Thursday, 10 December 2015

Some wordz on that 'ancestor worship' thing!

My grandmother, Felicia Saul had an indomitable spirit. For this reason she was known by the Seafield Villagers, in West Coast Berbice (Guyana) as ‘Braggart.’ Her indomitability was not fierce, nor miserable; it wasn’t wicked or riven with vexations. Rather it expressed a forceful, magnetic kindness and love. She welcomed others (non-family) into her home; fed them too from the sweet flavours of her country cooking; a generosity for which she is well remembered. This is my maternal grandmother – I didn’t know my paternal grandparents.

Pa, my grandfather seemed mystical to me when I was a child. He had a small, soft melodic voice that somehow harmonised with my grandmother’s brasher sound (she had lost her teeth by this time, which made her cheeks concave and perhaps attributed to the way she sounded to me). I relished listening to them in the early hours of morning, as they spoke quietly, perhaps respecting our sleep or the morning hush, when cocks hadn’t yet started crowing. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They were possibly exchanging old time stories, or current ones; village tales, their own intimate memories, I don’t know - and maybe competing even between themselves for who could remember best. Either way, I loved listening to them.

One of my favourite bonding experiences with Ma was combing her grey – actually creamy with a copper tint – hair. It smelled of coconut oil – which may be a forced memory – since I know this is what she would have used to oil her hair. As for Pa – also known among the villagers as ‘Topan’ (don’t ask me why) but his name was Daniel, Ezekiel, David – nothing was more heartening than patiently waiting then gratefully receiving a morsel of his food which he’d saved for me! Alright, it probably wasn’t Just for me but I like to inject this selfishness into the memory because I’ve never discussed this precious experience with any of the cousins whom I know also awaited his ‘lef lef’ as they say in Guyana. It was the sweetest food – you see Ma always dished his first – something about that gave his left overs a magical quality.

Felicia, Christina, Maria Saul, my grandmother

Pa had the look of a sage, though I know he was no angel (at least from some discussions with my mother, when they were younger). In any case it might have been this intuitive wisdom for which he was selected to be the village Chairman. My mum says that when he was dying, villagers became distressed and came in their plenty to seek his opinion on things, especially relating to neighbourly disputes.

I simply adored them. I cannot recall ever being reprimanded by either. Around them I felt comforted, protected and happy.

My grandfather passed in 1978, when he was 90 (two months before my father, Solomon, the same year). It was the first time someone so close to me had died. In those days the deceased body didn’t necessarily go to the hospital to go in the freezer but remained at home if that’s where the person had died. It was dressed at home and from there the funeral took place. It’s possible he was taken to a church (Lutheran) that was in the village. But at least before this time on the day of the funeral I remember when they opened the ‘box’ in which he laid. The smell was overwhelming so we had to douse him with sweet smelling talcum powder (which I now know is also symbolic of him becoming an ancestor or rather transitioning between the physical and spiritual ‘worlds’). I say ‘we’ meaning members of the family, including 8 year old me and my elder cousins. This latter were scornful of my grandfather’s smell and didn’t want to sprinkle him with the powder nor be anywhere near his corpse. I sprinkled him and felt no fear. I must have been crying, or had been because there’s a tinge of memory that the elders (older family members) were making doleful sounds in-keeping with their mourning.

My grandmother joined him 14 years later in 1992 – when she was 96. One of my aunts had dreamt that Pa was in the spiritual realm waiting, in some manner of impatience for her. By now I was living in the UK, and had just started University. I wasn’t able to go to Ma’s funeral.

My grandfather, 'Topan,' Daniel, Ezekiel David.

In the second year of University I suffered bouts of depression and anxiety and was receiving counselling. I admit the counselling wasn’t working, not least because the counsellor had some momentary collapse before my eyes and rather than he handing me tissues to ease my sobbing, I found myself consoling him. It was my last session. My healing began with a dream of my grandfather taking me back to Guyana on a plane – until then (and since) I had not dreamt him. Intuiting, or maybe just trusting that this was something I was being ‘commanded’ by spirit to do, I took a year out and did just that. This proved wonderfully effective in relieving me of the malady of a cultural identity crisis (the prognosis and analysis of these experiences are latter day – I had no idea what I was experiencing at the time). For when I returned to the UK (Scotland, where I was studying) I had a better grasp or understanding of who I was (better but, of course, not ever complete).

