Photo essay: Tradition tradition
Back in June 2010, photographer Seton Nicholas gave us a glimpse into the world of the Atia Yaw Shrine in Mampong Akwapim with his piece, ‘In the Presence of the Gods’. He recently returned to there and (in DUST’s first piece on spirituality) he shares with us an excerpt from his journal.
“Went up to Mampong yesterday with the gang. Jay shot some interviews with Obosomfo Yaw Ansah. I’m really glad he chose to do the interview through Nana B in Akan. Obosomfo Yaw Ansah is incredibly articulate and engaging and English would have done it an injustice. A mockery, even.
On this (my fourth) trip I seem to have just as many questions. I understand more, that’s for sure, and count myself blessed to have been brought up in a manner that has given me the skills to do just that:
Sure: to some degree the fetid smells of blood, animal remains and alcohol in different stages of decomposition on altars scattered across the shrine turn my stomach. I’m also a dog lover, so – delicacy up north or not – the slaughtering of dogs will never sit well with me.
That said, this is more than a group of barbarians living in the mountains with aspirations to magic trickery. There are aspects of the rites that seem theatrical. However one simply needs to witness the slow boil of an impending possession spurred on by the pulsating rhythm of the drum, or note the clear change in speech, mannerism and personality each time a different deity possesses the same okomfo (host) to realize, as we say in Akan, that “biibi w) bebi”.
I found myself thinking at some point that it would probably be easier to “sell” traditional Ghanaian religious practices if they weren’t so “crude”. I quickly realized that they only appear so to me though, looking through my lens of Western education. Most certainly not to Obosomfo Yaw Ansah or to the newly sworn-in shrine authorities whose feet felt the warm gush of blood from a freshly slit lamb throat seal their respective oaths.
Perhaps African religion needs to evolve somehow; to take a fresh look at some of its customary practices and do away with what it can. Irresponsibly done, this would do little more than water things down. Strip traditional religion of age old customs and visual symbols that have been its guide to life and the divinations required to live it. I cannot suggest one such change. I am, after all, little more than a stranger, privileged to be granted time and access. Looking from without. Somewhat romantically at that.
Such reassessment is possible though. Legend has it that it took intercessions on behalf of mankind to get (the god) Tigare to settle for canine – instead of human – blood to quench his thirst for sacrifice. Apparently, they are “similar” in constitution.
I do not aim to make a convert of you. I’m not sure that mine are even the words of the converted. But I will not sit back and have the traditional customary practices of a people – in a sense, their spiritual genesis – demonized without cause.
And they have been. And still are.
Broad “incorrectitudes” like ‘fetish’, ‘voodoo’ and ‘juju’ are used to describe and simplify something complex beyond the grasp of the English language. We repeat arguments that others have made in their ignorant descriptions of people they sought to de-humanize and exploit (in that order). We have internalized these arguments so much that we seem unable to listen, let alone digest and make informed decisions for ourselves. We have become a people afraid of taking the briefest of glimpses at ourselves. We live “aspirational” lives. Not the worst thing if the aspirations are your very own and not what you are TOLD should be yours.
Even (or rather, especially) in traditional religion, duality exists. Yet most people couldn’t tell you the difference between “sumann” and “beyie”: angels and demons. For most critics (mostly Christian), there is a clear demarcation: we are of Christ and they, of the Devil. That’s their duality, I guess…
Mine, through my search for my own reasons, is to shine a light somewhat on what I find. Not to pompously dictate what I feel, but to observe, document and share through text and imagery my observations.
If you choose to look, “na ur own.”
By Seton Nicholas