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What are the major characteristics of West African Traditional Religion?



West African Traditional Religion (WATR) in the simplest definition refers to the indigenous religious practices of the people of West Africa before the advent of Islam, Christianity and any other form of religion.

It is practiced in the West African countries like Ghana, Benin, Sierra Leone, Togo, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, etc. It was not a religion that was introduced into the Sub-region by missionaries. It was practiced by the local people.

Currently, only a tiny fraction of the people of West Africa have remained adherents of the indigenous practice. In Ghana, according to the 2021 census figures, 3.2% of the Ghanaian population practice traditional religion. According to the Association of Religious Data Archives in 2020, in Nigeria, traditional region followers were 7.2% of the total population of Nigeria.

There are some peculiar features that are used to identify what exactly is referred to as West African Traditional Religion, for example, it does not have a founder, it is based on oral traditions and handed down by word of mouth, it does not make use of missionaries to propagate, etc. These and many more are discussed in the paragraphs below.

The characteristics of West African Traditional Religion

The religion has no founder

One of the major features of West African Traditional Religion (WATR) is that there is no single individual or groups of individuals who can be pointed out as the founder or founders of the religion like we find in the case of Christianity which is believed to be founded by Jesus and Mohammed (Peace be upon Him) for Islam. Christianity and Islam are monotheistic religions and have just one founder. WATR recognizes many deities. Their beliefs and practices had to evolve over several centuries. While evolving, the beliefs and practices were handed down through generations.

It is based on oral literature

In ancient West Africa, the art of writing had not been discovered early enough until the coming of European missionaries. Those who practiced West African Traditional Religion could, therefore, not codify their religion as was done in the case of Islam and Christianity. In short, the religion does not have written documents like the bible for the Christians and the Quran for the Muslims.

In order to preserve the knowledge of the religion, the people had to resort to other forms of documentation. They preserved the history, beliefs and practices about the religion in their songs and chants, folklore, tales and fables. The literature surrounding the religion is in the oral form and therefore handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

There are no missionaries

A typical adherent of WATR does not believe that religion must be imposed on anybody. Rather, it has to be experienced by the person. It is the person’s personal relationship with the spirit entities or deities involved.

The main focus is not to convert other people to their form of worship. To the practitioner of West African Traditional Religion, people have to experience the spiritual world as individuals and not as a collective. It is those who believe in the deity that must carry and practice it. There are, therefore, no missionaries in West African Traditional Religion. Evangelism, as is seen in both Islam and Christianity, is absent in West African Traditional Religion.

Rituals, sacrifices and divination

A major part of the religion is characterized by rituals. When a child is born, a ritual is performed. When a child attains puberty age, there are rituals to usher them into puberty. There are rituals for marriage, when death occurs, depending on the cause of death. Rituals are performed to honour the deities which may involve the offering of food, and drinks

Alongside rituals, we also have sacrifices. In fact, sacrifices are a major aspect of rituals. There are different types of sacrifices. People sacrifice animals, some sacrifice plants and some also sacrifice food. In ancient times, the practice of human sacrifice was believed to have taken place. Such sacrifices were used to honour the gods. Some sacrifices were specifically demanded by the deities but some are offered by the people of their own volition as a form of honour or to request some favours from them.

The quest to know the future is a desire that is shared by many people. In West African Traditional Religion, the practice of knowing the unknown called divination. There are trained or gifted people in the society that have the capacity to reveal the unknown. Some items are used to perform this task though the process may vary from place to place. Items like cowrie shells, sticks, bones etc. Divination may be used to communicate with the departed souls of ancestors.

Religion permeates every aspect of life

In West Africa, religion is everything and everything is religion. In other words, every aspect of life among the traditional West African is seen through the glass of religion. This is because religion provides a way by which they identify themselves. The religion allows them to feel a sense of community, and gives them purpose for the life they live. West African Traditional Religion is deeply rooted in their culture, values, and beliefs. Through it, they are able to connect to the past, present, and future. In times of need, the religion provides a high level of comfort. The morals of the people are shaped by the religion. Their form of social justice is derived from the principles embedded in the religion.

Question to ponder over: 

1. State and explain the characteristics of West African Traditional Religion.

2. In what ways are the characteristics of WATR different from those of Christianity or Islam?

 Also Read Why it is important for people to study West African Traditional Religion

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