Module Seventeen, Activity Three

 Culture, Society, and Production in West Africa

In Activity One: What is West Africa?, we began talking about the rich cultural diversity of West Africa. People within this region speak hundreds of different languages, practice various religions, have many histories and traditions, and earn a living in a number of different ways. This Activity (Three) will emphasize the many ways of life in West Africa, as well as focus in on the case study of Cote d’Ivoire as a more in depth example of culture, society, and production.

What do we mean by “culture,” “society,” and “production”?

Take a moment to: 1) write down other words that come to mind when you hear each of these three words, and 2) try to come up with a one sentence definition for each of these three words.


a) What words come to mind when you hear the word “culture”?

b) Come up with your own definition of “culture” in one sentence:



a) What words come to mind when you hear the word “society”?

b) Come up with your own definition of “society” in one sentence:



a) What words come to mind when you hear the word “production”?

b) Come up with your own definition of “production” in one sentence:

There is no one right answer to any of these questions. Everybody has a slightly different understanding of what is meant by each of these terms. For the purposes of this activity, we have chosen to group these three concepts together because they refer to people’s daily lives of work (production), beliefs and behavior patterns (culture), and relationships in communities (society). None of these are mutually exclusive—on the contrary, they are all very much interrelated.

What are some important aspects of culture, society, and production in West Africa?

1) Religion in West African Daily Life

West Africa, like most regions of the world, is a place where many different religions are practiced. These range from well-known world religions like Islam and Christianity to religious traditions that few people outside of a particular West African region have heard of. In general, certain areas of West Africa have tended not to adopt Christianity and Islam, maintaining many of the religious beliefs and practices of their ancestors combined with new innovations. A few also practice world religions uncommon but present in the region, such as Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, or Buddhism. As is the case throughout the world, many have combined Christianity, Islam, or other world religions with local religious practices, which is sometimes called syncretism. Let’s take these one by one and see in more detail what religious diversity actually exists in West Africa.

Islam and Christianity
Often the distinction is made in Africa between Islam, Christianity, and “indigenous religions.” These categories can be problematic as they oversimplify the situation and tend to misrepresent what “indigenous religions” are. In many ways it does not make much sense to group every religious tradition that seems to have its roots in Africa into a single category called “indigenous” as these traditions are extremely diverse. What’s more, some of the earliest Muslims and Christians were also Africans, leaving a long and rich history of these religious traditions deeply ingrained in certain regions of Africa. On the other hand, there is merit in recognizing that religions like Islam and Christianity are religions practiced around the globe and were introduced to many regions of Africa in a colonial context. This does lead one to ask the question of what religious beliefs and practices were present in Africa prior to colonization? And in what ways is it different today to belong to a world religion in Africa like Islam and Christianity in comparison to a more localized religious tradition that is not known and practiced as widely?

First, let’s look at a brief overview of Islam and Christianity in West Africa. Islam began penetrating into West Africa somewhere around the 9th and 10th century CE through missionary efforts and trade networks. During the 11th century CE, various rulers throughout West Africa began accepting Islam. Since that time Islam has continued to grow in West Africa, producing large brotherhoods, important centers of Islamic learning, and becoming integrated into the laws, cultures, and political economy of various regions. The West African countries today in which at least 50% of the population is Muslim include:

• Mauritania (99%+)
• Senegal (92%)
• Mali (90%)
• Gambia (90%)
• Guinea (85%)
• Niger (85%)
• Sierra Leone (60%)
• Nigeria (50%)

Each of these countries, and even regions within these countries, have quite a different history and tradition of Islam. Some, such as Niger, have only come to be a majority Muslim nation very recently, while others have a deeper history of widespread Islam in the region, such as in Nigeria. Muslims throughout West Africa share commonalities too, such as prayer five times a day, a calendar of religious seasons and festivities, and upholding the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad’s life and teachings.

Christianity in West Africa has a shorter history than Islam. It did not come to that region of Africa until the era of European exploration and colonialism, apart from a few Christians who lived earlier on in the Sahara desert. This period of the spread of Christianity in West Africa began in the 15th century and continued into the 20th century. Many European Christians (and eventually Christians from other regions of the world too) began going to Africa as missionaries to convert Africans and “civilize” them. This, of course, wrongly assumed that Africans did not already have sophisticated civilizations and traditions, just as people in Europe did. Since colonization began, however, many Africans have adopted Christianity as their own religion. Some found that although missionaries often presented Christianity alongside European racist and ethnocentric assumptions, they could discover their own interpretations of Christianity that could challenge these. Today in West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, certain Christian churches are growing at a rapid pace. Those West African countries today in which at least 50% of the population is Christian include:

• Cabo Verde (majority)
• Ghana (62%)

While there are few West African countries with majority Christian populations, there are still a large number of Christians in general in West Africa.

