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One of the major concerns of all religions and people groups in the world have been the origin, nature and destiny of humanity as well as the relationship between humanity and God. This issue is not overlooked in African religion as the origin of human beings and the relationship between God and human beings is exhaustively dealt with. In this unit, you will study the origin of human beings and representative concepts of humanity in African Traditional Religion.


By the end of this unit you should be able to:

  1. explain the African understanding of the origin of human beings 
  2. narrate Yoruba concept of human beings 
  3. narrate the Akan concept of human beings. 


3.1 The Origin of Human Beings

All over Africa human beings are regarded as the creatures of God. There may be marked differences in the myths about the manner in which they are brought into existence from one locality to the other but the fact remains that they are brought into being through the instrumentality of God.

Apart from this, it is also held that human beings enjoy a special relationship with God. They believe that God has placed them over all other creatures by giving them intelligence and freedom to choose. This relationship is often defined most of the time in terms of father-son relationship. It is not marked only by submissiveness, obedience and resignation to the will of God on the part of human beings but also with love, protection and care from God. Africans also in various myths have pictured the separation between human beings and God. The idea is that in the beginning God lives among human beings in close fellowship but because of their way of behaviour, God eventually distanced himself from them thus still allowing them access to him.

In the area of essence, Africans generally hold that human beings are much more than flesh and blood. They hold that there is something which forms the essence of man’ being. They hold that this essence is invisible but it is real as it is being manifested in sundry ways. To illustrate this view you will read about some concepts of man in Africa.

3.2 Yoruba Concept of Human Beings

The first important concept of Yoruba about human beings is the division of man into constituent parts. According to them there are five parts that makes up the human being. These are: ara, ojiji, okan, emi and on. Ara is the physical body of human beings. This is the part of the body that is being shared with other animals. It is that which is used to act and react on the physical environment. It is however seen as the temple or the house for the other constituent parts. It is also held that after the death of human beings it is the physical body that is buried and allowed to perish.

Ojiji can be translated shadow in English. For the Yoruba the visible shadow that is cast by the human body is representative of the invisible human person, that is, the real man. The basis of this belief is the fact that at death, the shadow ceases to exist and vanishes with the essence of the person. While alive however, it is held that the shadow as a constant companion of the body can be used to cause harm to the body through charms and evil medicines.
Okan, the third component can be translated as the heart. This would mean the natural or the physical heart. This component is closely connected with the blood. However for the Yoruba, the material heart that can be seen and that is shared with other lower animals is only representative of the immaterial and invisible heart. To them, the immaterial heart is the seat of intelligence, thought and action. The same word is also used to mean the mind or mentality of human beings.

The fourth part is the emi which is translated as the breath or the spirit. This to the Yoruba is the manifestation of life. This is what gives life to the physical body. It is believed that at death the breath ceases to exist because the owner of the spirit (that is God) has claimed it back. The spirit of human beings, according to the above statement ultimately belongs to God and he can demand it back from them at any time he wishes to.

The fifth constituent part of human beings is called ‘on’. This can be translated as head. In the physical set up, on is that part of human beings that contains the brain and is the seat of intellect. As with almost all other constituents, the physical head is just a symbol of the spiritual head which is usually called ‘on-mu’ (literally the inner head). It is the inner head that controls the whole personality of human beings. It is believed that the spiritual head is closely related to God and is actually given to man according to his choice in the presence of Orunmila who is called the witness of destiny.
The Yoruba believes that a person’s spiritual head may be good or bad depending upon so many factors. It is also believed that basically all spiritual head is good but a person’s character may affect his spiritual head. When this happens, the corrupted spiritual head would then affect the whole course of the person’s life adversely. Therefore the Yoruba often pray that their inner head would not affect the physical head negatively.

OH is sometimes considered to be the human being’s double or counterpart or guardian angel. It is often referred to as “enikeji” which will literally translate “my second person”. This is the basis for the prayer that “may your head be with you and prosper you” when people are about to undertake a journey or a business enterprise. In the same vein, young women going into marriage are usually advised that they should not take beauty with them to their husband’s house but they should rather take their spiritual head along. The place of on among the Yoruba is so important that it is believed that once your spiritual head is in good order, no human being has need of medicine or magic. In fact your head can protect you from anyone who wishes to harm or injure you. This is why at times among the Yoruba; on can be classified as a divinity. In fact there is a saying that people should have appeased their head first before appeasing any divinity. It is not surprising therefore to see people worship on among the Yoruba. Those who are rich made a house for their on sometimes using 40,000 cowries. This is called ile-ori (the house of the head). There is a very close relationship among the Yoruba between the spiritual head and the concept of destiny. Destiny is therefore called iponri, that is, the predestined lot. There is a Yoruba myth that teaches that after human beings have been created they go to the house of Ajala the smith of heaven to choose their head. It is believed that the choice that is made at this point is what determines their journey on earth. It goes a long way to determine character, occupation, success in life, the sum total of fortunes and misfortunes as well as the time of death. It is believed that once chosen this cannot be altered.

