Local Religions

Ivory Coast Table of Contents

Religions of the South

Most Akan recognize a supreme being, Nyame, who created all things and from whom lesser gods derive their power. Nyame is not worshiped directly but is approached through intermediaries. These lesser gods (abosom) may inhabit lakes, streams, rivers, or trees. Below them are minor deities whose power is invoked through amulets or charms (suman) worn for protection.

Ancestral spirits (samanfo) surpass these deities in importance among most Akan peoples, as it is the ancestors who safeguard the prosperity of the lineage and provide assistance in meeting daily challenges. Ancestral spirits are often consulted, offered food and drink, and reminded that people are depending on them, in the hope that an individual will be able to act with confidence, especially in dealing with others in the lineage. Failure to perform sacrifices to ancestral spirits not only damages a person spiritually but also brings forth the wrath of the ancestor and can result in tragedy or unhappiness.

An individual's spirit, or soul (elaka among the Agni; okra among the Baoulé), is immortal and indestructible. A living individual also possesses other spiritual substances, including sunsum, which is adaptable and determines a person's character, and mogya, which determines a person's membership in a matrilineage. Through transgressions--failure to perform rituals or obey moral precepts--an individual can damage the soul or lose it entirely. Upon death, the soul (or in some areas, part of the soul) may enter the kingdom of the dead, where its existence is happy and peaceful, or it may reenter a human being to continue on its path toward fulfillment.

Akan religious practitioners include lineage heads, village chiefs (when the head and the chief are not the same individual), and priests who officiate at ritual observances for cults honoring specific deities. These priests (akomfo) undergo extensive training as apprentices to established practitioners. Priests can also act as diviners, and the most esteemed among them are believed to be clairvoyant, able to locate the source of spiritual difficulty for their clients, who consult them for a fee. They also give instructions for coping with adversity. Priests sometimes act as doctors, since many diseases are believed to have spiritual causes.

Sorcerers (obayifo) are spiritual practitioners who, in the Akan worldview, bring about evil. Their actions are believed to be motivated by envy or hatred, and, it is feared, they may be employed by one's enemies. Sorcery often consists of poisoning, which may be counteracted by a priest or detected by a diviner, but one of the hazards of dealing with the spiritual realm is that sorcerers are sometimes disguised as priests or diviners. A person may use amulets or other objects to ward off the evil effects of sorcery, but these are sometimes powerless against the anger of an ancestor.

Collective religious ceremonies are important to the life of many Akan peoples. The most important of these is the yam festival, which serves several functions. It is a memorial service for the dead and begs for their protection in the future; it is a time of thanksgiving for good harvests; and it is a ritual of purification that helps rid the group of evil influences. It also provides an opportunity to recall the discovery of the yam--now an important part of the diet of many Akan people--and to salute the Akan chief who, it is said, risked his life by tasting this unknown food before others in his chiefdom. The yam festival is considered vital to the group's survival, and it serves important social functions-- it defines the group, symbolizes its unity, and reminds people of their obligations to others.

Religion among the Kru peoples of the southwest resembles that of the Akan, with an important difference in the presence of a second powerful deity alongside the creator. This second god is an evil deity or devil, who works against the creator god, producing a duality that is an important theme in Kru culture. All individuals exhibit a balance of good and evil, in this view, and maintaining this balance is important both to the individual and to the entire universe.

Religions of the North

Northern religions contain the notion of dual deities found in the southwest, although the two often complement rather than oppose each other. Ancestral spirits are especially important, because it is believed that they can directly influence an individual's fortunes in this life.

The cosmology of the Mandé peoples of the northwest is described in their myth of origin, variants of which are retold throughout the region. The myth recounts God's creation of the universe and of four sets of twins from seeds. They were commanded to populate the earth and teach their offspring how to grow crops. They used the first music to plead for rain, and the Niger River was formed from the resulting series of floods. Each area along the river is associated with a wild animal that either prevented the sowing of seeds or protected the fields. Features of the river and surrounding terrain are also associated with activities of the first ancestors, reinforcing the bond between the group's spiritual existence and the land--a bond that has confused foreign missionaries, government officials, and development workers in recent decades.

In Lobi society in the northeast, divination is important as a means of determining the cause of death, disease, or other misfortune. Diviners do not predict the future; rather, they prescribe a course of action that emphasizes accepted social values in an effort to help people cope with present-day dilemmas. The diviner's role is similar to that of a counselor or confessor, who reminds people of the need to maintain proper relationships with all beings and provides them with a new perspective on relationships that have gone wrong.

Secret societies are found in several areas of northern Côte d'Ivoire. They serve important functions in the initiation and education of the young, and they provide vehicles for preserving beliefs about the past. Senior members are responsible for ritual instruction of new members and for the observance of funerals and ceremonies to ensure agricultural prosperity. Blacksmiths have secret societies of their own, and in some areas this occupational group is believed to have special spiritual powers. Medical and ritual specialists also undergo apprenticeships with established practitioners, thereby reinforcing their status.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress