Skip to main content

Centers of Religious Activity

Centers of Religious Activity


Geographical Locations. Geographically the West African locations in which practitioners of traditional religions were the most active between 500 and 1590 include Nri, Ile-Ife, Oyo, Dahomey, Benin, Ouida, and Nsukka. Centers for Islam or Christianity included Ashanti, Mali, Kanem-Bornu, and Igbo -Ukwu.

Nri. Considered the “Mecca” of Igbo religions, Nri (in present-day Nigeria) was home to and ruled by the mostrespected and most-feared Dibia—clerics, healers, diviners, and rainmakers. People came from far away to consult them, and Nri priests were also known to travel long distances, sometimes for months and years, to practice their crafts. The most renowned deity in Nri was called the Long juju.

Ile-Ife and Oyo. The Yoruba believe that they are descendants of Oduduwa, sometimes believed to be a prince who came from the east and settled in Ile-Ife in western Nigeria. From Ile-Ife, it is believed, the children of Oduduwa spread in several directions to found empires and kingdoms, including Oyo, which at its height stretched from the Niger River to Benin on the east, to the sea on the south, and to Dahomey in the Republic of Benin on the west.

Dahomey. Dahomey was the center of Vodon, which spread as “Voodoo” through the transatlantic slave trade to parts of the Western Hemisphere, particularly Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, and Louisiana.

Benin. The ancient Kingdom of Benin (in present-day Nigeria) was, like Ile-Ife, a center of culture and learning, religion, and the arts. Its people developed elaborate rituals surrounding birth, marriage, funerals, ancestors, and the afterlife. Legend has it that the people of Benin needed a good king, so they invited King Oduduwa of Ile-Ife to send them one of his sons. Believing that only a “son of the soil” would make the best ruler for Benin, one of Oduduwa’s sons, Oranmiyan, married a woman from Benin with the purpose of fathering a king. The child of this union was Eweka, who became the first oba of Benin. The Benin people, like the Yoruba from whom they claim descent, were practitioners of traditional African religion. Islam had little or no influence in this region. Portuguese Christian missionaries who arrived in the 1400s had limited success as well.

Ouida. Located in the present-day Republic of Benin, Ouida is the headquarters of the well-known Vodon shrine of the sacred python, representing Damballah, the deity of fertility and knowledge. It was also a major port for exporting slaves from the West African coast to the Americas.

Nsukka. The annual Omaba Festival, which was celebrated at harvest season to honor Ani, the goddess of plenitude, had its shrine in Nsukka (in present-day Nigeria). As early as the 1500s, the month-long rituals and trade activities attracted pilgrims from great distances.

Kanem-Bornu. Flourishing around Lake Chad and the western parts of the Nile Valley, the Kanem-Bornu Empire was ruled as early as the twelfth century by leaders who declared themselves Muslims. Yet, according to Arab historians of the empire, the peoples of Kanem-Bornu did not immediately become Muslims. In the traditional religion of the Kanuri people of Kanem the king was revered as a divinity and believed to have some sort of divine control over life and death, and health and sickness. For these reasons, even for some time after the rulers had officially converted to Islam, the king was secluded from the public to maintain the necessary reverence for, and distance from, his terrifying power. The king appeared in public only once a year, and even then he was hidden behind a mask so that his people could not see his face. By 1194, Islam had been established in this empire. Mosques were built, and the Quran (Koran) was introduced. This change was mainly the result of contacts with Arab scholars and traders, which intensified between 1194 and 1221 when fighting with neighbors, internal revolts, and fratricidal strife weakened the empire and made it vulnerable to invaders from Bulala. By 1386, Mai (king) Abdullah ibn Umar had moved what was left of his kingdom to Bornu. By the thirteenth century the Bornu Empire, which had risen to dominate the Kanem-Bornu region, was entirely Muslim in religion and systems of thought, and its Muslim warrior-kings were actively involved in empire building.

The Hausa Kingdoms. The Hausa kingdoms of Gobir, Daura, Katsina, Zaria, Kano, Rano, and Biram were geographically located between the Empires of Songhai and Kanem-Bornu. These Hausa states were each dominated by a main city, often of the same name as the kingdom. Mostly in present-day Nigeria, some of these cities still exist. Although the states were never united into one empire, there is ample evidence of frequent mutual cooperation in actions against common non-Hausa enemies. Most of these cities followed African traditional religions until about 1400, when Islamic religion and thought systems became a dominant—and unifying—force.

Akan. Now located in the southern part of the modern nation of Ghana, as well as adjacent areas of Côte d’ivoire and Togo, the Akan peoples, who include the Ashanti, migrated to their present location from the north between 1000 and 1700. The Akan were followers of traditional religions, until Islamic and Christian influences entered the region in the early 1300s and the 1400s respectively.

Mali. The long-lived Empire of Mali was founded around 1235-1240 by the great warrior-king Sundiata and endured until the rise of the Songhai Empire in the 1460s. Sundiata and the subsequent rulers of Mali were Muslims. Yet, Sundiata is also reported to have practiced traditional religion, and the people of his empire adopted Islam more slowly than the royal court. When the North African Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta visited Mali in 1353, Muslim practices were much in evidence, but Islam had not entirely replaced traditional religions.


The Akan trickster god Ananse, called Kwaku (uncle) Anansi in the following translation, is usually depicted as a clever and articulate spider able to outwit not only animals and humans but also other deities. In the following folktale Ananse prevails not through magic or trickery but through his ability to tell a good story.

