In African religion, children are of primary importance. Indeed, children fulfill two significant roles. First, they remember and honor their departed parents. Second, they allow departed ones to come back into the world of the living. This entry looks at the underlying beliefs about ancestors and explains each of the child's critical functions in turn.

Beliefs about Ancestors

In the African worldview, there is no fundamental difference between life and death because the latter is perceived as being simply a different mode of existence. Life, by definition, is infinite and eternal, and can, therefore, never end. Death, in that context, is a rite of passage that allows one to enter the ancestral realm. The primary difference between the world of the living and the ancestral universe has to do with their respective level of materiality, with the world of the living being totally visible and the realm of the ancestors being partially visible.
Therefore, as expected, there is not a waterproof separation between the world of the living and the ancestral world, but, much to the contrary, constant interactions and communication. The ancestors are still very much a part of their community. Among many African people, like the Guen-Mina of Togo, for example, it is believed that the dead keep the living company when they sleep or move around. When water must be thrown on the floor, for example, the ancestors are first warned with “Agoo” so that they can move away and not get wet.
The living cultivate and welcome the presence of the ancestors among them because, as spiritual entities, the ancestors are able to bestow protection and guidance on them on a constant basis. In fact, the ancestors are the guardians of the family and community's traditions, ethics, and affairs. The ancestors speak both the language of the living and the language of God and are therefore in a uniquely privileged position to intervene on behalf of the living and ensure their well-being, provided, of course, that they are satisfied with the way the living treat them.
The ancestors, in contrast, imperatively need the living so that they will not experience the worst possible form of death, that is, social death. Indeed, although death is understood and accepted as a necessary rite of passage leading to a higher form of existence, it is also, nonetheless, experienced as a loss. What matters foremost, then, is that the person who died is not forgotten by those still on Earth. In the African universe, where one draws one's sense of existence from being related into a cosmic web to all that is in the world, be it other human beings, animals, or minerals, the importance of being remembered on one's death takes on its full meaning.
Being remembered means that one is still part of one's community and still exists. Conversely, being forgotten means being excluded, which is a terrible fate as far as Africans are concerned. In that context, to die without having had the chance or time to give birth to children is a real calamity because it is one's children's primary responsibility to remember one. This is why, everywhere in Africa, marriage and procreation are of the utmost importance.

Children's Role

The first responsibility of children is to ensure that all necessary funerary rituals are correctly and duly performed upon their mother's or father's death. The importance of such a responsibility cannot be underestimated because a person whose death and departure are not handled correctly might be denied access to the world of the ancestors and never be able to enjoy peace. Such a troubled spirit would, in turn, prove quite dangerous for members of the family as well as members of the community by mercilessly unleashing its fury and anger on them. Such a disaster must be avoided at all costs by performing appropriate funerary rituals that will allow the departed person to smoothly transition into the abode of the ancestors.
Once such rituals have been performed, it is incumbent on the children to perform other rituals throughout their own lives to maintain their parents alive, such as making offerings (like libations or sacrifices) to them, or maintaining family traditions, such as ancestral ceremonies or observing taboos. The memory of the deceased is usually cultivated for about five generations. Some African people, like the Yoruba, hold special and collective Egungun rituals to honor all those spirits who are no longer remembered individually due to the passage of time.
The second major role played by children in the African religious universe is that, through them, the deceased may come back and enjoy life once more or complete unfinished business. For most African people, there is a close relationship between newborn children and the ancestors because newborn babies are frequently conceived of as returned ancestors. The ancestors return not so much as physical entities, but as spiritual personalities.
Upon discovering that one of its female members is pregnant, a family will commonly, through divination, find out which one of the family's ancestors is coming back. A child is therefore treated with great respect and always as a blessing from the ancestral world. Children are welcomed into the community of the living during a special naming ceremony that usually takes place on the seventh or eighth day after their birth. Although that ceremony officially separates children from the spirit world, the closeness between newborns and ancestors continues nonetheless for a while.
For example, the Akan believe that young children are happier when left alone because they are in the company of their spiritual siblings and mother. When a young child smiles, laughs, or cries while apparently on his or her own, it is simply in response to a spiritual stimulus that only he or she can receive by virtue of being a child. In the end, children allow life to continue. In the African religious tradition, which is, above all, a celebration of life, to have children is both a social and a spiritual obligation. Children are a sacred gift to be truly appreciated, cherished, and cultivated by all in the community.



  • ancestors
  • African people
  • children
  • rituals
  • spirituals
  • rites of passage
  • death


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • De La Torre, I. (1993). Le Vodu en Afrique de l'Ouest. Rites et Traditions. Le cas des sociétés Guen-Mina (Sud-Togo). Paris: L'Harmattan.
  • Ephrim-Donfor, A. (1999). African Spirituality: On Becoming Ancestors. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
  • Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy. London & Nairobi: Heinemann.
  • Zahan, D. (1979). The Religion, Spirituality, and Thought of Traditional Africa. London: University of Cambridge Press.