Though a majority of West Africans have now adopted Abrahamic religions such as Islam or Christianity, there are still pockets of people who adhere to the spirituality of their ancestors. Even among those who’ve embraced imported religions, vestiges of their traditional beliefs systems remain manifestly visible in the masked dances, in the festivals and celebrations, that continue to animate the cultures of West Africa.
West African religion(s) have traditionally permeated every aspect of the practitioners’ daily lives. Even mundane activities such as farming, trading, smithing or even simply the act of speaking, were imbued with spiritual significance and earthly consequences, both good and bad. So integrated was spirituality to every gesture of life, that many West African converts to the new religions could never totally relinquish the elements of their traditional faith and were accused, throughout history, of idolatry or practicing bastardized forms of Islam or Christianity.
Naming West African Religion
The traditional belief systems, spirituality and faith of West African peoples has been described in more or less disparaging terms over the course of history, broad terms that fail to reflect the complexity and depth of these beliefs: “paganism”, “animism”, “ancestor-worship”, “idolatry”, “fetishism”, “heathenism”, etc. Only by giving a belief system a proper name can a comprehensive, complex theology and cosmology emerge, along with a more nuanced and thorough comprehension.
Religions are generally named after their founders, their gurus, their legendary figures who taught the core ideology. There would be no Christianity without Jesus Christ, no Muhammadanism (Islam) without Muhammad, no Buddhism without Buddha.
Although the traditional religions in West Africa have individuals and supernatural beings who contributed to the richness of their respective belief systems, each lack any identifiable founding figure. What they do each embrace is a main God, the God of gods known by various appellations, which could, hypothetically, be used as a name for each religion as a whole. The Yoruba religion could conceivably be called “Olodumareism” after their Supreme God, Olodumare. Similarly, the Ewe religion could be called “Mawuism”, the Igbo religion “Chukwuism”, the Mende religion “Ngewoism”, etc.
Yet, despite the various names different ethnic groups give to their individual pantheons of gods and regardless of the wildly divergent myths that accompany them from one region to another in West Africa, there are underlying, strikingly unifying, core similarities between all of the traditional religions, including the belief in:
- A unique Supreme Being, distant, omniscient, omnipotent creator of the world.
- Intermediate divinities or spirits who bridge the gap between God and man.
- Ancestral spirits who watch over their descendants.
- Magic and other spiritual forces that influence the lives of humans.
So remarkably alike in their fundamental structure and essence, could these traditional, regional, belief systems be grouped, after all, under the all-inclusive term “West African Religion”? This question sparked debate when the singular term was first proposed, along with the inevitable follow-up question: should religion be plural? Perhaps it is appropriate that both Olodumareists and Chukwuists be unified under the singular, overarching name, “West African Religion”, just as both Catholics and Mormons, despite divergences, are placed within the brackets of “Christianity” and both Sunnis and Shias within those of “Islam”.
There is even a valid argument to be made for moving beyond the term “West African Religion” to a singular, broader “African Religion” (or “Africism” as proposed by Lugira), since the above unifying, core elements are present in traditional religions throughout the continent.
Magic, Medicine, and Objects
One of the more visible forms that West African religion takes, consistent no matter the culture, is through its objects ― masks, statuettes, charms, amulets, and talismans― thought to contain magical powers, luck, blessings, or even individual souls. These objects are held in veneration because of their power, and if not carefully handled, are feared for their volatility. Rituals are performed to keep evil forces away from the family or society wherever charms are kept. Sacrifices are made to invoke their power or to appease it, preventing the release of that same power.
Pregnant women often wear charms to ensure a safe delivery of a healthy child. Bambara hunters and healers wear talismans pinned or sown to their Bògòlanfini (mud cloth) tunics to ward against the spirits of the bush who would lead them astray. Many groups, including the Yoruba, create carved figures to hold the soul of a deceased twin child, in order to care for and appease its spirit. Masks, containing the essence of the spiritual world, are not only ceremonially worn, but ritually stored and protected.
But West African religion moves far beyond simple fetishism or idolatry and into something one might call animism or pantheism: everything, including objects, plants, rocks, weather phenomena, and even human speech, has an intrinsic life force. The names may vary: Oro (Yoruba), Nyama (Mande) , Tsav (Tiv), Se (Fon), but the force they refer to is one and the same, the primal energy of creation itself.
