Life after death



African Traditional Religion (ATR) is a set of beliefs that continue to be relevant to people in Africa.  Magesa (1997, p.17) claims that “African religious perspectives persist despite the odds against them, and they serve a positive purpose”. Those beliefs find their concrete manifestation in a variety of practices that are to be found among various tribes.

In order to appreciate the value of African culture, one has to be aware that “religion and religious beliefs and their effects on the African community are the key to understanding the African world and ideology” (Onwubiko, 1991, p.3). It could be argued that some of those beliefs are of predominant importance. Without those main beliefs, ATR would not present itself as a comprehensive set of rules to be followed. Other beliefs could be considered of lesser importance and would not constitute the core of the phenomenon called ‘African Traditional Religion’.

The researcher believes that the notion of life after death is an important tenant of ATR.


The researcher decided to focus in a general way on the concept of life after death in ATR. He thought that such an exploration would help him to get a better understanding of afterlife as well as a partial understanding of other concepts directly connected with it such as e.g. God, ancestors and life.

The main purpose of this work is to get a better understanding of the notion of life after death in ATR as understood by the interviewees and to compare that understanding with the available literature and the course content.


Keeping in mind the scope and the nature of this work, the researcher decided upon choosing a qualitative approach as the most appropriate. Such a procedure would enable him to present collected data in a more comprehensive way.

Methods of collecting data

Having had some previous knowledge about the research topic alongside with experience of conducting research for other courses related to his studies in MIASMU, the researcher started planning his work from the point of view of data he wanted to gather.

It was his belief that semi-structured interviews would be the most appropriate method of collecting data giving him also an opportunity to interact with the interviewees. The main tool used during the interviews was a questionnaire created by the researcher for the purpose of gathering data about the topic. The questionnaire consisted of a series of detailed questions which were presented to the interviewees. During the interviews other questions were asked that were directly related to the topic or to other matters associated with ATR.

During each interview, after having asked and received an explicit consent to do so, the notes were taken by the researcher and his field assistant. Those notes were later compared and some conclusions were drawn so as to get a better understanding of what was meant by life after death in ATR.

The content analysis was used to interpret collected data. Within such an approach to data “the task of the researcher is to come up with a set of categories and then to proceed to count the number of instances that fall into each of those categories” (Dominik, 2007, p. 53). Since “all analysis is the search for patterns in data” (Russell, 1994, p. 360), the researcher believed that content analysis combined with some elements of descriptive statistics would be the most suitable to interpret data.

Ethical issues

All respondents were informed about the purpose of the interviews and that the information collected would be used to write a paper. All were informed that they would not be personally identified. All the interviewees allowed for the notes to be taken.

The limitations of the research

The researcher decided upon a general approach to the topic rather than choosing a particular group of people/tribe. As a result, he got a number of data, some of them emphasizing different aspects, e.g. about the place where the dead resided. At the same time, this limitation, however, reflects the complexity of the beliefs surrounding death and what follows after it.

Another limitation that affected this presentation had to do with many possible ways in which this topic could be elaborated. The researcher decided to confine himself to a general approach that reflects, to a certain extent, the richness of beliefs surrounding death and afterlife among various tribes in Africa.

Field research findings

All interviewees believe that ATR exists. Its most important elements are: belief in God (cf. App. #, no. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9), belief in ancestors (cf. App. #, no. 4, 6, 8, 9, 10), belief in life after death (cf. App. #, no. 3, 6, 10), value of life (cf. App. #, no. 5) and a pervasive feeling that things will be all right (cf. App. #, no. 2).

All interviewees also acknowledged that ATR is relevant to the lives of people. One person described it as “extremely, extremely, absolutely relevant” (cf. App. #, no. 10). Some people who follow ATR (cf. App. #, no. 7) practice it in villages (cf. App. #, no. 3), in special places like shrines (cf. App. #, no. 3) and continue to offer sacrifices (cf. App. #, no. 3, 5, 9). Beliefs related to ATR find their expression during naming ceremonies (cf. App. #, no. 8, 9), marriage ceremonies (cf. App. #, no. 5), during sickness, when people look for its explanation (cf. App. #, no. 4, 6) burials and rituals around death (cf. App. #, no. 4, 5, 8, 9). People who are Christians would go back to ATR, especially during those three moments of marriage, sickness and death. Veneration of ancestors is a particular expression of the beliefs concerning the future of those who died (cf. App. #, no. 7).

