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Why is it important for people to study West African Traditional Religion today?




West African Traditional Religion (WATR) in the simplest definition refers to the indigenous religion practiced by the locals before the arrival of non-native West Africans to the area. The religious practices that existed long before the arrival of Islam, Christianity and any other form of religion.

It is practiced in countries like Ghana, Benin, Sierra Leone, Togo, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Mali, just to mention a few. It originates from the West African Sub-region. It was not brought or introduced into the region by missionaries like in the case of Christianity and Islam.

The adherents of West African Traditional Religion believe in many gods and goddesses and many other spiritual bodies. They venerate their ancestors and consider them as part of the living.

Like John Mbiti said in his book African religions and philosophy, “The African is notoriously religious”. West African Traditional Religion is still practiced today by many people in West Africa, and has also been adopted by some people in the African diaspora. 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. The percentage is skewed against traditional religion in many other countries of West Africa. If this is the reality, and many people have moved to join religions other than those practiced by their ancestors, why bother to study it in the first place?

The study of West African Traditional Religion in modern times is important for many reasons.

To provide insights into the religion

One of the reasons why it is important to study West African Religion is that it provides insights into the culture of the people. With the coming of Islam and Christianity, many, especially, young people are unable to appreciate the value of West African Traditional Religion to the adherents. This lack of insight makes people who do not understand the culture of the people, the things that bind them together socially, and the influence of the religion over their political dynamics, to look down on the religion. It is the belief that a knowledge of the religion will give the needed deep understanding and appreciation of the world around them, the linkages between them and the world in which they live.

Studying West African Traditional Religion is again important because it makes it easier to understand the thinking of the people and how they behave. It is difficult to understand people if you do not know the principles upon which their behaviour is based. The ways of a people are determined by their religion and the indigenous West African are not different. Their ways are shaped by the principles that underpin their religion.  It is important, therefore, to study West African Traditional Religion so that we can understand the people who practice that religion and their world.

Adjust policy to suit the thinking of the people

Some policy initiatives in West Africa have not worked as smoothly as was envisaged on the drawing board. Policy failures may have been due to several reasons, including the misunderstanding of the religious beliefs of the people. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, do not accept blood transfusion and do not donate either. This doctrine is well documented.

A study of West African Traditional Religion is important so that policy makers can understand the rationale behind their beliefs, customs and practices to be able to initiate policies that take these nuances into consideration in the planning and subsequent implementation of government policies directed to them.

Political parties, using knowledge about WATR to carve messages directed to the adherents of the religion. Business entities like insurance companies could also use their knowledge about WATR to design insurance policies that cater for their needs. Marketing companies may also use that knowledge to design messages directed to that segment of the market.

(An African village)

Application of traditional moral principles

Like many other religions, West African Traditional Religion has some moral teachings which were used, in the past, to control social behaviour. Some of those moral teachings may still be relevant to modern society. A study of West African Traditional Religion would, therefore, help to adopt ways for applying those moral principles in their daily lives and how they relate to people and the environment.

Help people to understand and appreciate the indigenous beliefs of the people

Knowledge among many people today about West African Traditional Region is scanty. Many people see it as a very bad religion, associating it with devilish activities. A deeper study of the religion may help people to know about the religion, understand the underlying practices. With this knowledge, the people can appreciate the indigenous beliefs of the people.

Promote coexistence with people of other religions

There are three main religions in many of the West African countries; we have Christianity, Islam and West African Traditional Religion (WATR). The first two have overtaken WATR in popularity and size though it was the major religion before the coming of the first two. All the three have existed for a while now, though there have been some clashes. It is important to study West African Traditional Religion in order to encourage the three religions to co-exist for lasting peace to reign.

Promotes a better appreciation of other religions

Today, we live in global village and the power of the World-Wide World, unites us though we live miles apart from each other. A study of WATR would give a better knowledge of the culture and religious traditions of the various regions of the world. This would throw more light on the understanding of the world.

Some questions to ponder over: 

1. Analyze the rationale for the study of West African Traditional Religion.

2. Explain why the educated African should study West African Traditional Religion.

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