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What is the nature of West African Traditional Religion and what are the specific beliefs in the supernatural




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 determine the nature of West African Traditional Religion, for example, the belief in one Supreme Being, the worship of many deities, ancestral veneration, etc. These are outlined in the paragraphs below.

The belief in one Supreme Being

One of the major features of West African Traditional Religion (WATR) is the belief in one Supreme Being or God. This Being is seen as the creator and is called God. It has a different name among the various peoples. The Yorubas in Nigeria call him Oluwa, the Igbo in Nigeria call him Chukwu, the Akans in Ghana call him Nyame, the Gas call him Atta-Naa Nyonmo, the Ewes call him Mawu. The Supreme being is considered the origin of everything. Every life is believed to have come from Him. He knows everything, he is all powerful and has authority over everything on earth.

Belief in several gods

Aside from the belief in one Supreme Being, there is also the belief in a plethora of gods or deities. In other words, WATR is characterized by polytheism. The West African believes that there are individual gods responsible for different aspects of their lives. There is a dog responsible for rain, for bumper harvest, dispute resolution, and social control. There is a god that controls thunder, a god that protects the village, a god that protects the innocent against false accusation, there is a god that upholds moral uprightness and ensures justice. They are not considered as rivals to the Supreme Being. They are seen more as allies, working below him for the good of humanity.

Ancestral veneration

Another key feature is the veneration of ancestors. In WATR, when people die, they are not seen completely gone. They have just transitioned into another realm where they continue to be part of the living but in another form and playing a different role. The ancestor is seen as the spirit version of a family member who is no longer alive. Not everybody, though, is considered as an ancestor. To qualify as an ancestor, one must have lived up to a ripe old age, must have lived a life worthy of emulation and must have played a very significant role in the lives of the living. You must have died a good death. For example, if you commit suicide, you cannot qualify to be an ancestor. The ancestors are honoured for their contribution to the living while they were alive. The living ask for their protection, they seek guidance to continue to live.

Belief in mystical powers

In WTR, the followers believe in mystical powers. The people believe that the spirits of the ancestors can influence and control the lives of the living. They believe that when certain rituals are performed, it is able to influence spiritual forces and bring out desired results. They believe there are spiritual forces that are capable of either harming or helping people.

The use of charms and amulets

In WATR, charms and amulets are of essence. The followers of the religion believe that the charms and amulets bring them luck. They believe it has the power to bring them protection if they wear them. Amulets bring good fortune and have healing powers. Many people use charms to treat sicknesses.

Emphasis on traditional ceremonies

In WATR, the people place a lot of emphasis on ceremonies. When a child is born, ceremonies are performed to usher the child into the world. When the same child attains the age of maturity, a different set of ceremonies are performed to indicate his/her becoming an adult. At the time marriage, ceremonies must be performed. When death occurs, ceremonies are performed. Funerals are unique. They perform certain rites before the dead is buried.

Some questions to ponder over:

1. Outline the nature of West African Traditional Religion.

2. In what ways are the divinities related to the Supreme Being in West African Traditional Religion?

3. What are the specific beliefs in the supernatural in West Africa Traditional Religion?

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