Life was seen as a gift of God (cf. App. #, no. 6, 9). It was a part of a plan of God (cf. App. #, no. 1, 5) who gave people an opportunity to live their lives fully (cf. App. #, no. 2) and to share it with others through the means of procreation (cf. App. #, no. 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10).

People learnt about life after death through a variety of means.  People acquired information about it during various religious ceremonies such as naming (cf. App. #, no. 4), sacrifices (cf. App. #, no. 7, 10) and burials (cf. App. #, no. 2, 4). Some special people in the community, such as prophets were believed to have learnt about it from God and transmitted that knowledge to the living (cf. App. #, no. 3, 4, 5). Diviners (cf. App. #, no. 3, 6) and elders (cf. App. #, no. 4, 6, 10) conveyed that consciousness to others. The power and activity of witches was seen as a proof o the existence of something beyond this world (cf. App. #, no. 3). Some people learnt about it through dreams and trance (cf. App. #, no. 4, 6, 8). It was disclosed through the stories (cf. App. #, no. 4, 7). Those preparing for some special functions in the society, such as priests were taught about it during their training (cf. App. #, no. 7). When calamities and unexplained reoccurring death were present in the community, such events were understood in terms of ancestors not being happy and punishing the community (cf. App. #, no. 8).

Life did not end with a moment of physical death (cf. App. #, no. 2, 6, 7, 8, 9) but continued (cf. App. #, no. 3, 8, 10). Some interviewees saw it as a movement to a different stage (cf. App. #, no. 4, 7), to the place of the forefathers (cf. App. #, no. 5). One person claimed that death comes because God intends it (cf. App. #, no. 5).

Life after death was a continuation of the present life, but it was not as if it was the same. One person saw life after death as a continuation of the life on earth but in a better state (cf. App. #, no. 3) or in a different form, a spiritual one (cf. App. #, no. 4, 10). Another person pointed out that it was not correct to talk about life after death because it suggested some kind of rupture. According to him, “there is really no life after death, because it continues. It is a continuation of life in the world of the spirits” (cf. App. #, no. 10).

 One interviewee stressed that a person, after having lived a good life, was to become an ancestor. Becoming an ancestor should be seen as a normal step following death. An ancestor would intercede for the living and protect them. In that context it meant that it is in ancestorship one could find the continuation of life. However, life after death could not necessarily be seen as a continuation in case of a bad person.  When a bad person died, he would not be named after and the cycle of life would be interrupted because he would not be reincarnated. In that case, life after death could be seen as an interruption (cf. App. #, no. 7).

Those who were interviewed saw soul/spirit as the element that continued to live after the moment of physical death (cf. App. #, no. 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). Those who died would retain their individual characteristics (cf. App. #, no. 5) and would continue to live in the minds of the living (cf. App. #, no. 2).

Death could be characterized by its inevitability – it “must happen” (cf. App. #, no. 2, 3). The quality of life after death was determined by the life on earth – if one was a good person in this life, he would enjoy a good status after death (cf. App. #, no. 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10). People would move into a “village of ancestors” (cf. App. #, no. 6, 7). God would not be a part of that village but would live above it (cf. App. #, no. 7). One person claimed that the spirit would remain around his grave and that the ancestors would meet God (cf. App. #, no. 8). For another person, there was no other world as such. The world of the spirits was in this world because people seeing, e.g. a tree would see it as closely associated with a particular spirit/spirits (cf. App. #, no. 9, 10).

