The pain of enlightenment: Discarding the colonial mask

Noelle Khalila Nicolls Insight 0 Comments

(As published in The Tribune newspaper by staff reporter Noelle Nicolls, on Monday, March 15, 2010)

MANY times in life we are confronted with the truth that ignorance is bliss.

But less we become too blind to our own self-destructive ways, let us not forget that “when you’re dumb, you’re dangerous”.

A truth all too uncomfortable to accept is the fact that neither the abolition of slavery, majority rule, independence, civil rights, nor Christianization, restored the humanity, identity, position of power or culture of African people, now dispersed around the globe.

In the Bahamas, immigration officers regularly conduct raids on the Haitian community at job sites in the early morning, or bus stops in the mid afternoon. When a Haitian child returns home from school to a vandalized and empty house, what sort of humanity is there to speak of for that child? This is the unspoken reality of disempowered African people, in this instance Haitians in the Bahamas. Parents deported to Haiti with no consideration for their children. Children abandoned by the State, many times left to wonder the streets until a relative or community member absorbs them into the family.

 

African people, a classification for all people of African descent, have been so far removed from themselves they have virtually lost the ability to progress, to unify, to function at an optimum level, to move forward as a people. Almost every day this is played out, not in history class, but in headline news.

 

Atlanta, Georgia billboard: “Black children are an endangered species”.

Voice of America: “UN Calls for Action to Prevent Spread of HIV/AIDS in Haiti”. Jamaica Observer: “Jamaican government failing crime fight”.

National Press Review:” Genital herpes hits black women hardest”.

Seven-Sided Cube: “Deadly massacre in Nigeria didn’t even spare infants”.

Seattle Local: “Rate of black men’s imprisonment rising”. 

Freeport News: “Chilling crime statistics”.

Far from progress, the African community is on the path to self destruction..

This is no secret, examples abound, and this is no coincidence, but who really wants to look at the real reasons why. Reasons exist – rap music, no respect for elders, violent video games, drugs, homosexuality, the devil – but most are little more than symptoms, fantasies, illusions or white lies.

What of the deep wounds, festering below the surface, starving the African of vitality, depriving the African of self-knowledge, making the African prone to participate in his own demise?

Having been emasculated by the dehumanising experience of the Maafa, or centuries of suffering through slavery, imperialism, colonialisation, post-colonialism, and Willie Lynch inspired behaviour, most Africans are zombies to their own condition.

Many people tire to hear African people speak about slavery and its associated conditions because they lack an appreciation for the fact that colonial narratives persist today to the great detriment of African people.

Many people encourage the African community to forgive and forget, to move on, and to see modern society as a post-racial society, only because they lack an understanding of the lies, damned lies and the lying liars that perpetuate the myths.

I recall an elder advising me on dealing with someone who had done me wrong, forgive, but don’t forget. I recall an African American civil rights activist saying, what we seek is not post-racial; because the racial identify of the African community is important culturally and spiritually.

The movement is for integration not assimilation, and in some instances, the desire is for separate but equal institutions.

The highest order of resistance is needed in the African community to push back, to challenge the thinking that slavery does not matter. Slavery is not just about physical barriers, many of which have been removed, or mental chains, many of which have been theorised, slavery is a symbol for the real and tangible loss of identity, loss of power and loss of culture, continually corroding the foundations on which African communities try to build.

The perpetuation of slavery-derived colonial narratives occur to the detriment of African people, most powerfully because it deprives African people of self-knowledge. These narratives will never be challenged or changed by the ruling minority class, the dominant culture, deniers of their existence, by assimilationists, or other races for which they have no negative impact. The African community will only be restored when it restores its own sense of “Nyon Nyor Nyan”, which means “Who are we?” in the Grand Dakar Wolof language of West Africa.

Anyone educated in the formal education system, under established institutional structures, will be hard pressed to understand these perspectives. Anyone engaged in self-discovery – tantamount to awakening one’s African consciousness at some level – might share a glimmer of understanding. Sadly, many who participate in this journey reach only as far as intellectual engagement, stopping just short of applying their knowledge to restore their way of life, stopping just short of where their real power lies.

My family is a living testament of this. Most Bahamian families do not contemplate the question: should we send the children to church? That is a given. To be a good Christian in a Christian nation, children must go to church. So I was surprised to hear my father recount the story about his argument with my mother over whether or not my brother and I should be sent to church.

