The Emphasis of Ancestors and Family in Africa


The rise of ancestors in one’s spiritual existence began during the Zhou Dynasty in China. When it came to power, significant alterations to the ways people thought about religion took place. Although there were still gods to worship over the elements and natural forces, reverence to the family became a fundamental part of the culture.

Confucianism rose around the same time that the Zhou Dynasty took over from the Shang Dynasty. Rituals were implemented to honor one’s ancestors, with precision as an essential component of each event.

The idea was simple: by carrying out the rituals correctly, individuals could receive cooperation and aid from their ancestors. If they failed to perform, then misfortune, illness, or worse could strike people.

As the Chinese culture spread throughout the rest of the world, the concepts of ancestor worship and reverence made their way to Africa. When mixed with the ideas of Taoism and local spiritual perspectives, the principle of yin and yang becomes profound.

Why Are Ancestors so Revered in Africa?

Family is an essential component of the African perspective on life. Each region has a different reason for maintaining this emphasis. It ranges from a need to provide mutual support to a focus on having spirituality embrace every aspect of daily living.

All human activities are sometimes represented in the approach that families take to their ancestors. That includes robbery, drunkenness, and laziness.

When paying proper respect to one’s elders, the mistakes of the past become places for learning. The wisdom from past generations can seep through the veil of death to positively influence today’s world.

The ancestors’ spirits take care of the family, have an interest in world affairs, and can influence personal fortunes. Although outside cultures see these activities as asking for favors, the “worship” is more of a way to respect and honor the people who came before.

Seeking guidance from one’s ancestors is the equivalent to praying for insight when a challenging situation arises.

How Africans Treat Their Ancestors Today

Some families have moved away from their ancestors as they’ve embraced the concepts of more significant religions. There may be less emphasis on the worship component sometimes found in past cultures.

For those that continue with this practice, it is held in temples or homes. As with the Chinese cultures that brought the idea to Africa, you may see incense, joss stick, or other ceremonial items added to the experience to ensure that everyone stays pleased.

The shrine can be a table, an altar, or just a shelf on the wall. Wealthy families may build an independent temple on their property.

Ancestors are not meant to take over every decision made by African families. They are a resource that offers advice, just as they would be while they were living. It is up to each person to determine if the route offered through this perspective is one worth taking. 

That’s what is so unique about this structure. Ancestors provide optional wisdom. 

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