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African Religions and Mary

African Religions and Mary

– Father Johann Roten, S.M.; Based on information obtained from Father R. Witwicki

Native African Religions

The Context

Africa is big. It is the second largest continent in the world. Even if the northern countries of the continent, which belong to the Arab Mediterranean culture, are left aside, the surface of what is called “Black Africa” is still larger than North America. The distance between Dakar (Sénégal) and Cape Town (South Africa) is roughly the same as the one between Anchorage (Alaska) and Guatemala City (Guatemala). Yet “Black Africa”—islands excluded—is split into 54 different countries (compare with North America divided into ten different countries, islands excluded). Moreover, among these forty-four countries, rare are those who have a homogenous population. Most of them are homes of a fair number of different peoples. The tiny Togo, for instance, smaller than West Virginia, has five million inhabitants who speak more than forty different native languages; true languages, not mere dialects.

Each one of these many peoples has or had its own culture and religion. In “Black Africa," before the irruption of foreign—i.e. born outside of Africa—religions as Christianity and Islam, there was almost no “international” religion. In some places, the presence of Christianity and Islam is most ancient: this is the case of Christianity in Ethiopia, and of Islam in Somalia or on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Everywhere else, another language meant almost another religion. The horizons of a religion were almost those of a determined people or a tribe.

There are two consequences of that. First, since language, culture and religion are closely related, it is not always easy to make a clear distinction between what belongs to a particular culture or weltanschauung, and what belongs to religion. Nothing in fact belongs strictly and only to religion. Second, since languages, cultures and peoples or tribes are so numerous in Africa, there is not one Native Africa Religion, but thousands in fact.

It is true that almost most of, if not all, the Native African Religions share some common features. They belong to a major civilization area of the world which is distinct of that which exists on the other continents. It is therefore not illegitimate to consider them as a whole, as long as we continue to keep in mind the adverb “almost.” In other words, provided we remember that there are exceptions to whatever is said about the Native African Religions, we can speak about them in general.

Nevertheless it is still hard to speak of interreligious dialogue in such a context. There cannot be one interreligious dialogue since there is not one Native African Religion. In the context of “Black Africa,” there should be thousands of interreligious dialogues.

Besides, the Native African Religions have strongly suffered from the competition with the so-called world religions such as Christianity and Islam. Few, and usually remote, are the places where Native African Religions have been preserved as they were before the irruption of Christianity and Islam. In most places, the contact with Christianity and Islam has had a dramatic impact on the Native African Religions. In this new and modern context, the NAR could almost not survive as such. Yet, they have not disappeared. In most instances, they have merged with the new religions. They coexist with them, in the same individuals. Often then, the interreligious dialogue is not between two distinct individuals or groups, but within the very individuals and groups themselves. In Africa today, people continue to try to put together their traditional cultural and religious heritage with the religions brought to them by traders, missionaries and colonizers.

This being said, we will now see to what extent the teaching of the Catholic Church on Mary may be received in such a context and, since our perspective is dialogical, the heritage of the Native African Religions and weltanschauungs may contribute to the study and the understanding of Mary. But we will also note the difficulties that may arise from this dialogue.

Favorable Ground

The Native African Religions are clearly monotheistic. There is only one God. The problem is that he is far away. People do appeal to him but only under extraordinary circumstances, for instance, when a danger is threatening the very existence of the whole tribe. Africans proclaim, as we Catholics, do that God created the world, visible and invisible. But whereas Catholics do not, ordinarily, pay much attention to the invisible world, the presence of the invisible world is strongly felt by Africans in their daily life. From them, the invisible world is very crowded with all sorts of beings: some of them, like the spirits, gentle or evil ones, have always been part of the invisible world; some, like the ancestors, were previously human beings; belonging to the visible world, they joined they invisible world after their death. All the beings of the invisible world can be called “intermediary” because they are not divine, they have been created, yet they are—all of them, the spirits as well as the ancestors—in control of the beings of the visible world. In fact, the concerns for the ordinary life of the visible world have been entrusted to these intermediary beings by God. Since God is far away, the intermediary beings are the ones who take care of our ordinary needs. Therefore Africans would invoke them, pray to them, offer sacrifices to them, etc.

