Calamities

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A calamity is a major disastrous event caused by natural or human agents, in which a community suffers lasting damage. The African world was intimate with the powerful forces of life, community, nature, and death. Understanding, using, propitiating, and cooperating with these forces was the main life activity of many African peoples while securing basic material needs. An imbalance in any of these forces could potentially cause a calamity. The intimacy among the people, the land, their ancestors, and traditions provided the first line of response to a calamity.
Calamities of the modern world are on a much more complex scale. The effects of enslavement, colonialism, forced urbanization, genocide, war, poverty, exploitation, and disease have placed considerable stress on African people and culture. The modern calamities that resulted from these events are often seen as exclusively economic, ethnic, political, or humanitarian in nature. With these diffused perspectives, the identification, causes, and responses to modern calamities are framed in new perspectives with new language. African religion takes calamities as broken parts of the spiritual world and seeks to reorder the balance of the environment through rituals.
There are few, if any, events that are seen as just impacting the person. A birth is more than just an “addition” to a specific family or a clan. It enriches the entire community and is an affirmation of life. A new priestess, chief, healer, or hunter diviner has been born. An ancestor has returned. Conversely, any evil deed or misfortune such as theft does not just happen to one person, it happens to a community. Therefore, calamities are not distinguished by their scope. Calamities are sorrows or misfortunes that have immediate and devastating consequences: famine, illness, disease, epidemics, plagues, crop failures, drought, flood, and war. Many indigenous worldviews hold that every event has a natural or physical cause, as well as a supernatural or spiritual one. Through divination, great care is taken to determine the causal factors as well as identify steps to remedy the situation.
In African thought, the origin of calamities is always spiritual, yet they are not automatically attributed to the supreme deity. In some traditions, such as the Yoruba, calamities are deities. Collectively, they are the Ajogun, or “warriors against humanity and the good forces of nature.” Their sole purpose of existence is to ruin the Orisha, humans, plants, and animals. There are eight warlords of the Ajogun: Iku (Death), Arun (Disease), Ofo (Loss), Egba (Paralysis), Oran (Big Trouble), Epe (Curse), Ewon (Imprisonment), and Ese (Afflictions). These eight are just the leaders because the total number of Ajogun is 200 +1. The “+1” means that more can be added. In the fluid practice of Vodun along coastal Benin, deities that address modern challenges of homosexuality, abortion, and prostitution have been added, although not as warlords.
The Ajogun are permanent parts of creation. When their activities flare up, sacrifice is the remedy. Usually, greater calamities require greater sacrifices. This approach is found throughout Africa, although the entity to which the sacrifice is directed varies. Among the Chagga, sacrifices to God are made only during periods of extreme duress. Among the Ila, serious illness prompts an offering of food and water and prayers to God. During epidemics, the head female priest of the Leya in South Africa leads the afflicted to a nearby waterfall and performs a ritual aimed at the ancestral spirits in the water.

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Further Reading

  • Abimbola, K. (2006). Yoruba Culture: A Philosophical Account. Birmingham, UK: Iroko.
  • Magesa, L. (1997). African Religions: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. Markknoll, NY: Orbis.
  • Mbiti, J. S. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Heinemann.