Mountains and Hills

Mountains and hills are landforms with distinct summits, in limited areas, that extend above the surrounding terrain. The distinction between a mountain and a hill is culturally relative. The majority of Africa is composed of moderately elevated tablelands, broken occasionally by higher peaks and ridges. Thus, Africa possesses fewer extremes of elevation than other continents, with notable exceptions in the Mahgreb, Ethiopia, the Great Lakes region, and southern Africa.
In African religions, the landscape was considered to be part of the divine realm. Given the relative rarity of hills and mountains in many parts of Africa, and their glaring height above the surrounding landscape, it is little wonder that mountains and hills are generally viewed with awe and reverence. For some groups, mountains play a role in their origin myth. The Chewa believe that humankind was created by Chiuta and set down atop Dzalanyama Mountain. The Kikuyu believe that their first ancestor was awarded his terrestrial home by Mogai, Divider of the Universe, from atop Mount Kenya (Kere-Nyaga).
Rising above the African landscape, mountains and hills thrust upward into the domain of the “above,” the sacred realm over humans. In the “above” live those gods, goddesses, and spirits in charge of the sky, rain, and thunder. For some peoples, mountains and hills are thought of as the homes or resting places of these entities. Among many peoples of the Great Lakes region, mountains are viewed as the home of the creator god. For example, the Kikuyu believe Mount Kenya to be the home of Mogai, who told humans that if they sacrificed toward the mountain and raised their hands in prayer, he would come to their assistance. The Barotse (Lozi) hold that Nyambe, the creator, retreated atop a mountain to find refuge from destructive humans. The Barotse pray toward the mountain in an effort to get close to Nyambe again. In Yorubaland, the spirits of hills are prayed to for fertility in the surrounding region, such as Olumo in Abeòkuta and Orósun in Idànrè. Similarly, the hero Mbona is worshipped on the site of his deification, by many ethnic groups in the Matundu Hills of southern Malawi, to provide fertility to the region. Some holy sites involving mountains and hills, like the shrine to Mbona, have the ability to transcend ethnicity.
In other cases, mountains and hills serve as ritual spaces, a means of getting closer to the deities of the “above,” even if it is not considered their dwelling place. Among the Zulu, a hill might be known as inthaba encwele ye Nkosi yamazulu (the holy hill of the Lord-of-the-Sky), where priests might pray for rain or healing. Numerous peoples of the Upper Nile, such as the Nuer, Dinka, and Lou, construct sizable artificial earthen mounds or hills. The mounds are designed to pull the might of a divinity to Earth and empower the prophet who spoke for him or her.
In summary, many followers of the African religious traditions believe mountains and hills to be home to divinities, whereas others use them as ritual and sacred spaces.



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Further Reading

  • Kenyatta, J. (1965). Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu. New York: Vintage.
  • Schoffeleers, J. M. (1992). River of Blood: The Genesis of a Martyr Cult in Southern Malawi, c. A.D. 1600. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.