Traditional Religions of West Africa: Nigeria & Mali

From the 12th century onward the many lands we know today comprising West Africa have been home to numerous Indigenous empires, kingdoms, and city-states. One region is known as Yorubaland, or the Yoruba Empire of present-day Nigeria. The Yoruba Empire, made up of three states or kingdoms: the State of Ife, the Kingdom of Benin, and the Kingdom of Oyo, was surrounded by other ancient empires located in present day Malinke (Mali), Ghana, Senegal, Togo, and the Congo, each with their own histories and creation stories. Today I will be focusing on the stories and cosmologies of the Yoruba, and Dogon peoples of present-day Mali.

Map of West Africa 1215 CE

Before the influence of Christianity or Islam, many people in Yorubaland practiced the tradition still known today as Ifá (in Igboland it is called Afá). The word Ifá comes from the founder and Orisha called Ifá, or Ọrunmila (Ọrula), regarded as the deity of wisdom, science, and divination. He was the only Orisha to have witnessed creation. Because most Yoruba and Igbo descendants follow Christianity or Islam, Ifá is not as widely accepted as it once was, and is sometimes actively discriminated against. However, it is a nature-based spiritual system focused on staying in balance with the land, our communities, ancestors, Ori, and the supernatural forces known as Orisha who watch over our lives (there are 401 Orisha in total). Aligning with your chosen destiny is done through divination, a system created by Ọrunmila. Divination enables a person to see if they are living a balanced life with good character, and if they are following their destiny. This practice dates back to before Christianity, and still endures after eight thousand years. In 2005, it was recognized by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Image Via: An image of a sacred Ifa divination tray that holds iyerosun powder with odu markings present.

The Yoruba say that we determine our destinies before we come to Earth, also known as the marketplace. With the help of our egúngún (ancestors), egbe (soul family), and our chosen Orisha, we choose everything from where we will live, to who we will marry, and how we die. Once we arrive in the physical world though, everything is forgotten. It is for this reason we refer back to ancestors and Ifá for guidance on remembering and subsequently navigating our destiny and time here on Earth so that we may not suffer.

“In contrast to other forms of divination in the region that employ spirit mediumship, Ifá divination does not rely on a person having oracular powers but rather on a system of signs that are interpreted by a diviner, the Ifá priest…the Ifá literary corpus, called odu, consists of 256 parts subdivided into verses called ese, whose exact number is unknown as they are constantly increasing (there are around 800 ese per odu).

Each of the 256 odu has its specific divination signature, which is determined by the priest(ess) using sacred palm-nuts and a divination chain (opele). The ese, considered the most important part of Ifá divination, are chanted in poetic language. The ese reflects Yoruba history, language, beliefs, cosmovision and contemporary social issues.”

Benjamin Elisha Sawe, World Atlas (2019)

Yoruba Creation Story as Told By Baba Solagbade Popoola

“In the beginning that signified the end.

It was the beginning of the beginning and the beginning of the end.

It was the beginning of existence and the end of nothingness.

It started in a sporadic but gradual manner.

It started at a time that was timeless.

It began in a form that was in itself without form.

It started with a Being that cannot be described with any adequacy.

This Being is neither a ‘he’ nor a ‘she’.

The Being is neither human nor superhuman.

It has neither flesh nor blood.

It has no water.It exists in a body that is in itself without body.

It is the universal spirit of the universe.

That is the Being which started the universe from nothingness.

It is not from the void as some people say, because void itself is something.

The universe started from nothing, absolutely nothing.

The universal spirit that began the universe is known and addressed as Akamara.”

In the corpus of Odu Ifa in Osa Gunleja (Osa Ogunda), Ifa states that there are five stages of creation before existence in the universe, and before the planet Earth can reach the stage of perfection. It is the fifth stage of existence that is the ultimate, and we are said to be living in the fourth stage. Refer to the Odu Ifa – Osa Ogunda (see sources) for the full five stages of creation:*

Stage 1: The Emergence of Akamara*

Stage 2: Creation & Stabilization of the Stars*

Stage 3: The War of the Stars*

Stage 4: Rebuilding the Planet Earth*

Stage 5: A Return to Tradition

A portrait of six people from the Dogon tribe dressed in their ceremonial regalia and masks, with colors of pink, blue, and yellow against a stone backdrop. One of the members has a headdress of a sacred lizard. Image Via: Face2Face Africa

Sacred Star Systems in Dogon Cosmology

The Dogon people have lived in the region we know today as Mali, the Bandiagara Escarpment since the 3rd century B.C. They are known to be descendants of the famous Kemetians (Egyptians) who were based out of the Nile River Valley, and fled the area to avoid Islamic colonization. There are three principal cults among the Dogon today; the Awa, the Lebe and the Binu.

“The language that the Dogon use to describe the Sirius star system consists of ancient Egyptian words that have not been used for centuries. Other similarities between the two cultures can be seen in the way they organized their civilizations, such as the creation of an upper and lower kingdom and a 360-day calendar.”

Even through their travels and migrations to West Africa, they protected and retained their sacred knowledge systems and sciences, including an extensive background in astronomy – with a special interest in the Sirius B Star system. The Dogon say that Sirius B is where their ancestors came from, a light body that is nearly eight and a half light years from Earth and was not noticed by white astronomers until the year 1862 (and even then it was found completely by accident! Sound familiar to another story we know?). Sirius B is considered to be the first star created by the Creator and sky deity, Amma.

Image Via: Face2Face Africa. An image of Dogon geomancy – organized markings and objects are shown drawn and laid in the sand; the reading area is protected by bordering rocks laid out in a rectangular shape.

It is said that there were ancient amphibious beings, called the Nommos, who travelled here long ago from Sirius B to share their knowledge with humans on Earth (perhaps these beings were similar to the amphibious beings who fell from the ceiba trees in the Greater Antillean Islands?). They are still venerated as ancestral spirits, and are said to be the first beings created by Amma.

To read about the full Dogon story of creation, click here.

Sources & Further Reading

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