Notes on a Cultural Tour of West Africa
By Rev. Jacquie Robb
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to visit Africa. This longing came to the surface again during the February module, reading Malidoma Somé’s story of his initiation and having the privilege of hearing Sobonfu Somé speak about the sense of community in her tribe. I wanted to be where land and community are seen as sacred. This past winter I had such an opportunity and spent a month visiting Burkina Faso, Togo and Benin, with a short stay in Ghana.
While each country is unique, before colonization ethnic groups moved freely across what are now national borders so there are many similarities as well. To the north, in Burkina, the country is about 50% Muslim, 20% Christian (overwhelmingly Catholic), with the remainder still practicing the animist beliefs and ceremonies of their ancestors. Further south, there were more Catholics and evangelicals than Muslims, while voodoo, the “organized religion of animism” was more openly practiced. The many Rastas in cities surprised us; we connected by singing Bob Marley songs together. But despite these designations, in city or village, people greeted us with open hearts and a sense of alive presence that I don’t often experience at home.
Here are a few ‘snippets’ from my trip.
In Bobodoulassie, Burkina Faso, we visited several ancient mosque. Made from mud, each generation must repair the mud walls that dissolve in the rainy season, so the older the mosque, the thicker the walls. One mosque we visited had walls over a foot wide. The wood (rare in these parts) embedded in the outer walls act as ladders for the annual repairs. Devout Muslims, with enough resources, take the two year pilgrimage by camel to Mecca. Pilgrims who complete the journey wear a special head covering and reserved seating in front during prayers.
Our guide had friends in several villages, so we were able to visit, bringing gifts and getting something of a feel for village life. One old man (he couldn’t say exactly how old) had 3 wives, as do many village Muslims. The first wife had traveled to market, but the second wife allowed us to visit for awhile. In the one room, there was space set aside for cooking over an open fire, then there were spaces for sleeping, storing her few clothes and pots, a sign of wealth. Each wife has her own mud hut, as does the husband. The girls lives with their mothers, with a separate hut for uninitiated boys.
Our guide Amed grew up a Muslim and converted to Catholicism as an adult. He showed us some beautiful churches, both small village chapels and relatively large cathedrals in the cities. Pope John Paul II visited West Africa in 1956; his visit is still warmly remembered and celebrated with posters and banners. The urban church pictured below was built by Portuguese colonists. The interior shot is from a village church dedicated to Mary, who sits with the disciples. Many other paintings showed many of the black African saints of the Church.
Many people in West Africa are proud of their animist heritage. There are fetish shrines in most villages and cities, distinguished by purpose: shrines dedicated to prayers for a good crop or rain; separate shrines for those seeking guidance in dreams; one for individual problems; and one for problems within the family group. And yes, there are chicken feathers and dried blood still visible.
We had the great good fortune of witnessing the last day of a 5-day funeral celebration at a 16h century village named Koro. They were drinking a very strong beer that tasted like unfiltered sour mash. I remembered to offer some to the ground for the ancestors before taking a small sip. This offering has a literal meaning as well as a ceremonial one, as the village’s ancestors are buried in one large crypt or cave under the village itself, the old bones being pushed aside for new occupants. The picture below is of the covering for a burial crypt; the mosaic is of broken European crockery.
In another village, Gaoua, we visited a ceremonial burial ground for kings (chiefs of many villages.) Each king had a hut under which he was buried and in which was his likeness in mud. The villagers traveled here and used the sculptures as fetishes.
The fetish priest of a village is responsible for the spiritual life of the tribe. We met with one priest in Benin; he was wearing a monkey skin with fringe, a raffia hat (the only one in the village allowed to wear raffia) and smoked a pipe. Inside his hat? His tobacco and a cell phone! Many villages we visited had jumped from the Iron Age to the cellular age with almost no transition. Most villages had someone with a small solar panel to recharge the phones and China had made sure that pretty much all of West Africa has cell towers.
Voodoo is much in evidence along the coast of both Benin and Togo. The picture below is of the voodoo temple at the “Point of No Return,” in Ouidah, where slaves were loaded onto ships for the Americas. The fetish in the middle picture is a Legba, who protects a home or compound. We were fortunate to witness voodoo ‘street celebrations,’ one for International Women’s Day, which is a national holiday throughout West Africa.
One voodoo temple was right across the street from a Catholic church. Several people told us there was no conflict with going to Catholic mass in the morning and a voodoo celebration that night… it all blends in and makes sense here.
We experienced this first hand on our last night in Lomé, Togo, where it turned out our room was right next to a makeshift church. Until around 10 pm the music was gospel hymns backed by what sounded like a New Orleans jazz band (lots of horns) with an underlay of complex African drum beats. They stopped around 10 pm, long enough for us to fall asleep. We woke soon after to wild drumming that sounded like a trance dance… starting slowly, speeding up to a crescendo, slowing down, starting over. The drumming continued through our waking / dreaming all night. Around 8 the next morning, the hymns started up again. We learned that the music was part of a two day funeral celebration. Truly, an ‘interfaith’ experience in celebration of a life.
In the month we were in West Africa, it was impossible to get any more than a brief glimpse of the sometimes contradictory, always fascinating culture and beliefs of the people. My unintended bias was often challenged with kind humor; almost everyone we met was an amazing ambassador of their culture. That said, any misperceptions implicit in this piece are mine alone.
“There is only one way to understand another culture. Living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lose the urge to explain it.” —Peter Höeg, Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Rev. Jacquie Robb lives in Santa Rosa, CA with her partner Lisa and their two dogs. Her current CPE placement is with a local hospital as chaplain intern. She continues to integrate the experiences of this recent trip into her life and ministry.