|Henning Christoph |
Photo: Mara Balint
Voodoo, Let Us Pray
Voodoo is the fastest growing religion on the planet. At last count there were 60,000,000 people practising outside of the shores of Africa and the figures are rising on a weekly basis. Perhaps the most exciting religion on earth, certainly the oldest: Voodoo is more misunderstood today than ever; often linked to or associated with the Occult, which is a misconception as Voodoo is a religion, rather than a Cult. The origins derive from the various countries mapped out in West Africa and Henning Christoph, the Anthropologist, Cinematographer, Curator and Founder of the Voodoo Museum in Essen, Germany Soul of Africa and Film Director has been exploring this subject from childhood. These West African series of rituals have captured his imagination since his boyhood in America, when he watched the first Tarzan movie on his black and white television set in late 1950’s. His focus was not on the hero in a loincloth, swinging from tree to tree, whilst screaming like a Banshee but more on those performing sophisticated ancient rituals with jungle plants and dried animal skeletons and skins, creating a natural chemistry in the wilderness. His interest and studies have allowed him to uncover some of the secrets hidden in this ancient oral traditions from those that practice it today in the outskirts of Cotonou, Port Novo, Abomey, Quidah. He has even gone as far as Cameroon in his explorations, finding new sources and fascinating insights into the origins of this glorious religion. The most spellbinding factor of Voodoo is the way in which it has travel throughout history and all over the world. The journey parallels the untold story of the New World and in the movie Voodooman, Christoph captures the spirit of a brave new world. A place few have yet to recognise and yet to register the significance of; the men, women and children that created the world. The slaves and their families of yesterday are seen via this film as the heroes of our today and our brighter tomorrow.
To do justice in writing on this delicate subject, the words should flow like beating drums. Solid blocks of knowledge found, passed down through generations of others knowing and being apart of the spiritual oneness of a world without end; beginning and returning again and again to Africa. Writing about an oral culture is an oxymoron but what is needed is to evoke the creative spirits inside in order to resonate the meaning of this magical religion and slip into an almost trance-like state; in order to write for the reader to appreciate the potential of the written words on this imperative and vital ancient of African traditions: ‘Vodou: Juju: Grigri: Voodoo,’ the religion that belongs to West Africa, the origin of all mankind. So complex, shrouded in mystery, coded into an enigma on an almost monumental scale, this religious paradox is so underrated; misunderstood; abused and discarded as nonsense but we must at this time think again. When all eyes are shedding tears for organized religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam many of which have fallen into states of utter ruin. The Jews in Israel are constantly being chastised for their inability to be compassionate to neighbouring Palestinians and their inhumane code of conduct unbecoming of a respectable religion. And Islam is no better, being tarnished with the brush of violence; turning prayer into thoughts of terror and twisting the beautiful peaceful religion of Islam into a series of bearded men all hungry for blood. The new warmongers seeking bloody Jihad on every corner of the globe and Christianity is no better as the religion of the seemingly blameless Jesuits, who like snakes turn to bite wherever possible, all in the name of God, Jesus and their Holy Book of the Bible. Disgraceful Bishops, Cardinals and Popes acting with misconduct that is tasteless behaviour from men of the Cloth. The men without wives, wearing red and white robes are under the microscope as I write and trying to think clearly about the importance of worship and the necessity of rituals, ceremonies and religion in our daily lives.
In trying to write about the most sacred journey, the experience felt in Voodoo and to capture those emotions on paper is just an impossible task. They are too grand for letters or words and cannot be contained between the lines of an article or made into a Play. The extent of the emotions cannot be housed in a mere Theatre or even put on the big screen. The I-Max would not be big enough for Voodoo, this is something other and to be apart of it is the magic of life. The atmosphere of togetherness and the belonging to all things, whilst standing on the red soil of time, with others both young and old, all evoking the spirits of those gone before is an overwhelming and exhilarating experience unfeasible to condense into words. Waking the dead from their slumber and hearing the leaves on the trees whistle in the cool breeze of a Contonou afternoon, as the Egun roam the streets. Filling the hearts with fear as they swish and dance in the dust. Their costumes of bright colours and mirrors hypnotise the onlookers with the reflection of the West African sun but words are not enough. In fact the written word, some may argue, has blinkered the Modern African society rather than enlightened. Shrunken their togetherness and their abilities to communicate effectively. Modernity is quickly becoming increasingly myopic and selfish, with the focus on individuality and the importance of the family unit. Success requires some kind of stepping over or even stepping on in order to fulfil the world’s ideal of winners and losers. Africa was enlightened in its oral culture thousands of years ago but now is quickly losing the words uttered by the ancestors of the past and alarmingly ignoring their obvious important of their origins in Africa. The majority of the educated classes are constantly being brainwashed by the Western sense of modernity. Maybe we need to go back to a time when we were most creative and innovative, back to an oral culture where we again can hear the voices of the ancestors.
African Society should be asking who are those endowed few permitted to write the written word? Only those that can read but to be published the writer has to have read; make references to other words written and so begins the evolution of an elite and politically motivated exclusive club with chosen members all creating words translated into the various different mediums like books, plays and films. The written word has been caged, requiring strict parameters; it is not wild like the spoken word, as it is trapped in all its various formats. Here is where Indigenous, Traditional or African religions and the oral culture really comes into its own and should be taking a far more central role in our educational debated when discussing issues surrounding Africa and world religions. In the advent of the death on March 22nd 2013 of the great orator and writer Professor Chinua Achebe there has never been a better time to express the importance of African religions to an international audience. Not through shocking the viewers and demonising Africa but more by educating them. Dr. Achebe managed to intellectually create an alphabet between Continents, a dialogue that has been so vital in our understanding and respecting our worlds apart. He created the building blocks for future generations. Dr. Achebe always considered the duality of life’s complexities and wrote with such ambiguity that his literary works leave the reader in a state of healthy questioning. This is derives from his traditional upbringing in the Igbo village of Ogidi, eastern Nigeria and his deep understanding of the African oral culture and the religions in his Igbo heritage. The richness of the oral culture of Ancient Greece gave rise to organizational forms that were extremely democratic and participatory. The written word developed and then became mechanized with the advancement of the printing press, the way humans organized themselves followed suit. McLuhan states about modernity in the United States:
"In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. That is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. … Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships." (McLuhan, 1964, p. 7-8)
There is much to be said about the benefits of an oral culture. The flexibility with language and open-minded in deliberation, which is far less pusillanimous than the shallowness of a restrictive European world view. The importance of understanding these complex African religions is imperative to our plural way of living and our construction of modern democracies. We must seriously educate our children to question all they have been forced fed. Voodoo should certainly be put on the National and International Curriculum for Religious Education as it will open up the exploring minds to an different approach to thought and broaden the horizon that presently have been intentionally hedged in and fenced. In the Voodooman, Henning Christop attempts to be a bridge, a facilitator to an Africa of otherness and explores the physical Gods in the Republic of Benin in his first film and follows with a surprising work set in the heartlands of America in his second. Voodooman was filmed at Papa Joe’s home in North Carolina, a Southern State better known for its fanatical Christianity than Voodoo. North Carolina is part of Bible belt of America but Papa Joe has found a growing number of African American individuals interested in the spiritual voyage of returning to their roots from the days of slavery. Back to when the African religions were mixed and created a highbrid of the original Voodoo throughout South America, the Caribbean Islands and the Southern States of America, better known as Hoodoo. To many in the black community in North Carolina Papa Joe is a Godsend and far more than just a Shaman. He is regarded more an educator, a facilitator to a distant past, a social workers, herbalist, psychiatrist, healer and with his long standing personal friendship with Henning and the links back to the origins of African Voodoo, Papa Joe is in high demand. Henning ensures he goes over to North Carolina every year to share with the congregation his extensive knowledge that he has gained from his numerous trips and relationships built over decades in Benin over the past 40 years. He imparts his experiences with slide film, photographs and videotapes which a series of extensive lectures on all the different ceremonies and rituals being performed from the West African countries of Benin and Cameroon. The whole process is a strong but often painful spiritual journey back to the ancient lands of Africa and the importance of the traditional African religions. As so often in the world things are not as they first appear. Often things we have been indoctrinated to believe turn out to be the complete opposite. African Voodoo has certainly fallen victim to such negative accusations. Frowned upon by those that feel threatened and have their own agendas. Voodoo has no church as it is an oral tradition passed down through families and therefore it is not organised by individuals it belongs to the Clan. It has no structure and was originally given to the world without ransom. Unlike organised religions Voodoo does not place its congregation hostage with carrots of free education or Aid. The African Religions in many ways empower those that practise but quintessentially heal those exploring a reason to worship; the importance of which is the glue to all our troubled Communities. The word Voodoo means God in the Fon language and God in Africa translates to healing.
Author: Joe Pollitt