During the holidays the Togolese and Tchekpo community do a lot of the same things we do at home. People who passed me on the roads and dropped by my house every day wished me a Bonne fette de Noel (Merry Christmas) and Nouveau Annee (Happy New Year.) I received gifts of pineapples, papaya’s, and bundles of plantains. Neighbors, new friends and people I’ve been working with here in Tchekpo sincerely thanked me for being here. They smiled, took my hand and blessed me. I felt their warmth and sincerity. I also felt their merriment of the season.
The desire to express good will during the holidays is something I happily shared with my Togolese friends. One of the things I wanted to discover for myself on this journey is, what basic traits do all humans share? Whether they live in the suburbs of mid-america, or a small village in Africa, what do we have in common? What is innate? What are we born with, and what is learned? The answer to these questions are deep, layered and multi-faceted, and would be better answered by Margaret Meade, but I try….just the same.
|The Chief praising the gods|
I made the rounds to the elders, bowed, held my elbow and shook their hands. There is always a snap of each others pointer finger at the end of the hand shake. It took me a while to master, but now I have the Togolese handshake down. I greeted most of them in their local language, Ewe (e-vah). The sodebe (local liquor) was flowing, "making spirits high." Soon after we arrived the Chief greeted me. I do like the Chief for many reasons. I think he’s intelligent, and he has a very good sense of humor. He wanted to know where my camera was. I told him I didn't bring it. He asked why. I told him I didn’t know I was coming to a party, and I offered to walk home to get it. He wanted me to, so I did. Round trip walk about 45 minutes. But I was glad to have the diversion of this task. I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable with the crowd or the celebration. I returned to the festivities with my camera. Without any preconceived notions of what might occur.
Not like our celebrations at home, I can tell you that. Well actually parts of it were similar. It was family and friends and their children having a party, being happy to see and visit with each other, but that may be the only similarity. This was an authentic Voodooese Fette, with all their trimmings…..they were ready to celebrate and at the same time, pay homage to their god(s)!
A little history lesson on Voodoo
In Tchekpo, in America and all over the world, there are many “Christians” and many various religious denominations of “Christians.” As Christians, Africans celebrate the birth of Christ (Bonne fette de Noel). They have accepted Christ as their Savior and as their one true, and only God. The missionairies did a good job converting the “natives” of Africa. Christianity gave the people of Africa good news and hope in a world that was otherwise extremely harsh to them in all ways…weather, hunger, poverty, war. The good news was that as harsh as this life on earth is, if they are good “Christians” if they follow the teachings of Jesus Christ they will enjoy eternal happiness. Hope of the heaven that was described to them, was more than enough to convince them to denounce their voodoo ways. On the surface anyway. It is a conflict of belief systems. Believing that Jesus is the one true God, and yet as Animists (Voodooese) they believe in many Gods. They cannot dismiss the lore that has been handed down for the past 6,000 years. The word "voodoo" comes from the Fon language. It means "sacred," "spirit" or "deity." [source: National Public Radio: Radio Expeditions]. .
Voodoo, In religious theory, is the conception of a spiritual reality behind the material one: for example, they believe the soul is a shadowy duplicate of the body capable of independent activity, both in life and death. Since Voodoo is primarily an oral tradition, the names of gods, as well as the specifics of different rituals, can change in different regions or from generation to generation. However, African Voodoo has several consistent qualities no matter where people practice it. Along with the belief in multiple gods and spiritual possession, these beliefs include:
•Veneration of ancestors
•Rituals or objects used to convey magical protection
•Animal sacrifices used to show respect for a god, to gain its favor or to give thanks
•The use of fetishes, or objects meant to contain the essence or power of particular spirits
•Ceremonial dances, which often involve elaborate costumes and masks
•Ceremonial music and instruments, especially including drums
•Divination using the interpretation of physical activities, like tossing seed hulls or pulling a stone of a certain color from a tree
•The association of colors, foods, plants and other items with specific loa(God) and the use of these items to pay tribute to the loa (God).
Many of these traits, particularly ancestor worship, polytheism, and the importance of music and dance, are important elements of Voodoo. Many observances appear to be part celebration, part religious service incorporating rhythmic music, dancing and songs. Many rituals take advantage of the natural landscape, such as rivers, mountains or trees. Through decoration and consecration, ordinary objects, like pots, bottles or parts of slaughtered animals, become sacred objects for use in rituals. I've come to recognize all of these things, as I walk through the village. Sometimes I'll be walking with Aloughba and point to something I think is an artful arrangement of plants and/or pottery, and she tells me that it is voodoo. A sacred prayer created for the gods, maybe to stop children from dying, or to bring rains for the crops.
I’m sure I’m just understanding the tip of the ice berg as far as voodoo is concerned. I didn’t want to delve into it for a long time. Didn’t think I really needed to. Thought I could just experience it on the surface, an arms length away. But really if I’m to understand the people of Tchekpo I must understand their roots, and their religion and their beliefs.