Back when I last visited Ethiopia, I asked one of the priests I met with if he had any books to recommend to understand African culture and thought better. He said that even though it was kind of old, Mbiti’s African Regions and Philosophy was probably still the best serious place to start. I finally got around to getting a copy and reading it this year.
I didn’t make a lot of notes as I went, so I’m only going to post this quote emphasizing how hypo-individualist (is that a word?) traditional African culture is, across virtually the entire southern part of the continent. It’s the opposite of America. Even in relatively modern African cities, this doesn’t pass away easily from the minds of the people. “I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am” is still largely the rule.
[Africans] have no creeds to recite: their creeds are within them, in their blood and in their hearts. Their beliefs about God are expressed through concrete concepts, attitudes, and acts of worship [prayers, songs, offerings]. The individual believes what others in his community believe: it is a corporate ‘Faith’. And this faith is utilitarian, not purely spiritual, it is practical and not mystical. The people respond to God in and because of particular circumstances, especially in times of need. Then they seek to obtain what He gives, be that material or spiritual; they do not search for Him as the final reward or satisfaction of the human soul or spirit. Augustine’s description of man’s soul being restless until it finds its rest in God, is something unknown in African traditional religious life. – John Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, p.67