After death there would be no death, no hunger, no cry and no work (cf. App. #, no. 3, 5, 9). The hereafter would be a place of peace and joy (cf. App. #, no. 3, 5, 6, 9). The dead would be able to interact with the living (cf. App. #, no. 4). Some claimed that people after death would act in the similar way they used to do it on earth and that they would have similar needs, though in a more spiritual sense (cf. App. #, no. 4, 8). Those who led a good life on earth would become ancestors and would help the living. They would be named after and the libations would be poured for them (cf. App. #, no. 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). If they were unhappy with the behavior of the living, they could punish them (cf. App. #, no. 8, 10). Bad people would be forgotten and feared since even after death they could try to harm the living. One claimed that the quality of life of the ancestors depends upon the life of the people on earth: if the behavior of the living was morally wrong, it would make the ancestors upset, if people behaved according to moral rules of the community, it would make the ancestors happy. The ‘emotional state’ of ancestors would depend upon the behavior of the living (cf. App. #, no. 9, 10).

The belief in afterlife was influencing the life of people on earth. First of all, it reminded them about the role of God as the Provider (cf. App. #, no. 1). People believed that living a good life on earth was a means to receive God’s blessing already here on earth and then in the afterlife (cf. App. #, no. 4, 5, 7). People then tried to live good lives because it had many advantages, temporary and eternal ones (cf. App. #, no. 1, 4, 9). Doing good things on earth seemed to be the best way to remain in the memory of people after one’s death (cf. App. #, no. 2).

Believing in afterlife was helping to maintain social order in the community because it was motivating people to follow its laws. One tried to be a good person and to go through all the rites of passage in order to achieve the status of ancestor in afterlife. Following the rules of a community was mandatory in order to be of help to the community after death and to achieve the best status after death – to be an ancestor (cf. App. #, no. 9).

In ATR people believed that life was cyclic. A person could be reincarnated in a child through the process of naming and in such a way he continued to exist (cf. App. #, no. 6, 8, 9). Hence, to be named after was very important. The living wanted to make sure that after their death, their family members would like their children to be named after them. The only way to ensure it was to live an exemplary life (cf. App. #, no. 4, 5, 6). If one was a bad person here on earth, after his death, the living did not want to name their child after him since the child was believed that, through the naming process, would inherit some qualities of the deceased person. A bad person was seen as a cursed person (cf. App. #, no. 8, 9).

Literature review

Defining ATR

ATR is a complex phenomenon that is intrinsically connected with African culture and in which it finds its expressions (Lugira, 1999, p. 12, Gehman, 1989, p. 50). Byaruhanga-Akiiki (p. 3-4) defines it from a perspective of life. He says that “Religion in Africa means Life –the reality that is lived in a cobweb of relationships… The major actors or actresses involved in those relationships include the Master Creator,… human beings, living and dead, all plants, animals, birds, molecules, atoms, particles and whatever the Creator created that is visible and invisible”.

Mbiti (1975, p. 113) talks about religion as constituted of five parts: 1. beliefs, 2. practices, ceremonies and festivals, 3. religious objects and places, 4. values and morals and 5. religious officials and leaders.

In ATR, God, is perceived as the Supreme Being, Creator, Sustainer of his creation, Provider, and the one who rules over the universe (Mbiti, 1975, pp 49-52, Lugira, 1999, pp. 37-41). God knows everything, is almighty, holy, kind and unique (Gehman, 1989, pp. 189-191). Ancestors and other spirits play an important role in ATR (Magesa, 1997, p. 41, Mbiti, 1975, pp. 70-81).

Within ATR and its worldview, man is “the centre of the universe” (Gehman, 1989, p. 36). One of his most important responsibilities is to maintain harmony between the visible (material) world and the invisible one (God, ancestors and other spirits). Fulfilling that responsibility is a sign of moral character and ensures the harmony between all elements of the universe (Magesa, 1997, p. 73). Mbiti (quoted in Gehman, 1989, p. 50) says that:

“African philosophy is basically anthropocentric: man is at the very centre of existence and African people see everything in its relation to this central position of man. God is the explanation of man’s origin and sustenance; it is as if God exists for the sake of man. The spirits are ontologically in the mode between God and man; they describe or explain the destiny of man after physical life…”

The relevance of ATR

A number of people in Africa are followers of African Traditional Religion. The number of adherents of ATR is estimated by some around 100 million followers, including those living in Africa and outside ( Others would estimate them as more numerous ( Some claim that in some countries, such as Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, the number of followers of ATR is above 50% of the total population ( However, other statistics indicate far lower number of followers of ATR in those countries (

