West African Religions

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WEST AFRICAN RELIGIONS . West Africa lies between 5° to 23° north latitude, 23° east longitude, and 20° west longitude. It covers about one-fifth of the territory of sub-Saharan Africa and has a population of slightly more than 120 million people, about half of the total intertropical population of Africa. West Africa contains about six hundred ethnic groups, a loose designation with no scientific specificity. Throughout West Africa one finds large cultural variety with various local features.

Traditional religions in West Africa are original systems of relations between human beings and the not ordinarily seenbut not wholly invisiblerealm of the divine. There is no concept of original sin for either the individual or the group, but there is a central notion of redemption. The idea of humanity is equated with the lineage, especially with the clan, which is perceived as a social entity bearing the spiritual principle that defines the clan's originality and distinguishes it from other clans. In this context redemption is based in the individual; through the individual as intermediary, redemption extends to the level of the entire family or clan. Individuals can be seen, then, as their own redeemers; eschatology is thus a short-term operation, part secular and part religious. The role of this eschatology is to assure individuals of their reincarnation as ancestors or, still better, of their return to the earth to be among their people at some future time. Because of the diversity of West African peoples and religions, it is impossible to treat them all in a general review such as this one. Hence, in the interest of providing a panoramic view of West African religious experience, it has been necessary to emphasize some traditions and overlook others.

The Creator and Creation

Knowledge of the supreme being does not center on a particular set of religious teachings. Rather, one might say, religious adherents achieve their knowledge of God's nature indirectly through iconic images, symbols, metaphors, and metonyms. The principal element of this knowledge is the belief in the distance of God. Compared with a human, earth creature par excellence, the supreme being is so far away in space and in emotional perception that it sometimes cannot even be given a name, much less invoked or honored in worship. The Bwa of Mali, for example, have a name for God, but no cult is directed to God. The strategy of the African thought process concerning the nature of God is evident. The distance of God generates a religious need in humans; the absence of the divine gives birth to a quest for what is absent, a quest often satisfied through intermediaries more accessible than God.

The supreme being is not uniformly remote throughout West Africa. In a number of traditions, the supreme being is directly involved in everyday life, acting instead of, or in conjunction with, the lesser spirits. In these traditions, people feel a proximity to God that is analogous to the feelings they might have for their kin, and they appeal to and consult God through cults and rituals. Such is the case with Amma, supreme being of the Dogon, whose cults exist throughout all the villages of the Bandiagara cliffs in Mali. Similiar, though less striking, examples are the cult of Rog among the Serer, that of Ata Emit among the Diola, and that of Chukwu among the Igbo. In other traditions, as among the Ashanti, for example, contact with the supreme being is even more intimate: nearly every morning elders pour libations and offer prayers to Nyame (and often Asase Yaa), thanking him for his beneficence and asking for continued prosperity. Supreme beings who are not remote are accorded a variety of characteristics; it is often believed that they control rain and fertility, are a source of appeal in times of affliction, a force for justice in the world, and the guardians of the moral order.

Intermediary spirits are often punctual divinities or gods of specific circumstances, for example, patrons of such important events as war and hunting (Ogun of the Yoruba and Edo; Ta Tao of the Ashanti; Aflim, Dade, Kumi, and Otu of the Fanti; Gua of the Ga, and others). They may also be associated with atmospheric phenomena such as rain and wind, thunder and lightning, and rainbows (So of the Ewe, Xevioso of the Fon, ango of the Yoruba, and others). Finally, they may be deities of natural phenomena central to human life, such as the earth (Asase Yaa of the Ashanti, Tenga of the Mossi, Oduduwa of the Yoruba, Odua of the Gu, Ayi or Li of the Ewe, and others), the river (Faro of the Bambara, Yemja and ya of the Yoruba), the sea (Xu of the Fon), and the sun (Wende of the Mossi, Olorun of the Igbo, and others).

Reference should also be made here to the masters of smallpox, which is a feared and sacralized disease in West Africa. Smallpox is incarnated in the Sakpata divinity of the Fon and Ewe, in Ojuku of the Igbo, and in pna of the Yoruba. The religious importance of this illness lies in its royal character. In the myths of origin of the Kouroumba royalty (Yatenga kingdom in northern Burkina Faso), the first king descended from the sky carrying smallpox and was cured by agriculturalists. Smallpox is believed to be a sickness from the heavens that brings the mark of the starry firmament to the skin. Because its cure was provided by earth dwellers, the divinity who incarnated the disease is both God of the sky and of the earth.