But there are also other forces at play, the belief in which is also consistent throughout traditional West Africa, like magic …
Magic, a neutral force, is held to be ever-present in the world and capable of either being used for good or diverted for evil. It is neither the smoke-and-mirrors illusory-style magic of the western stage, nor the wizardry of fantasy genres created by the western world, but something intrinsic, concrete, and potentially dangerous. Magic, in this corner of the world, is wielded by witches who are deadly and dreaded, possessed as they are by extra-human, evil forces. The witches of West Africa are thought to be born with these magical powers or to have learnt or “caught” them from another, inevitably using their powers for nefarious purposes: illnesses, curses, misfortune, miscarriage, and death. Only a skilled healer can cure the disharmony and unrest caused by witchcraft: a witch doctor, who, contrary to popular belief, is not a witch himself but a respected member of society, aiding the bewitched and the surrounding community by creating medicines, amulets, charms, and talismans for protection.
These spiritual forces of life and magic are closely entwined with the spirit world, an underlying truth shared by traditional West African religion(s).
Spirits, Ancestors, and Divinities
The Spirit World
The spirit world, while invisible to humans, is very real, and present all around them, at all times. Ancestral spirits, natural spirits of the elements, and evil spirits are never very far away, always trying to influence the lives of the living. But it is at night that they are the most active, have the most power, are the most feared.
Rare is the society in West Africa that doesn’t have prohibitions concerning nighttime. In Dogon country, it is forbidden to whistle or make any other noise at night for fear of attracting the attention of evil spirits. In Igboland, one must never answer to the call of one’s name by an unseen nighttime voice. And all throughout West Africa, weavers abandon their looms after dusk, blacksmiths their forges, mancala players their boards, handing them back over to the spirit world from which all human innovation originated.
Ancestors are the closest link between the living and the dead, Heaven and Earth. People who have lived long, righteous lives may be admitted to the realm of ancestors in death. As benevolent spirits, they return to their families from time to time, watch over them, and are granted spiritual control of the family’s affairs. In times of trouble, people can make sacrifices to their ancestors in hopes of guidance. Failure to connect with the ancestors through prayer and sacrifices, or acting in ways that offend them, is believed to lead to catastrophe.
Beyond the ancestors, there are pantheons of divinities.
Many groups, though not all, believe in a pantheon of divinities who can be called upon to intervene in the affairs of men and spirits. The Yoruba know these divinities as the orisha, the Akan as the abosom, the Ewe and Fon as the vodun. The Dogon have similar divinities in the nommo, androgynous anthropo-amphibian beings.
Divinities vary quite a bit from one group to the next, but are identifiable in that each is a force of nature, often an embodiment of human endeavor, that controls the affairs of the cosmos. Though there are no temples to these divinities, there are often shrines where sacrifices and prayers can be sent in times of trouble. There are many of these deities, since each represent a facet of human existence and knowledge and they are often thought to have taught mankind their knowledge. The Yoruba for example, deify Ogun, the god of warfare, hunting and modern technology, Orunmila, the god of wisdom, destiny, and agriculture, etc. The Mande people have Faro, the androgynous deity of water.
The line between spirits and divinities is very blurry. Exceptional ancestors may become gods in death, such as Oduduwa, the first Yoruba king of Ile-Ife in Nigeria.
Sometimes, these divinities are even thought to have had a part to play in the creation of the world, but not always…
The Supreme Being
West African Religion revolves around one core, unique Supreme Being; a single, distant God, who is credited with creating the world either him/herself or delegating that task to lesser divinities. While the other divinities serve as mediating forces between human beings, spirits and the Supreme Being, the God of gods is unknowable, omnipotent and omniscient, controlling the affairs of men and the other divinities but unreachable or unwilling to receive prayers or worship.
The Supreme Being is known under many different names across West Africa: the Yoruba know of Olodumare as the supreme orisha; among the Ewe it is Mawu, the Togbe, the ultimate Grandfather; the Ga know him as Nyonmo and call him by the title Ataa-Naa (Grandfather and Grandmother) of all creation.
The Supreme Being is often thought of as being a sky god, residing far above the heads of his creations and other divinities, making his or her presence known through rumbling thunder and flashes of lightning. Each ethnic group has a slightly different conception of God, though.
The Dogon Supreme Being and Hidden God, Amma, is the one who holds the entire world in his or her palms. Speaking his or her name implores and encourages Amma to continue to hold it. Amma, embodying great creative potential as the one who formed the earth, matter itself, and the process of biological reproduction is also paradoxically thought to be very small, so small as to be invisible.
The Mende Supreme Being, Ngewo, is a creator God whose creative power asserts itself at all times. The renewal of plant life, the birth of humans and animals, the appearance of lightning and waterfalls, the fall of rain and the push of the wind; all of it is Ngewo’s doing.
