Blessing refers to the act of calling on the divine to bestow protection, prosperity, health, peace, and, generally speaking, all manners of good fortune as defined by the community. In African religion, blessings are expected from God, the divinities, and the ancestors, the main actors of the benevolent African spiritual world. In as eminently religious a world as the African world, requests for blessing are numerous. Blessings can be personal or communal; they can occur in a formal or informal manner and setting, and they may concern all life matters.
However, African people are most definitely concerned with life and with the process through which life sustains and regenerates itself—that is, fertility. Hence, one finds that fertility occupies a central and frequent place in appeals for blessings. Fertility not only involves human procreation, but also extends to land and animal reproduction and growth. Thus, rain, without which drought, famine, and devastation would prevail, causing much pain to the whole community, is commonly acknowledged as a blessing from God. In times of drought, communities will organize communal rituals in an attempt to secure that they be blessed with rain again. Other societies, such as the Lovedu of South Africa, for instance, hold a Rain Ceremony every year for the express purpose of guaranteeing the continuous and abundant flow of rain in the coming year. Water, in general, is intimately associated with life and fertility in Africa.
In the same vein, children are also very much desired. According to an African proverb, “Children are the reward of life.” The birth of children ensures parents that they will receive proper burial rites and will be effectively remembered, thus allowing them to remain socially alive after they die. The ancestors are the ones who bless the living with children. When a couple experiences difficulty achieving pregnancy, the ancestors are immediately suspected to be responsible for obstructing conception. Thus, rituals whose purpose is to secure ancestral blessing for human (and land as well as animal) fertility abound.
Among the Bemba people of the northeastern part of Zambia, for example, a woman is presented with a miniature clay pot filled with water on the day of her wedding by her paternal aunt as a blessing. Likewise, among the Guusi people of Kenya, in East Africa, fertility being controlled by patrilineal ancestors, the grandfathers are asked for their blessing to bring an increase in people (and cattle). One may also ask to be blessed with good health, well-being, and a trouble-free life.
There are several manners in which blessings can be bestowed. As an informal act, a blessing may take the form of a prayer, a song, a libation, or the burning of incense, among other possibilities. The Gada people, for instance, believe that the burning of incense will attract blessings to their homes. Burning a white candle in one's home is also widely associated with a similar effect, in particular in the African religious diaspora. Common also in Africa is the spraying with water of a newborn baby's body by one of the midwives as a way of welcoming it into the world and blessing it with long life and good health.
As a formal act, a blessing will require some form of ceremonial act officiated by a spiritual leader or elder. In addition to prayers that will be said and libations that will be poured to open the way, sacrifices and offerings will most likely be made so that one can receive the desired blessing. Such ceremonies may center around one person, a group of persons (e.g., as it is the case during initiation ceremonies), or the whole community, as in the case already mentioned of Rain Ceremonies.
People and communities tend to offer what is most valuable to them as tokens of their deep appreciation for the blessings of the spiritual world. Thus, beer among the Lovedu and butter, fat, meat, honey, and honey mead among the Maasai are conceived of as the most powerful agents of blessings, and therefore figure prominently in blessing rituals. Women are sprinkled and smeared with honey, mead, and butter by Maasai elders during rituals to ensure abundant fertility. Likewise, in Vodu in Haiti, divinities (the Lwa) are offered their favorite food to dispose them favorably toward human requests for blessing. Hence, one will offer rum and pork to Papa Ogu, the divinity of war, or champagne and delicate cookies to Ezili Freda, the Lwa of love and fertility, because they are known to be fond of those things.



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Further Reading

  • Fôrde, D. (Ed.). (1954). African Worlds. Studies in the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values of African Peoples. London & New York: The International African Institute and Oxford University Press.
  • Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.
  • Midleton, J. (Ed.). (1997). Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.