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Re-telling the Single Story on Traditional African Religions

By Kirsty Osei-Bempong |www.misbeee.blogspot.co.uk

Tuesday, October 18, 2016.

Star 100 - a Ghana-focused diaspora network based in London - invited me to share my thoughts on the role of traditional beliefs in Ghanaian culture.

The discussion, on 30 September 2016, was entitled Traditional Beliefs and Customary Law, at the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell, London.

The topic is something I have been exploring for some time, particularly during my time living in Ghana.

I wanted to share with you my short presentation and invite you to share yours.....

Here is an abridged version of a story I wanted to share with you:

In the beginning, the universe consisted only of the sky, the water, and the wild marshlands.  God (Obatala) believed that the world needed more and asked the ruler of the sky and creator of the sun – the supreme God - (Olorun) for permission to create solid land on Earth.

This lesser God made clay figures in the likeness of himself but grew tired and became drunk on palm wine, which he passed on to these clay figures – deforming them. The supreme God (Olorun) breathed life into these figures making them human.


When I first read this story, it sounded familiar to me – very much like the creationist story in the Old Testament, Adam and Eve, first sin with the reference to human deformity. But I read these words at a British Museum exhibition in 2010 on the Kingdom of Ife in present-day Nigeria, (see British Museum's website).

This story was significant to me because prior to that my understanding of Traditional African Religions was shaped by my Christian parents and the cheesy Ghanaian and Nigerian films I grew up watching. And most times there was a myopic view of the religions as primitive and negative.

The fetish priests were caked in white chalk, surrounded by skulls, cowries shells and were about to sacrifice someone.

But the Ife story got me questioning why we stick to that single story when depicting our traditional religion and what more there is to this belief system? I will touch on three aspects I explored.

Significance of masks

The first are the masks, statues and amulets that some of us have around our houses. Their function now is mainly ornamental but their original function was as instruments that linked the living to the spiritual realm. These were vessels that invoked the power of ancestral spirits.

With the displacement of Ghana’s religions in favour of others, this meant these sacred carvings lost their religious importance, (see Unmasking the Truth). This made it easier for these artefacts to get into the hands of European collectors and museums and now some are worth a cool half a million pounds.(see Sotheby's website). Can you imagine sacred religious items from religions practised today sitting on your wall or fireplace.

Homowo and other festivals

I know people who attend festivals and see them as purely cultural celebrations. But those masks that are rooted in the Traditional African Religion, I mentioned earlier, were and still are part and parcel of some of those festivals. The Kundum festival of the Nzema people is one examples where sometime masks were worn, (see Wikipedia on Kundum).

I have read that the Homowo festival remembers the past famine of the Ga people. But I have also read that the Ga people are considered to be the original Hebrews and if you believe that then the parallels between Homowo and the Jewish Passover and other Ga and Jewish rituals makes sense, (Ade Sawyerr's blog). But would we say the Jewish religion was primitive and negative?

Conservationism and totems

And lastly if I want to talk about the role conservationism played in the Traditional African Religion, (see Sacred Natural Sites: Conserving nature and culture). In some fishing villages, there is a ban on fishing usually one day in the week or in the run up to important festivals. This ban has a religious aspect but also had the indirect effect of helping to replenish fish stocks.

Totems have a similar result because clans are linked to animals. Examples are the crocodile in Paga and the Mona monkey which can be found in the Tafi Atome Monkey Sanctuary, (see Ghana Web article 'Totems and Wildlife Conservation - Ghanaians must know their totems'.

For hundreds of years, traditional law protected the forest and the natural resources and that included the monkey. It was considered taboo to hunt in the same way that the cow in India is considered sacred by Hindus.

But the advent of other religions side-lined this and some clans people no longer have physical totems left – such as the grey parrot, tree hyrax, lion.

Over to you

So in conclusion I would encourage you to explore the things that we practise – ie naming ceremonies, pouring of libation - that are so embedded in our culture because more than likely, they may be inextricably linked to Traditional African Religions.

Kirsty Osei-Bempong is the Thenewblackmagazine.com’s Arts Editor and a writer based in London, UK. She blogs regularly at www.misbeee.blogspot.co.uk

Re-telling the Single Story on Traditional African Religions

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