Even though it is difficult to provide an exact number of the followers of ATR, Magesa (1997, p. 17) claims that “the moral perspectives of African Religion are essentially alive throughout the continent”. For many others who have converted to Christianity or Islam, ATR continues to exercise its influence. Others agree with his point of view (Hackett, 1991, p. 135, Gehman, 1989, p. 19, Lugira, 1999, p. 113). Magesa notices that religious practices and believes are present also among Christians who seem to profess a form of syncretism between official Christianity and main tenants of ATR (1999, p. 19). That view is similar to the one expressed by Cardinal Arinze who said that “ATR is the religious and cultural context from which most Christians in Africa come, and in which many of them still live to a great extent”( Taylor asserts that “different aspects of ATR and of the way of looking at things which persists as an inarticulate philosophy in many Africans long after the old religion itself has been discarded” (2001, p. 9).

Hackett (1991, pp. 135-145) talks about some revitalization of ATR in a process of universalization, modernization, politicization, commercialization and individualization. A number of beliefs of ATR is included into some practices of some African Independent Churches, e.g the Aquarian Church of the Angers in Nigeria (Hackett, 1991, p. 138).

Life and its purpose

Man is in the centre of African universe and everything seems to be related to him. Religion has then a functional value – it is to help people to acquire earthly goods and to maintain social order. Everything around man that enhances his life force is desirable and everything that destroys it or diminishes is to be avoided. “The sole purpose of existence is to seek life, to see to it that human life continues and grows to its full capacity” (Magesa, 1997, p. 55).

Zuesse emphasizes the role of relationship as a way of affirming the flow of life and see the goal of life in maintaining and joining “that cosmic web that holds and sustains all things and beings, to be a part of the integral mutuality of things” (Zuesse, 1991, p. 173).

Death and after life

The origin of death is described in many African myths. In most of them death is conceived as something that came as a result of some mistake. Death was not supposed to be a part of human life. The blame for it is laid on some animal, on people or on some spirits (Mbiti, 1975, pp. 116-117,  Zahan, 1979, pp. 36-43). In general death is not considered as a natural event but tends to be seen as ‘caused’ by some external forces such as witches, spirits or curse (Mbiti, 1975, p. 118, Gehman, 1989, p. 54).

Kirwen (2008, p. 208) describes death as “an inevitable event in the personal history of every living person…” Though inevitable, death does not terminate human existence, but is a moment of passage to the afterlife.

After death human person continues to live on as a spirit. The network of relationships that characterizes human existence is not interrupted. Gehman (1989, p. 54) summarizes it saying that “death is a necessary door through which the living pass in order to take up the inevitable role as the living dead. Death is transition to the final destiny of all men and women”. Mbiti affirms that “life goes on beyond the grave” (1975, p. 119).  Birago Diop, quoted in Taylor (2001, p. 107) endorses such a view claiming that “Those who are dead are never gone: they are in the thickening shadow… they are in the wood that groans, they are in the fire that is dying… they are in the forest, they are in the house, the dead are not dead”.

Death is a moment when the spirit, often associated with breathing, separates from the body and goes into hereafter. Some understand the hereafter as a distant place. The deceased then, equipped with food and weapons, has a journey to make before he arrives to the hereafter. For others, it is ‘here’, though it is invisible to human eye (Mbiti, 1969, pp.162-165).

The dead person becomes a living dead. A living dead is still considered as a member of the family. He is in the state of personal immortality (Mbiti, 1969, p.163). It can help the family and the community in times of trouble and it can also cause trouble if certain rituals have not been performed properly or if there are some violations of community laws. It remains in such a status for about four to five generation during which he can partially be reincarnated in a new born child. After that period, when nobody among the living remembers him by naming children after him or pouring libations, it becomes a ghost of an unknown person. A spirit becomes ‘it’ and enters the state of collective immortality. It is one of the many spirits who lost their humanness. Such spirits are usually feared by people (Mbiti, 1975, pp. 122-126).