New Grand Mosque


Roman Catholic Cathedral


Other West African Religious Traditions

While Christianity and Islam are very important religions in West African societies, there are many more religious traditions that are upheld in this region. Just take a look at this list of countries that are considered to have a majority of the population (more than 50%) whose religion would fall into the “indigenous” religions category:

• Benin (70%)
• Togo (70%)
• Liberia (70%)
• Burkina Faso (65%)
• Cote d’Ivoire (60%)
• Guinea-Bissau (50%+)

Obviously many people practice “indigenous” religions in West Africa. But what are these religions and how are they practiced? It would be too much to try to list here the details of every religious tradition from West Africa. They are all unique in many ways, but they also share some common points such as belief in the supernatural, belief in a creator, certain rites and rituals that are performed, and teachings about right behavior and relationships in the world (all characteristics that are also present in Islam and Christianity).

The photos below are just a few examples of the types of “indigenous” religious practices that one can find in West Africa. The first photo is of a diviner—someone who seeks knowledge about the future or something else unknown, usually with the aid of supernatural powers. The second photo shows a man exiting a shrine—a place where homage is paid to a saint or deity. The third photo is a religious celebration in Nigeria. Again, these are just a few of many ways that West Africans express themselves through religious traditions that have developed in West Africa.

Client Consulting Diviner

Elder Leaving Shrine

Agbo Water Spirit

One final word on “indigenous” religions in West Africa is that it is important to remember that they are always dynamic and changing. This is, of course, true of all religions. We should not think of African “indigenous” religions as relics from the past which have not changed for thousands of years. Rather, they are as “modern” of religions as Islam, Christianity, or any other world religion. Each of these religions is rooted in a certain tradition and history, but each also adapts to contemporary circumstances to meet the needs of the people who practice the religion.

Such ideas about being “modern” or “traditional” can lead some Christian or Muslim groups to be critical or judgmental of some of the “indigenous” religious practices in West Africa. Other times Christians and Muslims are very tolerant and respectful of different religions.

Other World Religions Present in West Africa

Through missionary efforts, migration, and travel around the globe, other world religions have come to be practiced by West Africans as well. Some of these include Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. While these communities are generally small, they are also an important part of society in West Africa.
Syncretism: Is There Really Any Other Possibility?

At the beginning of this section on West African religions, we mentioned the word syncretism, meaning the combination or fusion of different religions. This term is often used to talk about how Africans have combined pre-colonial religious beliefs and practices with Christianity or Islam. But, as mentioned above, it is the nature of all religions to change over time. This has been the case for Christianity, Islam, and pre-colonial African religions. As groups of human beings with different cultures and religions come into contact with one another, there is bound to be an exchange of some kind. This is the phenomenon that the word syncretism attempts to describe. West Africans have, like all humans throughout history, combined various religious traditions that they have come into contact with as it best suits their needs.

1. Syncretism:

2. Diviner:

3. Shrine:


2) The influence of colonialism and globalization on the West African market

Colonization in Africa has in many ways paved the way for economic relations that exist today in West Africa. During the colonial period, European colonizers made cash crops an important part of the markets of their colonies. Cash crops are grown to be sold, rather than be used by the farmer her/himself. Colonial economies emphasized a pattern of exporting raw materials to be manufactured outside of West Africa. Manufactured materials then would be imported and sold back in West Africa. This system provided industrialized nations in Europe with cheap raw materials to fuel their economies. You can still see this trend in the chart below that lists primary exports and imports of each West African country today. As you read through them, you will note that exports tend to be raw materials (such as cotton, crude oil, or minerals) and imports tend to be manufactured goods (such as machinery, electrical equipment, or textiles). You will also note that in almost every case, one of the principle trade partners for each West African country is its respective former colonizer (noted in bold type). (Liberia is not included in this categorization because it is not usually considered to have a formal colonizer, although it was established as a country by the United States). Finally, you will notice in the chart below that only a few of the primary trade partners are with other African countries (noted in red). Thus, international trade relations of West African countries are oriented for the most part towards more highly industrialized nations rather than other countries in their region. And international trade laws and agreements tend to favor industrialized nations’ interests rather than the agricultural sector in African countries. For example many African nations are critical of wealthy nations’ agricultural subsidies—money supplemented by governments to farmers from wealthy nations so that they can export crops competitively. Africans argue that this makes it nearly impossible for African farmers to compete with prices on the world market. It is difficult for Africans to work towards changing this situation as it has become so ingrained into international relations.

Related topics on international trade and the history of colonialism can be found in Module 7B: African History 1500 to the Present and Module 9: African Economies.

Read the chart below through carefully and answer the questions about it that follow.

West African Trade Table 1

West African Trade 2

*Data taken from Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience


a.) List all of the European countries that are trade partners with West African countries:

b.) List all of the African countries that are trade partners with West African countries:

c.) List all other countries that are trade partners with West African countries:

d.) According to the chart above, which West African countries export manufactured goods?

3) Daily Work in West Africa

We have just looked at the West African economy on a grand scale in the last section, focusing on international trade. But what goes on within countries of West Africa in people’s day-to-day lives? What kind of work are people doing to earn a living? And are they earning enough to meet their needs?

