Most foreign pioneers to Africa come from either a Christian or Islamic religious background. Both of these groups naturally believe that the Bahá'í teachings justify and confirm their previous belief system, symbolized by the nine doors leading into a Bahá'í Temple. Upon arrival in Africa they find at least three types of religious belief: traditional systems, Christian and Moslem ones. In a great many cases, the traditional belief systems are in open conflict with the other two. In the Bahá'í community there is a natural gravitation towards teaching through the two "mainline" religions and it is on these that Bahá'í instruction and literature have concentrated.
If the Bahá'í teachers were to understand that the traditional belief systems so widely and firmly held in most African countries have a Divine origin, and are in fact the corrupted remnants of an earlier glorious Revelation, they might engender a far greater acceptance of the Bahá'í message by the masses. This paper attempts to describe the similarities between the recently revealed Bahá'í Faith and the ancient traditional beliefs of the Swazi people of Southern Africa. Its purpose is to raise an awareness in the reader of the remarkable similarities between many aspects of the two, and to raise the possibility that the Bahá'í Faith may be carried directly from the Pen of Bahá'u'lláh into the hearts of the Africans without passing through the corrupted and degenerated interpretations of Christian and Islamic clerics. Until Africans feel truly free to accept the message of Bahá'u'lláh without having to simultaneously accept a great number of questionable doctrines, they will remain only mildly attached to the Cause and live their lives firmly attached to the remnants of the cultures that have served them so well for so long.
This paper attempts to dispel the prevailing and incorrect views that Africans worship trees, stones, ancestors, totems, amulets and fetishes as their gods. By looking briefly into the structure of the Swazi traditional belief system, we will attempt to show that it has the characteristics of a major religion, and that from a Bahá'í point of view, it represents a faded but nonetheless "legitimate" belief system of Divine origin on a par with the better known religions.
Following a number of communications with David Garcia in Swaziland and Andrew Pemberton-Pigott at the University of Alberta, it is clear that religious scholars presume that mankind has moved from an ancient polytheistic religion to a more "modern" monotheistic one. This could be because modern religious historians have seen a progression in the Greek/Roman/Semitic people and assume that describes all human history. This is found, for example, in Zoroastrianism which describes a "good God" and a second, evil one who opposes the good One(1). The whole concept may have been a corruption. The later religions call people to one God, denounce idolatry and all forms of polytheism.
African religions (which are lived as cultures, not "practised" at certain times) are often described in literature as "animist". Sudan is routinely described in the media as having a Moslem north and a Christian and animist south. In dictionaries and encyclopaedia Swaziland's religions are described as Christian and animist. This characterization of their religion as essentially being the worshipping of animals or spirits in trees, rivers, stones etc. does not go down very well with Africans in general and Swazis in particular. The Swazi culture has within it a world view that does not want for an explanation of anything from science to administration to love. It is a complete system. People do not walk about wondering what propels the universe and what the meaning of events are. They "know". Any new belief accepted into the culture displaces an existing belief. The introduction of Christianity has consequently caused some radical changes to the Swazi culture.
There are clear indications in the Bahá'í Writings that there existed, in former times, a religion called Sabaeanism. While little is known from literature about this religion, what information exists is tantalizing. The first thing is that there are two different groups described in the Bahá'í Writings, with the spelling varying with publication date. Nonetheless, these days it is generally understood that Sabians are the followers of the religion started by the followers of John the Baptist who did not accept Jesus(2). Sabaeans are
"...the followers of an ancient religion who worship idols named after stars and who claim to have taken their religion from Seth and Idris..."(3).Seth was described by `Abdu'l-Bahá as one of the "sons of Adam"(4) which would make Sabaeanism a very old religion. Quoting Muhammad, Idris is described by Bahá'u'lláh thus:
"And commemorate Idris in the Book; for he was a man of truth, a Prophet; And we uplifted him to a place on high." (5)The Universal House of Justice Research Department comments,
"The connection between Idris and Sabaeanism is interesting because it confirms not only the extreme antiquity of this group of Sabaeans, but also the fact that knowledge of the religion has spread over the earth - Bahá'u'lláh affirms concerning Idris, "In every tongue he hath a special name". It should be noted, however, that Bahá'u'lláh does not specifically name Idris as the Prophet of the Sabaeans." (6)"...Shoghi Effendi in his talks to the pilgrims is reported to have described the followers of the traditional pagan African beliefs as the remnants of the Sabaeans. However, with the possible exception of the statement in the Tablet of Bahá'u'lláh concerning Idris and the suggestion that knowledge of this religion was spread over the earth, the Research Department has not been able to locate any references in the Bahá'í Writings... "(7)
(4) "... Abel, Cain and Seth, the sons of Adam..." `Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks delivered by `Abdu'l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p.365
(5) Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitab-I-Aqas, p.148 footnote, quoting the Qur'an, 19:57-58.
(6) Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual believer, 6 August 1996.
The Bahá'í scholar Mirza Abdu'l-Fazl also claimed Sabaeanism was very widespread, saying it, "...prevailed throughout the world among all nations except the Chinese and the Hindoo" (8) and that Enoch was its "institutor". (9)
A Divine religion, observed in all continents, opens wide the possibility that a common global culture also existed - one that has been largely forgotten. Such a global religion and civilization might have enjoyed uniform laws and the use of a common language and script. That mankind should have achieved such a stage of development and then lost it, contradicts the conventional wisdom that we are still struggling to establish the first global civilization, that we are always moving forward. (10) However, Bahá'u'lláh implies that mankind once shared common laws and customs, and spoke a single language:
"Consider the differences that have arisen since the days of Adam. The divers and widely known languages now spoken by the peoples of the earth were originally unknown, as were the varied rules and customs now prevailing amongst them. The people of those times spoke a language different from those now known." (11)As for a common script used in pre-Adamic times, Bahá'u'lláh informs us that,
"Moreover such forms and modes of writing as are now current amongst men were unknown to the generations that were before Adam. There was even a time when men were wholly ignorant of the art of writing, and had adopted a system entirely different from the one which they now use."(12)
The Swazis(13) are members of the Nguni sub group of the vast Bantu peoples. The Swazis migrated southwards over the past 2000 years from Central Africa. One proof of this migration are the many common words - especially animal names - shared by the scores of languages spoken over vast the African territories. The cultures and languages of sub-Saharan Africa are in many elements, remarkably similar, especially when compared with the variety prevailing in Asia or the Middle East. The Swazis speak SiSwati,(14) a dialect of the widely known Zulu language. Theirs is simultaneously one of the most accessible and well preserved cultures in Africa, whose significant ceremonies have
(10) "For two days and two nights the Russian railway traverseth the ruined cities and uninhabited villages of that wasteland. Formerly that plain bore the fruit of the finest civilizations of the past." `Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, p.298.
(11) Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 173
(12) Ibid, p. 172-3
(13) Technically speaking, the word "Swazi" is a Zulu word used by the British to describe these people. They call themselves "AmaSwati" which we English-speaking people say means "Swazis".
(14) Though not tonal, it is a descriptive language -- that is, varied enunciation changes the meaning of words, even when the spelling is the same. The word lapha can mean "here" or "there" depending on the enunciation.
been observed throughout this century. Their religious practices, encapsulated in their daily life, are overlain with a thin veneer of Western Christianity. Theirs is arguably one of the best-preserved traditional cultures on the continent(15).
While frequently described in the press as an "absolute monarchy", Swaziland's traditional administrative system does not fit into any European model of governance, traditional or modern. A CNN sound-bite can not contain or describe it. Briefly, it is a Diarchy with two Royal Persons, the King and his mother or senior wife. In the same way that Queen Elizabeth II's husband is not the King of England, the King's wives are not "Queens". There is only one Queen at a time. Her powers are virtually equal to the King's. The King rules "in Council" which has no direct European equivalent save perhaps the position of Henry II of 13th century England, keeping in mind that England has no written Constitution and Swaziland has no Magna Carta. Regional groupings of clans are headed by what can be called "vassal kings" but who were given the title "Chiefs" by the British.
Swazis traditionally did not use any form of writing as we understand it. Indirect communications consisted of rectangular "letters" and strings or necklaces all of which used a coloured bead-code. Unlike written sentences, the beads can be images and or be made parallel and read either simultaneously or as single lines. A battle story or love poem can be rendered powerfully using this format as the actions or feelings can be taken in simultaneously, rather like the cable TV channel that shows you all the programmes at once. The colour and position of the beads is interpreted in the same way that we read a string of letters in a sentence. The string or necklace messages can be read frontwards or backwards with the potential for deliberately humourous consequences, something that cannot readily be done in English.