Unlike all the secondary divinities, the supreme being is the creator. The creator alone enjoys this prerogative, although he does not constantly become involved in the details of creation. For example, the creator assigns the task of organizing the creation to a lesser spirit, or monitor, who thus becomes the first means of contact between the supreme being and humans. This occurs among the Bambara (Faro is the monitor for Bemba), the Yoruba (Oduduwa is the monitor for lrun), the Dogon (the Nommo are the monitors for Amma), and the Bwa (Do is the monitor for Debwenu).

Questions about the relations between the supreme being and the lesser spirits have been phrased in a number of ways. Are the lesser spirits extensions of the supreme being, or emissaries? Are they children of the supreme being? Do they have independent wills, and is there antagonism between them and the supreme being? In a sense, there is no one answer; questions such as these cannot be answered according to set theological principles but vary according to the believer's level of knowledge. Noninitiates and those who have little training tend to believe that the lesser spirits are separate from the supreme being (whether they are in a collaborative or conflicting situation with the supreme being) rather than being refractions of his power. Only initiates possessing great knowledge abandon this anthropomorphic view of divine realities. For them, the separation is an artificial concern brought about by the language of theology, invented by people who are unable to speak of God without humanizing God.

Africanists have often tried to establish complete inventories of the divinities encountered in one group or another. Some, for example, have found three hundred divinities among the Ewe, while others have identified from five to six hundred. This passion for inventories and numerical estimation is praiseworthy enough, but it is of no scientific interest. What seems clear in the present state of research is that the different cultures in West Africa all possess the idea of a creator divinity in a more or less developed fashion. This creator is not worshiped with altars, prayers, and sacrifices in all parts of West Africa, which can give the mistaken impression that relations between the human and the divine are not fully articulated.

We must take great caution when we use the word God in speaking of the supreme being of Africans, to whom this word does not have the same meaning as it does, for example, to Christians. Among the two best-studied populations of West Africa, the Bambara and the Dogon, it appears that God is a being who engendered himself; the creation he produced was contained in himself in the form of symbols before it was externalized. Analogous reservations must be made concerning the terms to create and creation. We often tend to associate these with the verbs to do or to make, but while this association is often accurate in African cosmological myths, it is not always so. Among the Bambara and the Dogon, for example, creation occurs by the thought and the word of God rather than by a manual act.

The Living and Their Ancestors

Not all deceased persons are elevated to the rank of ancestor, and death is not always a requirement for becoming an ancestor. In each society it is the living who select members for the rank of ancestor. Thus the notion of ancestralization relates, above all other considerations, to a social and religious model rooted in the idea of exemplarity, that is, in a model to be imitated in order to avoid perdition. Conduct in the human realm determines whether one is ancestralized and reincarnated (a good fate) or exiled into the bush to wander alone, eaten by animals and plagued by mosquitoes (as among the Diola), or condemned to the peppery place of potsherds (as among the Yoruba)all bad fates. It is significant to note here that a bad fate is never eternal; the concept of eternal damnation is foreign to African religious thought.

To become an ancestor, one must possess certain qualities. The first requirement is longevity; this cannot be achieved through human measures to conserve health but must be bestowed by God. Thus only the elderly can become ancestors. Also important is the individual's physical integrity and morality. Those who die from an ignominious disease (such as leprosy), the insane, those who suffer an accidental death (after a fall or by being struck by lightning), thieves, and those who have committed reprehensible acts cannot become ancestors. Finally, the person's social standing in the community is important. An outsider (a slave, for example), although accepted by, and integrated within, the society, is excluded from the ranks of the ancestors. But above all, the preeminent attribute that allows one to become an ancestor is the self-knowledge that gives a person self-control; this poise is the moral quality par excellence. All ancestors were, during their lifetime on earth, models of wisdom, self-control, dignity, and purity.

Since death does not mark the end of human existence but only its changed status, death usually constitutes the necessary condition of being an ancestor. However, this is not true in all West African societies. In a sense, to become an ancestor, an individual must achieve a certain distance from his descendants. This distance is not created solely by death: age itself can provide sufficient reason for becoming an ancestor. Thus, among the Mossi of Burkina Faso a great-great-grandfather can become an ancestor during his lifetime but only in a marginal sense. Such an ancestor can, should the occasion arise, be reborn during his lifetime in one of his descendants. This assertion is based on research among the Mossi, among it research conducted by Doris Bonnet. When an old person returns during his own lifetime in the body of a newborn, the infant is not likely to live long. These beliefs deserve more extensive study, particularly because the Mossi are not the only group in sub-Saharan Africa to hold them. Recent research reveals a similar situation among the Mongo people. The ancestor cannot, however, benefit from the worship of his family group until after his physical death, which is marked by a second funeral or by rituals performed at the burial sites (such as libations and sacrifices, both widely prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa) and modifications to the burial site itself (for example, construction of altars on top of the ancestor's tomb).