Among the spirits, the ancestors create a special category on their own. They are those who have died long ago, have lived exemplary life and who fulfilled all social and religious duties as understood by their community. Because of their good life they are remembered by the living.  Ancestors are the guardians of the family traditions and life, receive requests from the living, can serve as intermediaries between God and people and can communicate with the living through various means such as dreams, possession, and divination (Gehman, 1989, pp. 140-143, Magesa, 1997, pp. 77-81). As ancestors they have some extra powers. To become an ancestor is the best one can expect after death.

As such death and what follows it is not desired because the life here on earth is at the centre of human existence. When a person dies, he is slowly forgotten, with the exception of great ancestors. The length of time one is remembered depends directly on the quality of life on earth. Nkemnkia (1999, p. 119) says that “the necessary condition to remain always alive and present in the memory of the living is to lead a good and virtuous life. What each African fears most is to be forgotten by the living ones, the parents and the human race”. The moment of death is the beginning of the process of forgetting about the dead person.

Gehman (1989, p. 140) describes life after death in terms of similarities with this life. He says that:
“Wherever the living dead are, their abode is modeled after the pattern of the living. The herd-boy herds the goats and sheep, the women hoe their gardens and reap the crops, the men delight in their cattle, the villagers gather for discussion in the evenings… There is no division of the dead on the basis of character. Apart from witches and outcasts, all the living-dead, good and bad, live together in the world of spirits. Their character is much the same as in this life, partaking of jealousies and offended feelings like the living. Although the ancestral spirits partake of increased power and knowledge, the state of the ancestors is nothing to be desire… A Tschwi proverb  states ‘One day in this world is worth a year in Srahmandazi(the underworld)’”.

Mbiti (1969, p. 163, 165), in his description points towards the differences. He claims that
“Man is ontologically destined to lose his humanness but gain his full spiritness: and there is no general evolution of devolution beyond this point. God is beyond and in African concepts there is neither hope nor possibility that the soul would attain a share in the divinity of God (p. 163)…Death is death and the beginning of a permanent ontological departure of the individual form from mankind to spirithood” (p. 165).

Class notes review

Prof Katola presented African Traditional Religion in an extensive form. The variety and the multitude of information were very useful for the researcher to get acquainted with. However, in the context of this work, only certain elements can be presented.

Prof Katola stressed the connection between religion and culture in Africa –religion could not be seen as separate from the culture and vice versa. Both were closely connected and intertwined.

The study of ATR is not an easy enterprise. It is due to the fact that there are around 1000 various ethnic groups in Africa, there is no written records and that traditions change over time.

Religion permeated all aspects of life in Africa. What was common to various tribes were their beliefs in God, in good and bad spirits, in ancestors, in magic and traditional medicine/medicine men and diviners.  African worldview, hence, was a spiritual worldview where various spiritual forces coexisted with the living. African spirituality, with God being its source, was enabling people to look for spiritual meaning in every aspect of life.

African worldview, which was in its essence, a religious worldview whereby physical and spiritual world are one and the same, developed as a result of reflective thinking about various elements of nature, such as water, thunder, sky. That reflection spread among people and was expressed in art.

Since there were no books, people learnt about ATR from the elders, through language that expresses religious values and through social structure of the community. Religious values were conveyed by specialists, such as diviners and herbalists. During various rituals, such as naming, marriage, burial rites that were performed in sacred places, people gained religious understanding of life in traditional Africa. It was expressed by wearing various charms and believing in their power and through proverbs, folktales and myths.

God was at the top of African hierarchy. He was the source of vital power. His existence was unquestionable. He was all-knowing and all powerful. He was the Creator of everything that existed. He was followed by the orisha who could be great patriarchs or special spirits endowed by God to take care of certain aspects of life, like fertility and war. Then there were the ancestors, the living dead and the living. At the end there were animals/plants/minerals and land.

People expressed their belief through worship. It would usually consist of two elements: prayer and sacrifice. Worship could be regular, take place during the rites of passage, during planting and harvesting, during calamities and in times of personal need. It took place in natural locations such as certain caves, hills or mountains. There were no permanent structures built by people for worship. It was usually done by certain special individuals in the community who were doing it on its behalf.  At the same time, there was worship in the family, in the clan and even on a national and international level.