As mentioned in detail above, there is a certain amount of evidence that the religion and culture practised in Swaziland is a form of Sabaeanism. While there are certain statements about this ancient religion generally having degenerated into idol worshipping, this is not necessarily the case as there may be pockets of adherents in the world who have held more firmly to some of the original monotheistic teachings(16). There is some evidence of a possible link or historical influence from Islam in that coastal sailing traders had contact with the tribes along the eastern seaboard. Ethiopian Christianity or perhaps a combination of Indian and Persian influences may also have played an role. Space does not permit much to be said about this possibility, however it can be noted that the fundamental Swazi concepts of God, Messengers and spiritual progress do not agree well with Eastern religious teachings.
Glass beads from India have been traded deep into Africa and there is linguistic evidence of trading contact. Significantly, Greco-Roman polytheism undermines the belief current among religious
(16) "...and the religion of the Sabaeans, which was originally
monotheistic, and became gradually corrupted, and to which Abraham's
forefathers are believed to have belonged."
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 9 July 1939 to an individual believer, cited by the Research Department, Universal House of Justice, 6 August 1996 in a letter to another individual believer.
scholars that mankind moves inexorably from polytheism to monotheism as it probably evolved from monotheistic Sabaeanism in Europe.
The Creator, the Great Spirit, God Himself, is known as "The One Who Came First" - Mvelincanti(17). The One Who Came First pre- existed creation. He is so great and creation so insignificant that He cannot enter into it.
The name given to God's messenger in Swaziland is "Mlentegamunye"(18). There is only one Messenger and He returns from time to time. His name is really a title, not a personal name. Mlentegamunye means "the One Legged Man". Our interpretation is that it means "the Man who stands in only one place", not with one foot here and another one there. He appears in the high mountains and comes surrounded by clouds and mist. He can only be seen by the young and the old. His messages are invariably beneficial and He does not take communications back to God, He only delivers messages from God.
There is no formal priesthood in Swazi traditional religion, and anyone who claims there are "high priests" and "spiritual leaders" is projecting European understanding onto this culture. There are respected people who are known to have well developed spiritual capacities, but this does not confer any clerical or interpretive status. The highest spiritual position one can have is that of being the oldest person living at a homestead, whether male or female. The oldest male also has certain religious responsibilities, even if there is an older female living in the kraal. Between the head of an extended family homestead and all things in and of the next world, there is no one.
Swazi traditional society is organized on the family unit. Its level of social organization, or level of unity, is no higher than the family. At this time there are political problems related to this because, in the final analysis, Swazi citizens are basically people who have agreed to live under the Dlamini (19) chieftainship. In a sense they have become members of the family, though their status hovers between family and tribal member. This is a simpler level of unity than that attained by the tribe of Abraham or the city-state of Rome. It is perhaps another indicator of a very early beginning as we would expect from a Sabaean-derived culture.
The Swazi homestead is the living quarters for an extended family - a man, one or more wives, their children and possibly grandchildren. Diviners, healers, and herbalists are greatly respected if they have proven abilities, but they have no formal status. Many people fear healers and diviners because of their
(18) Pronounced "mmm-len-tay-gah-moon-yay". He is the, "...one-legged messenger of the Most High." Spirit of the Rocks, p. 22.
(19) Nkosi-Dlamini was the first Swazi "King", who established the nation in about 1750.
reputed powers to grant or withhold anything from favours to health and safety. A few claim the ability to "become" one of the ancestors and so provide a means of communicating with the dead.(20)
Knowing as we do, that mankind strives to progress from lower levels of social organization to higher ones, Bahá'ís see society progressing lock-step with spiritual development. The concept of "tribe" as it is understood in Europe is a late arrival projected on them by colonials. The largest social unit is the clan, made up of a group of extended families, each of which has its spiritual leader. The leader of the clan is assumed to have greater spiritual powers, more wisdom and easier access to those in the next world than his or her inferiors, but is not a priest.
What may be surprising to Bahá'ís from outside Africa is the remarkable consistencies the Swazi traditional religion has with what we know to be the structures of a Divinely revealed religion. Their teachings point strongly to a Divine source.
Although time is limited, here follows a brief description of the some principal features of the Swazi Religion/Culture which in some way conform to the Bahá'í Teachings
(Oneness of God) There is but one God, the Creator of all that is, called different names by different people.
(Oneness of the Manifestations) Messages from God are brought by a special person who delivers the necessary revelation to those who can see him. He appears surrounded by "clouds" and "mist".
The intermediary Revelator reappears from time to time bringing new guidance and instructions. There will be no surprise when another message comes.