Another important characteristic of the world of the ancestors is its representation as a perfect community. Unlike the society of the living, the community of ancestors is cleansed of antagonism and tension. Ancestors can, of course, become angry or even suffer, but such feelings arise only as the result of neglect or of negative actions on the part of their living descendants.

The universe of the ancestors, sometimes seen as slow moving, is quite active. Although recollection of the ancestors fades because of the weakness of the collective memory of those on earth, the world of the ancestors is constantly renewed and kept vivid in the minds of the living through fresh deaths and reincarnations. Indeed, both worlds are enhanced by this process. For example, each death brings an ancestor into play in the world of the living; by dying or crossing the boundary caused by age, ancestors gain greater access to spiritual power and can thus assist their descendants as intermediaries. But at the same time, by gaining additional ancestors in their ranks, the ancestors acquire new cultural experiences and their world becomes enriched just as the world of the living is enriched by new births. Lastly, ties between the world of the living and that of the ancestors are further reinforced by reincarnation, or the return of the ancestor. Each ancestor can take corporeal form and return to the world when a suitable occasion arises or when he simply longs to return to earth. In a general way each society possesses rules that regulate the ancestor's method of return. These are usually very precise; among the Sara of Chad, for example, a grandfather always inhabits the body of the first grandson born after his death. Among the Yoruba, the process of return involves consultation with the supreme being. Before an ancestor is reborn, the ancestral guardian soul appears before lrun to receive a new body, a new breath, and its destiny for its new life on earth. The guardian soul kneels before the supreme being and asks for whatever destiny it wishes, but lrun will refuse to grant its desires if they are made arrogantly or selfishly. In most cases, the ancestor makes the decision concerning his or her own incarnation, while the living, with the help of various mediums or diviners, attempt to determine the ancestor's will.

The living interact with ancestors by offering them libations and sacrifices. Libations generally precede sacrifices and constitute an overture to dealings with the ancestors. The sacrifice, which is the high point of the ceremony, actively unites the living, in their quest and anticipation, with the dead, in their obligation to respond favorably. Dealings between the ancestors and the living should not be seen as one-sided attempts by weak humans to seek aid from the heavenly powers (as is the case in revelatory religions). These interactions are, in fact, bilateral obligations: humans need the ancestors because of powerlessness and his indigence; ancestors need to be remembered by humans so they can return to earth by being reborn within the bodies of children within their lineage. The relations between the living and the dead can thus be seen as a kind of individual redemption brought about by humankind's quest for immortality.

Fresh water, millet flour mixed with water, and millet beer or palm wine are usually used in the libations. Fresh water, which usually precedes and sometimes introduces the other two offerings, is an emollient; when poured on the altar it serves as a tender and affectionate gesture to the ancestor. Water and millet flour rise when they are combined, evoking the act of swallowing and its immediate involuntary result, digestion. This offering pushes the ancestor into action. Millet beer and palm wine are stimulants that excite and exalt the ancestors. In a way these drinks make the ancestors lose control and behave as the living wish them to. This last libation represents the final resort to the will of the ancestors before the noblest offering, animal sacrifice, is made.

Animal sacrifice is the most profound means of communicating with the invisible world. The most frequent sacrificial victims are white chickens (male and female) and goats. Sometimes a royal family may sacrifice horses or, as was once the case among the Mossi, human beings. Sometimes cattle are sacrificed, but this occurs only on rare occasions. As sacrificial animals, cattle are reserved for extraordinary events and people (for example, the absolution of an incestuous act, the funeral ceremonies of a chief). The rarity and great significance of these sacrifices can be explained by the fact that West Africa is largely a region of agriculturalists, not pastoralists.

Altars for the ancestors vary but most often consist of one or several stones placed on the ground. They can also be chairs (Ashanti, Ewe, Attie), pottery, clay stools, or doorposts. The officiating priests are either the eldest of the lineage (clan) or a person specifically designated by the group. There are cases, however, as among the Dogon, in which the role is filled in part by a person designated by the ancestor himself.

