The 21st Century has brought forward many changing attitudes towards a range of issues and social matters including, gender and sexual identity. Whilst society as a whole seems to be more accepting of others’ differences, lifestyle and opinions, in the African-Caribbean community there still remains one deep-rooted taboo… African Spirituality.
As outlandish as this claim may sound, it is a reality for many who have been ostracised by friends and family or those who have been stigmatised as practicing ‘witchcraft’ or labelled a ‘devil worshipper’. The association with African ancestral spiritual traditions and negativity is prevalent within African-Caribbean communities and this viewpoint often goes unchallenged.
This complex issue has its roots in Colonial Africa and diasporan countries, when enslaved Africans were forbidden from practicing their ancient traditions. These forms of worship became outlawed and in some cases punishable by death, which forced these practices underground. In addition to being prohibited, Catholic missionaries labelled these practices acts of the devil and this negative association with the help of the media has continued to the present day.
In realising how powerful media influence can be, filmmakers Verona Spence-Adofo & Dalian Adofo decided to explore this topic through film and released their self-funded documentary Ancestral Voices: Esoteric African Knowledge in 2011. ‘An educational documentary spanning two continents, opening up a much-needed debate about traditional African spiritual systems; their cosmologies, ideologies and underlying ethical principles.’ The film also spoke on the role of the media and colonialism in regards to perpetuating the idea of these traditions being negative.
When asked about the motivation behind the film Verona Spence-Adofo said:
“I was blown away when I started learning about these ancient spiritual traditions. The information I came into, resonated deeply and I was amazed by how far removed it was from the negative propaganda I had been taught. What stood out was how empowering these teachings are and the way they change your perception of reality. I was compelled to share this information as the disdain that we have for our African spiritual traditions is not natural, it’s like we collectively suffer from a spiritual inferiority complex, it’s so ingrained in us that most don’t even question it.”
The couple are back again with their second installment of the documentary. Five years in the making Ancestral Voices: Spirit is Eternal is now complete. The sequel is described as ‘a systemic exploration of African spiritual philosophies and practices across millennia and space, from the ancient Black Egyptians to contemporary times on the continent and its legacies in the Diaspora such as Vodou or Candomble. It highlights the commonalities across the various systems proving they share a common source and are but different branches of the same tree.’
Topics covered include the African conception of the Creator/‘God’, Nature and the natural forces, nature of humanity, Ancestral veneration and communication, various rituals and forms of prayers for living an African-centred spiritual life.
In response to the sequel theme Dalian Adofo explained:
“It was important to us to make a comprehensive film that not only explores the philosophy of various African traditions, but to also include information on practices as well. A lot of the feedback we received were from those saying they wanted practical advice on how they could lead African spiritual centred lives. So the film not only provides information but also the tools for people to develop themselves.
“It also plays a big part in highlighting that Africans across the continent, despite having various cultural expressions do share core philosophies which could fall under the title of “African Spirituality”/ “African Indigenous Spirituality” that should afford them the same rights as other religious groups. Thus, allowing practitioners to be given the same rights and respect as other religious followers.
“We often speak a lot, as African, ‘Black’ people, about reclaiming our African history and culture in this current time of living, yet at the same time, many want to partition what aspects are worth attention. Usually, African spirituality becomes labelled under just ‘juju’ or ‘obeah’ and thus shameful parts to ignore. But by doing that we are actually missing the core aspect of what our traditions seek to develop in the person to be a productive member of society.”
The couple are actively seeking that to get their educational material into institutions of learning such that the topic of African Spirituality can be normalised to achieve a true and accurate understanding on it, rather than the colonial hangover of fear based on a misunderstanding of its entirety or purpose.
The book companion to the film, also of the same name, is currently held in the collections of Harvard and SOAS universities in the US and UK respectively and their first film is likewise in a range of universities across the world.
Ancestral Voices: Spirit is Eternal will have its premier screening this Saturday 16th Sep Ritzy Picturehouse, Brixton London 3-6pm. Find out purchase and screening information here
Find out more about the Ancestral Voices series here.