Jesuit anthropologist says the African custom of venerating the dead is similar to Catholic belief in the communion of saints
The Bamiléké people are the largest ethnic group in Cameroon and are mainly found in the country’s western regions.
They are known for their rich spirituality, centered on the veneration of their ancestors.
Father Ludovic Lado, a Jesuit priest and anthropologist from Cameroon, told La Croix Africa’s Lucie Sarr more about this unique people.
La Croix Africa: What is the traditional religious structure of the Bamiléké?
Father Ludovic Lado: The traditional religious structure of the Bamileke is centered on the veneration of relics of the ancestors.
In order to be « ancestralized » – i.e. venerated as an ancestor – one must meet a number of conditions: to have died a good death (deaths by drowning, suicide, etc. are excluded); to have been married and be survived by offspring; to have shown great moral integrity during his or her lifetime; to have been the object of festive « ancestralization » ceremonies, etc.
After burial and mourning, one waits a few years before organizing a ceremony to exhume the skull and bring it back to the family sanctuary where there are also skulls of the other ancestors who preceded the deceased.
It is this place of the skull that is the site of the sacrifices and acts of veneration. It is the sacred place par excellenceof the family compound where the descendants of the deceased who have been « ancestralized » come to make offerings.
However, the ancestors are not deities, but intermediaries between God and people. One does not address God directly, but goes through the ancestors.
Is there ancestral worship among the Bamileke?
I don’t know if the term « worship » is appropriate. I would rather speak of veneration of the ancestors.
For the descendant of the « ancestralized » deceased, it is a matter of offering sacrifices in the sacred place where the exhumed skull is kept.
This can be to ask a favor (protection, health, work, success, etc.) for oneself or for a member of one’s family. It can also be to thank them for a favor obtained.
It is often the successor of the ancestralized deceased who leads the sacrifice that consists of sprinkling the place with palm oil, salt or animal blood (chicken, goat, etc.).
In general, this takes place when one feels that one is in danger or that nothing works for oneself and one’s family. The soil of the place where the ancestor’s skull is kept is also sacred and some can be taken to rub on or to mark the foreheads of children as a blessing.
In the ritual practices of Bamileke, what is not reconcilable with Christianity?
For my part, I don’t see anything. These sacrifices can be compared to those of the Old Testament.
In relation to Christianity, I consider the veneration of the ancestors as the Old Testament of my people. In a way, it can be likened to « the communion of saints », which includes the deceased.
For this reason, many African theologians have deepened the notion of ancestrality by making a connection between Christ and the ancestor in the African sense of the term (for example, Christ our Ancestor is the title of a book by Tanzanian theologian, Charles Nyamiti).
This is also done with the saints as ancestral figures (there are many theological theses on this subject).
From the pastoral perspective, what the clergy tend to discourage among the laity is the sacrifice of goats or hens and libations for the ancestors.
But the reality is that many are in church as long as things are going well, but in a situation of existential insecurity, one runs to the village to consult the diviners, and this often involves sacrifices made to the ancestors to implore their help.