A large number of West Africans are engaged in agricultural work —growing crops, raising livestock, or fishing. Some do this work to raise food for their own families, some work on someone else’s field for payment, and others sell their goods raised for cash. If the growing season is good, farmers can find adequate resources to meet their needs. Sometimes hired workers do not get paid well, just squeaking by from day to day. Situations will vary in different parts of West Africa.

There are many more jobs that people do throughout West Africa as well. Some of these include teacher, politician, butcher, business person, mechanic, barber, journalist, computer technician, university professor, doctor, nurse, shop keeper, miner, taxi driver, cook, and factory worker. Each country in West Africa is different in terms of the salaries that people earn and whether this is enough to meet their needs financially. Sometimes problems arise, such as when West African governments and other employers do not pay their employees in a timely manner. Or sometimes the income earned from a job is not enough to cover the cost of living in a certain area. But there are also many cases throughout West Africa of people being able to have a comfortable life through earning a decent salary and people pooling resources together to support one another.

CASE STUDY: Côte d’Ivoire, Labor Migration, and Civil War

We have so far given a general overview on religion, international economic relations, and daily work situations in West Africa. Each are important components of culture, society, and production in West Africa, although by no means all-inclusive of the daily workings of life in this region of the world. Having now discussed each of them briefly, let’s take a look at how they are related in a particular place in West Africa—the country of Côte d’Ivoire.


cote divoire Map

Côte d’Ivoire and the Global Economy

Côte d’Ivoire is an economic hub of West Africa, representing at least 40% of the UEMOA’s (West African Economic Union of eight former French colonies using the CFA currency) GDP. As such, people come from all over West Africa to look for work there. Before the recent conflict began in 2002, one third of Côte d’Ivoire’s population was immigrants. Some of the largest groups were:

Burkinabé (people from Burkina Faso): 3 million
Malians: 1 million
Nigerians: 1 million

The majority of these immigrants come to Côte d’Ivoire to work on cocoa and coffee plantations. And large international corporations such as Nestle, Hershey’s, Archer Midland Daniels, and M&M/Mars own most of these plantations. Côte d’Ivoire supplies about 40% of the world’s stock of cocoa, and it is one of the 10 major coffee exporters in the world. It has been reported that working conditions on many of these plantations are in violation of internationally recognized human rights. For example, child labor is used on some farms and workers are often not paid or treated well. Nevertheless, people have continued to migrate to Côte d’Ivoire, looking for work in spite of these difficult working conditions. Many of these migrant laborers come from regions of West Africa where it is difficult to grow enough food to last through the entire year, and other employment opportunities are scarce.

Migration and Ethno-Religious Diversity in Côte d’Ivoire

Ivoirian (the term used to describe things or people from Côte d’Ivoire) society is composed of many different cultural and religious traditions. As mentioned above, many migrants come to Côte d’Ivoire from all over West Africa. Some of them are there only seasonally, while others settle permanently. In addition to the cultural and religious diversity that migrants bring to Côte d’Ivoire, there are many other ethno-linguistic (over 60) and religious groups that have lived in Côte d’Ivoire for many generations. The majority (60%) of the population have religious practices that would be considered “indigenous”; 20% are Christian; and 20% are Muslim. Many of the Muslims in Côte d’Ivoire are migrants from neighboring West African countries. Significant numbers of French and Lebanese have also settled in Côte d’Ivoire. While Côte d’Ivoire has generally been welcoming to foreigners since independence, an ideology of “Ivorianness” has also been promoted. This advocates priority for people whose parents are both Ivorian citizens, creating social divisions between immigrants and nationals.

It is, thus, a highly stratified society, both ethnically and economically. Even amongst those who have two Ivorian parents, some ethnic or religious groups find themselves with more political and economic clout than others. The current president, Laurent Gbagbo has been accused, for example, of excluding from the ruling elite anyone who is not from the south of the country and a Christian. Generally speaking, divisions created according to socio-economic class, religion, and ethnicity have produced a society with extremes of wealth and poverty in Côte d’Ivoire. These extremes have fueled a recent civil war in Côte d’Ivoire that began in 2002.

Your Turn

A. Organizing Data:
Fill in the chart below with information from the text on Côte d’Ivoire.

Migrants Groups to Côte d’Ivoire

Names of countries where migrants come from Names of cocoa and coffee corporations that employ many of the migrants
1. 1.
2. 2.
3. 3.
4. 4.
5. 5.

B. Writing Assignment

Imagine that you have just got a new job with the Nestle Company, and they have told you that you will be sent to Côte d’Ivoire for two years to work in their main office. Your job will be to investigate labor practices on the cocoa plantations throughout the country and try to suggest ways to improve working conditions for the laborers in the fields. You see that this will be a difficult task, as workers on many of the plantations are very young, work long hours, and do not have clean and dry housing. Write a paragraph explaining your strategy for how you will investigate and then improve these conditions.

Go on to Activity Four or select one of the other activities in this module