My father was never sold on the idea of Church, thinking Sunday was the day for the family to spend together on the beach, and share Sunday dinner. Beyond that, he had fundamental problems with religion. Although he grew up grounded in a Church going family, Western religion never satisfied his spiritual needs. In the end, he gave in to my mother’s wishes, for the sake of peace making. In the case of my mother, she knew of no alternative to satisfy the family’s spiritual needs, so church was it.

Why all the scepticism of that which is so called holy? I completely understand my father’s sentiments today, because African people have suffered greatly from the destructive colonial narratives about African history, culture and identity; from lies, dammed lies, and lying liars, the biggest of which have been perpetuated by Christians.

Christians, particularly Christian missionaries, are responsible for some of the greatest atrocities to the African race and they continue to wield their power to the death of the African spirit. It would serve African people well never to forget this fact, particularly as they seek to restore some semblance of order to their communities.

Unfortunately, there is little spiritual or intellectual freedom in the Bahamas to critically examine the Christianization of African people, without being oppressed, ostracized, or damned to hell. This process is important not to bash Christianity, or instruct Christians on how to be Christians, but for African people to take back rights to their own spirituality.

The Haitian case study is a clear example of how colonial narratives work their magic, a type of magic far worse than the ‘black magic’ of Hollywood’s invention, Vodou portrayed in images of sorcery, zombies, bad spells and evil spirits. The seeds of intolerance, self-hate and division planted to turn Vodou into Satan and all things evil are the same seeds sewn to blind African people of their traditional African cultural practices. Many of these practices are retained in the West today, and they have the potential to be sources of great pride and vehicles for strengthening the African community.

Last month news emerged out of Haiti of Christian Evangelicals violently disrupting a Vodou ceremony being conducted for deceased earthquake victims..

According to Haitian police, protesters were responding to calls from their pastor, who urged his followers to attack the ceremony. The evangelicals threw rocks at practitioners, urinated on their Vévé, or sacred religious symbols, and vandalised their altars that contained offerings of food and rum for the ancestors.

Around the same time news emerged that Christian missionary groups were discriminating against Vodou practitioners in the distribution of relief supplies, using the aid as bargaining chips for buying souls. Some Vodou practitioners reportedly converted to Christianity out of fear they might lose the opportunity to receive badly needed supplies.

Since the January 12 earthquake, Catholics, Baptists, Scientologists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other missionaries flocked to Haiti. The presence of Christian missionaries in Haiti is nothing new. Over the years, the army of Christian aid organisations have grown so large they virtually run Haiti’s social services.

The relationship is not strictly benevolent, because for hundreds of years Christian missionaries have tried to entrench the colonial narrative equating Vodou with devil worship. Their efforts suffered a major blow in 2003, when Haiti’s Catholic President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide declared Vodou an official religion of Haiti, setting out regulations for Vodou ceremonies, such as marriage, to have equal status to Christian ones.

It was no surprise then to hear Christian evangelical Pat Robertson speak of Haiti’s pact with the devil. This is how the lie goes. A black witch doctor slave named Boukman and a Vodou priestess Cecile Fatiman presided over a pagan ritual on 14 August 1791 in which participants sacrificed a pig and drank its blood in order to form a pack with the devil in exchange for freedom from the French. On August 22, 1791, the Africans entered into a rebellion that persisted – not without setbacks – until Haiti declared itself free: the first free African republic.

As convenient a lie the ‘pact with the devil’ story may be, this colonial narrative, invented originally by Christian missionaries to demonize African liberationists and Vodou practitioners, is a corruption of actual historic events that should be a source of pride and strength for the African community. Instead, it is a source of shame and scandal; a mechanism to deny African people knowledge of one of the most important meetings and ceremonies perhaps to the entire emancipation and independence movement.

The story of the meeting at Bwa Kayiman in the northern mountains of Haiti some say is an amalgamation of two historical meetings: one a planning meeting, the other a Vodou ceremony. Whether it was one or two, the basis of the meeting was to unify the various African groups originating from different places in Africa, speaking different languages, and living on different plantations in Haiti. The Africans summoned the sacred energies of the universe and the power of the ancestors to support them on their mission to launch the liberation war. There was likely the ritual sacrificing of an animal and spilling of blood which is not only common in African tradition, but in secular and sacred rituals across the globe.

As a child, you learn one of the most sacred pacts two friends and make is to prick the hand of the other and exchange a handshake of blood. Christians ritually use blood in the Holy Communion. The ritual use of blood is not unique to traditional African culture.