The "next world" has an eternal afterlife beyond the grave where one passes from one condition to another growing ever closer to God.
Progress in the Next World
Those who are remarkably good pass sooner to a position where they can be usefully requested for assistance in this world.(21) Some require a period of time before they are ready for such a position. The concept of progression through worlds of God is clear.
The Supreme Concourse
Those holy souls who are able to assist in the mortal world make up a group called Amadloti (best translated as "ancestors"). These souls are supplicated in times of want or trouble. They are considered to be the most powerful force in the mortal world safeguarding the best interests of the extended
(21) The Swazi concept of a righteous life being rewarded in heaven is similar to that described in the Writings for a just king: they "shall occupy a high rank and a sublime station amongst the Concourse on high." Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 65
family.(22) Their desires or demands are interpreted in the same way as, "...the spiritual instructions of the Supreme Concourse..." (23) The Swazi Concourse on High is limited to members of the extended family and any other soul that has had contact with family members. The Concourse of Amadloti is the focus of most private devotion and their influence is never far from the mind of a Swazi.
Two Worlds Closely Related
It is believed that this world and the next are very closely connected. They understand the meaning of "The veil shall be lifted and thou shalt behold his face illumined in the Supreme Concourse." (24)
Intercession with God
Those who have most recently died are felt to be the most accessible to mortals (for the purposes of intercession) as they are more familiar with life on earth having recently left it. The purpose of this contact and assistance revolves around problem-solving. Those long-dead are thought to have progressed to higher planes and thus not as accessible. One might pray asking a recently departed soul to ask a long-dead one for a special favour such as protection, healing or inspiration.
There is no use of carved images or icons in matters relating to worship or to the dead. (25)
Prayers are offered by men and women, usually in the cattle byre (kraal), near the place where the family members are buried. Some devotions are obligatory. This is the sacred place. The cattle byre has an inner sanctum for special ceremonies.
Funerals are conducted at the homestead for the deceased with an "introduction" being offered out loud so that the ancestors will accept the newest member.
The Abrahamic concept of animal (blood) sacrifices are evident, as demanded by the ancestors. This is frequently the case when things are going badly for the family and the material and spiritual blessings are withheld. There are elements of human sacrifice evident in the culture which are feared but not widely practised. This may be pre-Abrahamic in origin or a corruption.
(23) The Compilations, Vol I, # 612, p. 273
(24) `Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, p.197
(25) The Bahá'í teaching is, "They that are the worshippers of the idol which their imaginations have carved...are in truth accounted among the heathen.", Bahá'u'lláh, Aqdas : Notes, p. 195.
Marriage is ordained as an institution. Divorce is frowned upon and will only be permitted in the most difficult of circumstances after a failure of intermediaries to effect a reconciliation.
The consent of the parents of the bride is required before marriage, though in practise it is frequently required from the groom's parents as well.
A dowry (usually cattle) is paid to the family of the bride. A minimum of 1 cow (or its equivalent) for each of the father, the mother, and the maternal grandmother, plus a negotiable 10 or 12 more depending on the birth order of the bride.
Spiritual & Moral Education
There are a large number of social laws like the banning of pre-marital penetrative sex, respect for elders and so on. Adulthood is a stage that is reached after proper training. (26) Sexual relations before marriage is prohibited and the penalty prescribed.
Society is divided into three age groups: children, youth who have passed "kutfhomba"(27) or "kusoka"(28) and married adults. Though a case can be made to see only the young and adults, in practise 5 groups can be observed: children, female youth, male youth, adult women and adult men.
There is a strong recognition of certain rights and powers of women, who, while definitely not sharing equally in all matters and positions, were accorded a number of important economic and property rights that were severely eroded by the arrival of Christianity. European-style laws reduced women's status to that of "chattel wives" and "perpetual minors" married "in community of property"(29).
Lack of Priests or Clerics
There are no priests in the Swazi religious system. They simply do not exist. Access to God has a practical meaning for the family when you want some material thing, or want something to happen. Perhaps you want rain, good crops or hunting or need protection, healing etc. This entreaty cannot be handled on a "one-to-one" basis as the players are so completely unequal (God and man). One accomplishes any task of this nature by approaching someone who is closer to God than you are (one of the Amadloti), and they will in turn pass it up the line until it reaches the Divine Ear. This communication mechanism is also mirrored in Swaziland's daily life. Thanks are given to the Amadloti by ceremony or sacrifice.