Community/society was more important than an individual. One was defined through the community, rules of which he was supposed to follow. The sense of community was creating good interpersonal relationships: there was mutual help and interdependence. Community was a large unit consisting of many people and spiritual beings such as God and ancestors. Therefore, any community was a religious community. The ancestors were the link between the living and God. Anything that was weakening either the horizontal or vertical relationships within the community was considered as wrong, as diminishing the vital force. All were supposed to contribute to the maintenance of the neutral ritual status, which was making all beings happy.

In a community rites of passage played a very significant role. Consisting of three basic parts: separation, seclusion and incorporation, the rites of passage were marking permanent changes in the life of an individual. They were making him aware of his new rights and responsibilities.

Among rites of passage, initiation was of particular importance. Due to initiation one became an adult in the society and was given new tasks to fulfill on behalf of the community. One could marry, perpetuate life through procreation and as a consequence could hope to be an ancestor and to be named after. Marriage was enhancing the harmony in the society because it involved not only living but also the spiritual beings, especially the ancestors.

Among various forms of marriage, monogamy and polygamy were most popular, depending upon an ethnic group.  Other forms were practices such as widow guardianship, surrogate marriage and woman to woman marriage. No matter in what form marriage was contracted, it was for the purpose of procreation of children. In the modern society, there are other forms practiced such as trial marriage, same sex marriage and single parenthood.

For Africans, life on earth was of crucial importance. Death and life after death were seen as unavoidable, but not looked forward to. This world was the best place people could live in.  The greatest expectation one would have after death was to continue to participate in the life of the community. A person, who lived a good moral life, went through all rites of passage, died at the old age of natural causes, could expect to become an ancestor, to be asked to intercede on behalf of the community and to expect to be partially reincarnated through the naming process. Morally bad people such as witches, sorcerers, criminals and those who died in a ‘bad way’ –through suicide or a certain sickness, could not become ancestors because their evil would be perpetuated through the naming process.

There was a number of rituals to be performed surrounding death. Those rituals were to facilitate the passage of the dead person between this world and the next one. If those rituals were not performed properly, it was believed that the deceased person would become angry and punish the living. After the burial some rituals could be performed to restore order such as sharing a meal, shaving or a sexual intercourse.      

Research integration

Comparing the information gathered through the interviewing process, the data from literature review and the class notes, the researcher believes that there is a basic agreement about what life after death stands for in African Traditional Religion. Generalizing, one notices that all sources of data are in unison that life after death existed because life here on earth was not seen as an end of someone’s existence. Life continued beyond physical death. The ancestors played an important role in that concept because their status was the best one could hope for after death. They were also involved in the community by helping people as intercessors. Being a good person in this life by behaving according to moral values of a community was important because it ensured the status of ancestors after death.

It is also important to stress that the literature, the lectures at MIASMU and the interviewees stressed that traditional African beliefs constituted an important part and parcel of the worldviews of a significant number of Africans, including those living outside of the continent.

One difference that the researcher noticed is between the description of the quality of life after death in books and the class notes and the research. The researcher believes that the interviewees had a more positive view of life after death than the other sources of information. In the view of the interviewees, life after death was more fulfilling that one could conclude from the descriptions provided by Gehman (1989, p. 140) and Mbiti (1969, p. 163) which were quoted in this work (pp. 13, 14). A further research would be necessary to clarify the issue. One of the reasons that could explain the difference might be the impact of Christian beliefs about life after death that intermingled with the traditional understanding of life after death.

If the researcher was to draw some general conclusions, being aware of the danger of such an approach, he would conclude that:
  • The research, though limited in scope to the interviewees coming from Kenya, Tanzania, DRC and Ivory Coast confirms the existence of ATR in various African countries. It also indicates the similarity of beliefs, though with some minor differences, of the, at least in those 4 countries. As we know, there were no books that would contribute to the spreading of beliefs of ATR. Such similarities can be view as an important and amazing sociological and cultural phenomenon worth farther exploration;

