Destiny in Africa is the idea that a person's path through life has been predetermined. The notion of destiny, for example, among the Akan and Yoruba people in West Africa is not fatalism. There is no sense that one's destiny is bad or evil, but rather that one must work each day to work out the destiny that was designed before birth.
African religion does not trivialize the idea of destiny to ideas like romance or the futility of working. One does not have to try to outmaneuver destiny, but one can embrace it because one can choose to accept destiny or fight against it. Rather than see destiny in Africa as a fixed sequence of events that is inexorable, one should view it as nkrabea, the Akan idea of destiny that takes its character from human uniqueness. Thus, nkrabea begins with the person. This entry uses Akan culture as an example of the African concept of destiny and also explores more general elements.

Akan Perspectives

In the Akan culture, a person is basically composed of several components: okra, mogya, and sunsum. But people are also members of an abusua, family, and exist in the context of community, which includes both the living and the Dead. Therefore, certain ritualized ideas of nkrabea are based essentially on the concept of family. Among these thoughts is the idea that a person exists within a community and therefore must work to assist others in carrying out their destinies. In addition, one cannot be “saved” alone; because there is no dancing alone, there is no destiny alone.
Even the idea of kinship reflects communal closeness so that age groups share common mothers and common siblings. There are no first cousins, only brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, and uncles and aunts. Destiny in African religion is interconnected, although there are unique qualities to each person. In fact, nkrabea suggests that each human is unique and has value apart from others, although this value is meaningless without community. No person is without nkrabea, although many people will never discover their nkrabea. Only through communicating with other people can one truly discover nkrabea.
The reason for this is because, within the community of humans, there is an endless variety of possibilities. When people interact with others, they observe what completes them, makes them feel whole, satisfies them, and brings them to consciousness of their destiny. In ancient Africa, the priests would express the satisfaction of the divine when an action had been achieved that was considered difficult or extraordinary. One wanted to arrive at the point when every action, however small or large, would seem natural and expected, like water running off a duck's back. Then one would have achieved all the possibilities of nkrabea because there would be order, balance, and harmony.
Throughout Africa, there is a general belief in human destiny. It recognizes both the power of the unknown as well as the limitations of human beings. It is composed of several important elements. One can take the Akan word nkrabea as an example of the complexity of this concept. In the first place, the verb kra means to take leave of or bid farewell to the realm of the unknown so as to capture the idea that when one is born one is actually saying goodbye to providence. Nkrabea literally means “the manner in which a soul departs for the earth.” One may call this “fate,” “allotted life,” or “prescribed lot.”
The centrality of human beings in the universe is a part of the African idea of destiny. This means that the person must show respect and reverence for both the visible and invisible spheres of life. In the Akan view, the human must be in harmony with both the animate and inanimate worlds to claim the energies and vital forces in them. The Akan say “Nkrabea mu nni kwatibea.” This means that the destiny you have been assigned cannot be escaped. In effect, the order that has been given is settled and cannot be altered unless one carries out certain rituals of behavior. So for nkrabea to be fixed does not mean that it is immutable; it only means that if one believes that his or her destiny is negative, then ritual is necessary to change the destiny. However, it is not easy.
Among the Akan, it is believed that a person's okra receives his destiny before his birth. Thus, the nkrabea is often called the byebea, which means “the way and manner in which one's destiny was ordered.” Once the okra, similar to Western idea of soul, has been imprinted with destiny, a person enters the world with certain attributes that would aid in the destiny. The idea of destiny is not like saying that one's destiny is to be a teacher, engineer, lawyer, or any other professional occupation, but rather like saying that one's character will reflect justice, mercy, truth, righteousness, and goodness. Thus, it is critical for a person to communicate with others. Everyone wants a good destiny. It is an indication that the person “fits” well in the community of ancestors and the living. A good destiny is Akraye; a bad destiny is Akrabiri in Akan. When one seems to have akrabiri, a bad destiny, as indicated by how they get along with others, treat their parents, interact with strangers, and “fit” into the society, it is a serious problem that can only be dealt with through ritual.

African Themes

One finds similar ideas among other groups of Africans. For example, among the Yoruba, the idea of destiny is well developed. A good destiny is Olori-re, whereas a bad destiny is Olori-buruka in Yoruba. Among the Yoruba, the idea of destiny is called ipinori, the ori's allotted part. The Yoruba believe that one receives this in one of three ways. A person may kneel and choose his destiny; this is called A-kunle-yan, that which is chosen. One may kneel and receive his destiny; this is called A-kunle-gba, that which is given. One may have a destiny attached to him, that is, A-yan-mo. Both the Akan and the Yoruba believe that, although in theory the destiny is unalterable, in practice there are some factors that can influence it for good or evil. A person may consult a divinity to have a good destiny maintained or prolonged. The Yoruba believe that a good destiny that is accompanied by a bad character is disaster. Among the Akan, it is said that Opanyin ano sen suman, that is, the words of the elders, is worth more than any amulet or charm.
In conclusion, destiny is not a fatalistic concept. People work to have their destinies prolonged and changed. It is only the inexplicable traits of humans that are explained by destiny. In the African world, humans are not the masters of their own lives or the universe; they are beneficiaries. How to live in the world is the job of the individual who is aware of his destiny. The universe has existed long before humans and will exist long after humans; it is important to maintain the idea of humility even as people walk upon the Earth. The Akan say the Earth is Asase Yaa, a sacred place, and must be walked on carefully.
Thus, the idea of destiny among Africans, especially as seen in Akan and Yoruba areas, is one that claims the Supreme Deity set in motion a certain path for the universe and humans at the beginning of creation. How one goes about negotiating his or her path can determine how pleased one is with the adventure of life. Therefore, respecting the ancestors, claiming dignity-affirming actions, following the proper rituals, and remembering in humility the importance of character are at the center of embracing destiny.



  • Africa
  • working day
  • rituals
  • ancestors
  • soul
  • character
  • evil


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Further Reading

  • Awoonor, K. (1975). The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of African South of the Sahara. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
  • Bascom, W. (1969). The Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria. San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
  • Berglund, A. (1976). Zulu Thought Patterns and Symbolism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Blyden, E. W. (1905). West Africa Before Europe: And Other Addresses Delivered in England in 1901 and 1903. London: C. M. Phillips.
  • Bockie, S. (1993). Death and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Beliefs. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Chivaura, V., and Mararike, C. R. (1999). The Human Factor Approach to Development in Africa. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Gelfand, M. (1962). Shona Religion With Special Reference to the Makorekore. Cape Town, South Africa: Rustic Press.
  • Griaule, M. (1956). Conversations With Ogotemmeli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (R. Butler, A. Richards, and B. Hooker, Trans.). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Gyeke, K. (1996). African Cultural Values: An Introduction. Philadelphia, PA: Sankofa.
  • Idowu, E. B. (1962). Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief. New York: Wazobia Press.
  • Magesa, L. (1997). African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis.
  • Mazama, A. (2002). The Afrocentric Paradigm. Trenton, NJ: African World Press.
  • Mbiti, J. S. (1989). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
  • Opoku, K. A. (1978). West African Traditional Religion. Accra, Ghana: FEP International.
  • Tempels, P. (1967). Bantu Philosophy. Paris: Presence Africaine.
  • Thiongo, N. W (1981). Decolonizing the Mind. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Thiongo, N. W (1998). PenPoints, Gunpoints, and Dreams: Towards a Critical Theory of Arts and the State of Africa. London: Oxford University Press.