The article investigates holistic spirituality as a basis to reflect upon the role of African spirituality during times of illness and crisis. Although African history is by and large an oral history, the article makes use of diverse literature to explore African worldviews and cultures in addressing the question of spirituality during times of illness. In the last few decades various African authors have written books and articles on African culture and practices to gather the oral stories into written manuscripts for future preservation.
Africans have a strong spiritual awareness and a belief that supernatural or invisible realms are closely connected to their earthly existence. These views determine the entirety of African people’s experiences in different stages of life. They affect rites of passage as well as the ways in which illness, crisis and death are handled. The overarching belief is that both good and evil spirits influence human life and activities. Everything that happens is linked in one way or another to spirituality. This is very evident during various celebrations and social events, such as the birth of a child, puberty rites, weddings, or when someone dies. In all such cases, rituals are performed, overseen by elders who initiate contact with ancestors and petition the supreme beings on behalf of the living.
The African worldview is the undergirding philosophy that governs African thought and practices. It is therefore vitally important to study the impact of African worldviews and cultures in relation to illness. The article draws on the inspiration of African spirituality, which is vibrant and dynamic. The essence of any spirituality is best manifested during adverse times, hence the focus of this article on spirituality and illness. The theoretical basis for African spirituality is dealt with in order to establish a conceptual framework whereby the effect of spirituality on the experience of illness is interpreted. The broader definition of spirituality is introduced, and special reference is made to its meaning within the African context.
First, the article describes the main concepts of Africa spirituality as they translate to Africans’ understanding and perception of God during illness. It further demonstrates the fact that African spirituality is intertwined with African worldviews and cosmology. Many Africans perceive illness as having multiple causes and occurring for many reasons. Illness is not a mere biophysical dysfunction, but in many African minds is caused by spiritual forces and interventions. The main cause to which illness is attributed is broken relationships that could manifest at different levels of coexistence. This could be due to pain or hurt inflicted by or to another person, violation of environment, or disobedience to or sin against God. Such views and convictions about disturbances of relationships are based on African worldviews that advocate a close network of relationships between people, nature and the supreme being. This conviction serves as a vital source of inspiration during illness. Therefore, during illness and crises, many Africans resort to consulting ancestors and making sacrifices to appease them in an attempt to reverse the curse of illness. Appeasement rituals are crucial for restoration of relationships and maintaining of harmony.
Secondly, the role of culture during illness is explored and the concept of ubuntu introduced into the argument. African understanding of ubuntu emphasises the interdependence of people; humanity is a shared existence. The burden of illness of an individual is carried by the whole group. In other words, when a person is ill, the whole community is affected. The community or family support systems are important for a person facing illness, especially the knowledge that the family is rallying around the sick person. The elders are the leaders of African families and during illness they decide on the type of interventions in pursuit of healing for a sick person. There is a hierarchical order in African societies, with the highest decisions on family issues executed by the senior elders. It is difficult for any person to oppose the wishes or the decisions of the elders. At times there is a possibility of tension, especially in cases where the sick person does not want to consult traditional healers, against the expectations of the elders.
Thirdly, the relationship between African spirituality and Christian spirituality is explored. This is necessary as many people in Sub-Saharan Africa adhere to the Christian faith. The gospel message has played a vital role in challenging and transforming many African people’s approach to how life is viewed, how God is perceived, and how the course of life is interpreted. This is an important observation, as many African people embrace both cultural and Christian perspectives. For many African people there is no contradiction when they consult both Christian and traditional healers when experiencing illness. This argument is well developed in the article, and the embracing of both cultural and Christian perspectives should not be confused with syncretism, which mixes traditional and Christian beliefs in worshipping God.
Fourthly, the possibilities of a holistic, inclusive Christian African spirituality are investigated as a viable alternative mechanism for ill persons. The holistic spirituality correlates with the communal Africa worldview, which embraces every stranger as a friend who has not yet been met. Holistic spirituality should be complementary to open spirituality, which respects and welcomes various cultural expressions of different groups. In this sense, African spirituality is not regarded as inferior to Christian spirituality. There is a need for further research around the functionality of inclusive spirituality within the African context. Effective responses to illness will be feasible only when African culture is taken into consideration and its relation to and interplay with African spirituality explored. This engagement is interpreted from a pastoral-hermeneutical perspective. There is a need for further research on employing pastoral hermeneutics within the African context, with special focus on African worldviews and cultures.
Keywords: African culture; African religions; African spirituality; African worldview; holistic/inclusive spirituality; illness; ubuntu