First things first: I make no claim to be an anthropologist or expert of African religion. In fact, most of the time African religion is incredibly confusing to me. I do, however, ask a lot of questions, and everything in this blog post is a result of the answers I’ve gathered firsthand from cultural insiders of the Lamba religion. Almost all of my conclusions below have been confirmed by multiple people.
The Lamba, like most other African people groups, believe in one supreme creator God. They believe he is good and benevolent, but they unfortunately believe that he is nearly impossible to relate to. They think that God has established many levels of subordinate spirits to relate with mankind for him.
There appears to be three primary levels of religion among the Lamba.
1. At the deepest level is ancestry worship. This is such an accepted practice that I assume most people don’t think twice about calling on the name of their ancestor to bless their house, protect them, or help them in times of need. They believe, however, that their ancestors are at the very bottom level of a vast hierarchy of spirits and spiritual forces. Therefore, they often find it necessary to seek help from other spirits, which is where the next two levels come in.
2. At a not-so-deep, but still very strong level is fetish worship. Some would call this voodoo, but it is actually quite different from pure voodoo, which is practiced more in our neighboring country of Benin. Fetish practices are widespread throughout Togo, but take on slightly different forms depending on the people group. Fetish worship is incredibly difficult to define, so I’ll simply talk about how it functions among the Lamba.
Fetishes are primarily a way for people to get what they want, be it protection, healing, blessing, riches, love, etc., in exchange for something they have: animals, money, and yes, sometimes even a child. For some people, greed is their primary motivation, but it seems that most pursue fetishes out of fear or desperation.
The primary fetish practitioner is called a charlatan. He is similar to the Western concept of a witchdoctor, but can often take on the role of a healer and/or sorcerer as well. He is one who can discern and manipulate spirits, forces, and powers through rituals and ceremonies for the benefit of himself and others.
As an example of fear-induced fetish practices, charlatans will sometimes tell people that they are being pursued by an evil spirit so that the person will seek their “services” to provide them with protection, for a hefty fee of course. Once a person begins going to a charlatan, they will often be sucked in to an ongoing cycle of problems and subsequent “solutions” from the charlatan. These cycles sometimes end in debilitating health problems that suck one’s resources dry as they continue giving more and more to the charlatan in hopes that they will be healed. There are times when people are healed through fetishes, but the sacrifice they made in the process is usually huge. I have heard many people (even non-Christians) say that fetishes take far more than they give.
3. At the third level is the cult of atingali. It is a religion imported from neighboring Ghana, but has developed fairly strong roots among the Lamba. A lot of Lamba people practice atingali very casually because of its social gatherings involving dancing and feasts, but many are drawn to its power and end up “buying into” the religion.
From what I can gather, it seems that atingali functions very similarly to fetish worship, with the exception that all ceremonies are directed towards the atingali spirit, whom they believe is more powerful than other fetish spirits and forces.
When somebody wants to buy into atingali, they do so from somebody who is already in and has a “large portion” of atingali. Yes, this is confusing, I know. I don’t yet fully understand what it means or how it’s possible to have “all of atingali” or “a part of atingali,” but I do know that it is directly related to how much they pay for it. When they buy in, they are given some sort of physical token(s) to bring to their house and bury in the ground. This is a common theme, by the way, of fetish worship as well, to have physical tokens inhabited with spirits or spiritual power.
Once a person has a large portion of atingali, he can then begin selling it to others and be an atingali “consultant.” In Western terms, I could compare it to a religious pyramid scheme.
Effects On Daily Life and Society
There are many negative effects from atingali and fetishes, but here are the ones I hear most often:
– Most people live every day in constant fear and superstition, whether it’s a fear of chameleons, a fear of being cursed, or a fear of somebody sending lightning to kill them.
– Many people report having constant nightmares of people or spirits chasing them, trying to kill them.
– Because of the fear factor, people often do not trust others around them. There is always the possibility that their neighbor or friend is a secret sorcerer and will try to do them harm. Some people do not even allow their own siblings to walk through their corn fields.
– The constant demand for animal sacrifices and monetary payment results in people remaining stuck in a constant cycle of poverty. Even those who have struck it rich are trapped by the obligation to continue giving larger and larger sacrifices and payments.
Why Do People Keep Doing It?
If these practices have so many negative consequences, the question demands to be asked: why would people continue to do it? There are several reasons I can see:
– There is a general perception that they actually work. All it takes is the occasional story of one person being healed or coming into a ton of money for the belief in these practices to be reinforced. The very nature of deception, after all, is that those deceived do not see things as they really are, but as they are led to believe.
– There is enormous social pressure to do what everyone else does. Those who refuse to follow these practices are often outcast or at least shunned by their neighbors, friends, or family.
– Many simply do not want to break their centuries-old traditions, especially when it comes to ancestry worship.
– Sometimes people are just so desperate that they don’t see any other option. Even some Christians will be drawn to seek help from fetishes during times of extreme distress. This is because fetishes and atingali can often provide a quick-fix solution to problems, though they cause more problems in the long run.
– Because there are very few Jesus followers (and other religions for that matter) among the Lamba, there simply is no other alternative. Most people have no idea what following Jesus is all about, and they do not know the freedom and liberty he offers. They do not know that an intimate father/son relationship with God is possible through Jesus. They do not know that he is the all-powerful Lord of Creation and can conquer any fear, any problem, or any spiritual attack.
What Can You Do?
I hope that this has opened your eyes to the struggles of the Lamba people and given you a desire to pray for their spiritual release from these things that constantly oppress them. You can pray for breakthroughs by the Holy Spirit into the lives of people who will spread the unconditional love, grace, and peace of Jesus with those who are oppressed. You can also pray for the specific people I mention on this blog. They are under constant spiritual attack and pressure to return to the practices they have known all their lives. Pray also that whole families will decide to follow Jesus together in order to avoid some of the ostracisation that frequently happens when single individuals change apart from their families.