If there is one place where the people push the usual African attractions into a blurry background, it is West Africa. Music sets life's rhythm here; West Africans breathe in the sultry air and exhale their soul's song. Creativity is king and expression is everywhere.
Amid the dust of the frenetic markets are striking masks, basketwork, jewelry and leatherwork, all examples of the region's rich artistic heritage. Nearby are artisans honing their skills, perfecting age-old patterns or adapting traditional materials to make something truly unique and their own. Rising from areas of rough and featureless terrain are houses that look more like pottery. Although nature's artwork is brilliant in its own right - the fiery soils' rich reds, the wavering trees' glowing greens and the orange waters of the Niger River at sunset - it's the creations of West Africa's people that shine brightest.
Most West African borders were drawn up hastily by greedy French, British, German and Portuguese colonialists, so they hardly reflect the distribution of West Africa's diverse peoples. Yes, West Africans are now incredibly nationalistic - you only need to watch the African Cup of Nations to see that - but cultural identities go further back than the borders, back to West Africa's great empires: the Mali and
Songhai empires that stretched across the Sahel from present-day Niger to the Atlantic; the Kanem-Bornu empire of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad; Burkina Faso's Mossi kingdom; and Ghana's Ashanti empire, to name a few.
In fact, of West Africa's 18 most populous, well-known and colorful peoples, nine are spread over international boundaries. The Fulani people stretch from Senegal to Cameroon; the Tuareg blanket sections of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and North Africa; the Malinke call Mali, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire, Senegal and the Gambia home; the Senoufo live in Cate d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Mali; the Lobi inhabit Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana; the Ewe people are found in Togo and Ghana; the Songhai straddle Niger and Mali; the Hausa people reside in Nigeria and Niger; and the Yoruba live in Nigeria and Benin. Although each group has its own strong cultural identity, most cohabitate in peace; this is a phenomenon that is less common in other regions of the continent.
Religion also plays an enormous role in West Africa. About half the population is Muslim, with Islam dominating much of the desert and sahel regions. Christianity is limited to the southern coastal countries. Hundreds of traditional religions (most of which are animist) remain strong in sections of West Africa, and voodoo, while born in Benin, also lives on.
Sitting beneath the religions, the artwork, the song, the hundreds of ethnicities, the countless languages and the openness and smiles a people, is a massive landscape that has one foot baking in the Sahara's sands and the other cooling its toes in the Atlantic. Caught between the Sahara and the coast's beaches and forests is a southern belt of savannah, with rolling plains freckled with trees, and a northern belt of Sahel or semi-desert. Flowing through it all and bringing life to the land, and soothing refreshment to all that singing, is the mighty 4030-kilometer-long Niger River.