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by Yomi Adegoke

Christianity still exerts a powerful force in many black communities, but some young women are turning their back on the faith and returning to the older, traditional religions of their ancestors.

Michelle Yaa does not feel she converted to Comfa, the Afro-American religion practiced in Guyana. “I call it an awakening.” she says. “It’s just waking up.”

Yaa, like increasing numbers of the African diaspora, decided to stop practicing Christianity in favor of a religion of African heritage. Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, she spent her childhood questioning Christian doctrine. When she didn’t receive the answers she sought from church, she stopped attending.

It wasn’t until the end of university that Yaa reconnected with any form of religion. One day, she says, she began hearing voices. Rather than call her doctor, she called on her ancestors, writing down the names of those she could remember and surrounding herself with the slips of paper. She claims that this took place before she knew what the practice of ancestral worship was.

“I just did it automatically. And I cannot explain to you why I knew what was happening to me was not a negative thing,” she recalls. “When I went back to finish my studies, I [wrote about] spirituality for my dissertation because I wanted to understand what happened to me. I didn’t believe I was mad—so what was it?”

She began communicating with her ancestors frequently through rituals; her research eventually led her to Comfa, a religion where contact with ancestors is commonplace. “Everything started falling into place. I was trusting myself all the time and I wasn’t doubting for once.”

Verona Spence-Adofo, a 30-something year old filmmaker from London, describes a similar sense of clarity after her decision to engage with indigenous spiritual practices. “It was like somebody had taken a veil off my eyes,” she recalls.

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Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a Zulu sangoma (traditional healer) and author from South Africa. Photo courtesy of Verona Spence-Adofo

 

The past few years have seen the black community express similar sentiments of “awakening”—or “wokeness,” if you prefer. From university education to beauty standards, there have been widespread calls to decolonize our ideas and institutions, and shake off old colonial beliefs and strictures. Traditional African religions appear to be the final and most controversial frontier.

Emboldened by her new found faith, Spence-Adofo decided to shoot Ancestral Voices, a documentary debunking the myths surrounding African spirituality. But people didn’t receive her project with the same enthusiastic response that meets most attempts to demystify elements of black history.

“I received a lot of hostility from both friends and family members,” Spence-Adofo laments. “To this day I have people who kind of distanced themselves from me—they’re scared I might try and put some sort of hex on them.”

Shooting on the set of “Ancestral Voices” in Haiti. Photo courtesy of Verona Spence-Adofo

For hundreds of years, colonialism saw Africa—the planet’s second largest and second most populous continent—robbed and ruled by a handful of European nations. The only countries considered not to have been colonized are Ethiopia and Liberia—and even they were briefly occupied by others. No African nation hasn’t been shaped by the process in some way.
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Angela Bassett plays vodou priestess Marie Laveau in “American Horror Story: Coven.”

Despite attempts to undo colonialism’s effects on the black psyche, the colonial stigma against African religions seems to be hardest to shake off. That’s partially because of how aggressive the campaign to wipe it out was—a large part of the colonial defense of slavery was the onus on Europeans to save the so-called African savages, preaching about the blood of Jesus as they gleefully spilt other races’ in the pursuit of land and resources.

 

Indigenous religions were not only outlawed but literally demonized not just on the continent but across the entire black diaspora. In 1781, for example, the Jamaican Assembly passed a law calling for the death of the practitioners of Obeah, a religious practice originating from West Africa that bears similarities to Haitian vodou, known more commonly as voodoo.

It’s a direct colonial legacy that we’ve held on to.
“Any Negro or other slave who shall pretend to any supernatural power,” the act said, “and be detected in making use of any blood, feathers, parrots-beaks, dogs-teeth, alligators-teeth, broken bottles, grave-dirt, rum, eggshells, or any other materials relative to the practice of Obeah or witchcraft… upon conviction… [shall] suffer death.” Obeah and myalism, another folk religion, remains outlawed in Jamaica under the Obeah Act 1898.

Sanctions such as these left later generations wary or outright terrified of their own cultural practices. “It’s a direct colonial legacy that we’ve held on to.” Spence-Adofo says. “That we’re not good enough in our in our natural form and we have to conform to everyone else’s ideology.”

Many slaves that were shipped to the Americas continued their practices in secret, but over time syncretized and fused with Christianity so that they could practice openly under colonial rule.

Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa, a Zulu sangoma (traditional healer) and author from South Africa. Photo courtesy of Verona Spence-Adofo

This is most visible in Afro-American faiths such as Santeria, which paired its deities—the orishas—with corresponding Catholic saints. Changó, the lord of fire and thunder, was matched with Saint Barbara; Oshun, the orisha of love and fertility, with Mary.

SOAS senior lecturer Dr Jörg Haustein explains how colonizers used Christianity as a control mechanism to replace traditional African religions: “The Portuguese banned amulets and ‘charms’ during the Inquisition—the objects in question were certainly used for what we might call religious practices today, but they were also tokens of political allegiance and economic relations in the various networks between villages and states,” he says.

“By naming them ‘fetishes,’ they were absorbed into the Christian religious universe as ‘idols” and replaced by Christian items: statues of Mary, crucifixes and the like—seen by African chiefs as tokens of allegiance to their new powerful allies.”

Parallels between Christianity and indigenous African religions allowed the latter practices to survive—but also serve to highlight a number of double standards.

We need to stop building churches and start building institutions—Jesus hasn’t done it in over 400 years. He hasn’t saved us.
“We can go to any church and you’ll see an altar with a candle on it and Jesus’s photo and no one says a word. But when Africans do it—it’s witchcraft, it’s devil worship, it’s evil,” says Spence-Adofo.

Yaa makes the same point, citing as an example the highly controversial ‘trance’ where Santeria priests are possessed in order to facilitate direct communication with the orishas. “But if you’re going into trance in a church, that’s okay because it’s the Holy Spirit,” she says.

Some also fail to reconcile Christianity’s message of love with the brutal way it arrived on African shores, as well as its use as a control mechanism by colonial masters.

“[Christianity is] a distraction,” Benedicte Songye Kalombo says emphatically. She is the digital editor of New African Woman magazine; her religious practice fuses together traditional faiths hailing from Congo, where her family is from. Like the others, she is passionate about destigmatizing the religions she feels have enriched her so much. “We need to stop building churches and start building institutions—Jesus hasn’t done it in over 400 years. He hasn’t saved us.”

READ MORE: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/jesus-hasnt-saved-us-young-black-women-returning-ancestral-religions

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