The Gap

Traditional religion in Nigeria and Africa

Traditional religion in Nigeria and Africa

Most people often think of wickedness, juju, and witchcraft whenever traditional religion is mentioned. They often forget that long before the advent of Christianity and Islam, traditional religion was the people’s religion, especially in Africa and Asia. Indeed, most parts of Asia still strongly follow their traditional religion, unlike Africans, who have mostly abandoned theirs in favor of the Christian and Islamic religions.

Buddhism, Hinduism, and the likes are still the main religions in Asia, especially in China and India. Traditional religion is not always what it is portrayed in Nollywood movies. It is a way of life that has shaped people’s beliefs and world view. This article shall give an insight into what it is all about.

Traditional religion meaning

Traditional religion is a belief system peculiar to a particular group of people. Africa is known for practicing traditional religion, combining many aspects of African mythologies. However, the religion somewhat lost its value in Africa through efforts by early European scholars, travelers, investigators, and missionaries.

Different traditional religions in Nigeria

Nigeria is a country with diverse people and cultures. These cultures have their unique traditional religions. Talking about them is inexhaustible, so this piece shall focus on the major traditional religions in the three major ethnic groups – Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa.

Igbo traditional religion

Igbo traditional religion

In the Igbo traditional religion, there is only one supreme being named Chukwu Abiama, Chineke, Ezechitoke, Osebuluwa, or Obasi di n’elu. He is the creator of heaven and earth and all there is within. This is why the Igbos honor Chukwu by naming their children after him.

Chukwuemeka (God is kind), Chukwuma (only God knows), Chinwetalu (God brings), Chukwunonyelum (God be with me), Ifeanyichukwu (Nothing is impossible with God), Ngozichukwu (God’s blessing), Chidimma (God is good), etc. are common names given to Igbo children. Chukwu is the all-powerful God who holds the knife and the yam and provides people with wealth, rain, and children, and who is merciful toward rich and poor, male and female, child and aged.

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Every morning, each head of the family will offer prayers to Chukwu, thanking Him for his protection and provision and petitioning Him to continue extending His benevolence towards the family in the new day.

However, as powerful as Chukwu is, he doesn’t intervene in what is considered minor matters. Instead, he leaves those to smaller spirits known as alusi or deities with a more direct link to the people through the dibias or priests. Igbo deities are many such as Amadioha (God of Thunder), Ala/Ani (Earth goddess), Idemmili/Mamiwota (sea goddess), Igwe (god of the sky), Anyanwu (sun god), etc.

There is also a human spirit called chi which determines an individual’s destiny. Just Christians believe the only way to reach God is through his son Jesus Christ; the Igbos traditional religion followers believe these spirits or alusi are the only way to reach Chukwu Abiama. This is why each god or goddess has a designated priest or priestess who ministers to them in their various shrines.

The third component in the traditional religion of the Igbos is the ancestors, who are the revered spirits of the dead. The ancestors often visit the human world in the form of masquerades, especially during traditional festivals. Before drinking palm wine, the Igbo man must pour out a few drops known as libations to the ancestors to honor them. Only a person who lived a good life is qualified to be an ancestor who can also choose to reincarnate as a descendant.

The Igbo believe in the right of passage, such as naming ceremonies, puberty rites, marriage rites, membership in secret and open societies, adult roles in communal governance, and funerary rites. Both the rich and poor will be judged in the afterlife according to their works on earth.

Sacrifice is an integral part of the Igbo traditional religion. They are mostly offered to the deities and ancestors for the expiation of sins, protection from misfortune, petitioning for assistance, and offering thanks. In rare cases, white chickens are offered to Chukwu Abiama directly. The Igbos also believe evil spirits exist, such as ogbanje (spirits who manifest as children who die suddenly to return to the marine world after a brief sojourn among human families) and akalogolu (appears on lonely farms to frighten people). Oracles such as dibia afa and dibia ogwu are consulted to know the solution to chase away these evil spirits.