It happened one time that the animals of the fields and the forest had a great argument about which of them was the oldest and entitled to the most respect. Each of them said, “l am the oldest” They argued at great length, and at last they decided to take the case before a judge. They went to the house of Anansi, the spider, and they said to him “waku Anansi, we are in dispute as to which of us is the most venerable. Listen to our testimony.”

So Anansi called his children to bring him a cashew shell, and he sat on it with great dignity, as though he were a chief sitting on a carved stool.

The guinea fowl was the first to speak He said: “I swear it. I am the oldest of all creatures. When I wasbom, there was a great grass fire. Since there was no one else in the world to put it out, I ran into the flames and stamped them out with my feet. My legs were badly burned, and as you can see, they are still red.”

The animals looked at the guinea fowl’s legs and saw it was true: they were red. They said: “Eeee! He is old!”

Then the parrot declared: “I swear it. When I came into the world, there were no tools and no weapons. It was I who made the first hammer that was ever used by blacksmiths. I beat the iron into shape with my beak, and it is for this reason that my beak is bent.”

The animals looked at the parrot’s beak, crying out, “Eeee! The parrot is old indeed!”

Then the elephant spoke: “I swear it. I am older than the parrot and the guinea fowl. When I was created, the Sky God gave me a long and useful nose. When the other animals were made, there was a shortage of material, and they were given small noses.”

The animals examined the elephant’s nose and shouted, “Eeeeee! The elephant is truly old!”

The rabbit gave his testimony then, saying: “I swear it. I am the oldest. When I came into the world, night and day had not yet been created.”

The animals applauded the rabbit. They said, “Eeeeee! Is he not really the oldest?”

The porcupine spoke last, and he said: “I swear it. As you will all have to admit, I am the oldest. When I was born, the earth wasn’t finished yet. It was soft like butter and couldn’t be walked upon.”

This was great testimony, and the animals cheered the porcupine. They cried, “Eeeeee! Who can be older than he?”

Then they waited to hear Anansi’s judgment. He sat on his cashew shell and shook his head, saying: “If you had come to me first, I would have saved you this argument,for I am the oldest of all creatures. When I was born, the earth itself had not yet been made, and there was nothing to stand on. When my father died, there was no ground to bury him in. So I had to bury him in my head.”

And when the animals heard this they declared, “Eeeeee! Kwaku Anansi is the oldest of all living things! How can we doubt it?”

source : Harold Courknder, “Anansi Proves He Is the Oldest,” in his The Hat-Shaking Dame and Other Ashanti Tales from Ghana (New York:: Harcourt, Brace, 1957).

Igbo -Ukwu. Located in southeastern Nigeria, Igbo-Ukwu was a pre-Islamic and pre-Christian center of commerce and urbanization. In digs at the site of this city, archaeologists have found sophisticated ritual objects that suggest a major religious renaissance took place there during the 1000s. Some of these objects are associated with cults of the king, who must have been considered a god or a descendant of the gods. According to John Iliffe, bronze artifacts found in Igbo-Ukwu were made from local metals in African styles and demonstrated “superb technical skill that was both distinctive and arguably unequaled elsewhere in the world at the time.” The symbolism of these objects, especially their animal motifs, is remarkably similar to that used by the Igbo people of the area a thousand years earlier. Yet, digs at Igbo-Ukwu also show that by the year 1000 West Africa was no longer isolated from the rest of the world. Among the excavated objects were more than one hundred thousand glass beads, some probably from Egypt or India.


Andrew Apter, Black Critiques and Kings: The Hermeneutics of Power in Yoruba Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Sandra T. Barnes, ed., Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New, expanded edition (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).

Norman R. Bennett, Africa and Europe: From Roman Times to National Independence, second edition (NewYork: Africana, 1975).

K. A. Busia, The Challenge of Africa (New York: Praeger, 1962).

W. Walton Claridge, A History of the Gold Coast from the Earliest Times to the Commencement of the Twentieth Century, 2 volumes (London: Murray, 1915).

Herbert M. Cole, Mbari: Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, second edition (London: Cass, 1968).

Basil Davidson, West Africa before the Colonial Era:A History to 1850 (London & New York: Longman, 1998).

Cheikh Anta Diop, The African Origins of Civilization: Myth or Reality, translated by Mercer Cook (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1974).

Diop, Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, translated by Yaa-Lengi Meema Ngemi, edited by Salemson and Marjolijn de Jager (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Lawrence Hill, 1991).

Diop, Precolonial Black Africa: A Comparative Study of the Political and Social Systems of Europe and Black Africa, from Antiquity to the Formation of Modern States, translated by Salemson (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1987).

Joseph E. Harris, Africans and Their History, second edition, revised (New York: Meridian, 1998).

John Iliffe, Africans: The History of a Continent (Cambridge & c New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Arthur Glyn Leonard, The Lower Niger and Its Tribes (London & New York: Macmillan, 1906).

John D. Murphy and Harry Goff, A Bibliography of African Languages and Linguistics (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1969).

Roland Oliver, The African Experience: From Olduvai Gorge to the 21st Century (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999).

P. Amaury Talbot, Life in Southern Nigeria: The Magic, Beliefs, and Customs of the ibibio Tribe (London: Macmillan, 1923).

Rems Nna Umeasiegbu, The Way We Lived: Ibo Customs and Stories (London: Heinemann, 1969).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Centers of Religious Activity." World Eras. . 18 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Centers of Religious Activity." World Eras. . (April 18, 2019).

"Centers of Religious Activity." World Eras. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.