whose verdict the culprits and their relations cannot pretend to be indifferent and against which they have no appeal.
In Ghana, the popular APOO festival and others share the same characteristics with some festivals in Nigeria. The gaily dressed women, armed with well- rehearsed abusive songs move from house to house, mentioning names and coming down heavily on the social miscreants within the community.
Under the immunity graciously conferred by tradition ,the women boldly call out in songs the names of the offenders in front of their houses and contemptuously pour down condemnation on them. By so doing these women help to cleanse society of social misfits by bringing to the open the sins committed under the cover of darkness. Furthermore, with their ritual dances and singing women warm the hearts of the gods who by their nature, hate evil and always want to get rid of them. Disarmed by the traditional immunity enjoyed by the women social non- conformist are either compelled to mend their ways or flee from the community. This indeed, has been a very significant and effective mechanism of social control in many African countries. It is important to note that as part of these celebrations, traditional rulers offer sacrifices to purify the community to remove the evils accumulated during the year, thus renewing the society.