Last week’s post mentioned that ancestors are theologically similar to saints. A poor understanding of who is an ancestor is a challenge to the understanding of ancestors as saints among contemporary African Christians. Language is one problem.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an ancestor as “one from whom a person is descended and who is usually more remote in the line of descent than a grandparent”. Oxford Dictionary defines it as “a person in your family who lived a long time ago”. Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a person related to you who lived a long time ago”. From the above, one sees that the English definition of an ancestor is clear. Ancestors refer to any member of our family who lived long before us.
However, in the African traditional thought system, ancestors do not refer to every family member who lived long before us. According to K. O. Opoku, an ancestor is a forebear who lived a life worthy of emulation, lived to a ripe old age, had children, and died a good death. A good death is one not caused by an accident, suicide, any form of violence (this excludes heroic deaths in defence of one’s community or society), or unclean diseases such as lunacy, dropsy, leprosy, and epilepsy.
We venerate ancestors in the traditional African worldview because the cult of ancestors occupies a pride of place. Cyprien Mbuka affirms: “Among the dead, ancestors occupy the first place because they play an important role in African soteriology. With regard to the living on this earth, they have a threefold relationship: the fundamental source of life, a continuous presence among us, and mediation between God and us”. As intermediaries, humans make offerings and sacrifices to them to relay their petitions to God and to reconcile humans and the divine. Francis Arinze argues that people pray more to ancestors than to God and that apart from their daily invocation and veneration, there is a special yearly feast in honour of all the ancestors.
The word ‘ancestral’ is an adjective of the noun ‘ancestor’. Unfortunately, the prevalent ideology today is that ‘ancestral curses’ are hindering the progress of people. This Pentecostal ideology, which sadly has crept into the Catholic Church, erroneously misunderstands our ancestors by lumping all our forebears (the good and the bad) into one category.
Moreover, one struggles to reconcile this ideology with the scriptures. Ezekiel 18 says: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’? (v. 1) As I live, says the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel (v.3). The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself (v. 20).
On the one hand, the problem of language is why the Zairian liturgical rite approved by the Holy See adds an extra phrase while invoking ancestors at mass. It reads: “invocation ancêtres au coeur droit”, that is “invocation of ancestors of upright heart”.
On the other hand, while some may argue that there are spiritual causes of failures attributed to our forebears, the number of cases attributed to them is nowhere near the reality. One wonders why the Europeans, despite their genocide and brutality of indigenous peoples by their forebears, are not suffering from ‘ancestral curses’.
Hence, instead of praying to our ancestors as we invoke the intercession of the saints, we pray against them. It is even more disheartening that whilst still praying to God to deliver us from ‘ancestral curses’, we keep supporting our oppressors and those who have caused Nigeria’s failure; we keep fighting those who want to liberate us from them. This is the real curse.
We should rather direct our prayers toward God delivering us from Stockholm syndrome.
May God continue to help us🙏🏾
 Opoku K.O, West African Traditional Religion, Accra: Fep International Private Ltd, 1978, 36
 Mbuka Cyprien, Proclamation and dialogue with African Traditional Religion
 Arinze Francis, Sacrifice in Igbo Traditional Religion, Ontisha: Brothers of St Stephen, 2008, 36 -37