Despite the presence of Abrahamic religions such as Christianity and Islam, traditional African religions have managed to retain their influence in Ghana, mainly due to their intimate relation to the local mores and family loyalties. Below is a look at various aspects of African traditional religion in Ghana.
The Supreme Being
According to traditional Ghanaian cosmology, belief is in a supreme being who is not directly worshipped as he is regarded as removed from day-to-day religious life. This Supreme Being is referred to as Nyame by the Akan and Mawu by the Ewe. There are also lesser gods who are believed to reside in rivers, streams, mountains and trees, and serve as intermediaries between the society and the Supreme Being.
Ancestors and Other Spirits
Ancestors and many other spirits are also recognised as being an important part of the cosmological order. According to Ghanaian traditional belief, the spirit world is just as real as the world of the living. The dual worlds of the sacred and the mundane are then linked by a network of mutual responsibilities and relationships. For instance, the actions of the living may affect the gods or the spirits of the departed, while prosperity of the state or lineage is guaranteed by the support of the ancestors. It is believed that neglect of the ancestors could spell doom for the living.
Veneration of Ancestors
Veneration of the departed ancestors is an important characteristic of all Ghanaian traditional religions. This is because the ancestors are believed to serve as the most immediate link to the spirit world, and are regarded as constantly near, observing all actions and thoughts of the living. It is also believed that some ancestors may be reincarnated for purposes of replenishing the lineage. It is for this reason that barrenness is considered a great misfortune, as it prevents the return of the ancestors to life.
Religious Role of Elders
In order to maintain a natural balance between the world of the mundane and that of the sacred, family elders play a crucial role in relation to lineage within Ghanaian society. An equally important role is played by priests within the society and the chiefs within the state. The religious functions of the lineage heads are demonstrated clearly during periods such as the Homowo of the Ga-Adangbe, Odwira of the Akan and Aboakyir of the Efutu or coastal Guan – which are activities organised for the renewal and strengthening of ties with the ancestors. These activities may involve the pouring of libations and the making of sacrifices.
The religious activities of lineage heads and chiefs are typically limited to the biweekly and annual festivities which are more routine. On the other hand, the traditional priests are considered specialised practitioners through whom directions may be granted by the spirits of the gods. It is for this reason that traditional priests are associated with specific shrines. Priests are required to undergo vigorous training in the arts of divination, medicine and other related disciplines, as the public consults them on a more regular basis. Traditional priests will sometimes serve as herbalists or doctors due to the fact that many diseases are regarded as having spiritual causes. Visiting of shrines is most common among uneducated individuals and those residing in rural areas in Ghana. This however does not mean that educated Ghanaians have abandoned tradition entirely, as some educated and mission trained individuals are known to consult traditional oracles in times of crisis.
Traditional religious ceremonies in Ghana are truly interactive events. Every participant seems to have a role, from translating the message of the gods, spirits and ancestors into the local languages of Twi, Ga or Ewe, or clapping, drumming and dancing. Most of the attendants will dance traditional Ghanaian dances such as Agbadza and Adowa, to traditional instruments including drums, rattles and gong gongs. All the songs are indigenous Ghanaian songs sang in veneration of the Supreme Being, ancestors and spirits who are called into being through libation. Fetishes such as the Tigari and Akonedi are viewed as a connection between the living and the Supreme Being. Certain ceremonies are designed to strengthen the gods and feed them and incantations are performed as a request to the gods to grant favours in relation to diseases, bad dreams, unemployment or even reversing the course of the supplicant’s life.
There remains a strong belief in witchcraft in many areas of rural Ghana. Older women are typically suspected of being witches and may be lynched, beaten or banished to “witch camps” as part of their punishment. These camps are small villages in the north that are populated primarily by suspected witches. However, there has been a decline in incidences of violence or banishment of suspected witches as the law today provides protection for the suspected offenders.
Traditional Religion in Modern Ghana
As with most other African traditional religions, practitioners of traditional religions in Ghana have mysticism about them, with the very powerful deities, such as the Antoa existing away from society in far off places. But today things have seemingly evolved with regards to traditional religion in Ghana. For instance, the fetish priests or priestesses – also loosely referred to as juju men and women – are increasingly settling amongst communities. Evidence of this has been found at a shrine at the Akosombo marine where the once powerful religious figures continue to provide charms and grant favours. This is different from before when the priests and priestesses enjoyed a more influential role away from the community, granting wishes upon request, and even demanding human sacrifices in return.
Although preconditioned to consider it evil, many young Ghanaians are today expressing an interest and curiosity in their traditional religions. It is possible to find Ghanaians at the Accra Cultural Centre seeking to experience their ancient religious ceremonies in today’s modern world. To learn more about traditional religion in Ghana, pay a visit to the Afrikan Renaissance Mission during your next trip to Accra. Also referred to as Afrikania, this mission is an organisation that actively supports the practice and recognition of traditional religions in Ghana.