The difference between a religion and a traditional belief may be an army. The Sawa are a group of coastal peoples in Cameroon. Across the border in Nigeria there are forty million Yoruba, many of who practice the Ifa religion. Ifa is definitely a big, ancient and well studied religion, that has spread across the world. It is almost unknown. Unlike the Yoruba Kingdoms, the Sawa are small groups organised into networks of clans and associations. Cameroon has no large or militarised pre-colonial religions. There are no large empires comparable to the ancient Yoruba in the area the Sawa occupy.  

Religions with armies have greatly altered the relationship of Sawa to indigenous divinity. First the Islamic, and then the European colonial projects violently removed Sawa religions from their central organizing position in society.  The attitude of religious colonists was that natives could not conceive of religion, a spiritual god, or moral laws. This belief by colonists and the colonised created a break in African cultural confidence and knowledge which has yet to be repaired. Everything related to the non-material world of Africans was destroyed or identified with evil. Sawa people are still trying to bring together their religious past and their current identity. While religion is one of the first narratives that cultures create, this article is hard to write because so little is known about pre-colonial Sawa religions. It’s not so clear that the Sawa would call their beliefs, religions.

Sawa people often talk about  “Tradition”. People tend to describe ways in which things have been done in the past or specific cultural rituals. Some Sawa describe specific spirit entities, like the ‘Mami Wota”. Mami Wota, are the Sawa version of water spirits like Lwa La Sirene, Yemaya, sirens or  rusalkas. Like water spirits all over the world, Mami Wota are beautiful, powerful and dangerous. Every year, at the beginning of the dry season, the leaders and ritual masters of the Sawa prepare a huge ceremony to consult Mami Wota. Many people attend each year but most of the people who go to watch,  know very little about what is taking place. This knowledge is kept secret by ritual masters.

Although the Sawa will rarely talk openly or respectfully about religious practices that pre-existed Christianity and Islam, it’s quite common to carry out traditional rituals. Rituals mark passage from one stage of life to another: birth, naming babies, puberty, marriage, becoming an elder and death. Except that things don’t usually end at death, since the Sawa ancestors join an other-worldly board of consultants and continue to direct their descendants. Many people will first say a prayer to show they are Christian and then nervously pour “hot drinks” like whisky or gin on the earth to show respect for their ancestors.

Sawa people rarely speak about healing or helpful pre-Christian practices. This isn’t surprising, as “modernity” or “rationality” is often shown by uncritical repetition of anti-black or anti-African attitudes. Harmful traditional practices clearly exist, as in all cultures worldwide but in the case of the Sawa, non-Christian ritual practices are dismissed in an undifferentiated way as “ignorant, evil, superstitious” and pushed into hiding.  This creates an unresolved contradiction in society because very many people consult ritual masters. It is still unusual for formally educated Sawa people to call themselves ritual practitioners, or to admit they use the services of such people. Christians are often punished for associating with ritual practitioners. It’s been hard to find a respectable word to use in this article for a practitioner of Sawa rituals.

While Christian ceremonies are open to friends and acquaintances, traditional rituals, especially those surrounding rites of passage or death are often reserved for closed groups, family or clan members. Like many west Africans, in public the Sawa now express their identity only through traditional clothes, music, dance styles and the myths they tell about their origin. Not all Sawa can speak their languages. The languages are felt to have little value.  French and English are thought to be really important. As a consequence some Sawa people cannot understand many songs, sayings, and ceremonial instructions in Sawa languages. People who are born outside rural areas often lack basic knowledge of their culture and traditions. The cultural split is also partly, a rural urban split.

Things are changing though. Prosperity gospel, globalised atheism and politicized traditionalism are important influences on the standing of Islam and Christianity. Firstly the excesses of prosperity gospel are now distastefully clear and are provoking a backlash. Many people have been defrauded and taken advantage of by charismatic, unscrupulous pastors. Religious leaders have been shown to influence their followers in ways which are dangerous to communities. Mobs have attacked people thought to be witches or to be in same-sex relationships. Churches have also been used by politicians to promote violence against their opponents.

Secondly, in day-to-day city life, it’s becoming more unusual to hear someone at the bank, in a conference room or lecture theatre talk religion unless something has gone very wrong. People still automatically assume everyone believes in something. However, faith is factual for some, fictional for many others. Religion can be puzzling to people with no relationship to organized churches and mosques. Religious skeptics are unpopular, so they aren’t very vocal but some people do make arguments about intolerance and irrationality that can be directly traced to European skepticism.

Thirdly, traditional leadership institutions are making a political comeback. Chiefs have always been influential in local politics but now more people see a chance to gain influence on the national political scene through their status as indigenous owners of traditional territories. This is pushing up the social value of traditional institutions. What’s not clear is whether religious, cultural, healing or other knowledge held by traditional institutions will ever be taken up in mainstream cultural practice as a set of uncontroversial common beliefs. At the moment the silences and denial surrounding Sawa ways of understanding themselves and their relationship to the universe, are fascinating, and sometimes painful.


This post is part of our quarterly theme “Culture, Religion, Society”.” |  Read more publications for this series.

Clementine Burnley

Clementine Burnley was born and raised in Cameroon. At the moment, she lives and writes in Berlin, Germany.


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