Article by Robin Van Auken on Volunteer Forever

Don’t visit West Africa for the big game or majestic ruins – instead, focus on the amazing variety of people you’ll meet there, and take time to learn their history, their customs, and share your own.

From Nigeria to Senegal, West Africa is home to an estimated 362 million people. It’s an area of many cultures, but they don’t clash. In fact, there are many similarities in dress, food, and music and songs, and it’s thanks to the long history of cultural exchange in this region.

Even the homes are similar – if not in style, then in function. The traditional West African home is built within a compound, a cluster of buildings that serves to keep families connected. Sometimes these buildings are even connected, joined around an open area.

West Africans enjoy free-flowing and embroidered clothing, with elaborate stitching on their shirts, tunics, and jackets. The formal attire includes a knee-to-ankle Boubou robe, sometimes called a kaftan. These loose-fitted robes have their origins in the royal families of the 12th century, along with another popular item – a large square of cloth draped around the shoulder called the Kente cloth, made by the Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, that is the most well-known and a source of ethnic pride.

Kente is a colorful type of silk and cotton fabric made of interwoven cloth strips. The Kente colors and the patterns are rich in symbolism. Most Kente cloths contain yellow (gold), which signifies royalty, wealth, fertility, and beauty. Black is also a dominant color and means maturation and intense spiritual energy. Blue is another often-used color and it represents peacefulness, harmony, and love.

The cuisine of West Africa, with its plentiful fish, vegetables, fruits, and rice, should be familiar to the rest of the world. Many of these recipes are enjoyed in the Caribbean, as well as the southern region of the United States, especially in Louisiana, Virginia, and North and South Carolina. Think Jambalaya and Gumbo! Other starchy foods that are cooked in West Africa include yams, plantains, cassava, and sweet potatoes.

Football (or soccer) is hugely popular in West Africa, with national teams meeting at the Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. But it is the board game of Oware, which originated with the Akan people of Ghana, that is the most popular recreation in West Africa.

Modern musical genres in West Africa include Mbalax, Highlife, Fuji, and Afrobeat, but in many regions, traditional folk music is still preserved. Two important traditions are Praise-singing and Griot, both of which are musical, and used to convey and preserve stories and legends. These minstrel traditions use string and percussion instruments, such as the talking drum, as accompaniment. Griots are historians, and their job is to memorize the oral traditions and use music to share their stories. Praise-singers are often responsible for memorizing the lineages of royal people and historic events, and they pride themselves on their creativity and ability to improvise. Both of these artists depend upon the generosity of patrons, and the best are lavished with money and clothing and other luxuries.

The film industry in West Africa is growing, and Nigeria has become the home of “Nollywood,” a thriving business that produces 1,500 films per year! Nollywood films are available globally on Netflix and Youtube. Some people credit the strong tradition of theater and storytelling in Nigeria with its immense growth.

Another contemporary trend in West Africa is the spread of peace, thanks to the brave women instrumental in rebuilding Africa, starting formally with the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution No. 1325 in 2000. The peace movement has moved into West Africa and in 2006, the Women Peace and Security Network was established in Ghana. This organization, which advocates nonviolent resistance, is also found in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

If you would like to visit West Africa, consider a volunteer travel program that places you in a safe country on a responsible, meaningful project. There are many to choose from, and each of the ones highlighted below is vetted for responsibility and sustainability!


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