There is a famous prayer, widely believed in Haiti to have been delivered by Boukman at the ceremony: “The god who created the earth; who created the sun that gives us light. The god who holds up the ocean; who makes the thunder roar. Our God who has ears to hear. You who are hidden in the clouds; who watch us from where you are. You see all that the white has made us suffer.

The white man’s god asks him to commit crimes. But the god within us wants to do good. Our god, who is so good, so just, He orders us to revenge our wrongs. It’s He who will direct our arms and bring us the victory. It’s He who will assist us. We all should throw away the image of the white men’s god who is so pitiless. Listen to the voice for liberty that speaks in all our hearts.”

This information is the basis on which Christian missionaries and colonizers believed Haiti made a pact with the devil. This is the basis on which the myth continues to be perpetuated. This is just one example of the countless lies, dammed lies and lying liars.

Clearly, there was no pact with the devil; this was a highly spiritual initiation ceremony calling on the spirit of God to prepare the African warriors for the ensuing battle. If Christians believe this to be a “pact with the devil” then sobeit; this simply reveals their lack of knowledge and perspective, and their linear way of thinking.

If in order to elevate African people out of poverty; liberate African people from mental slavery; and restore the functioning of the traditional African community, the cost were a so called “pack with the devil”, that deal would be signed, sealed and delivered. I certainly would book myself on a one-way ticket to the eternal inferno.

The Christianisation project has rendered African people an impotent lot, with most African people living in hell on earth already, consoled only by a great faith in eternal life after death. With this thought I am always reminded of the ‘great prophet’ Jimmy Cliff, who said: “Well, they tell me of a pie up in the sky, waiting for me when I die, but between the day you’re born and when you die, they never seem to hear even your cry. So as sure as the sun will shine, I’m gonna get my share now, what’s mine.”

The impact of colonial narratives is not just born out in the lies themselves, but also in the lies of omission implicit in the telling of these stories. This became apparent to me when I realized that although I rejected the colonial image of Vodou, I had no understanding of what the real Vodou was.

Recently, my level of understanding evolved. Where I would have once spoken about Voodoo, I now speak about Vodou, because Vodou, spelt as such, is considered the most correct phonetic English translation from the Fon language word “Vodun”, which means sacred energies, and Voodoo too readily conjures up the invented Hollywood image.

“Haitian deities are living entities, living energies in nature. The energies in Vodun are not perfect like the Catholic Saints. No. They mirror the imperfect world and are found always in the universe and may be elevated or not. In Vodun, there are no middlemen between you and what is good, sacred and divine. Your highest self is in you, or you may allow the mass consciousness to take you over,” writes Marguerite Laurent, an award winning playwright, performance poet, political and social commentator, author and human rights attorney, in her essay on counter-colonial narratives on Vodun.

Vodun, as you will find is consistent with many traditional spiritual practices, is very unlike modern religions, in that it has no prescribed doctrine. There is a priestly order, but these community leaders are often keepers of the secrets of the community, keepers of the community’s oral history, and vehicles for the community to govern itself and elevate its sacred values.

“It’s an African tradition, a way of life, a psychology, philosophy, art, mythology for taping into and understanding and controlling human nature; it’s the use of herbs, prescient dreams, a healing way of being, of excavating the unconscious and bringing forth the sacred energies that we all are essentially a part of,” writes Ms Laurent.

The Hollywood version of ‘Voodoo’ is far removed from the real practice of Vodou, just as the truth of ‘Haiti’s pack with the devil’ is far removed from the truth of the events giving birth to Haiti’s 13-year liberation war.

Narrative

Although I always suspected and at some point knew the colonial narrative of Vodou was false, I had no idea what the truth was, or where the source of unfiltered truth resided. The only frame of reference I had to approach Vodou was still the negative perspective shaped by the colonial view I rejected. I realized the same was true with my understanding of traditional African culture.

The colonial narrative instructs me that Africans had no history, Africans had no inventors, Africans had no advanced medical technologies, Africans had no religion or valid world views, Africans worshiped many gods, Africans were primitive in this that and the next. I knew the colonial narratives were false, but I had no concept of what the unfiltered truth was. I suspect that was the same problem my father faced when he had to contemplate the question: should the children go to church.

I came to learn that in the area of religion and spirituality, there is a rich African culture that is perhaps becoming increasingly more relevant in modern times. The Bahamas has its very own African religious retention, Obeah, but this practice is merely written off as devil worship or black magic. Very little work has been done in the study of Obeah towards its recognition as a valid, albeit endangered, African retention in the Bahamas.

The Bahamas is even lagging in the Caribbean, where places like Jamaica, have elevated religious retentions like Revivalism and Kumina, even if only at a ceremonial level.

Although Obeah, in its present day form, does not retain the type of structure, with collective rituals found in Haitian Vodou or Afro-Cuban Lucumi tradition, or Trinidadian Shouter Baptists, it is still has a valid story to tell of “Nyon Nyor Nyan”.

The knowledge that other living African traditions have to share with us is vast. In contrast to the colonial narrative about life and death, heaven and hell, which is based on a linear model, the Bantu-Kongo cosmology of the Kikongo people teach us about the coil of life on which past, present and future exist on an unbroken continuum. Life has no beginning or end; it merely constitutes a cycle of unending change. This gives birth to the central importance of ancestors, because the energy of a person never truly dies. Below the invisible wall between the physical and spiritual world lies the ancestral realm. The physical world is capable of interacting with the spiritual world, because the continuum is fluid.

The primacy of the ancestors is consistent in all traditional African religions, and based on this world view the failure of African people to cultivate a relationship with their ancestors could be a source of their demise. Dr Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a traditional Bantu healer, suggests that each living human being is a seed of a seed of a seed of a seed of a seed of a seed of a seed of a seed. There is a perpetual transfer of form and energy from one seed or generation or ancestor to another.

Ancestor

The inclination to remember and the desire to reconnect is deeply rooted in African tradition. In African culture the genesis of each individual flows from the original ancestor who was given life from the hands of the Creator, not the parents from which one was born. The honouring of one’s ancestors is a recognition of that continuation, a recognition of the shoulders upon which each person stands.

The Dagara people of present day Burkina Faso teach us about the relationship between the ancestors and community. “For the Dagara people, death results in simply a different form of belonging to the community. It is a lesson from nature that change is the norm, that the world is defined by eternal cycles of decline and regeneration. Death is not a separation but a different form of communion, a higher form of connectedness with the community,” writes Malidoma Some in “The Healing Wisdom of Africa”.

African cultures have a systems approach to living, unlike the compartmentalized worldview typically found in the West. In African culture, the individual is an integral part of the community, just as each part of the body is essential to the functioning of the whole. This notion of the part to the whole is related to the concept of destiny.

Yoruba culture has something important to teach us about destiny. In the order for the community or the whole to function properly, each part has to be aligned with its purpose. A person’s individual destiny is discovered in Yoruba culture through divination. Divination is based on binary code, which is the basic language the modern computer operates on. This ancient African technology is used to intuit the patterns of creation which contain the physical and spiritual DNA of a person. These dimensions are inseparable, as the physical aspect of a person is simply the manifestation of the spirit.

A visit to the career counselor is insufficient to determine one’s true destiny.

The condition of the West is chaotic in the Yoruba world view, because individuals primarily determine their roles in society based on the pursuit of a personal passions or consumerist wants. Destiny helps to bring the individual into alignment with the community, with nature, with the universe and with themselves.

The Rastafari community provides an interesting case study for the impact embracing African culture can have on African men, who bear the brunt of the criticism for societal ills.

While the Rastafari community is not a homogenous group, consisting of various liturgical and non-liturgical orders, there are various elements that unify the way of life of the Rasta man, which are all deeply rooted in African tradition.

The fact that Rastafari is a relatively modern practice does not take away from its grounding. Rastafari men are respectful, enterprising, self-sufficient, family-oriented, and highly spiritual.

This is the model of the man for which the wider society elusively seeks. Perhaps we have much to learn from them.

This discussion of African spiritual traditions is in no way exhaustive.

Rather, it serves to shed a ray of light on an entire system of knowledge that most African people are not exposed to because of the omissions symptomatic of colonial narratives.

The limited exposure that is gained is so heavily influenced by these colonial narratives that their point of view is invariably distorted. African spiritual traditions are not evil, devilish, pagan, or polytheistic.

On the contrary, they are an essential part of who we are and keys to restoring the African community.

This acknowledgement can only come with the discarding of the colonial mask.

If African people would give up the pleasure of basking in the bliss of ignorance, and suffer through the pain of their own enlightenment, they might just discover the reality of “Nyon Nyor Nyan”.

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