In such a context, the tiding of an incarnate God, therefore of a very close God, was quite revolutionary in Africa. On the contrary, the veneration of a noble human mother who entered the invisible world even to the point of becoming Queen of Heaven did fit the African weltanschauung. The idea of a creature that has become powerful and influential in the invisible world, with direct and concrete impact on the visible one is accepted. It has been the destiny of many significant human beings who have become ancestors. Asking favors from Mary, seeking protection from her, praying to her to intercede—all these practices have been regarded as obvious and most welcome by Africans. For Africans, there is a strong solidarity between the visible and the invisible world. And the natural expression of this solidarity is mediation. The beings of the invisible world mediate between the beings of the visible one and God, among themselves, between themselves and the beings of the visible world, and among the latter. Resorting to mediation is strengthening solidarity; rejecting mediation is jeopardizing the vital and necessary solidarity existing among all the living beings.

Mediation implies relation. The African being is basically relational. And for Africans, the relational being par excellence is the mother. The mother is highly honored and venerated. The most honorable and respectful way to address a woman is to say to her “mother.” A child would never call his or her mother by her proper name; he or she would always say “mother” to her. He or she would also say “mother” to an aunt, to whatever other woman, even if she has no child. By contrast, there is no graver insult than insulting someone’s mother. That is why the greatest and most common title given to Mary in Africa is “Mama Maria”—“Mother Mary.” Mary is first and above all, “Mama Maria.”

If the mother is the relational being par excellence, this is particularly true about the relationship between a mother and her son, her male child, given the traditional practice of polygamy in most parts of Africa. Since men have a higher social status than women, the male whose fame can reflect on a female is not the husband, but the son. Women may have to share their husband with other women, but not their son. Perhaps also part of the explanation is to be found in the mystery of a female being giving birth to a male one. Motherhood itself is a mystery, the mystery of bringing a new life to the world. Therefore the mother has, in Africa, a sacred dimension because the mother links us to the very source of life. The relationship between a mother and her son is then even stronger because it adds to the mystery of motherhood.

Anyway, the higher the social status of the son, the higher the honor of the mother. In some places, women are named “Mother of X (name of the son)” and sons “Son of Z (name of the mother)” [compare Mark 6:3]. In many African capital cities, streets have been named after the mother of the chief of state, never after the father. The mother of the chief is the intercessor by excellence. A son will never refuse anything to his mother, even if he is the chief. The mother of the chief becomes the chief mother. If the son is God as is Jesus, his mother deserves the highest veneration. The fact that Mary is sacred because she is a mother is reinforced, enhanced by the fact that she is mother of God. Mary appears so as the very epitome of the sacredness of motherhood.

In Africa, the mother is the relational being par excellence because, when a woman gives birth, it is never for herself. It is primarily for the whole social group. Her child is a blessing for the whole group. The birth of Jesus is not only a blessing for Mary, but before all a blessing for the whole people of God. Moreover, if a child is raised first by his or her biological mother, the other women of the larger family are also directly involved in or concerned by his or her education. As a proverb from the Congo states, “If you have only one mother, you don’t have a mother.” Africans have therefore no difficulty in accepting Mary as another mother to them. Mary was given as mother to the beloved disciple according to John 19:25-27. As such, the faithful have become the offspring of Mary, and can rely on her protection since the primary role of any ancestor is to protect his or her descendants. Mary is therefore the natural, the most reliable, the most powerful, the most influential human ancestor of all the brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, John 19:25-27 tells also that if a birth is, in Africa as elsewhere, a source of blessing and hope, becoming a mother is not always without worries, even sorrow. Every mother is aware that the joy of birth is blended with concerns about the new life. Many are the dangers that threaten this new life. From the very beginning, the mother is involved in fighting against these dangers, and in protecting her child. The mother thus becomes the symbol of protection against evil, a role the Catholic tradition has very early, in a preeminent way, ascribed to Mary (see the Sub tuum praesidium).