There are however some factors that can change a happy destiny to an unhappy one.

The first of these factors is one’s guardian angel. A person’s guardian angel is capable of altering the person’s destiny from a happy to an unhappy one. This can be noticed when things suddenly go bad for one. In other to keep the situation normal, regular offerings are given to the spiritual head. It has to be noted however that one’s spiritual head can make one to have an unfortunate incidence in order to keep one away from being harmed by other negative forces.

The second factor as indicated earlier is one’s character. Yoruba believes that a person whose character is below expectation has already spoilt his own destiny. The Yoruba say that character is like a divinity which if given regular worship gives one prompt protection.

The third factor is the divinities. The divinities can altar a person’s destiny if that person has violated divine laws. These divine laws are the laws that have to do with both God-humanity as well as humanity to humanity relationships. The divinities can by way of punishment alter a person’s destiny. This however can be appeased by sacrifices and by propitiating the divinities concerned.

The final factor is the evil ones of the world that the Yoruba euphemistically call “onto araye”, that is, the children of this world. In this category are witches, sorcerers, those that poison as well as all who engage in the business of destroying the lives of others. These factors can be put at abeyance by one’s spiritual head.

3.3 The Akan Concept of Human Beings

The Akan concept is a very complex one involving the interplay between the Okra or Kra; the Sunsum; the Ntoro and the Mogya.

The Okra is the essence of being, that is the personality soul. It is also the guardian angel or spirit protecting and guarding human beings. It is said also to be able to cause prosperity and adversity. The Akan believe that it is okra that receives human destiny before God. Such destiny is sealed as received and when the person comes into the world it is only okra that knows all about the person’s destiny and it stands by the person to show the person how to achieve the destiny. It is believed that okra leaves a dying person gradually until the person takes the last breath. It is assumed that when the dying person is panting or gasping for breath, the okra is climbing the hill to the land of the spirits. As guardian and protector, okra receives certain sacrifices. Okra can also be purified from any form of defilement in a ceremony called Kra dwari, that is, the washing of the soul. This is done on the day that the person is born.

The sunsum is almost identical with the okra although it appears to be distinct. It is seen as the intangible element in human beings which accounts for their character and disposition. It is the sunsum that individualizes a child making the child what the child is: kind, stupid, eloquent, clever, lazy or hardworking. The Akan however believes that the child has the same spirit as the father. As a result-they hold that a child cannot live if separated from the father’s sunsum. Therefore, if a child falls sick in the absence of the father and gets well as soon as the father returns they say that the father’s sunsum has acted as a cover for the child. Sunsum is believed to be the spiritual cause of sickness. A strong sunsum is the most potent antidote against witchcraft and bad magic. It is also assumed that it is the sunsum of the witch that leaves the body of the witch to perform misdeeds that are associated with the witches. It is also assumed to be associated with dreams and perishes at the death of the person.

Another element is known as Ntoro. It is believed that during the process of procreation, ntoro is the part transmitted by the male while the blood is transmitted by the woman and the mixture results in pregnancy. Throughout life ntoro is said to exercise a creative function. When a child reaches the age of puberty, the child will observe the fathers ntoro or behaves like the father unconsciously. Those who belong to the same ntoro group is said to have the similar sunsum.

The fourth and the final component of human beings according to Akan concept is the mogya. The mogya is believed to be given by the mother to the child. The mogya, which can be translated blood from the mother, gives the child status and membership within the family. It also spells out the child’s obligation as a citizen in a matrilineal society as the Akan.

In the Akan concept, a child is formed when the father’s ntoro cooperates with the mother’s mogya at the time of conception. It is also believed that at death the mogya of the person goes down to the mother-earth and the okra returns to the Creator.

In summary, in the Akan concept, a human being is made up of the okra (soul), the sunsum (spirit), the ntoro and the mogya. These different components however do not give a different personality but a united one.


In this unit you have studied about the African concept of humanity as being created by God and being in perfect harmony with God from the beginning. After this, because of humanity’s disobedience God eventually withdrew from humanity. You have also studied about the Yoruba and the Akan concept of man as having the physical and the spiritual parts.


The following are the major points that you have learnt in this unit:

  1. Africans believe that human beings were created by God 
  2. The Africans believe that there are both spiritual and physical aspects to humanity. 
  3. An example of this belief is the Yoruba concept that a human being has five parts, namely ara, ojiji, okan, emi and on. 
  4. The Akan also name four aspects to human beings, namely: Okra or Kra; the Sunsum; the Ntoro and the Mogya. 


Using the Akan and the Yoruba concept of human beings, discuss the African concept of humanity.


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