In Africa, lightning carries an important symbolism and is often associated with the workings of the divine. Because much of Africa is covered by rain forests that depend on clouds and rain, the presence of lightning is not unexpected. However, in more arid regions of the continent, such as the Nile Valley or the southern tip of the continent, lightning is also respected. This entry discusses the natural phenomenon and then its religious significance in Africa.
A Natural Force
Lightning is ubiquitous. Each second, there are approximately 65 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes to the Earth throughout the world so that astronauts in space could see an ongoing display of the electrical energy hitting the Earth. As a phenomenon, lightning is a worldwide occurrence because there are no parts of the Earth where lightning cannot be found. Most strikes are about 2 to 3 miles long and carry a current of 10,000 amps at 100 million volts.
Africa experiences a substantial amount of lightning strikes. Many of them are of the “bolt from the blue” variation that hit the ground 10 to 20 miles away from a storm. These flashes are quite destructive and carry several times the electrical energy of the regular strikes. Most lightning is associated with thunder that can be heard up to 12 miles away from a storm.
There are other forms of lightning such as spider crawler lightning, which moves at the bottom of rain squalls sometimes as long as 35 miles away from the starting point. These crawlers are dangerous. Africans have known all forms of the lightning and therefore have managed to explain it in mythological or philosophical terms that make sense to their societies.
Africa has the greatest amount of lightning flashes on the Earth. Indeed, it is believed that the small town of Kifuka, Democratic Republic of Congo, in the Eastern region near the borders with Rwanda and Burundi, has the highest density of lightning flashes in the world. For example, out of the 1.4 billion times that lightning flashes over the Earth, a great amount of that energy is spent in the continent of Africa, where Kifuka receives 158 lightning bolts per kilometer per year. This compares with a European average of about 28 lightning bolts per kilometer per year. In Colombia, South America, one can have 110 lightning bolts per kilometer per year, making it the second most active place for lightning. North America, in Florida, is only about 59 bolts per kilometer in a year.
A Religious Explanation
What this means for Africa is that the people have had to develop ways of explaining the phenomenon within their religious frame of reference. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, Shango is seen as the deity who controls thunder and lightning, and, as such, he is the Sky Father, a royal ancestor of the Yoruba, with strong presence among the African diaspora in South America and the Caribbean.
The energy of Shango has often been cited for its symbol of resistance to enslavement and persecution of the African by European enslavers. Shango's colors are red and white, and his sacred number is six. The main symbol of Shango is the osbe, the doubled-headed axe, which represents balance and justice. As the owner of the three double-headed Bata drums, the deity of lightning and thunder is quick, swift, and authoritative like the fiery elements of the Earth. Like the Yoruba, other African ethnic groups have a high regard for lightning.
The Banyaranda, who live not far from Kifuka, have developed an elaborate narrative about the power of lightning that is associated with their kingship. According to the Banyaranda, the Almighty God, Intana, Amana, and possibly Amen, is represented on the Earth by the king. Indeed, the king represents Imana on the Earth, and the king represents the Rwanda people before Imana. This gives the king a divine function. However, if the king survives, then the country is said to survive; if the king dies, then the country is said to have died. In many ways, this type of kingship is prevalent in Africa.
Among the Banyaranda, however, there is something more to the kingship based on the intensity of lightning strikes. The king is the holder of sacred power. He is not a personality, but a representative, and, as such, he is the keeper of the sacred drum, the maintainer of the sacred fire, the one who is entrusted with the robes and cattle of his ancestors. If lightning strikes a person, it is compared to the power of the king because both are dangerous. In fact, if a person is struck by lightning, it is said that it means that he or she has been visited by the king. One cannot escape the all-powerful authority of the divine king because he is to be honored as one honors the lightning and vice versa. Lightning should receive the honor as the king of Rwanda; this is because of the pervasive nature of the electrical charge in the environment.
Other African people have incorporated the natural elements into their religious experiences as well. It is how Africans take the environment and create out of it a seamless relationship between society and nature. Lightning, far from being a stranger, must be viewed in African terms as part of the regular occurrence of nature in the lives of humans.
- lightning and thunder
- Davidson, B. (1969). The African Genius: An Introduction to African Cultural and Social History. Boston: Little, Brown.
- Maquet, J. (1954). The Kingdom of Ruanda. In D. Forde (Ed.), African Worlds (pp. 164–189). London: Oxford University Press.
- Vansina, J. (1962). L'évolution du royaume Ruanda des origins a 1900. Brussels, Belgium: Académie Royale des Sciences d'Outre-Mer.