In praise of the ancestor …


OUIDAH, BENIN – JANUARY 11: The spirits of Egungun perform at a voodoo ceremony on January 11, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. The Egungun are masked dancers who represent the ancestral spirits of the Yoruba, a Nigerian ethnic group, and are believed to visit the land to possess and guide the living. Ouidah is the heart of voodoo in Benin and is considered the spiritual birthplace of voodoo or voodoo, as it is called in Benin. Shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood, voodoo was recognized as an official religion in Benin in 1989 and is gaining popularity with around 17% of the population following it. A week of voodoo-worshiping activities culminates on January 10 when people from all over Benin as well as Togo and Nigeria descend on the city for the annual voodoo festival. (Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Animism and its veneration of the “dear departed” have a human scale absent from the “great” religions. Drew Forrest defends the religious traditions of Africa.

Those who stayed on the sidelines when Geoffrey Oryema made headlines Womad in Benoni in 2000 – the low turnout spoke of South Africa’s cultural isolation – missed more than a bright musical performance.

At the height of his powers, “Orpheus of Acholiland” made a compelling statement about the continent’s religious beliefs.

At the age of 24, Oryema was smuggled out of Uganda in the trunk of a car after his father, a government minister, was exposed as a conspirator and murdered by Idi Amin. Geoffrey did not return for 39 years.

Hence the lingering note of sadness in his songs: since Uganda’s independence, the Acholi minority from which he came has been trapped in endless cycles of regional and ethnic violence.

In this land of Anaka [his father’s ancestral village]… We dreamed of a clear and green land… / Dead sand, dead sand,»He lamented on his first album, Exile.

At the heart of Oryema’s performance on the Womad night scene were the songs from his masterful fourth album, Spirit. Released in France the previous year, it revolved around the death of his father, Erinayo …

Late in the evening I went downstairs
Go down by the river
Dip my hands in the water
I felt the mind move
My father’s spirit protects me
Guide me
(“Spirits of my Father”)

… and his brother, John, who died during Geoffrey’s exile:

I can hear your voice
From a distant place
Among the flowers and the grass
I can hear your footsteps below

(“Omera John”)

In “Save Me” we encounter the same idea: on a repeated hypnotic motif, the song tells the story of a man who, in a dream or a trance, falls under the paralyzing influence of a star. He calls for the sun and the moon to come to his aid.

It is animism, the belief, omnipresent in Africa, that the cosmos is full of innumerable spiritual beings who share human concerns and can be put at the service of the human project.

The result, wrote the term’s author, anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor, was a vision of “universal vitality” that “the sun and the stars, the trees and the rivers, the winds and the clouds become personal animated creatures ”.

“The whole psychic atmosphere of the African village is filled with belief in this magical power,” wrote the father of African theology, Kenyan John Mbiti, who described Africans as “notoriously religious”.

It is a noble idea, simpler and more worthy than the esoteric contortions of Christian theology and better suited to a time when people yearn for a new relationship with the natural world.

An “Egungun” spirit during a voodoo ceremony on January 11, 2012 in Ouidah, Benin. (Photo by Dan Kitwood / Getty Images)

Animism has no doctrine of the immortality of the soul and no eschatological expectation, such as judgment in the Hereafter or the evangelical “Rapture” fantasy.

It has no central authority, no liturgy or established belief, and no interest in doctrinal conformity – the main source of religious conflict and persecution over the centuries.

It takes many forms unique to different ethnicities, which means that unlike Christianity and Islam, it has no global ambitions and does not try to binge on unbelievers.

Despite the imposition of the colonizer’s beliefs, it proved to be extremely durable. In many parts of Africa and the New World, it has merged with Christianity in syncretic hybrids that enshrine the traditional practices of ancestral worship, ritual water purification, prophecy, exorcism, healing and death. ‘dreams interpretation.

Victorians like Tylor viewed animist belief in Darwinian terms as the first step in the evolution of religion and a window into the “primitive spirit.” It was a step forward, at least, of the notion of an insurmountable gulf between the “civilized” and the “savage”.

Later scholars have turned against such evolutionary thinking as deeply flawed. They also rejected the “degradation theory”, according to which animist beliefs are degenerate borrowings from high cultures such as ancient Egypt.

“All contemporary cultures and religions [are] considered comparable, ”writes anthropologist George Kerlin Park.

Most traditional African religions hold on to one Creator – but in a way reminiscent of European Enlightenment deism. The widespread belief is that God created the universe, but it is so far away that he does not engage in it and cannot be approached directly.

The Oromo of the Horn of Africa, for example, reject Christian ideas of God of love, God the Father, and the Trinity as implying weakness. According to religious historian Julian Baldick, their Waqa is the almighty demiurge of the great forces of nature, “the sky, the stars, the clouds, the god of thunder and lightning”.

Their proverbs translate the deafness of the divinity to human cries and the need for resigned submission among his creatures: “A man does not stop praying and God does not change what he has decided”; “People are right to praise God when someone is killed by lightning”; “We do not understand the acts of God or the laughter of dogs”.

In a widespread tradition, the Dinka of South Sudan hold that God withdrew from the world when the first woman raised her pestle to pound millet and struck the vault of heaven.

The Kikuyu of Kenya believe that the deity has:

No father, no mother, no wife
nor the children
He is alone
He is neither a child nor
an old man
He is the same today
as it was yesterday

For this reason, the worship of the higher god is rare in the African tradition – it is the multitude of secondary deities, which inhabit the sublunary sphere, which are the objects of worship, propitiation and service. Foremost among them are the ancestors or, in classical mythology, the shadows.

For many non-Africans, this is not a distant idea. Ancestor worship is practiced in Japanese Shintoism, Hinduism, and the Chinese patriarchal religion. Roman Catholicism, the oldest form of Christianity with many pagan loanwords, incorporates vestiges of it on All Saints’ Day and Halloween, when spirits stroll abroad, and in the worship of saints.

In Africa, the Asante of Ghana, for example, recognize an inaccessible creator, while their ritual life revolves around the veneration of their matrilineal ancestors, conceived as guardians of moral order and intercessors to great spiritual powers.

Yoruba religion tells orishas – tutelary spirits subject to the inaccessible supreme being, Oludumane – estimating that 401 of them “mark the way to heaven”.

Many African theologians see the term “ancestor worship” as a paternalistic misconception. What is offered to the dead through prayer, offerings and sacrifices is not the worship of deities, but an extension of the honor and service due to living relatives. The goal is to reassure them, they are always remembered and loved.

Ancestral spirits are considered the invisible but most important part of the kinship network. Deceased relatives and community members preside over landmark events, including rites of passage like the Xhosa imbeleko (ritual inclusion of the newborn in the clan), ukubuyisa (reincorporation of the dead), and ukwaluka (initiation to adulthood), and must be cared for and kept benevolent.

Former Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta distinguished different ancestral spirits in the Kikuyu belief, including those of his parents, who continue to counsel and reproach, and those related to the clan at large.

Feelings towards shadows are not simple: they are objects of love and reverence, but also of frightening appeasement and numinous dread.

In Totem and Taboo, Sigmund Freud deals with this complexity, noting that people in traditional societies “also fear the presence and return of the spirit of the dead”, and offer propitiatory ceremonies not only out of love, but “to keep it away and banish. ”.

A Kenyan academic reports that once they have appeased the spirits by offering them sacrifices, the villagers expect them to move away.

But “the living dead” are mainly summoned to use their superior resources for earthly purposes. One writer notes that ancestor veneration is about “sustaining fertility and sustaining community, maintaining a harmonious relationship with gods and channeling cosmic powers for good.”

A conduit is the igqirha (Xhosa) or mganga (Swahili) – the soothsayer / seer / healer with the gift of accessing the spirit world. In traditional society this is reinforced by a strict initiation in which the novice is said to fall ill and dream of “being on an endless westward march across the heavens, dressed in feather headdresses and wearing mats. Sleeping “.

The dead live, but not – as in some beliefs – for eternity. Alice Werner, scholar from the University of London, talks about grandparents in Maurice Maeterlinck’s play The blue Bird, who only wake up from the sleep of death when someone remembers them.

Ancestors survive and retain their power as long as they are held in community memory. As this rarely goes back further than grandparents, they become more and more attenuated and disappear after a few generations.

Once forgotten by the living, they are equated with the great impersonal forces of nature – storm clouds and the eclipse.

My wife’s ashes are buried in our garden, overlooked by an elder tree strangely frequented by the same robin. On our rural plot, which we bought and built together, I feel his presence.

Habits and tricks of the imagination, no doubt. But one can understand the power and tenacity of animist belief – it has a human scale rooted in its family, free from great frowning cathedrals or high priests in snow-white garments infallibly pronouncing “from the throne.”

He has no Grand Inquisitor, Day of Wrath, Purgatory, or Eternal Hellfire. He does not practice forced conversion, encourage racial hatred, or call for the violent overthrow of the gods of others.

With his vision of an intimate cosmos, he is more likely to engender respect for the natural world than a faith that tells men to subdue the earth and “rule over all that lives.”

Above all, animist beliefs, especially in ancestral spirits, ensure the continuity of the links that unite the living and the dead. For the poor, like Geoffrey Oryema, it should help heal the inner wounds dripping with grief. DM / ML



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