A special day for tradition and customs

Abstract Africa
Semi-abstract African art by Garfield Morgan the Artist (photo: courtesy of Christopher Charles)

May 15 has been designated as the day for the celebration of traditions and customs in Burkina Faso. The decision was taken in March this year and it is alleged that Minister of State Bassolma Bazié and poet, Titinga Frédéric Pacéré, are some of the brains behind this decision.

The relationship between Africans and their religion always generates interest. African Theologian John Mbiti’s remark that “Africans are notoriously religious” is regularly echoed. Another popular view is that no African is a monotheist, meaning that an African cannot practice one religion only. It might be prudent to state that these comments refer to sub-Saharan Africa, since engaging the religious practices of northern Africa would require another lengthy debate and shift our focus.

The impossibility to meet a monotheist African means that traditional African religions are ever present in the life of every African. The majority openly claim to be Muslims and Christians, but the reality is that the same majority remain attached to their traditional religious practices and do practice them. A staunch Christian or Muslim who strictly adheres to the doctrine, tenets and prescriptions of their religion generally prays to their traditional gods, offers sacrifices to them when there is an important event or something of key importance is at stake in their lives. It is said that people travel to their villages to perform sacrifices and perform traditional rituals when they are handling a “delicate” issue, which could be writing a school test, going for a job or promotion interview or a test, seeking good health when sickness strikes, and so on. Parents often take this task upon themselves for their young wards and relatives do it for their close or loved ones who cannot be physically present for these religious and spiritual practices.

Setting a day aside for the celebration of traditions and customs, initiated by the transitional government in power in Ouagadougou, was not an unpopular gesture. What came as a surprise is the honesty and boldness behind it. The decision simply says loudly what everybody knows, practices, believes, and murmurs or keeps silent. The vital presence and role of ancestors, gods, shrines are part and parcel of the fabric of every society in sub-Saharan Africa. Communities with a dominant Muslim population where the Sharia law prevails often claim to be monotheist Muslims, but I wonder if their practices like traditional healing, reading the future or giving alms to ensure success or ward off tragedy do not have some degree of traditional African belief. This might need more research and reflection.

May 15 this year remains a historic day in Burkina, since the nation officially celebrated, honoured, and revered  her traditions and customs for the first time. Analysts point out the crucial role that culture plays in the construction of national identity. The date remains a public holiday in the country and the celebration is intended to be an annual event. In Ouagadougou, the capital city, the May 15 special “customs and tradition day” the festivities started at the palace of the Mossi King, his Majesty the Moogho Naaba, the traditional and highest personality in the city. The Mossi is the largest ethnic group in the country, with a profound respect for chieftaincy. The King’s palace was quite busy early in the morning, and the higher council in charge of tradition and chieftaincy provided what is required for the celebration cum practice. At 6:30 am, the King stepped outside, a practice called “Naabi yiibou” in Mossi language (also called Mooré) and handed over what was needed for the events to the four selected personalities in charge of traditional sacrifices. Each of the four was given a white ram and three white cocks,a gesture which  means “exhortations for peace, social cohesion, prosperity and a fruitful rainy season in the country”. The “ancestors and a better future for the nation” remains a preoccupation. One of the assistants of the King added that the main objective of all these preparations is to offer libations that help the nation connect with God and the ancestors so that the wishes and requests of humans come to pass. He also stated that such rituals are frequent, and this buttresses the idea that traditional sacrifices and rituals have always been a part of their society.

The commemoration started once the preparations were over. Traditional chiefs from other areas came over, as well as members of the national government and representatives of other religious communities. A conference was held in a Burkinabè language on the rich and impressive state of Burkinabè culture.

The highest point in this celebration, according to many, is the panel discussion on the theme “Osmosis between the ordinary citizen and those in power”. Some of the panelists were traditionalists and others were university scholars. The council in charge of chieftaincy, customs and tradition later made a statement which conveys the determination of the nation to work towards preserving and promoting customs and revering ancestors and traditions. Internally displaced communities also celebrated and some of them travelled to Ouagadougou for the occasion. The traditional Chief of Lorum in northern Burkina is now the leader of one of the displaced communities and he did not perceive distance from one’s hometown a barrier in such cases. He said, “even far from the sanctuaries, grievances can be accepted because there is a prerequisite.  Even if you are abroad and you make grievances, it works. It’s faith, credibility, truth, that’s what makes tradition”.  Statements like “our ancestors and our supreme Being who is God” were frequently mentioned and that fascinated me. I found it captured the specific order in which ancestors and the supreme God co-exist in the life and belief of Africans or the Burkinabè in this case. The same remark was made by Burkinabè University Professor Albert Ouédraogo who said that in traditional African religions, God is one.

Prominent leaders of the Christian community, and other religious groups, expressed their satisfaction with this special day and its events because to them, diversity has to be tolerated. No opposition or negative critic was noticed. Many observers were simply thrilled with this day that demonstrated that the Burkinabè people have now taken the right path, working to reconnect with their roots that were partly eliminated by colonization. The nation is working to regain her identity and culture which constitute their real strength. Others believe that the Burkinabè have come to this decision because they have reached a stage where they doubt the real worth of Western life style. Part of the joy in this context is said to emanate from the view that all great nations of the world are those which have preserved their traditions and asserted their identity and culture. Many see in the Burkinabè initiative an expression of the conscience-awakening phenomenon which has taken hold of all African societies. The African youth want a real identity in the midst of  these changes occurring  at the global level.

Moussa Traoré is Associate Professor at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

Similar Posts


  1. The tenets of our culture and tradition reveal our true identity as a people. It’s good Burkina has realized and given need. It’s an eye-opener for other African countries to follow suit.

  2. Great piece.

    There are a lot of things to reflect on in this article. The issue of the marriage between traditional and religious beliefs remains a key point of reflection.

    This is a topic that evokes feelings of excitement and concern at the same time; especially when it comes to living the Christian faith while taking into consideration our background as Africans.

    Within the Ghanaian space, one person who has been a key advocate for fusing culture into the Christian way of worship is the Emeritus Catholic Archbishop of Kumasi, Peter AKwasi Sarpong.

    I believe that a good balance, in terms of knowing when, where and how to draw the line between faith and tradition is very necessary.

  3. Another great piece. I find all your writings on culture, civilization and the African believes systems educative. I wish you continue on this more to give light on Africa.

    What is “Naabi yiibou” an explanation might have helped. I guess it’s Mossi for the “coming out of the chiefs”. My little Mossi.

    One thing though. Describing all Moslem especially and Christians as getting back home deserves some discussion. You said a research needed to go on this.

    What is is that within the two religions themselves is that they contain their form of what appear fetish or traditional. In Islam it’s allowed. For example using hisab or the science of stars to find solution is allowed. But these appear they only pertain to traditional worship. This is not factually correct. All the religions have these imbeded in them. The religions are the same but with a focus on one object per monotheistic and on many on polytheistic religion.

    However there is this truth the African appears overwhelmingly religious.

    Burkina is an example. Always setting the tone for the rest of Africa. This celebrations coming few weeks after the a similar one on culture.

    The rest of Africa should find a way of adopting the Burkina system and this will work to put Africa where it belongs.

  4. Very important Dr. Culturally BURKINA FASO is very rich ( more than 60 ethnic groups with very rich culture and traditions ) . That can help the country to keep its identity and flourish economically .

  5. The cultural initiative from the people of Burkina Faso is truly commendable. It is widely acknowledged that culture encapsulates traditions and customs, making it a well-considered decision by the Burkinabe authorities.

  6. I am personally thrilled about the recognition that Christians have accorded other religions. It’s high time we accept the fact that traditions hall from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to date and must not be totally erupted from humanity.

  7. Waoooow, great move. I think Burkina Faso is moving in the right direction. Moving forward, leaders should even be to swear to the ancestors or deity of serving their country.
    Other African countries should learn from Burkina Faso because we are looking our roots

  8. Great piece of work, we all need to revive the true identity of the African society which is deeply rooted in our culture and traditions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *