RELIGIONS IN ERITREA Part 4 (RKPHA 2001)
The Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionary of Current English, defines "Religion" as
"belief in the existence of a supernatural ruling power, the creator and controller of the universe, who has given to man a spiritual nature which continues to exist after the death of the body".
In this "Belief Section" of our Kunama web-site, we pointed out that, the Kunama people have a "Religion" of their own which could be said to have perhaps originated either directly from Judaism or Christianity. We have in fact tried to compare the similarity between the Jewish concept of God and that of the Kunama.
Both religions practise Monotheism and exclude any other supernatural being. They believe in one God whom the Kunama call "Anna".
Islam too is a monotheistic religion and therefore could be said to have had some influence on the Kunama belief. There are many Kunama words and expressions of blessing or curse in the name of "Anna" (God).
Annam koske (God exists, sees and judges);
Annam aneneke (God has created us);
Anna laga (God’s world; the universe belongs to God);
Annam eshodi (may God bless you);
Annam eso (may God give/reward you; thank you)
Annam etare/ebale (may God curse/punish you);
Anna konala (in God’s hand);
Anna hedabu (God willing);
Anna kondorabu/guduratabu (with God’s grace/power) and so on.
The Kunama have many similar expressions indicating both the existence of God as well as His activities for and among human beings and in the universe at large.
The Kunama believe in the existence of life after death. It is in fact this belief that leads a Kunama to honour his/her ancestors, his/her dead relatives and kinship members. He/she even goes so far as offering them the first fruits of his/her best harvest, food and drinks.The Kunama pray to God directly or implore their ancestors to intercede with God on their behalf. There is a whole package of religious culture in the Kunama daily life.
There is no question therefore that, the Kunama do, not only have a clear concept of
and belief in one God, but they are also a religious folk. They appeal to God for any problem, need and just judgement. We are here talking about the rural Kunama who had not yet been influenced either by Christianity or Islam.
Unlike the traditional and world religions like Christianity and Islam, the Kunama religion knows neither clergy nor any types of religious rites, celebrations or functions performed in congregation and in established localities such as churches or mosques. It does not even use formal set of prayers or body positions like kneeling or prostrating. The Kunama has a natural attitude towards the material as well as spiritual matters.
It is a kind of religion consisting purely on personal and basic belief in the existence of one God (Annam koske = God exists), who has created and governs everything
(Anna laga = God's earth/world/universe) and possesses all the other divine attributes.
The Kunama prays and performs his/her religious duties alone and in any given time. The need for a prayer to God is very often suggested by circumstances.
Though compared with Christianity and Islam, the Kunama religion is very simple and practices a direct and personal contact with God, the Kunama values morality and has a clear concept of good and bad, virtue and vice, guilt and innocence just like the doctrines of the two religions.
Not having a clergy and therefore lacking of qualified personnel purely interested in the theological field, the Kunama religion has remained in its basic level.
In one of our previous writings on the "Kunama Beliefs", we had to clarify a few points on the religion of the Kunama people.
Many foreign and local missionaries as well as lay people have, in the past, regarded
and defined the Kunama people as, pagans, animists, a-religious and so on.
We had to prove and dispel all those false theories that the Kunama in fact are not only religious but also believing in Monotheism based, in great part, on Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Taking into account all the characteristics of the Kunama religion, which are in no way different from the fundamental doctrines of the major world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, we believe that, in Eritrea, the Kunama religion has to have its full right to exist and enjoy an equal status with Christianity and Islam.
When talking or writing on religion, many Eritrean scholars and experts in religious affairs, both Christians as well as Moslems, keep ignoring the existence of other religions like that of the Kunama people.
They keep generalising and insisting that, "Eritrea is home to Christianity and Islam; that the Eritrean population is divided into Christians and Moslem;
that the Eritrean social, economic and political demands should be met on the bases of Christianity and Islam and on the needs of their adherents.
We ask: where do we categorise, the Kunama, the Baria/Nara and all the other Eritrean citizens who either have beliefs of their own or they are even non-believers?
On what social, economic and political bases can their needs and demands be met?
Are all Kunama, Baria/Nara and other Eritreans either Christians or Moslem?
Has any authority, whether governmental or civilian, ever made a study of the Kunama and of the Baria/Nara ethnic groups and their religious beliefs and practices and made a thorough assessment of their religious life? On what bases could generalisations of this kind be accepted as objective and fair ones?
If we recognise 8 (eight) or 9 (nine) Eritrean ethnic groups, we are bound to recognise, respect and protect also their religious beliefs and values which could be as different as their languages and cultures.
There are also other Eritrean individuals or ethnic groups members adhering to or holding religious convictions which are not necessarily either Christian or Moslem.
They are just non-believers but they too are Eritreans with all rights.
One should not and does not have to forget that, in the African context, the indigenous beliefs or religions of the various folk-groups are very much attached to and identified with the traditions and cultural values of their forefathers, land and their immediate environment. The Kunama is a typically one of those folk groups.
Religion or a belief, especially an African one, is based on communal or personal convictions, emotions, traditions and ethnic values, closely linked to tribal and ancestral set of values and transmitted from generation to generation.
The Kunama indigenous religion is one having and taking such exclusive ethnic or tribal form where it becomes an integral part of that culture.