The effect wore down as I was about to complete my degree. I experienced a psychological break which meant I couldn’t (then) finish the course. At the outset of this psychological split I did something intuitive. I drew a large circle on a piece of paper. I placed my name in the centre and the names of all the deceased relatives I could remember (even on my father’s side, many of whom I didn’t know – so I wrote ‘my father’s father’ etc…) inside the circle around the edge. It was a way of protecting (or willing it) myself from what I could ‘feel’ taking place in my mind/consciousness, which I couldn’t understand. Some of what I could ‘feel’ was suicidal. In any case the circle was an invocation; without being totally ‘conscious’ about ancestral veneration (as I now am) I felt compelled to call on their protection in this way. The reader might well ask, if so inclined why not God? I could only feign to answer, since at that time I believe part of the ‘crises’ related to my perception and interpretation of ‘God’ and ‘Jesus’ – which was departing from the way I was brought up. Given the force of this Christian influence and the absolute lack of grounding in any African centred conceptions about divinity it’s a question I’ve wondered myself. I’ve tended to answer it also by recognising the role my ancestors played in this ‘crisis’ – that referring to them was so natural to me. I remembered my grandparents; they were part of the unseen but yet present in my consciousness - and after all, when I returned to Guyana I particularly recall the ‘presence’ of my grandfather, the one who had ‘commanded’ I go back. He was with me where ever I went, for which reason I felt safe enough to travel into the interior and so on…This ‘invocation’ to them, however, was the calling/opening to a particular aspect of my spirituality.

Now the term ‘ancestral worship’ is familiar to many of us and is burdened with confusion and ill-feelings as it relates to African cultural experience. So I think a moment to consider it is worthwhile. In an online article titled ‘Ancestors as elders’ Igor Kopytoff argues that the confusion (he calls it ‘paradox’) stems from an ‘ethnocentric distortion of the African worldview,’ which prevents our understanding of what we have persisted in calling ‘ancestor cults’ and ‘ancestor worship.’ European anthropologists, having observed the African practices relating to ancestors imposed terminologies according to their conceptual ideas about the role of the living and the dead.

Taking his example from the Suku of South Western Congo (Kinshasa), of which he belongs Igor Kopytoff explains that contrary to Western ideas (as proposed by theorists like Fortes –with whom he mostly agrees) ancestors do not ‘acquire’ power to intervene in the affairs of successive generations when they die. Rather they ‘maintain’ their power to intervene (jurally) in the affairs of younger members of their lineage.

He goes further to express this ethnocentric complexity which is borne of vocabulary/semantic problems. Having compared linguistic variants of many African groups (particularly Bantu speaking), Kopytoff claims that there is generally no word for ‘ancestors’ alone in their idiom. There tends to be a combination of terms that are used to represent ‘elders/ancestors’ and sometimes ‘grandparents’ that correlate to these in English. The Suku word ‘Bambuta’ means the ‘big ones’ or ‘those that have attained maturity.’ For example, the ‘uta’ suffix is such a combination, connoting ‘elder/ancestor.’

kristjanabjorkb: Turkana old woman with labret - Kenya by Eric Lafforgue on Flickr.

Therefore, in many African cultures, he writes, we can observe a ‘semantic association of growth, age, maturity, ancientness, eldership, ancestorship and authority.’ The lone identification of ‘ancestor’ doesn’t embody this spectrum but instead imposes a distinction that is bound up with Eurocentric notions about the ‘supernatural’ – which power is believed to be acquired at death – and when one becomes an ‘ancestor.’ African societies, however, tend to bestow powers on ‘elders’ who retain it when they make the transitional journey as elders. For the Suku and other groups ‘African lineages are communities of both living and the dead,’ according to Kopytoff. The elder has authority, is respected and consulted because of their maturity and has serious responsibility that involve representing their (in this case matrilineal) lineage. This ‘authority’ persists, albeit under new circumstances when the elder dies.