  •       The notion of life after death played an important role in the overall system of beliefs of African Traditional Religion. It affirmed the inner coherence of African religious worldview whereby man was its center in the life on earth and remained also its prominent figure after death as an ancestor. Such a notion stressed also the role of the community: one’s life on earth was defined through his belonging to a community. As an ancestor, one continued to be useful to the community as an intercessor, because he remained a part of that community, even as a dead person. The communitarian aspect of African worldview continued even after death. The ancestors, within this concept of life after death, made communication between people and God possible because it was believed that ancestors were closer to God;

  • The understanding of life after death was crucial in the context of African view about the cyclic nature of life. Only life after death conceived not as the end, but rather as a passage to a new stage, with its notion of partial reincarnation through the naming process, could ensure that there was no logical contradiction with ATR, concerning this particular aspect;

  • Life after death and its understanding had a lot of implications for the maintenance of social order in the community. To become an ancestor one had to be a morally upright person, following the laws of the community, and having gone through all the rites of passage. Following the laws was helping to maintain peace and stability in the community. It was advantageous to one to be a morally behaving person because of what he was to gain after his death. Hence, both, the community and individuals, were benefitting from such a concept;

  • Procreation was crucial in order to become an ancestor. Hence, the notion of life after death ensured the physical as well as religious survival of the community through the religious meaning attached to bearing children.

  • Comparing ATR with Christianity, one could argue that, since there was no notion of mercy as understood in Christian terms, everything after death depended upon one’s life on this earth. It probably was a very strong motivating factor to be a morally upright person because everything depended upon an individual;

  • The understanding of life after death was stressing personal responsibility in this life. Even though that responsibility was exercised within a community, one had a choice of not exercising it. As such it was providing a kind of counterbalance to the prominent importance of community in the African worldview;

  • Since life after death, for some, was understood as a copy of this life, one probably worked hard to make the best out of it. It was probably another motivating factor to be pro-active and inventive in the life on earth because it had ‘eternal’ consequences.


The research, the presentation by Prof Katola and literature review indicate that the concept of life after death played a crucial role in African Traditional Religion. And since there was no separate compartment for the culture, religious beliefs had very direct and long-reaching consequences on the lives of individuals. One could argue that those beliefs were crucial in shaping one’s attitudes and behavior on daily basis.

Beliefs surrounding life after death were helping people to be fully engaged in the ‘here and now’. Their best time was here on earth and because of that they were motivated to do their optimum to take advantage of it. The notion of ancestors was reminding people about the value of good, moral life creating a counterbalance to the danger of exploiting other people and the creation in this world.

Beliefs and practices centered on death are present and alive in the modern society. They exercise a lot influence on many people and one could assume that they will continue to do it the years to come.

In the context of Kenya and its political scene one could ask if some of the politicians did not narrow down the ramifications of the belief of life after death to an aspect of this life being the best there is and hence, doing everything to enjoy it, often, unfortunately at the expense of others. Sometimes it would seem that they have forgotten that only a good, moral life was a means to ensure them the status of ancestors!


Arinze, F. (1988) Pastoral Attention to African Traditional Religion.Letter from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Vatican city, to the Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences of Africa and of Madagascar (Rome, 25 March, 1988). Retrieved on October, 22, 2008 from World Wide Web:

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1. 09.09.08. Embakassi. A 55 year old Kisi elder was interviewed. According to him, religion has to do with knowing and worshiping God. After death the body decays but the spirit continues to live. Life after death is better than this one: 'no work, no sweating, no mud'. Whatever you want is made available to you – you just say what you want. Life on earth influences the life after death-if you live a good life here on earth, you will experience good life after death as well. There will be a lot of joy in the life after death.

2. 16.09.08. Tangaza College. A 25 year old Luo man was interviewed. He believes that African Traditional Religion exists and that it can be seen as a belief system that is rooted in the belief in God. Belief in life after death comes as a result of participating in such practices like burial and learning from those who participate in it. It is important to live well here on earth and do good things because those things will be remembered. After death there is no more rites of passage, no more tests. After death, a dead person still can influence the living.

