The Evolution of My African Religious Identity: A Struggle for Cultural Synchrony

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Current data suggests that many African countries appear on the list of the most religious countries in the world. A closer look at our religious identities suggests that most Africans belong to two major religious groups Christianity and Islam. Pew Research suggests that there are more professing Christians in Africa than in any continent in the world. This often begs the question “what did Africans believe before their conversion to these foreign religious faiths?” Others, may wonder at what became of the African faiths that existed before colonization and Islamization? These are questions we rarely ever consider deeply. We also do not give ourselves the permission to explore them on account of cultural conditioning. From my Ghanaian experience, this conditioning is derived from a deep seated desire for Christian conformity in a uber-religious culture. This was one reason the evolution of my African religious identity was such a struggle.

Importance of Religion In Peoples Lives and Decisions by Country

Residents of countries with the most rapid population growth more likely to admit religion was very important in their lives. Source: PEW RESEARCH CENTER

My Religious Evolution as A Christian Born and Raised in Africa

In today’s post I will discuss the evolution of my Christian faith and the associated struggles with my African identity. My experience suggests that the basic tenets of my Christian faith align with my ancestral beliefs. My greatest struggle was on the professed exclusivity of the Christian faith and the tendency of organized christianity to denigrate my ancestral beliefs. These struggles are not unique to me, I may just have carried them longer than most. I grew up in a family that, whilst being Christian, embraced our ancestral beliefs as well. My grandmother and my mother after her celebrated our annual Homowo festival. This was a form of thanksgiving harvest festival to the lagoon goddess Naa Korle. According to oral tradition this goddess saved my people from attacks by the local ethnic groups after we arrived on the shores of the West Coast of Africa from Yorubaland.

The belief and practice of our traditional faiths, along with christianity as well as Islam has been a feature of the lives of Africans for several centuries. In the past few decades the practice of our ancestral religious faith is slowly decreasing. In time I came to the realization that my personal struggle between the two was ideological, not religious. The root of this cultural asynchrony was my western education. My education and the ideas it espoused, whilst not directly supportive of any specific religion, was less dismissive of Judeo-Christian beliefs. My education left me with a bias against my own African faiths and cultural beliefs. Even though I am a Ghanaian of the Ga ethnic group I believe my experiences mirrors that of many Africans.

The Concept of a Bisexual Deity Ataa Naa Nyogmo in an Intensely Homophobic Culture

My people call the almighty God Ataa Naa Nyogmo. This concept is different from the patriarchy of the monotheistic religions. Ataa Naa Nyogmo translates as the divine one who is neither male nor female, a bisexual supreme deity. The Christian patriarchal influence has however effectively blinded most of us to this concept. I still wonder how a people with a bisexual deity fail to understand the concept of gender fluidity. Most of the religious beliefs and practices of my people were handed down by oral tradition. On this account our beliefs were very vulnerable to biased reporting from early Christian traders and explorers. Beliefs and ideas that did not fit within the paradigm of our colonial masters were suppressed and conveniently forgotten.

The Danish surgeon Paul Erdmann Isert in his book “Letters on West Africa and the Slave Trade” from 1783 observed; “the Ga had knowledge of the Supreme Being whom they regarded as the creator of the world and all that is within it; they referred to him as Numbo (Nyongmo)”. In his view, the Ga exalted Nyongmo highly and believed he was less concerned with the activities and dealings of human beings. The Ga thus created sub-deities to serve as intermediaries between them and God. Whilst Isert’s observation may be accurate, it is easy to see his subjectivity in suggesting that the Ga created sub-deities. The lesser deities he was referring to will include Naa Korle, Sakumo, Sakumo fio, Shikpong (called Asaase Yaa by the Akan) and dzemanwodzi (deities and spirits of nature). Isert, a Danish Christian could not come to terms with the concept of multiple deities.

Reconciling Multiple Faiths and Belief Systems

The idea of who created who, whether the deities created man or man created the deities is not new to most theologians. The challenge intrinsic in reconciling multiple faiths and beliefs may be the driving force driving the ideology of exclusivity of faith paradigms. After exploring multiple faith traditions I can say that to my knowledge only the Hindus, Buddhist faiths and my African ancestral faith called in certain circles as the Kpele religion eschew exclusivity of beliefs. Thus whilst my ancestral faith can easily conceive the Christian faith, the converse is not true. The evolution of my African religious identity was a struggle due to Christian rejection of my ancestral beliefs. In times when my Christian fervor or fanaticism was high, I have denied the validity of my ancestral faiths.

After reading faith traditions like Buddhism and Taoism I have come to the realization that faith is a path we all follow. Faith is a journey and the destination provides the focus and the purpose required of such an undertaking. In many ways the written religious texts of the Torah, Bible and Koran, whilst offering valuable insights for adherents, may in many ways limit unique expressions of faith. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to constantly work alongside and for orphans and widows in their affliction, despite any costs, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27)

By Dr. Leonard Sowah an Internal Medicine Physician in Baltimore, Maryland


A physician providing primary medical care to patients across the lifespan