Diseases or hunger are not the only threat for an infant or a little child in Africa nowadays. Violence and wars are also part of the picture. Africa abounds in refugees. Under these circumstances, African women may not only invoke Mary for help, they also can, at a “lower” level, identify with her. In this perspective, Mary is not only a mother, but also a sister, this sister of theirs who had to flee with her child in a foreign country, who had to look for her lost child for several days, who had to see her son crucified. The earthly destiny of Mary speaks to many in Africa.

This proximity of Mary is also significant and even crucial within the context of the inculturation of the Christian message. Curiously one can observe that a black Madonna is accepted more easily than a black Messiah. Beyond the ancient tradition behind that, there is no choice but to accept that the figure of Mary is rapidly absorbed by the different cultures of the world. Mary incarnates well. Artists of all over the world have represented Mary as a woman of their different peoples and cultures (see link). Often, these paintings or sculptures include the child Jesus bearing the same African, Asian or American features as his mother. But if Jesus is there fully inculturated, it is precisely because he is born by his mother. In Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, there is an important Marian shrine called “Our Lady of Africa” (“Notre Dame d’Afrique”). Whereas people don’t speak of “Our Lord of Africa,” they speak of “Our Lady of Africa” (and of so many other places in the world).

It may be that we cannot imagine our mother being different from what we are, so strong is our relationship to her, and so real our identification with her. She is also the one who gives us our mother tongue. Mary is the one who gave Jesus his mother tongue. She is the one who incarnated Jesus into his culture, who inculturated Jesus. Of course, other people contributed to that, starting with Joseph. But Mary was definitely the primary agent of Jesus’ inculturation into the people of Israel of the first century. For Africans, this is obvious: in many places in Africa; fathers start to raise their boys once the latter have reached the age of about seven, that is, once they become able to start learning about their fathers’ professions.


Inculturation should mean dialogue. The Christian message takes root in Africa, but at the same time, the African cultures nurture the new plant. In Africa, a mother is not only the one who has borne a child, but even more the one who has nurtured a child, who has raised a child. Up to the point that if a young woman abandons her newborn child, she will not be acknowledged as a mother. On the other hand, barren women are called “mothers” when they have had an active share in the raising of the children of the household or of the village. So, in Africa, Mary is mother first because she has raised Jesus, and only second because she has borne him, even though the former is not thinkable without the latter. Mary is therefore not only important because she has made the incarnation possible, but before all because she has made the inculturation possible. The appreciation of the figure and role of Mary is a reminder of the importance of inculturation and the need for it.

Mary is mother before all because she has been an educator. Her role in the history of salvation is not limited to the moment of the Incarnation. She has also shaped the person of her son. Recently, an American scholar noted that the Magnificat may be considered as a summary of the teachings of Jesus. We should therefore not underestimate either the key role of Mary in the formation of the personality of Jesus, nor her influence on her son, on the future mission of her son. The African context would strongly support such a view. Due to this and the close mother-son relationship, when a son is admired, the praise reflects immediately and almost automatically onto his mother (the contemporaries of Jesus seem to have shared this point of view; see Luke 11:27). On the same line, if a son does not behave well, the mother is blamed. In any case, whenever a son appears, the mother is seen.

It is common among biblical commentators to say that there is very little about Mary in the New Testament. African readers would disagree. According to African anthropology, the New Testament says, on the contrary, a lot about Mary since the subject of the New Testament is her son, Jesus Christ. Of course, speaking of Jesus is an indirect way of speaking of Mary. Indirect, but nonetheless actual, real, concrete. The New Testament actually says much more about Mary than is admitted in an American or European context, for instance.

The fact that a barren woman may be called “mother” because of the share she has had in educating other women’s children, confirms the African reality or practice according to which a child may have several mothers. We have seen that such a practice is considered to be positive. All these mothers are therefore regarded as true mothers by the child. Given this, when Mary is presented as a new mother or as another mother to the faithful, this is not a mere symbolic statement or a pure spiritual reality.

