My brother paid us a visit two days back. Actually, he was killing two birds with one stone. He is a workaholic whose big heart makes him work at any given opportunity in the hope of assisting all that need financial help in the family. Part of the reason for visiting was to rest at my place before his next shift at the hospital instead of driving all the way back out of London to his home. He seemed to be in very high spirits, sometimes this is a cause of concern on my part going by experience. It is most often the case that he goes from extremes of being so happy to becoming deflated not long afterwards. Strangely enough, we share similarities on this and often coincide with each other like identical twins. I’ve asked mum to confirm we were never twins on so many occasions that the poor woman started doubting herself on the facts of our births.
As I was saying, my brother arrived and soon was sharing with us his experience with a Seer he had just visited at some hotel. He was so convinced of her readings it was like he had just spoken to a prophetess who had answers or solutions to all he could need. He even had a CD recording of their conversation which he gladly shared to stress how on cue the Seer had been on getting it right. For £40, I guess she had done her very best if all she required was a piece of item belonging to my brother as guide. My brother had also seen a tarot reader at the same venue, but this one somehow didn’t quite impress him – I guess when the tarot reader turned salesman in trying to get my brother to buy some books on how to-do-it-yourself instead, that sort of nailed it for him. That’s not to say, my brother isn’t considering getting the books…He is in to the zodiac thingy and I guess the mystic realm could be the next calling.
I have a very bad habit known as scepticism – so I’m afraid I didn’t make good of being an interested audience. It soon became clear my brother reciting his experience nor his overwhelming zeal at converting me to go have my future foretold or assisted on the path of the Seer’s visionary, was not having the desired effect.
The conversation with my brother about his visit to a Seer got me thinking of stuff that’s going down in parts of Africa with persons who are known to foretell events etc or practice voodoo in place of the traditional religions like Islam or Christianity. However such persons are most often than most, feared or vilified for their practices which are seen as a form of witchcraft. The term Juju or Ju-ju is of West African origin, albeit derived from the French joujou for toy refers to the supernatural power of an object or fetish. In Uganda, the term doggo pertaining to juju, is more commonly applied…
African belief in spirits and juju is like taking the universal belief in the supernatural to the next logical step. Universal belief in the supernatural and spiritism rest on a conviction of the existence of unseen beings with magical powers that can be harnessed to help the human race in their everyday existence. Africans include the spirits of dead ancestors and relations among the unseen beings. And the belief is that these beings are to be found anywhere and everywhere. The need or desire to harness the powers of these unseen beings is separate from the belief in, and worship of, the Supreme Being, or God. Thus Omulubale (Clairvoyant/Seer) from Uganda pouring libation will raise his/her calabash or glass to God, called Lubale Mukasa, Kibuuka, Bamweyana or Nabuzaana - and by many other names – before anything else. This is the case across the continent of Africa.
The commitment to God is in other words unaffected by the need to seek the help of minor deities to solve pressing everyday problems. This explains the paradox of many otherwise devout followers of the other religions like Christianity, Muslim and so on also concurrently consulting diviners, fetishes or other cults. And it clears one very important point that people find a puzzlement: one goes to church, tabernacle or mosque for worship but one goes to a fetish priest or to a secret cult to seek medical care, psychological sure or religious comfort.
My confusion lies with terminology which arises from the tendency to use words interchangeably while talking about different institutions of religion, and methods of cults and sects. Non-Africans tend to look at practically everything from the point of view of a monolithic Africa. As a result, many Western writers talk about witch-hunters as if it’s an Africa-wide phenomenon. In fact, although other parts of the continent have diviners or priests of various cults who claim magical powers, the practice of witch-hunting is to be found in specific parts of the continent, mainly in the east and south.
Similarly, medicine-man, a term that entered the literature (and which I remember a television series here in the UK played by Jane Seymour in Medicine Woman) of the occult from the same general parts of Africa. The term would describe a cult priest also called a fetish priest. It will not describe a herbalist or a traditional healer who uses herbs, roots and barks to heal and claim no magical powers. Yet most persons who can ill-afford conventional therapy use these traditional healers in vast areas of their health-care.
Along the same lines, it is confusing to talk of juju as if one is talking of voodoo despite the apparent similarity of parts of their methods. Juju is a cult that is consulted for one reason or another when in need. It is largely psycho-medical buttressed with the power of the supernatural. Gilbert Bukenya, vice-president of Uganda was at one point cited to have visited a juju shrine and it has been claimed that President Museveni whilst in the bush campaign years often consulted with seers and is rumoured to still do so – however I guess with a wife that is so caught up in the born-again brigade of Christianity, it is news best kept in the dark.
Settling disputes by means of juju is pretty common among Africans all over the continent. This is however different from a voodoo shrine which combines the claimed powers of a juju with attributes of a church. Voodoo per se is not an Africa-wide church. It is restricted to Benin on the West coast of Africa – taken to the Caribbean by slaves. Here it found new roots in Haiti and flourished. Voodoo and the religion Voodoo has not been able to penetrate into other parts of the African continent for a number of reasons. Like many oriental beliefs, African beliefs are woven into their everyday lives. Therefore any sect that wants to spread in the continent has had to adopt two methods used by Christianity and Islam. Christianity was successfully spread throughout Africa because the first missionaries indoctrinated young children. They passed on the new beliefs to their off-spring, and so on. The spread of Islam was – with the sword in those days: through punishing many of those who resisted its introduction.
Voodoo used neither of these methods and has therefore been unable to spread throughout Africa. More still because other cult practices such as juju were available to provide major functions of helping cure and providing spiritual fortification. Finally, African traditional beliefs, as far as they can be called African, do not link Heaven with earthly activities.
One can take it a step further and ask where does spiritism begin in juju and where does seers or Catholic practice end, when Catholics talk about saints and bow to images of angels and saints; or seers use objects or ornaments? Is it fair, then, to make Africans appear inferior when they also symbolize their deities with stones, wood and such like?
Is it not time to strip discussion about African beliefs of the racism which tends to warp these discussions?