3. 24.09.08. Embakassi. 2 ladies were interviewed of 29 and 36 years of age. They believe in existence of ATR and one of them participated in some worship taking place in a shrine in her village. Faith, belief in God who is a creator of all life on earth and belief in life after death were main elements of ATR. Life does not end with a natural death, it continues after death. Life after death is better than the one here on earth: there is no death, no hunger, no cry. People learnt about life after death through some prophets, diviners and witches who were pointing out to something that is beyond. The quality of life after death depended upon the quality of life here on earth.

4. 10.10.08. Ngong. A 31 year old Luhya was interviewed.  According to him religion has to do with a belief in the Supernatural Being and the relationship to that Supernatural Being. ATR is still practices and relevant to the lives of people, esp where there is sickness or death.  At the point of death, spirit continues to live. People after death would be h(cf. App. #, no. )y in a spiritual sense. The dead still influence the living and their presence is felt in the community-they want are named after, can help or punish the community. Good people become ancestors and are able to help the community because they have some extra power. One’s status after death depends directly upon the quality of life here on earth.

5. 14.10.08. South C. A 46 year old Kalenjin man was interviewed. According to him, belief in God and value of life are the most important elements of ATR. Death is not the end, but a passage to a new place, a place where the forefathers are.  Death is by intention of God so that people may join their forefathers and take care of the living. People learn about life after death through creation and by an instinct that God put in them. There are also some special people called ‘orgoyot’, seers who would communicate about the reality after death. In the life after death, there will be plenty of everything, people will enjoy and all will have enough.

6. 20.10. 08. Langata. A 31 year old man from DRC was interviewed. According to him, ATR is relevant in the lives of people, especially when people fall sick, when something is lost the ancestors are invoked and when there are land disputes. Life, as a gift from God, does not end with natural death but life after death is a continuation of this life. Life after death is seen as going to another village. If one was good he becomes an ancestor, people ask him to intercede for them and is reincarnated through the process of naming. There is no suffering, only happiness for a good person. People try to live good lives because their life on earth will influence their life after death – if somebody was a bad person on earth, his name will not be given to children once he is dead.

7. 22.10.08. Langata. A 32 year old man from Ivory Coast was interviewed. According to him, people use ATR when looking for answers and go to a traditional priest who asks a fetish and gets an answer. A ‘normal life’ would be to live a good life and then to become an ancestor – if it is done, life after death can be seen as a continuation of life on earth. If somebody lives a bad life, then the cycle of life is somehow interrupted -  a bad person will not be named after and will not be asked to intercede for the living. A good person after death becomes an ancestor and joins the village of the ancestors. God does not live in that village, he lives above it. Only soul will live in the afterlife.

8. 28.10.08. Langata. A 28 year old Sukuma man was interviewed.  For him ATR is a religion that plays an important role and will never disappear. Belief in ancestors would be one of the most important beliefs of ATR. Death is not an end but a continuation of life. The spirit of the deceased is believed to live around the grave on which a tree is planted during the funeral. If one lives a good life on earth he will be happy in the hereafter. If he is bad on earth, he will continue to try to harm people after death and he will not be named after. The ancestors will meet with God and will be able to assist the living. They can get annoyed with people when e.g. there is a conflict in a family. The knowledge about afterlife comes through dreams and calamities.

9. 03.10.2008. Next to Holy Family Basilica. A 31 year old Kamba man was interviewed. For him the rites of passage were a very important aspect of practicing ATR. After death one was becoming a spirit and continuing to live and influence the community. Through prophets and spirits appearing to people, the living would learn about life after death. The ancestors would live in a happy place. Their state would, somehow, be influenced by the behavior of the living –if the living behaved well, the ancestors were happy; if the living behaved badly, it was making the ancestors unhappy. The understanding of the life after death was helping the living to go through all the rites of passage and to behave well because their after life depended upon it.

10. 08.11.2008. Nakumatt, Embakassi. A 41 year old Kamba man was interviewed. He described ATR as ‘extremely, extremely, absolutely relevant’. Life after death was sees as a continuation of the life on earth though in a spiritual form. People learnt about life after death through family elders and seeing elders performing rituals such as sacrifices. One after death would become an ancestor if he lived a good life. The main function of the ancestors was to intercede to God on behalf of individuals and community in the time of need. By doing ‘wrong’ things the living could upset the ancestors who, as a result, had to be appeased.