The Sanctity of life is a deep symbolic aspect of the cultural values in the African cosmology.
The African world per se is a world of animate, inanimate and spiritual beings. For traditional Africans, this is nature and they perceived it as encapsulating all needs human beings depend on such as; food, clothe, shelter, medicine, tools, etc.
It is just like an immense womb, says Edward Kanyike (2018), warm and pulsating with life and reality. In respect to this, the African sees not only human life as sacred but all sources of life.
Oliver Onwubiko in his African Thought, Religion and Culture (1991) noted that trees and animals believed to facilitate reincarnation are also sacred. In his study of West African novels, Obiechina (1975) recorded that “Mystical association with nature is well illustrated by the large number of trees sacred to minor gods and spirits. Almost all the novels set in traditional villages mention sacred or mystically charged trees”.
In relation to this, De Graeve affirmed also that sap-filled trees in India and Africa are theophanies of divine motherhood. Women who wished to be fertile and spirits of the dead who want to be reborn seek such trees.
In many African myths, spirits are presented also as talking animals which drives home the reason they are held as sacred. In Malawi, for instance, the small reddish spider called Mulungu which appears after the rain is associated with divinity.
Intertwined as it is with the sacred, all sources of life then share also the ambivalence of the sacred. This mutual association crystallizes why the African cosmos is a composition of animate, inanimate and spiritual beings as earlier stated.
The concept of the sanctity of life therefore brings to light the inviolability of life. It denotes that God alone is the giver and author of life and human beings are only the custodians. This concept is fittingly captured in the Fifth commandment which reads: “You shall not kill” (cf. Ex. 21:13).
Its positive enjoinment entails preservation of life. Before the advent of Christianity, the traditional Africans had this concept engraved in their hearts and culture.
The African avoids violence and any act that threatens human life and existence, like; war, murder, abortion, suicide, etc. There were cases in which people were killed but those people who were killed were those whose continued existence was a threat to others and to the peace of the community.
Hence the Igbo aphorism oka mma na otu onye nwuru karia ohaneze (it is better for one man to die than for all the community to perish) is applicable here.
When all formal media taken to attain peace fail, war was seen as a last resort. War was when murder was committed officially or in self-defence but in the African culture, the murderer goes through a ritual of washing away the blood of the slain man off his hands and he is not expected to eat until the ritual is over.
Abortion was a taboo as well as murder and suicide. They were moral absolutes and the perpetrators were not left without punishment. If a person conscientiously killed another, the person faces death as well.
But if a kinsman is inadvertently killed by a member of the community, the person was exiled for a long period of time. This is traceable to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart when Okonkwo was exiled for inadvertently killing a kinsman. The one who commits suicide was not buried as a punitive measure because his or her body was believed to be abominable to mother earth.
Mbiti in his African Religions and Philosophy (1970) remarkably noted that the blood of virginity is the symbol that life has been preserved. He noted that it depicts the spring of life has not been flowing wastefully and that both the girl and her relatives have preserved the sanctity of human reproduction.
This sanctity of human reproduction derives its sacredness from the sanctity of life in the African concept. The sanctity associated with life says Oliver Onwubiko (1991) goes to explain the rigidity with which the Africans treat and regard sexual intercourse and the sex organs.
It’s quite unfortunate that in our African milieu hitherto, we experience acts contrary to the sacredness of life and human dignity in forms of abortion, suicide, jungle justice, murder, genocide, homosexuality, lesbianism, etc.
It is true that the African culture was one that encountered European culture through colonialism alongside Christianity through evangelization which caused a transformation of the African religion and culture.
The encounter was truly a gain and a loss. A gain in the sense that certain socio-cultural and religious tenets that eliminated life were brought to a stop through enlightenment and the Word of God, like; the killing of twins, beheading of virgins for funeral rites of kings, sacrificing human beings to gods, etc.
While gaining, the African culture was gradually loosing some of its cultural values to the influences of humanism, secularism, materialism, etc. For instance, in 1997, South Africa legalized abortion and in 2006, she legalized same sex marriage. Giving such acts a legal status is like a gradual obliteration and humiliation of humanity.
The successive acceleration of science and technology on the other hand, has taken over the ecology and endangering it by neglecting the African taboos and bans against the destruction of nature.
The Africans know that far from destroying nature, they ought to protect and preserve it due to the indissoluble harmony that exists in their cosmology. Those taboos and bans considered as pre-scientific as Edward Kanyike avers (2018), should be seen as the tenets of a science that we seem to have lost.
Finally, the Africans hold life in high esteem and this regard for life is summarized in some Igbo expressions like: Nduka (Life is supreme), Ndubuisi (Life is paramount), Ndukaaku (Life is better than riches), etc.
It subordinates matter to life and practically sees all forms of materialism, humanism, immorality, etc, which ultimately leads to the destruction of life as alien and destructive of the African culture and concept of the sanctity of life.
(Seat of Wisdom Seminary, Owerri).