Native West African Religions & Traditions

Instructor: Joanna Harris

Joanna has taught high school social studies both online and in a traditional classroom since 2009, and has a doctorate in Educational Leadership

If you're looking for lessons on West African history and its indigenous religions, this lesson has what you need. The information in this lesson will cover some of the different religions and traditions of Sub-Saharan West Africa.

West African Religions

In West Africa there are many diverse tribes and ethnicities with their own varied traditions and religions. Their main connecting themes are the concept of a creator god and lesser corresponding deities, and ancestor worship.

This lesson will illustrate the diversity of some of the religions and traditions among the ethnic groups of West Africa, but also highlight some of the similarities between them as well.

The Yoruba of Nigeria

The country of Nigeria is comprised of many different ethnic groups such as the Huasa people to the north and the Ibo culture to the south. Intertwined among them are also the Yoruba people located in the southwestern part of the country and into parts of Benin and Togo.

The Yoruba are the second largest ethnic group with about 21% of the country claiming ties to the culture and/or religion. Yoruba can pertain to both the ethnic group itself, and the religious practice within the culture. The culture has long been known for their trade skills in leatherworking, glassmaking, and metalwork.

The Yoruba follow an Oba, or king, and men have the highest places in government. Women among the Yoruba enjoy a high and independent stature within the culture, and are the operators of their market places.

Yorubu the Religion

The Yoruba religion is just as diversified as the people itself, and gods and deities are known to be different based on region and location within West Africa. The Yoruba all have the centralized concepts of ancestor worship, and that they are descendants of Odua.

The creator god of the sky is Olorun, but the Yoruba are also adherent to the hundreds of lesser gods called the Orishas who are different within each tribe. The followers of the religion are called children, who pray to Olorun with the offering of kola nuts. It is the god Legba who delivers the kola nut offerings to Olorun as his messenger.

The god Ifa, god of divination, translates the messages Olurun has for his children and is also the god they pray to in times of trouble for understanding. Ogun is their god of war, and in modern Nigeria his ritual sword is sworn upon with a kiss in courtrooms governed by Yoruba traditions.

The Dogon of Mali

In Mali and parts of Burkina Faso live the Dogon people who like the Yoruba also have the distinction of being an ethnic group and a religion. Ancestor worship is also a large part of the Dogon culture and religion, as most of their villages are organized along the patrilineal line with one older male family member acting as the village's leader.

The Dogon people are farmers and perform trades like metalwork, and speak Mande and Gur. Although they have no centralized government, their religion and spiritual leaders control their social and cultural lives with importance placed on virtuousness. Religious leaders called Hogons are assigned to individual districts within the culture, who then answer to one main Hogun at the top of the religion and government.

Hogon House
Hogon House

Dogun the Religion

The Hogons all dress in the representative fashion of their creation myth and greator god Amma. However like the Yoruba's lesser Orisha gods, the Dogon also worship a group of lesser gods called the Nommo who are representations of their first ancestors. The Dogon believe that around 3,000 years ago, amphibious aliens came to them from a star called 'Siruis'.

The alignment of the star Sirius between two of their mountain peaks adds to their creation myth, as its appearance every 60 years marks their main festival called the Sigui. The Sigui is a month's long veneration where the men of the culture seclude themselves three months prior to the appearance of Sirius and speak a secret language.

In accordance to their creation myth and the Sigui, a dance is done by those wearing a 20 feet long wooden ritual Sirige Mask. The Dogon believe that they are connected to the heaven and the earth, and the dancers wearing the Sirige Mask symbolize this relationship in their dance. Dancers wear the mask and swing it in a circular motion like the shape of the sun and the earth with their bodies representing the connection between the two.

The Sirige Mask is said to have influenced the artistic work of Picasso and Braque.

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