Places of Worship

Generally West Africans have given more attention to the altar as the locus of the divine than to the sanctuary built to shelter it. There are exceptions: in Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Mali, there exist religious buildings in which one part is meant for the public and the rest for protection of cultic materials. (Public here refers to the faithful who have been or will be initiated.) Usually admission to the public parts of the sanctuary is available to the faithful who have been introduced to knowledge of the mystery evoked by the place of worship. The reserved part is only accessible to the high dignitaries of the community of the specific cult. In practice this separation suggests that religion does not merely pose problems of faith and adherence to a system of beliefs; more importantly, it raises questions about knowledge and power. Religion is parceled out in as many sectors, either exclusive of one another or complementary over time, as there are different domains of knowledge.

The linkage between religion and knowledge, particularly prominent in West Africa, is not surprising. Indeed, one can say that it constitutes the characteristic trait of sub-Saharan cultures. The higher one's position becomes in the religious hierarchy, the more knowledge one possesses. The greater one's knowledge, the more likely one will be invested with religious power. All this reveals, on the one hand, the connection between sacred knowledge and power (including political power)every sage exercises real power over the community he is part ofand, on the other hand, the ways that knowledge is distributed. For example, during initiation rites, knowledge is distributed to the adept drop by drop, as if such instillation were the only possible method of instruction. If any other pedagogic method were used, the adept would reject the knowledge, much like his body would reject the intrusion of a foreign element such as a different blood type. However, there is another reason why knowledge is parceled out bit by bit. The adept is tested at each level to see how he or she reacts to it to ensure that the power that comes with such knowledge is not misused. In many West African societies, for instance, the sacred power to cure affliction through the manipulation of spiritual powers and material substances is not far removed from the practice of sorcery. Both sorcery and the practice of healing often involve the use of similiar techniques and medicines; what distinguishes them is the practitioner's intention to do good or evil. Hence, before giving an adept religious knowledge, measures must be taken to ensure that he or she will use this power for the good of the community. An individual with sacred knowledge who is deluded by his or her own power, greed, envy, or malice can have disastrous effects upon the community.

Worship sites are numerous and varied and can be classified according to the four elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Throughout West Africa, water inspires feelings of uncertainty, fear, reassurance, and security; most importantly, it is seen as the source of life. Each body of water has its own spirit. Metonymically speaking, the body of water is both a sort of water god worshiped by riverine peoples and a temple of water in which the faithful, bearing offerings, immerse themselves. For example, the part of the Niger River that crosses Bambara country is said to be the body of Faro, the water spirit, who is responsible for the fecundity, multiplication, and proliferation of all living things. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria it is thought that Yemja, daughter of batala and Oduduwa, gave birth to all the waters of the country and that she is the patroness of the River Ogun, her favorite sanctuary. For the Edo of Nigeria, the waters of the regions belong to Oba. In Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the rivers, streams, and still waters are the property of Tano and Bia. Fresh water, by its very nature favorable to life, is humane. Seawater is inhumane and savage; it needs to be tamed. This negative view of seawater may have been formed during the era of colonization and slavery (both the early Europeans and slave traders arrived by sea); more likely, however, it may simply stem from the profound attachment to land that is often found throughout Africa.

Sanctuaries related to the land have as much, if not more, variety as those related to water. One must remember that at least 90 percent of the West African population is composed of sedentary agriculturalists and that for them land is the true reservoir of life. Land sanctuaries share one special feature. They are not temples in the true sense of the word because the land has no edifice; the land itself is a religious and sacred monument and thus it would be unseemly to try to limit it, to pretend to enclose it within walls. The sanctuaries of the earth are everywhere that human beings carry out gestures of deference to the nourishing soil. Mountains, grottoes, rocks, and stones that strike the religious imagination, pits and crevasses open to the unknownall lend themselves admirably to being transformed into places of worship. Cultivated fields are particularly designated for sacralization.

The temples of the air, namely sacred trees and groves, are the most numerous sites of worship and the closest to the religious affections of West Africans. They are considered to have an airy nature because they are in harmony with atmospheric changes and with the seasons. There is not a single human community in West Africa that does not have high regard for this vegetation. The tree stands as an intermediary between the human being and spiritual powers. This mediation is often so central that humans are considered to be an emanation of the vegetation. The Bambara believe in a kind of metempsychosis, or transmigration of souls, in which one guidepost in the journey is a tree. One also encounters this belief among the Fon, for whom certain myths speak of how men and women descended from the branches of a tree in former times. Similarly, West African women desirous of becoming pregnant often implore a tree to give them a child. Trees acquire even more intense religious value when nature integrates them into sacred groves, which are the scenes of religious assemblies and initiation rites.