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Yoruba traditional religion

Yoruba traditional religion

Like the Igbos, the Yoruba traditional religion, Ifa strongly believes in one supreme God, Eledumare (Olodumare, Olorun, Eleda), and his 400 lesser gods and spirits, most of whom have their cults and priests. These gods are Sango, Oya, Ori, Yemoja, Ogun, Osun, Obatala, Esu, Ifa, Egungun, Gelede, Sigidi, Elegba and many more.

Of all the gods, Sango is the most popular. According to Yoruba mythology, Sango was the third king of the Oyo Kingdom. He succeeded the weaker Ajaka, son of Oranmiyan. Sango’s symbol is a double-headed axe, which represents swift and balanced justice. He also owns Bata (double-headed drums) and the Arts of Music, Dance, and Entertainment in the Yoruba Culture.

Sango had three wives. Oba was his first wife, Osun the second and the third, and Oya. Osun was Sango’s favorite because she was the best cook. Oba approached Osun to ask her how she maintained their husband’s love. Osun, who secretly despised Oba, told her to slice off one of her ears to cook Sango’s favorite meal, to which Oba complied.

As he ate the food, Sango noticed the “strange meat” and, after inquiry, found out it was her ear. Thinking she was trying to poison him, Sango was infuriated and destroyed his entire family with thunder and lightning. As the women fled for their lives, Oba sank and became river Oba while Osun sank and became river Osun. Both rivers exist today and often clash whenever they meet.

Contrary to popular belief, Sango worshippers believe he didn’t hang himself. Instead, he entered the ground in Ira by himself after the incident. Subsequently, he was deified as the god of thunder and lightning.

Yemoja is another popular deity in Yoruba traditional religion. She is the goddess of fertility and protector of pregnant women and their children. She is also known for her fiery temper when crossed. In wood carvings, she is often depicted as a river goddess with humongous breasts to feed her many children. Yemoja is the mother of Ogun, Sango, Dada, Ibeji, and many other gods. She has also been linked as a wife to gods like Okere, Obatala, Erinle, and OrisaOko. Her symbols are cowries shells symbolizing wealth, fishes, a mother carrying a child, multicolored crystal beads, a pigeon, and white clothes.

Ifa is a monotheistic religion that believes its supreme being Eledumare, shares powers with other lesser gods. Ifa also includes magic, traditional medicines use, and veneration of the dead.

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Hausa traditional religion

Hausa traditional religion

Maguzanci or Bori is a pre-Islamic traditional religion of the Hausa people. Ruling-class priestesses lead the religion. These priestesses are possessed to commune with spirits through ecstatic dance rituals, hoping to guide and maintain the state’s ruling houses. The priestesses are led by one royal priestess known as Inna, who is regarded as the mother of all.

The Bori priestesses are not only responsible for protecting society from malevolent forces through possession dances, but they also provide healing and divination to individuals all over the Hausa kingdoms.

Unfortunately, the Bori traditional religion was suppressed following the Islamic invasion of Hausa land in the 14th century. Some aspects of the religion have managed to survive suppression, having been successfully absorbed into the Islamic religion.

Disadvantages of African traditional religion

  • Traditional religion followers are now the minority which means they face a lot of discrimination.
  • Some of the practices are against human rights and natural justice, such as the killing of twins, burying people alive, etc.
  • Many still believe African traditional religion followers are diabolical and dangerous.

Importance of African traditional religion

  • It is part of African history, philosophy, worldview, and culture, which should never be allowed to fade away.
  • It can provide a blueprint for leadership in terms of community relations, interfaith dialogue, civil society, and civil religion.
  • African traditional religion can offer both African countries and the world insight into how human beings can best live within and interact with the environment.
  • Women play key roles in African traditional religion, which can be absorbed into the new way of life.

Finally, contrary to popular beliefs, African traditional religion provides moral values to the society, which will guide people to learn how to have healthy relationships and interact well with their environments.

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Nonye is a Thespian, screenwriter, creative writer and an unapologetic lover of books, great movies and sports. She has over 10 years experience in content writing on entertainment, movies, sports and lifestyle. Nonye is currently a content writer at Blackdot Media and founder of
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