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Walter E.A. van Beek

There is not one African indigenous religion (AIR); rather, there are many, and they diverge widely. As a group, AIRs are quite different from the scriptural religions the world is more familiar with, since what is central to AIRs is neither belief nor faith, but ritual. Exemplifying an “imagistic” form of religiosity, these religions have no sacred books or writings and are learned by doing, by participation and experience, rather than by instruction and teaching. Belonging to specific local ethnic groups, they are deeply embedded in and informed by the various ecologies of foragers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists—as they are also by the social structures of these societies: they “dwell” in their cultures. These are religions of the living, not so much preparing for afterlife as geared toward meeting the challenges of everyday life, illness and misfortune, mourning and comforting—but also toward feasting, life, fertility, and togetherness, even in death. Quiet rituals of the family contrast with exuberant public celebrations when new adults re-enter the village after an arduous initiation; intricate ritual attention to the all-important crops may include tense rites to procure much needed rains. The range of rituals is wide and all-encompassing. In AIRs, the dead and the living are close, either as ancestors or as other representatives of the other world. Accompanied by spirits of all kinds, both good and bad, harmful and nurturing, existence is full of ambivalence. Various channels are open for communication with the invisible world, from prayer to trance, and from dreams to revelations, but throughout it is divination in its manifold forms that offers a window on the deeper layers of reality. Stories about the other world abound, and many myths and legends are never far removed from basic folktales. These stories do not so much explain the world as they entertainingly teach about the deep humanity that AIRs share and cherish.