Individuality And Community in African Spirituality

Group of women in Brazil carrying an offering to the river.

Practicing African spirituality can be a bit of a conundrum for those of us in the diaspora. Many of us who were raised in westernized nations such as the U.S., U.K., Australia, and similar regions didn’t grow up with a strong connection to our African roots. Even more, we didn’t have access to or knowledge of our traditional spiritual systems in the same way as Africans, Caribbean Islanders, South, and Central Americans, etc.

Instead, we were raised in Christian, Islamic, and other non-traditional belief systems. And we lived in very individualistic societies that promote self-efficacy and self-preservation over collectivism. As such, many of us just don’t have a collective mindset. We don’t think about the value and the need for community in our day-to-day lives on a deep level. This is why the topic of individuality and community in African Spirituality is an vital concept for us to understand.

INDIVIDUALITY And Community in African Spirituality

For instance, we usually don’t participate in communal divination sessions. Instead, we prefer to engage in private readings and offerings with our priest or priestess. We also tend to study in isolation or with a very small group of devotees. Some of this is by circumstance, but much of it is by choice.

And we often attend festivals from an individualistic perspective, like going to a concert or other public event. Our primary concern is that we have the money for the event, to get to and from the event, and to get souvenirs while we are there. We rarely think about the collective nature of the festival or event and how it will be paid for outside of the cost of admission.

There are many reasons behind this phenomenon. And, by no means am I writing this to point the finger at anybody. I suffer from the same issues in regard to individualism as a practitioner of two African spiritual systems. So my goal is to examine how these two perspectives play out and to offer some suggestions on how we can remedy them.

COMMUNITY IN AFRICAN SPIRITUALITY

Most of the traditional systems derived from the African continent are communal-based systems. Divination, offerings, sacrifices, festivals, etc., are primarily performed in public in these systems. As such, the community is keenly aware of what’s going on in everyone’s life. There are very few places to hide your shame in these types of environments.

This may feel invasive to the average westerner who cherishes their privacy and their right to live the way they see fit. However, we have to understand that hosting such rituals and ceremonies in public is for the benefit of the community. It holds everyone accountable to the community, and it keeps the community aware of important issues.

For instance, if a reading indicates that someone is having an adulterous affair with his or her neighbor, the entire community is made aware of this information in real time. While such a scenario can be embarrassing, it can serve as a deterrent to this type of behavior. Making such information public knowledge can also help to mend or restore broken relationships preventing the deterioration of society as a whole.

However, regardless of the value of community practice, this option just simply isn’t available to all of us in the diaspora. Instead, many of us are relegated to engaging in African spiritual systems on an individual level. This is often the case because it can be difficult to find assimilated communities of like-minded practitioners that you can easily vibe with. There is also usually a cost involved in joining such groups whenever you do find them. It’s not like attending church service, which is usually free for the average person.

Even beyond the financial costs associated with memberships and dues, there may be travel costs involved in the process. For instance, if you don’t live near a community of like-minded believers, you may have to travel to another city, state, or even country to congregate with others who practice the same tradition. Undoubtedly, such scenarios can make community engagement very prohibitive for the average westerner.

INDIVIDUALITY IN AFRICAN SPIRITUALITY

While individuality may be seen as the antithesis of African spirituality by some, it is not purely evil or wrong to engage in individualism at some level. Outside of the rituals, ceremonies, sacrifices, and offerings, we need to develop our inner self. This requires a high level of individual work.

You can give an ebo or sacrifice to an orisha, loa, or other deities every week and still not experience spiritual growth. As with any other spiritual or religious system, African spirituality requires us to live the medicine. This essentially means that we need to follow the instructions and guidelines that we receive when we make sacrifices and offerings. We need to consistently work on developing our character, which necessitates that we take an individualistic approach at times. No one else can do these things for us.

As with most things in life, this situation isn’t easily fixable. While I can simply say that diasporic practitioners need to engage in more community-based African services, this is not always practical. Finding a spiritual community can be a daunting task, and sometimes engaging with that community can be even more challenging. Even in situations where a community is readily available and accessible, it may not be a good fit for you.

MENDING OUR PRACTICE

There are many barriers that make a community inaccessible to some individuals. In order to better understand why this might be the case, it is important to consider the social and cultural barriers that exist in your situation. In doing so, you may be able to find a solution that best suits your life.

This may be in the form of connecting online with like-minded believers in forums and on social media. There are many people who work just on the internet without ever meeting, let alone talking to, anyone in person. This is one of the ways they can create a community with others who practice traditional African religions.

It may also mean hosting or establishing a group of believers in your home or community. These communities can take the form of intimate study groups or full-blown temples or organizations. You can also choose to be a solo practitioner, at least for a while. This is common for practices like Hoodoo and similar closed systems.

There are many other ways to incorporate community dynamics in primarily individual practices. The goal is to find the solution that fits your needs and lifestyle. The most important thing is to recognize that these factors co-exist in diasporic traditions and find ways to reconcile them.

Learn more in this episode of the African Spirit Reintegrated + Reimagined podcast: