Living in Mexico City, I am at times smothered by new sensations while interpreting the ties and polarities between Mexican and African Peoples. Adding offerings to my Dia de los Muertos ofrenda, I was left with a residue of inauthenticity, yearning to pepper today with a tradition of my own.
As a modern Liberian woman with two parents born off the pearly shores of West Africa; countless ceremonies, texts, and traditions haven fallen by the waste-side like many of our unfamed leaders. The destruction and looting of wars have left little to remember. And so my tiny country, about the size of Tennessee, is often remembered for the civil war that erased years of culture, and an Ebola epidemic that smudged our social, economic, and spiritual growth. I intend to remember more.
About 70 percent of Liberians in Liberia are known to practice traditional African religious beliefs, 20 percent are Muslims, and 10 percent Christian. Few Liberians in the United States, like myself, carry on African traditions. The majority are Christian and very little are Muslim. Yet my particular type of spiritual practice is more like patchwork, where I piece together doctrines, visions, and words that resonate the most with me.
Most of us know that African culture is rich in its devotion to serving and honoring ancestors. Although lowkey at times, I am reminded of this through the every dance, whispers, and blessing that have crossed my lips from another before me. In the crest of West Africa where most of my family has dwelled since before they can remember, rests Liberia, Cote D’ Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. A close and sometimes dysfunctional group of lands, our cultures, dialects and faces have hugged tightly for roughly 195,000 years.
Nigeria’s celebration of Egungun was unknown to me before stumbling across one of my favorite photojournalist Phyllis Golembo‘s photo essays back in 2012. But while in Liberia a couple of years back, I noticed several people wearing masquerade dance garments walking through Congotown, an area neighboring a beautiful coastal lagoon. Alongside the neon orange dirt road, the Vei people seemingly live as they would’ve hundreds of years ago with picture esk homes and intricate woven roofs. They keep on this life while Range rovers and luxury cars crunch pebbles from the earth below its tires. And there, among those people, was my first glimpse into the indigenous expressions of the dead.
“Egungun” refers to the Yoruba masquerades connected with ancestor reverence, or to the ancestors themselves as a collective force. Amongst the Yoruba, a tribe north of Nigeria, the annual ceremonies that honor of the dead serve as a means of assuring their ancestors a place among the living. The Yoruba believe the ancestors have the responsibility to compel the living to uphold the ethical standards of the past generations of their clan, town or family. The Egungun are celebrated in festivals, known as Odun Egungun, and in family ritual through the masquerade customs, similar to those costumes I saw men wearing on the side of the dirt road in Congotown.
The Egungun is a secret society among the Yoruba people of Ede, Oyo State, Nigeria. The major Egungun festival takesplace in June, when members of the society come to the market place and perform masked dances. The masks they wearrepresent ancestral spirits and may cover the whole body or just the face. It is considered dangerous to see any part of theman who is wearing the mask — an offense that was at one time punishable by death. The masqueraders all dance simultaneously, although each has his own drum accompaniment and entourage of chanting women and girls. The festival climaxes with the appearance of Andu, the most powerful mask. It is believed that the spirits ofthe deceased possess the masqueraders while they are dancing, and although it promotes a feeling of oneness between theliving and the dead, the festival also inspires a certain amount of fear.
The remainder of Liberians practice indigenous religious systems surrounding ancestor worship and secret society membership. Even in areas of widespread Christian or Muslim conversion, indigenous institutions such as polygyny, belief in witchcraft, and trial by ordeal persist. Many individuals combine elements from all three systems. Funerals are very important in all religions and are as elaborate as a family can afford, often going on for days or weeks.
Too, in Madagascar, there is famadihana, known as the turning of the bones. This is celebrated by a deceased family member’s remains that may be exhumed to be periodically re-wrapped in fresh silk shrouds and danced with before being replaced back in the tomb. The occasion is to celebrate the beloved ancestor’s memory, reunite with family and community, and enjoy a festive atmosphere where food and rum are typically served accompanying other musical entertainment.
Of course these are just a few of the ceremonies that I have been able to research. But know that this will be an ongoing excavation through the internets and any Library endowed enough to have books covering obscure African culture. If you know of any practices that I might be interesting in knowing don’t be too shy to let me know in the comments below.