In the not so distant past, we dispersed Africans were in tune with a version of the foregoing ‘respect’ for elders. It’s incontestable that for the most part this ‘respect’ is a fading sentiment. I lap up the memory of my maternal grandparents and the love I felt they expressed for me – perhaps it was tangible because of their maturity, their authority to unconditionally express it. For those young people who have grandparents and great grandparents (on both sides too) in their midst, I’m mildly envious. Yet, I wonder how many of them appreciate this precious gift. For even if the elder is miserable and contentious, even if they don’t appear to ‘get’ or appreciate you there is always something they can pass on; and they will remain close to us (an imagined memory of their smell for example, or some gesture good or bad towards you will be retained) when they transition. They will remain in our consciousness, and we’re likely to have dreams of or about them – bearing some message about how we’re living or not living (some scolding or instructing) that serve to realign us to our purpose (though we might not see it this way). Or dare I venture to say, to ‘forgive’ them for whatever transgressions we feel they committed against us; some might not have entered fully into the light but remain ‘too close’ in the sense of being bound to former earth ties (usually their family, or some undone task) and might thus be seeking our help to send them toward said light (but that’s really another story…).

Elder Larim man in the Boya hills having his hair dressed. Photo by Patti Langton, Feb 1980. © Pitt Rivers Museum [2008.78.1.611]

Our forced dispersal from Africa has generally involved disconnection with some of those traditions we cherished. Kopytoff would argue that we didn’t ‘worship’ ancestors, as conceived by Europeans in their observances of what we were doing, rather we respected and showed honour to our elders in recognition for their maturity and wisdom that (aught) to come with those life changes. In truth, even if ‘wisdom’ wasn’t evident our elders were respected. After all, we too were elders – since the circle of life meant that everyone was elder to someone (the Suku refer to this as Baleke – meaning those to whom one is an elder). When the elder passed on we continued showing them respect, seeking their counsel and interventions for ameliorative purposes.

When I was at school I remember being intrigued by the reality of the ‘nuclear family.’ It was a strange term to me, but I didn’t understand this was evolutionary and that I was being acculturated into the identity. The disposable conditions of Western societies have impacted intergenerational relations detrimentally. Past a certain age, you’re no longer considered useful. My experiences with my grandparents, however, was an armour that when needed shielded me from a psychosis (indeed the diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’ might not have been far off) that I believe has everything to do with cultural dislocation and the curious evolution of becoming alone in the world. Likewise there’s a blessing I’m experiencing with my octogenarian mother which involve some priceless exchanges, memories lodged in the recesses of her mind which by communing surface and impress my imagination. This is a power she has as an elder, which I recognise and respect. Yes, the memories are interwoven with levels of confusion (mostly religious) about African traditions, but the more time we commune the more we discover she knows but didn’t realise she did – was in fact made to doubt and despise.

Portraits of elderly people taken in Guinea-Bissau... DYNAMIC AFRICA

If I was born into the Suku tradition and was the eldest in my generation (who’d be Baleke) I would be the one to represent them, the one to make serious decisions on behalf of the entire group. When I pass on they would continue to show me respect. If, for example, there was some dispute or an issue they needed resolving they would either come to my graveside, or any other graveside of someone older; if not the graveside, they would come to a cross road (symbolic of the interchange between spiritual and material worlds) and commune. They would bring me the foods and drinks I used to eat when alive (palm wine or cassava, for example – actually I’d take mango, avocado and red wine!). Communication would take the form of a monologue but some message or sign would be given to indicate what must be done. This is a method, in the tradition of inciting psychological and social order.

Whether we regard honouring our ancestors as a form of worship, reverence, or respect is a semantic schism rooted in European expropriation of African traditional experiences. Consequently, we have been cornered into codifying our experiences so they would appear palatable (relatable) to European ideas about the way we live our lives. And we need to stop this! Each time the question of ancestors is raised it’s juxtaposed to some spurious connection with obeah (again another story…) Enough already! This juxtaposition is forwarded by Christians, whose righteous indignations are untenable, given that Africans ought to realise (since information is readily available) our experiences – cultural, economic, political and social are riddled with the bullets of imperialism and colonialism (the story…). It’s time to take pride in the memory of our ancestors. Those that perished during the Maafa, we remember you. Those freedom fighters that fought and died so we can have our freedom and a life in which it is evidently possible to either eschew our traditions or honour them, we remember you. Those of the distant and remote past, whose names are lost to us, we remember you. We have misunderstood, failed to appreciate the significance of your eldership but with active spiritual intelligence we can embrace what has been too long denied.

Found on (via Pinterest)

Shout Out.

Read Igor Kopytoff's article here