In West Africa, where there are no volcanoes, temples connected with fire are the most humble, the closest to daily life, and also the most ubiquitous. They are associated with the part of the home in which women prepare food. The fire, which transforms food, brings light and warmth to its users and mediates between the living and the dead. If the faithful lack the resources to provide a sacrificial victim, they can use ashes from the hearth fire as a replacement. The omnipresence of this temple of fire is matched by the reality of the forge in almost all West African groups, even though the profession of blacksmithing is generally considered to be limited to members of a guild. The forge is more than a workshop; it is also a place of worship, a shelter in which human justice gives way to the gentleness of heaven. The most typical characteristic of the forge lies in the fact that it constitutes a place of creation comparable to that held by the creator when the foundations of the world were established. This explains why fire becomes a sanctuary wherein the prayer of an empty womb beseeching fecundity will, according to the beliefs of the faithful, surely be answered.

Generally speaking, religion in West Africa is men's business. Nevertheless, women, especially after menopause, often become ritual specialists (for example, among the Guere, Ubi, and Wobe of the Ivory Coast; the Dogon of Mali; the Mende of Sierra Leone; and especially, the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria). Religious duties, which are numerous and complex, are ordinarily the responsibility of the eldest member of the group. All cultic practices include an oral liturgical element that is of central importance because the word, invested with the characteristics of both water and heat, has fertilizing power.

Initiation and Spiritual Life

Initiation rites engender an internal disposition that guarantees a way of life different from ordinary existence. This disposition is acquired through the development of spiritual techniques that train the body and promote a sense of the abolition of finitude.

Initiation rites in West Africa fall into two types. In Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana (that is, among the Yoruba, Hausa, Ewe, Fon, Ashanti, and related groups), initiation is of a type one may term epispanic. Here the initiates attract (Gr., epispaō ) the divinity to themselves, and the impact of the meeting between the human and divine translates into what is commonly called possession or trance. The introduction to and training for the spiritual life are accomplished either by individual training (as, for example, among the Ashanti and the eastern Yoruba) or by collective training in convents, as is the rule among the Ewe, Fon, western Yoruba, and Itsha. This form of initiation is available to both men and women. The physical tests that neophytes undergo during their initiation have a specific goal, even though the initiates may not be aware of it. It involves a spiritualization of the senses, particularly vision, hearing, and taste.

The second type of initiation, termed allotactic (Gr., allos, other; taktikē, from tassein, to marshal), is common from Ghana to Guinea. Here the neophytes go to seek God. Clearly the physical tests here are equally rigorous as those in epispanic initiation, but what matters above all in allotactic initiation is the accession of the neophytes to a transforming knowledge that permits them to get closer to particular spiritual beings and even to become a bit like them, in other words, to become immortal, for only through immortality do human beings guarantee their chances for reincarnation. Such transforming knowledge cannot be gained in several months or even in several years. Among the Senufo of Mali and northern Ivory Coast, initiation into the Poro society lasts more than twenty years. For the Bidjogo of Guinea-Bissau initiation takes almost the same time. Men and women are segregated in this form of initiation. Allotactic initiation clearly demonstrates the leitmotiv of African spirituality, the human struggle against total disappearance from the earth.

African spirituality demonstrates that human beings are not born spiritual; rather, they must become spiritual. Hence, adherents to West African religions find recourse to initiatory techniques that view the body as the starting point of religious and mystical feelings. The body becomes the authentic symbol of the elevation of the human being to the peak of spirituality. Mystical life in African religion does not detach humanity from the earth; instead, it permits human beings to live and relive indefinitely on earth.

See Also

Akan Religion; Bambara Religion; Diola Religion; Dogon Religion; Edo Religion; Fon and Ewe Religion; Fulbe Religion; Igbo Religion; Mawu-Lisa; Tiv Religion; Yoruba Religion.


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Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York, 1981. An excellent work dealing primarily with the movement of African thought and art into the New World, using examples from Yoruba, Ejagham, and Mande cultures.

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New Sources

Brenner, Louis. "Controlling Knowledge: Religion, Power and Schooling in a West African Muslim Society." Bloomington, Ind., 2001.

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Murphy, Joseph M. "Osun across the Waters: A Yoruba Goddess in Africa and the Americas." Bloomington, Ind., 2001.

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Dominique Zahan (1987)

Translated from French by F. A. Leary-Lewis
Revised Bibliography

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West African Religions

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