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Kingsley's Description of African Fetish

From Women in European History

Mary Kingsley's Desriptions of African Fetish

A large portion of Mary Kingsley’s travels to Africa was dedicated to studying African culture, particularly African religion. Europeans referred to African religion as fetish or ju-ju, coming from the Portuguese and French, respectively.[1] Kingsley encountered many different tribes in her travels, and each had a different religious belief system, but they all had the basic tenets in common. The general African system was somewhat different than European beliefs, for Africans had no sharp division between God, man, and nature in their religion.[2]


A Visual of African Fetish from the London Missionary Society[1]

Kingsley describes African religions as having one great God who is above all other gods. The name of this Overlord varies among tribes. Some of the names for this great God include but are not limited to, Nyiswa, Abasibum, Y’ankumpon, Nzam, Nzambi, and Anzam.[3] Using the Fan’s name for simplification, Nzam is believed to be the creator of the Earth, man, animals, and plants. After making all of these he no longer took any interest in them.[4] Nzam left control of his creation to the lower spirits, whom he has power over.[5]These spirits have a large interesting in African society and act frequently, however their acts are typically malevolent, so Africans can be seen saying, “Go away, we don’t want you.”[6]


The Europeans coined this religion fetish, for they believed that Africans were worshiping inanimate objects. In the Africans' opinion this is false. These objects contain spirits within them. Africans would go to the medicine man, typically called the “ogaanga”, and he would induce certain spirits into objects.[7] These objects would contain spirits the owner would want, and the spirit would be subject to the will of the owner. Antelopes’ horns, large snail shells, and large nutshells were the typical objects spirits would be placed into. These spirits would acts as charms for every occupation and desire in life. These charms were for “loving, hating, buying, selling, fishing, planting, travelling, hunting, etc.”[8] There was no spirit that could do everything.[9] This aspect of the Africans religion is what made the Europeans call it fetish.


Not every spirit could be controlled by medicine men, such as the army of the air.[10] Because of this Africans also engaged in sacrifice and incantation. Sacrifice was the killing of something valuable to appease the spirits. Africans would offer things ranging from a dish of plantains, fowl, goats, and sometimes, but very rarely, humans.[11] “Incantations may be divided into two classes, supplications analogous to our idea of prayers, and certain cabalistic words and phrases. The supplications are addresses to the higher spirits. Some are made even to Anzam himself.”[12] The cabalistic incantations were words or phrases coined either by the individual or their ancestors. These were used to help defend or protect the individual from evil. Also these were used when one was startled, sneezed, or stumbled.[13]


For Information on Vodun, a type of fetish see

West African Vodun

Traditional Religion In Africa:The Vodun Phenomenon in Benin

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This page has been accessed 12,984 times. This page was last modified on 1 June 2010, at 17:58.


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