The Supreme Being of the Bambara, Bemba or Ngala, created everything including himself. This singular God has four aspects: Bemba, master of air, Nyale (also known as Mousso Koroni Koundye), master of fire, Faro, master of water, and Ndomadyiri, master of Earth. Together as one, the four aspects of Bemba rule over all of the primordial elements.
For the Nupe of Nigeria, the universe consists solely of Soko (God). As such, he is at once far away and near.
In the Vodun tradition of the Ewe and Fon people, Mawu-Lisa is the supreme God. Mawu is the female aspect associated with the moon, fertility, gentleness, forgiveness, while Lisa is the male principle associated with the sun, power, war, strength, and toughness. These two aspects of the same supreme Entity were at the center of creation.
The Supreme Being, whether it be Olodumare, Mawu-Lisa, Ngewo, Amma, or others, although often invoked in speech and proverbs, is not regularly worshiped, and is only prayed to when all other solutions have failed. There are no dedicated temples or priesthoods, no sacred texts to be read or memorized, no painted or sculpted images of God. Children learn of God through stories told by elders, through proverbs associated with those stories and recalled when the situation arises, through other expressions and greetings. Among those stories that tell of the creation of the world, the place of humans in it, and the meaning of a well-lived life, is often one story to explain why the Supreme Being is so distant and need not be worshiped.
The Mende say that Ngewo grew tired of the constant solicitations of humans, and, having offered the assistance needed, he simply withdrew from the world one night while everyone was asleep, delegating most of his governing power to ancestral and natural spirits. Out of respect for Ngewo’s wishes, prayers are only very rarely addressed directly to him.
The Efik say that Abasi, the creator God of the world, was disgusted with the greedy ways of his human children, who caused strife, tensions, heartbreaks, jealousy, hatred, war, and death, and after failing to control them, he retired in bitter disappointment into the far reaches of the sky, leaving humans to deal with their own affairs. With no hope of ever coaxing Abasi back to their society to grant wisdom and advice, the Efik seek such things from strong ancestral spirits instead.
Polytheism or Monotheism?
Classification is never easy, as seen in the “West African Religion(s)”, plural versus singular debate, but it may be even harder when trying to pigeonhole traditional belief systems into mutually-exclusive categories, like “polytheism or monotheism’, a dichotomy that, like ‘black or white’, fails to discern the nuanced grays of not only the African paradigm, but also of, surprisingly, the so-called monotheistic world religions.
The archetype of a unique, omniscient, omnipotent Supreme Being, the hallmark of monotheism, is, in each case, elaborated by an intricate complex panoply of spirits and divinities, angels, demons or saints, giving some sort of polychromatic hue, to one extent or the other, to all of these religions.
The line between polytheism and monotheism seems all the more blurred when juxtaposing two other religions: Hinduism and Christianity. Hinduism is widely considered to be a polytheistic religion, where multiple gods are but manifestations of a single divine being named Brahman. In Christianity, where three distinct and divine entities, the Holy Trinity, are also held to be aspects of a single god, is a belief system that is classified as monotheistic. West African religion(s) obscure the line even further, with a hierarchical architecture that, in many ways, resembles them both.
Perhaps it has the sophistication to straddle the line, to be recognized as a kind of diffused monotheism that adheres to a sole and unique creator to whom it consecrates, unlike its nonindigenous counterparts, no temple, no text, and, with a polyad of powerful intermediates, very little earthly worship.
Names of West African religion’s Supreme Being for different ethnic groups (non-exhaustive):
|Ethnic Group||Name(s) of Supreme Being (God)|
|Bambara||Maa Ngala, Masa Dembali|
|Igbo||Chi, Chiukwu, Chineke, Olisa|
|Yoruba||Oluwa, Olodumare, Oloun|
Sources and Further Reading
- Asante, M. K. & Mazama, A. (2009). Encyclopedia of African Religion. USA: SAGE publications.
- Awolalu, J. O. (1975). What is African Traditional Religion? Studies in Comparative Religion, 9:1. Retrieved Decenber 3, 2018 from Studies in Comparative Religion.
- [French] Griaule, M. (1975). Dieu d’eau : Entretiens avec Ogotommêli. Paris, France: Fayard.
- Idowu, E. B. (1973). African Traditional Religion: A Definition. London, UK: SCM Press.
- Lugira, A. M. (2005). Africism: The Unifying Name of African Autochthonal Religion and Philosophy. Winchester, MA: African Resource Institute.
- Lugira, A. M. (2009). African Traditional Religion, 3rd edition. New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers.