12 Cultural Experiences to Stir Your Soul in West Africa – Travel can relax you, amaze you, excite you—even educate you. But the best travel experiences are the ones that move beyond the surface and touch you in the depth of your soul. The ones that change your mind, change your heart, leave you more aware of the world than you were before.
If that’s the type of experience you’re looking for, West Africa is the destination for you. Check out these cultural experiences to stir your soul in some of the world’s most interesting and unusual destinations.
1. Learn the shocking stories of Ghana’s slave castles on Cape Coast.
Ghana’s Gold Coast was a long stretch of castles and fortresses standing to store and protect the vast amounts of gold that made the Portuguese rich.
When the slave traders came, however, those elaborate structures became prisons and holding cells for the men and women doomed to a life of misery across the Atlantic.
For most, those castles were their last memory of home.
Today, you can visit the infamous Cape Coast Castle and other impressive fortresses that tell the story of Ghana’s dark episode of slavery.
2. Learn the mysteries of Voodoo, Benin’s official religion, at the Ouidah Voodoo Festival.
Every January in Benin, the Ouidah Voodoo Festival draws thousands of visitors from around the world to witness the dances, rites, and rituals that commemorate the 60 million men and women who lost their lives to the slave trade.
In fact, January 10th has been a national holiday in Benin for decades and many visitors to Ghana, Togo, and Benin schedule their trips so that they can witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.
3. Travel back in time to the glory days of the Ashanti Kingdom and see the spot where the Golden Stool “descended from the sky.”
Ghana was the first African country to gain independence—but its constitution makes provisions for the Ashanti king.
Legend has it that about 300 years ago, an Ashanti priest prayed for a symbol from the sky to unite the various factions of the kingdom. Darkness fell and thunder crashed and a golden stool “descended from the sky.”
Today, the Golden Stool is a symbol of unity. It is so revered that it is carried by a royal bearer; no one has ever sat upon it and it has never touched the ground.
You can visit the site and see a replica of the sacred stool on a cultural tour of Ghana.
4. Fall in love with contemporary African art and sweet Saint Louis jazz at the Dak’Art expo and Jazz Festival in Senegal.
Dak’Art celebrates the work of African artists; it’s a biennial event that showcases the finest works of West Africa’s established and emerging contemporary artists. If you are an art aficionado—or a student of modern West African culture—you’ll love Dak’Art.
And if you’re going to Senegal, you can’t miss the Saint-Louis Jazz Festival, which highlights the cultural heritage of jazz and promotes the works of local musicians and jazz artists.
5. Learn the 3,000-year history of Kente, Ghana’s national cloth—and marvel at the amazing designs.
The intricate designs and traditional weaving techniques of Ghana’s Kente cloth go back thousands of years; the fabric is woven into the country’s history. According to Ashanti legend, a man named Ota Karaban and his friend Kwaku learned to weave this amazing cloth from a spider.
If you visit the city of Bonwire, where Kente got its start, you can see hundreds of traditional Kente weavers plying their trade. Beef up on your bargaining skills before you go, however, if you want to strike a good deal.
6. Trace the ancestry of Root’s Kunta Kinte in Juffureh, one of the most visited sites in Gambia.
Although Kunta Kinte was a fictional character, someone like him could easily have lived in Juffureh and suffered the same fate as he.
Kunta Kinte was the son of a middle-class merchant—not the sort who would typically be caught and shipped off to Maryland for a life of slavery. Most in his position would have been redeemed or bought back from the slave traders.
Juffureh today is one of the most frequently visited sites in the Gambia. If you visit, you can see the flag pole believed to guarantee the safety of anyone who touched it and sees the original home of the Kinte clan—which did exist and dates back to the 17th century.
7. The amazing masks and artwork in the rituals and rites of the Dogon of Mali will blow your mind.
The Pays Dogon (the ancient West African tribe in Mali) are legendary for their artwork generally and masks in particular. In fact, Dogon country is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site in honor of the rich civilization of the Pays Dogon, which has existed, relatively unchanged, for centuries.
You can visit Dogon country in Mali, considered to be one of the most fascinating and culturally significant places on earth.
8. See the sacred sites and ancient ceremonies of the matriarchs of the Bijago of Guinea-Bissau.
Just off the coast of Guinea Bissau, there is a matriarchal society where women manage the economy, tend to the tribe’s social welfare, enforce the laws, and essentially have all political and economic power.
The Bijagos archipelago consists of dozens of islands but Rubane is perhaps the most fascinating because it is the home of the Bijagos, who have retained their unique culture, speech, rituals, and manner of dress. It is truly one of the hidden treasures of West Africa.
9. You won’t believe the salt collectors gathering salt by hand from the bottom of Lake Retba, Senegal’s pink lake.
Just an hour from Dakar, local villagers use ancient methods to harvest salt from Lake Retba, grabbing it with their hands and transporting it to the shore using baskets. Most of the salt is used to preserve fish.
The lake gets its bright pink color from a strain of bacteria that is attracted to the lake’s high salt content. The bacteria exudes a bright red pigment to absorb sunlight, which is responsible for the lake’s unusual and beautiful color.
10. Trace the Portuguese heritage on the architecture, culture, and cuisine of Cape Verde.
Cape Verde was settled by the Portuguese in the 15th century and eventually became a nexus of the slave trade in the 16th century. Praia, its capital, retains much of its Portuguese heritage, with stunning Catholic churches and public squares.
Don’t miss a visit to Praia on your tour of West Africa and be sure to try cachupa, the most famous dish of the Cape Verde islands.
11. Visit Tiebele, a village in Burkina Faso where nearly every home and building is a work of art.
The Kassena people, one of the oldest ethnic groups in Burkina Faso, settled there in the 15th century.
They are renowned for their elaborate frescoes and geometric patterns that decorate their homes, public buildings, and even mausoleums.
The decorative patterns date back five centuries, yet the designs and techniques are still in use today.
12. Lose yourself in the beauty of traditional handiworks and crafts at the Bamako Artisan Market.
If you visit Mali, don’t miss the Bamako Artisan Market, one of the most popular and frequently visited sites. Here you can watch the skilled artisans custom make your unique piece of jewelry using ancient techniques and designs—or choose a one-of-a-kind piece already on display.
No matter whether you go for a custom piece or buy ready-made, however, you’ll get the best value if you embrace the West African traditions of bargaining and negotiation.
Have we inflamed your passions for a soul-stirring cultural experience you can’t find anywhere else?
West Africa is like that—provocative, exotic, fresh…yet deeply connected to its historical roots.
Why not see how easy it is to visit and satisfy your deepest longings for something unique and unexpected? Contact us today or sign up for our email course to help you plan your cultural tour of West Africa.