Any Kunama or any African, for that matter, being converted to either Christianity or Islam practically is moving out of his/her ethnic group’s culture as he/she starts dropping his/her ethnic values and slowly assimilates the doctrines of the new religion. The acceptance of the concept and values of the new religion demand conformity and uniformity from the members of that religion or denomination. This obviously implies that the proselytes have to be awakened to new realities in their life. In other words, the new African Christian or Moslem, by assuming new set of foreign values, loses his or her own indigenous ones thus practically losing his/her own identity. One however is not denying and does not mean to deny or despise the intrinsic values of the two religions one adheres to , but the reality is that, for the new convert a new way of life begins as the old religious life-style ends.
As this process is let to take its time to develop, the African is gradually “europeanised or arabised” not only in religious but also in social terms.
The post-European colonisation period in Africa has been seeing a revival and re-appraisal of the cultural and religious values of the various native African populations. Whatever African religious or cultural heritages which had, in the past, been described and defined by the foreign missionaries as primitive, valueless and against reason and the doctrines of the revealed religions as well as contrary to their own beliefs and convictions, are today being re-considered, revised, re-evaluated and brought to the level of or given an equal consideration like the traditions, the social and the religious values of those same missionaries. They are calling it "the revival and re-evaluation of the African cultural and religious values". They are even going so far as admitting that their whole approach to the African religious world had been too subjective, inconsiderate, insensitive and damaging.
If therefore, the foreigners themselves, who, by the way, were the ones who had imported and transplanted the doctrines and the religious values of Christianity and Islam in Africa, are reconsidering their past and inappropriate methods of their missionary work and are now starting to give great importance to local traditions, beliefs and ethnic values, we Africans should not be so fanatically religious to the point of imposing, on our own fellow-Africans, that same set of foreign moral and religious values with which we ourselves had been indoctrinated by those foreign missionaries in the first place. We Africans in fact, should be very proud of having a set of moral and religious values of our own based on our unique and varied cultures. We should expect and require that, if at all, both the "Christianisation and Islamisation" processes should take place based on our own existing values and not that we ourselves should be led into accepting and adapting to foreign values.
Shortly put: our African religious values may be "christianised and islamised" but not supplanted or devalued.
Many Eritrean scholars and experts in religious matters, both Christians as well as Moslems are nowadays ignoring the existence of other beliefs or religions, like that of the Kunama, in Eritrea.
Thank God, the Kunama people have managed to keep their indigenous religion and religious values still intact and therefore the Kunama religion has to be recognised, respected and given its proper place in Eritrea.
There are also many other Eritreans who are not necessarily Christians or Moslems.
In facts of religion, as it implies a personal conviction or faith, the Eritrean society has to enjoy the fullest freedom of choice and practice.
In the social, political and economic matters, laws and principles are to be based on common human ground and not on restricted religious doctrines which may well suit the adherents of one religion but they may be of hindrance to others.
The state, the government and the whole social, economic and political apparatus of the Eritrean society has to be based on purely human, secular and neutral values.
It is up to every individual, religious or other communities to determine and guide their own "modus credendi, vivendi et operandi"
It is our stand that, religious and human matters, as well as their related values and activities, should and have to be looked at and dealt with from a very distinctive angle. They are not and cannot be taken as equally applicable to all ways of life and acceptable to all members of our society.
Religion/faith is "belief in divine truth without proof” and
reason is the "power of the mind to understand and form opinions”.
There is therefore, no way of categorising human beings and their beliefs and conceptions in a clear-cut divisions and identify them only as Christians or Moslems.
In the new Eritrean context, there is a strong tendency nowadays to follow this principle of categorising the Eritrean ethnic groups and their members either as Christians or Moslems. This may imply that, those ethnic groups or the ethnic group members who have not yet adhered to either of the two major religions in Eritrea, are to be compelled to get their “religious membership cards” in order to be considered as “full members” of the Eritrean society,
As it is being described and condemned as “injustice”, the present EPLF/PFDJ requirements to obtain its party membership cards to be considered as “full Eritrean citizens”, the religious affiliations and associations too seem to have become “sine qua non” requirements in the Eritrean citizenship issue.
No civil authority, no government and no religious group or denomination should claim the right to interfere in the religious matters of an ethnic group, of its members or in the private religious affairs of a citizen.
The social, economic and political matters of a country or a nation are to be based on purely neutral values and not to meet the demands of particular religious groups at the disadvantage of those ethnic groups or citizens considered as a-religious.
The separation between religion and politics has to be clear-cut so that a citizen is free to belong to or join a religion as he or she is free to join or reject a political party.
History has more than often proven that, the prohibitions of religions and religious practices have always been counter-productive as they led people to be either more religious or even become religious fanatics and extremists
It is not therefore to assume that, such extremist elements could be only Christians or Moslems but also others very much attached to their natural, ethnic or indigenous beliefs or religions.
The ordinary Kunama have their indigenous religion which has to be recognised, respected and protected just like Christianity and Islam.
The Kunama indigenous religion has to enjoy an equal status and rights as it is expected to fulfil its duties of meeting the religious sentiments and demands of its adherents.
The RKPHA (August 2001).