(27) To have become a woman (first menstruation).
(28) Circumcision ceremony.
(29) What's his is his and what's hers is his.
The traditional religion of the Swazi people has many of the characteristics of the other major world religions. Significantly lacking is the existence of a Book or codified body of Teachings. This is not too surprising considering the age of the culture and that from antiquity it used a different form of recording communications. In any case, such a codified body of rules would be no more than a description of life itself which is regarded as common knowledge and passed on orally.
Claims that the name of the Divine Manifestation of the Swazi religion is unknown, thereby casting doubt on its Divine origin, is a "red herring". His name in SiSwati is Mlentegamunye. It is a title, just like "Buddha" or "Christ" or "Bab" or "Bahá'u'lláh" are titles, and not names.
There are significant quotations from the Bahá'í Writings that point to this religion as having a Divine origin and to its possible descent from Sabaeanism. As a spiritual and social system, it is possibly more intact than Central African cultures and indeed, many branches of Buddhism whose "doctrines gradually disappeared"(30) in their entirety. It is possibly one of the most intact examples of Sabaeanism extant.
There are a great many similarities between the Bahá'í and Swazi concepts of things spiritual, but significant differences on social teachings. This places the Swazi religion, whatever its origin and evolution, on a par with the other major world religions.
That this important world religion has not been studied by Bahá'ís in the same way that the other major faiths have has to be regarded as an unfortunate oversight. You could not easily teach the Bahá'í Faith to the Chinese through the precepts of Judaism, nor the Jews through the philosophies of Confucius. To a large extent, the Bahá'í Faith has only been accepted in Africa by those who have already demonstrated some attachment to Christianity or Islam. Bahá'u'lláh came for all people, not only those who recently converted to Middle Eastern religions.
It is fair to ask of what value is the (admittedly uncertain) knowledge that all the peoples of the world may have shared a common language, common laws, a common means of communication, a common religion (almost) and a common culture? Apart from an obvious need to completely re-write the history books, it confers upon the African traditional belief systems, descended from an ancient true religion, authored by a Manifestation of God,(31) no less an authenticity and due esteem than, for example, Hinduism, a more recognized religion of similar antiquity.(32) Were we to treat Africa fairly,
(31) "As to the religion of the Sabaeans, very little is known about the origins of this religion, though we Bahá'ís are certain of one thing, that the founder of it has been a divinely-sent Messenger." From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 10 November 1939 to an individual believer, cited by the Research Department, Universal House of Justice, 6 August 1996 in a letter to another individual believer.
(32) "With reference to your question concerning the Sabaean and Hindu religions: there is nothing in the Teachings that could help us in ascertaining which one of these two Faiths is older. Neither history seems to be able to provide a definite answer to this question. The records concerning the origin of these religions are not sufficiently detailed and reliable to offer any conclusive evidence on this point." From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 9 November 1940 to an individual believer, cited by the Research Department, Universal House of Justice, 6 August 1996 in a letter to another individual believer.
we would be called upon to give as much respect to their traditional beliefs as we do to Buddhism, a religion whose teachings have been so obscured by the passage of time and the interventions of priests that virtually nothing remains of its Founders' principles.(33) In short, the traditional religion of Swaziland is as authentic, as legitimate, as Divine in origin and as deserving of courtesy and recognition as a medium of teaching the Faith as the other mainstream religions of the world.
"The Bahá'í Attitude and Response to the Religion of Santeria (Lucumi, Candomble) -- and to Palo Kongo (Monte, Mayombe) and Macumba (Umbanda, Quimbanda)"
Crispin and Margaret Pemberton-Pigott have been living in Southern Africa for most of the past 20 years.
Crispin operates New Dawn Engineering, a company that specializes in manufacturing labour intensive production equipment based in Matsapha, Swaziland. (see _One Country_ Jul Sept '96, p.12) Originally from Pickering, Ontario, Canada, his parents pioneered with the family to Ibadan, Nigeria during the Ten Year Crusade. He returned to Africa with his wife and three small children in 1977, living in Swaziland and Transkei.
Margaret has a legal and administrative background with a degree in Communications and comes originally from Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. When the family lived in Transkei, South Africa, she was for 5 years variously the P.A. to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Transkei, Corporate Secretary of the Mining Corporation and worked in marketing for a large furniture manufacturer. After working for ten years with New Dawn Engineering in Swaziland, she presently is the Administrator of "Imphilo Clinic", private hospital in Manzini.