At the outset, I must point out that when we attempt to ask what African conceptions of “nature” are or were, when we try to extract our modern notion of “nature” from African religions which have not followed the same line of historical and philosophical development, we are asking a question which the African traditions were never designed to answer. The English word “nature” or “environment” has no exact equivalent in African languages. For example, we find that for the Hausa of North-central Nigeria, the term garii is usually translated as town or sky, but signifies the total human and physical environment of the Hausa city state (Richards and Harris, eds, 1975, 106). Garii does not translate “nature”, nor does duniya (meaning “the world,”) nor any other term in the Hausa language, but there is a rich treasure to learn from in the study of words which one would use to approximate a similar idea.
A further problem for this study is that in the African context there is no single authoritative tradition to refer to as a guide. Each ethnic group (or “tribe”) has its own distinct language, culture, and religion, and it is estimated that Nigeria alone has over four-hundred and fifty distinct ethnic groups and languages. It is not possible under these circumstances to make hard generalizations about ATRs. Indeed, the introductory chapters to all of the texts written on ATR all expound at length on the reasons why past definitions have been inadequate, usually stressing the fact that they were too overly-generalized. This leaves us with extreme difficulty in choosing a methodology to tackle this topic. One may attempt the method preferred in anthropology, whereby one focuses upon one ethnic group exclusively, covering it through ethnographic writings devoted exclusively to that group, the advantage being accuracy and depth. However, the uninitiated who reads such a work may come away imagining that he or she now knows how “Africans” view the world, and this would be grossly misleading. The approach I shall attempt here is multifocal: I shall begin with a synthesis of works dealing with ecological practices throughout Africa, examine some cosmogonic myths and give a comparative analysis of a few ethnic groups in West Africa, with special attention to the Yoruba of Southwestern Nigeria, and to some other Nigerian groups.
Africa has suffered from a long history of misunderstanding and oppression at the hands of westerners. In addition to the physical and economic oppression of her peoples which I have chronicled in previous chapters, she has also withstood a succession of differing mental pictures in regard to the environment, all of which distort or overgeneralize. A recent work on African environments and resources (Lewis and Berry 1988, 13ff.) chronicles some of these distortions. Africa in the early period of contact was often characterized as a place of “limitless” fertile tropical forest. Another, and sharply contrasting image was that of Africa as an endless desert. A third image is that of Africa as the home of exotic wildlife game preserves: many travel films and TV documentaries will show fifty minutes of superb wildlife photography and three minutes of the people in the area, yet today large areas are without any game animals. Another picture of Africa is as an area of insect and waterborne disease. Yet another and more recent picture of Africa is that of Africa as a devastated continent (see de Vos 1975 and Eckholm 1976). Those who espouse this view while recognizing some diversity, yet have portrayed an overall impression of total devastation, citing the Sahelian droughts, continent-wide deforestation, desertification, ubiquitous soil erosion, and the loss of many animal species all as evidence of generally deteriorating environments in Africa.
Throughout the various changes in approach and attitude, one tendency has remained: that of seeing Africa as uniform, and that is the idea which must be rooted out of one’s thinking completely before any progress can be made in this area. The notion of uniformity has been applied just as much to the people who inhabit the land as to the land itself. The writings of early missionaries, anthropologists, and colonial officials alike are filled with erroneous generalized applications of one cultural or religious custom or habit from one ethnic group to all Africans. I have mentioned above that Western writers on Africa have labelled African religions in such terms as “primitive”, “animism” (Tylor), “paganism”, “polytheism”, “fetishism”, “ancestor worship”, “totemism”(Freud), “naturism”, and “nature worship” (Fraser, Willoughby). These terms have all been rejected by modern African scholars of religion as inaccurate and pejorative misconceptions invented by Westerners who did not understand Africans and their world view. It is only fair to point out, however, that modern anthropology has also rejected these terms, for the most part, and now uses such terms as “animism” only in a very carefully qualified manner, when used at all.
Finally, the intrusion of the West has already made it difficult to know with certainty when we have identified a genuinely “traditional” concept. Traditions already have been modified, even completely changed in response to outside pressures, and have sometimes been completely obliterated (cf. Norris and Heine 1982, 118-137). Furthermore, there is often intense suspicion about foreigners who poke about in tribal affairs. It is said among the Tiv people that when a person who is not properly initiated into the tribal society inquires into the group’s secrets it is mandatory to lie to the person in order to mislead them, even if the person is a member (uninitiated) of the ethnic group! Under these circumstances, only careful observations of what a group actually practices, taken over a long period of time, can yield even the most tentative of conclusions.