The African Traditional Religion is typically a system of worship deeply rooted in the reverence of a supreme being, divinities and deities, and ancestors as well. There is also a belief in mystical powers. In the past, the ATR embodied the totality of the people’s way of life. There are laid down systems of being and doing things. Hierarchy is a peculiar thing in any form of religion, and every religion I must say has a flair in the politics of its administration. In that vein, the ATR has a way of influencing the people since it covers pretty much everything, from the individual obligations to the politics and administration of the community. Even in the recent modern dispensation, having secret groups is no surprise to Africans, it has been deep rooted from centuries ago. An illustration will be the initiation of young men into the masquerade cult and by implication into manhood. The ideology behind this is to further show the importance of being a man, the gender most qualified and suitable to commune with the spirit beings. An initiated man is accorded all sorts of respect because he seems to have graduated into the super-mortals club and wields a lot of authority. This was the norm in the past which apparently strengthened the reason why men were valued more in the homes and community at large.
Cultism is not an African thing. It is a socio-religious and even a political thing that is identifiable in every nation of the world. Cultism is the sharing of a worship or belief system among a selected few with the intention of upholding a particular beneficial truth. In the African context cultism is largely concerned with reverence of a being, discreet but rare in-depth teaching, power control and benefits which could be spiritual, economical, social, political or plain personal (circumstantial ) reasons. A cult usually has carefully laid down tenets that must be adhered to. For the uninitiated, the (open) secrecy, often due to its socially deviant practices; and relevance of these groups is a far-out understanding.
In the secular world, a cult is a confraternity of people with a common ideology, interests and belief system; but by nature of our origin, the African secret cults are socio-political and religious groups whose ideologies have dominated and influenced the affairs of governance and even wealth distribution of the African society. They might be seen as a heretical power loving group of people who have willingly become programmed to tread a mysterious path as if under the metaphysical control of some sort. As true as the general notion of cultism might be, most rooted African cults started off as a requisite for the good of the people and an organised system of administration. Let’s take a look at the 15 Most Prominent African Secret Cults…
15. Ogboni Fraternity
Traditionally revered for their positions as intermediaries between the people and the ancestors. Using the Yoruba polity as a case study, the Ogboni fraternity has a strong affiliation to royalty, gerontological system of governance and the law enforcement of the community. Their belief system is strongly roped with the African (Yoruba) cosmology, thus their statutory role of preserving of the tradition and the veneration and the ‘Ife’ oracle. In pre-colonial history, the judiciary of the Yoruba kingdoms was under the strict tutelage of the Ogboni members. As expected, the group plays roles in the social, religious and political affairs of the Yoruba clan. As their sculptural symbol depicts, their aim was to strike a healthy balance in the aspect of fairness and justice. Internal details about membership and brotherhood demands of this ancient group is supposedly a top secret known to only the members.
With the coming of the westerners, the Ogboni group lost grip of all the past authorities it once had. Still in the bid to stress their importance, they turned to their own personal concerns, often overstepping their boundaries. This quest soon translated into dubious tendencies and attached the popular derogatory tag to the Ogboni group. Though there have been modern reforms to the group, they are still functional in few remote kingdoms. The Ogboni Fraternity is a popular cult in West Africa- the Nigerian Yoruba and Igbo speaking community, Togo and Benin-Republic.
14. The Eckankar Cult
Eckankar is a 20th century trans-national cult that has filtered its way into the African continent in such countries as- Togo, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. The Eckankar has gained a global recognition with about 3 million followers worldwide. Eckankar means “Co-Worker with God” and promises spiritual freedom and prowess- a higher state of spiritual consciousness. The movement encourages individual responsibility and self realization which basically leads to God realization, thus, known as the religion of the light and sound of God. As a means of boosting interior sensitivity, the eckist is a strong believer of dream/soul travels, through which their initiations are conducted.
The supreme leader, Mahanta, a pseudo-god, often described as the living eck master, presides over crucial activities of the movement- channeling the souls of members back to the maker through subtle mind control; consecration/initiation ceremonies and rites of passage to adulthood. He is also present during other occasions like weddings and funerals. The eckist activities include, theatrical performances, symposiums and spiritual fellowships. The different heads in the different nations of the world have a tendency of making extra “necessary” additions, some of which have gone out of hand, leading to the withdrawal of members and criticisms of the public. Africans are naturally superstitious people who have every tendency of influencing the movement with certain cultural traits.
13. Poro Cult
The Poro fraternal society has a religious and civil undertone; and also the most important cult in Sierra Leone. There are 3 groups involved in the initiation- the elders, the chief priests and the boys/men to be initiated. They are taken into the Poro bushes where diviners help to unravel their potentials through strong mystical powers. There they are prepared for their cultural roles- ensuring the sanity of the community. The elders of the Poro group particularly scare off asocial behaviours and all sorts of dispute especially when they are spiritually related. The crowd are permitted during the grand finale. The members swear to an oath of secrecy and sternly adhere to the laws of the group. Poro is a masquerade cult found in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Ivory Coast.
12. Sande Cult
Sande cult is the female version of the Poro secret society. The enrollment into the Sande cult can be expensive, in which case, kidnapping becomes an alternative for those who cannot afford it. The females are taken to the bushes as well to be cleansed, circumcised and drilled into womanhood by learning certain domestic skills and craft, culture, customs and folklores. Their functions and laws are aligned side by side to the Poro cult; in other words, the female cult is in charge of the affairs of the women folk. The Sande leaders also wear masks like their male counterparts. It is rumored that even in the present time, except you are a member of the Poro or Sande cult in Liberia, you are not fit to hold a political position. Liberians practice this tradition because it is meant to help the grooming of more respected citizens.
11. Neegee society
Neegee is the Bassa word for crocodile. The Neegee group is a cannibalistic society and are ‘supposedly’ in opposition to the utilitarian essence of the Poro and Sande groups. They are also called the ‘Human Leopards’ because of their extreme inhumane human sacrifices to their god. They are believed to be capable of transforming into ware wolves, leopards and water crocodiles to attack their victims. Neegee members believe that feeding on human parts gives them mystical powers. While Poro and Sande groups vehemently oppose the Neegee’s, it is arguable that the former stemmed from such ritualistic tendencies of the later, as could be the case when some initiates who do not make it to the graduation ceremony are claimed to have been eaten by the divine spirit of the devil bush.