On the contrary, Mary will be regarded as a true mother, an authentic one, a real one, a concrete one, from whom one may expect what is expected from any mother. African anthropology advocates a strong embodiment of the communion of saints, which is completely in line with the Word made flesh, with the Incarnation. And this is especially true and epitomized when Mary is considered.


Other aspects of African anthropologies, cultures and religions may, however, not be quite in line with the Catholic message about Mary. There is nothing surprising in that since that message arrived in Africa as something exogenous. In fact, in most parts of “Black Africa,” Catholicism came along with colonization and, thus, oppression, and was mediated moreover by centuries of European inculturation. It is no wonder that in such a context, the Catholic message has encountered some, conscious or unconscious, resistance. This resistance was military, but also and even more cultural. Besides, the irruption of Catholicism is, in spite of some early punctual attempts, relatively recent. It really started in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There have been numerous conversions and baptisms, but, as previously stated, the ancient Native African Religions, if overwhelmed, have demonstrated some resistance capacity and continue to shape and influence the African religious world. The consequence of this is a definite syncretism, in which the figure of Mary has a share. This is the other side of the coin of her remarkable inculturation ability. Perhaps this syncretism is an unavoidable step of the inculturation process that has to be cautiously accepted and integrated rather than simply and abruptly rejected.

On the other hand, fetishism understood as the attempt to get in control of the invisible world is related to witchcraft and magic, and therefore much more problematic because it eliminates the dimension of personal relationships that grounds the communion of saints. Fetishism is magic because it is automatic. The expected result is granted provided the required action is provided, whereas intercession, for instance, depends on the free will of the person with whom one intercedes, and respects that free will. This distinction, however, is often not well perceived and there is an easy shift from intercessory prayer to fetishist practice, especially in a context where fetishism has long been used, and where results are often desperately needed. Images and statues of Mary are easily used in fetishism.

As far now as the content of Catholic doctrine on Mary is concerned, if the motherhood of Mary is widely appreciated in the African context, this is not the case of her virginity. Africans do value virginity but usually only as a transitory or temporarily stage, not permanently or forever. Women are expected to stay virgins until they get married. Before all, however, they are expected to be fertile. Fecundity is much more praised than virginity. Bringing life is of a much higher value. A virgin mother is definitely something of a paradox. If the divine mystery is accepted, fecundity continues to take clear precedence over virginity. Mary remains “Mama Maria.” She is much less frequently invoked as “Virgin Mary.”

If Mary is definitely “Mama Maria,” she will also hardly be regarded as the “spouse” of her son within the frame of the “New Adam // New Eve” imagery or symbolism. The question of determining a symbolic “husband” for Mary is not only problematic because it appears as a result of an ancient theological tradition born outside of “Black Africa,” but also, much more recently, because it may result as an unwanted consequence of theological tradition developed by the current Church in Africa. Due to the fundamental importance of family in African cultures, many African bishops and theologians are advocating a new and more African representation of the Church or model for the Church, namely the Church as “Family of God.” Pope John Paul II himself used this formula in the document Ecclesia in Africa issued in 1995 (see paragraph 63).

The problem is that, in Africa, it is possible to imagine a family without a father, whereas it is totally unthinkable to envision one without a mother. The mother is the pillar of the family. Whoever says “family,” says “mother.” If the Church is then seen as the “Family of God,” God is obviously the Father of this family. But where is its indispensable mother?

In the mind of most of the Catholic faithful, the answer is clear: this mother is Mary. As a matter of fact, the spiritual maternity of Mary over all the faithful is admitted by Catholic theology. The drifting, however, is easy to perceive: if God the Father is the Father of the Church, if Mary is the mother of the Church, the Father and the mother are more or less placed on the same level. And here appears a new “Trinity”: the Father, the Mother and the Son. This drifting has also appeared on other continents than Africa. But it may be accentuated by the African representation of the Church as “Family of God.”

This consequence, however, is not inevitable. And African pastors and theologians are fully aware of this possible drifting or misunderstanding. The image of the Church as “Family of God,” with its newness and its richness, should not be discarded because of that. On the contrary, all of this is primarily a witness to the vitality of the theological reflection in Africa, and in particular about Mary.

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