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May 29, 2012
African Voice
Mormonism and Traditional African Beliefs
by Imo Eshiet

There are strong resonances between the teachings of the Church and some traditional African beliefs. The parallels between both cultures are remarkably evident in concepts such as firm family principles, service and community, and life as a continuum (or the afterlife).

The rapidly growing success and spread of the restored gospel in Africa may in part be due to the way Church doctrines and ideas continually reinforce and enrich the aspects of African lifestyle. This is in stark contrast to the history of harassment that Africans endured due to colonialism and even at the hands of the early Christian missionaries.

The family is central to the way the Church is organized globally. Ideally, families gather morning and evenings at home for scripture studies or meals together. On Monday evenings, we meet as family units for Family Home Evenings. Families pray together, serve one another, and sit at church meetings together. If there is a need an individual family member cannot meet for himself, he or she looks first to the family for assistance before reaching out elsewhere for help. This kind of arrangement and setting is familiar to a typical African.

In rural African societies, the folks believe just as much as Mormons do in strong and extended family systems and institutions. In fact, the family is the only "insurance policy" that family members hold. Strong family bonds - the good that comes from sharing or the collective strength of community in the face of tragedy or disaster - is one of the earliest lessons a newborn child learns as it grows up.

In my youth I was repeatedly taught that we participated in family celebrations, not because we did not have enough to eat in our own homes, but because family by its very nature is sacred.

My country was engulfed in a grimly raging and bitter civil war. Our communities were often bombed, strafed and reduced to rubble by both sides of the warring conflicts. As soon as the raids were over, those who survived the attacks would rally to bury the dead and to rebuild the mud and wattle house for those whose homes had been leveled.

While some men would go into the forest to cut bamboos to be used as walling and roofing material, others would climb up palm trees, harvest the fronds and make roofing mats for the building in progress. Still others rushed to the stream to fetch water for use in firming up the dirt floors and mashing mud for the walls.

These folks very much appreciate the wisdom in rendering service. As one of their pithy sayings reminds us, "True power comes through cooperation and silence."

Just as the Church teaches that true religion lies in selfless service, Africans know that, "Only by helping one another can a people bring an elephant into the house." I was indelibly impressed by the ideas of service and community when I was growing up.

In my formative years, I was as much raised by an army of aunts, uncles and extended family members as I was by my parents. In my community we practically lived the saying that it takes an entire village to raise a child. In my soon-to-be-released memoir, I have detailed an instance where as a lad I was severely disciplined by a family friend but I was discreet enough not to mention the incident to my parents for fear I might attract added sanctions!

Whenever I asked the village elders why raising children was the concern of everybody in the village, the answer I got came by way of native wit: "We desire to bequeath two things to our children - the first is roots; the other one is wings."

This sense of rootedness is very well structured in the doctrines of the Church. It begins with the Primary programs and continues through lessons taught in priesthood quorums and Relief Society classes. It carries over in the ideas the Church solemnly teaches about family and death, just as it does in African beliefs about these concepts.

Unlike many who view the family as made of living fathers, mothers and children in many instances, the way the Church and rural Africans conceive this is more inclusive. Families in the Church trace their genealogy from their immediate ancestors and back in time to Adam. Their dead are considered temporarily separated from their living family members, and relationships with these long-dead ancestors can be sustained through covenants made in the temple.

Church members revere their relationships with ancestors because they realize that the dead depend on the living for sacred ordinances essential for the salvation of those on both sides of the veil.

This principle, as taught by Prophet Joseph Smith, was evoked as recently as in the most recent general conference by Elder Richard G. Scott, who said this:

"I believe we move and have our being in the presence of heavenly messengers and of heavenly beings. We are not separate from them. …We are closely related to our kindred, to our ancestors … who have preceded us into the spirit world. We cannot forget them; …We live in their presence, they see us, they are solicitous for our welfare, they love us now more than ever. For now they see the dangers that beset us; … their love for us and their desire for our well-being must be greater than that which we feel for ourselves."

This teaching is in tune with core African beliefs that life and intelligence go on after death and that those who have passed on actively take interest in the affairs of those who survive them. An Efik saying urges that one should, "Lament not the dead, but lament the trouble of making a grave; the way of the ghost is longer than the grave."

For Mormon as well as African belief systems, death is a necessary part of life but not its terminal end. "The soul," as another African adage goes, "would have no rainbow if the eyes didn't have tears."

Since the light of Christ follows everyone born into this world, it is not surprising that some gospel truths are found in traditional African cultures. As they proselyte and add light to light, missionaries may want to emphasize and reinforce these shared sacred beliefs even as they correct ancestral traditions at variance with the scripture.

I strongly believe that the coming of restored truths to Africa is the fulfillment of several prophecies, among which includes the Lord's promise in Jeremiah 3:15 ("And I will give you pastors according to mine heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding").

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