Bonjou zanmi mwen:
It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Sorry I haven’t been around; there are many reasons, personal and professional: a new job, new challenges, and some reflection on what it means to have the calling as a manbo.
Any spiritual path has its challenges, but the African Traditional Religions (ATRs) have some unique challenges of their own. Society at large misunderstands them. They hear words like “Voodoo” (misspelling intentional) and think “ZOMBIES KILLING CHICKENS CHILD SACRIFICE.”
(Sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. Anyway…)
One assumption I get a lot is “white people can’t be involved in the ATRs. They are only for Black people and people of color, and if a white person is involved, then it’s cultural appropriation.”
And I get it. I get that point of view. If your culture and religion was repressed, exploited, and outlawed for hundreds of years, it’s a natural and expected response to be protective of it, to be suspicious of outsiders. I myself have seen some ridiculous and insulting things that white people have done to appropriate from ATRs. One prime example is the great city of Salem, Massachusetts, not too far from where I live. It bills itself as “Witch City”, and it’s chock-full of witchy and pagan shops. Some of what they market is genuine, a lot of is is spiritual bullshit. One time I went to a shop owned by a certain famous witch who had “assons” (the sacred Vodou calabash rattle, which only manbos and houngans can possess) made out of plastic bowling pins decorated with plastic beads and feathers.
And what makes me mad is that unsuspecting people, some of which are sincere seekers, will buy this stuff and believe it’s genuine, when it’s really merchants who are out to make a buck. I mean, in one Salem shop I saw little vials of Florida water being marketed as “witch water” and sold for $6 per one ounce bottle, when if you go into the average supermarket in a majority Hispanic neighborhood, you can buy a whole bottle of Florida water for under three bucks!
Here’s the thing: in Western culture, especially the United States, there’s the idea that all information has to be open, readily accessible by anyone and everyone, and free of charge. The ATRs are not like that. And I get complaints and pushback about this All. The. Time.
“I should be able to learn about anything!”
Ain’t necessarily so. The ATRs aren’t open to everyone and anyone. They’re not even open to all people from the cultures where they originated. As Granny Weatherwax, one of my favorite characters in literature, says, “You don’t choose the craft. The craft chooses you.”
This isn’t to say that the general public can’t explore or learn general info about the ATRs. But you need to be guided by an initiate priest or priestess.
“Can’t I just read a book?”
There are some books out there about the ATRs. In all of them, there might be a few pieces of reliable information. However, consider this: a lot of the things about the ATRs are things that only initiates are meant to know. Books can give you an introduction, they can even get you started on the path. That’s what happened to me. I read a book about Vodou, got a reading, and the spirits started talking to me…and they haven’t stopped talking since. But after that initial contact with the ATRs, I met my manmi Maude Evans (honor and respect to her) and started to learn the religion hands-on.
And that’s the way the ATRs are meant to be: hands-on learning experiences. For hundreds of years, information about the ATRs was never written down: it was all oral, passed down from teacher to student, and the only way to learn was sitting by the side of your manmi, papa, tata, baba, iya, whatever, and watch them do things. And then you would try to do these things. And make mistakes, and do it over and over until you got it right. Then, after many years of trying and studying and watching, you would get the opportunity to teach someone else. And so the lineage of each house gets passed down.
The dawning of the Internet has been a blessing and a curse for the ATRs. On the one hand, it allows people who live far away from the typical urban centers of Vodou (for example in the U.S, Boston, New York, Miami, etc) to make contact with initiates who can give the right information to them. On the other hand, you get people who can just put up a website, call themselves a “houngan”, “manbo”, “tata”, “babalawo”, or whatever, and putting out all kinds of nonsense out there.
No, you can’t give Ezili Freda a black jewelry box with her veve traced on it. No, you really shouldn’t give any lwa your own blood as an offering. No, the lwa aren’t vegan, you will eventually have to give them meat. No, you can’t offer alcohol to Damballah.
(These are all things I’ve actually seen, by the way).
In Vodou, we have this thing that in Kreyol is called “regleman”. The translation is “regiment” but you can really call it “order”, an ordered and proper way of doing things. In fets (Vodou ceremonies), we salute the spirits in the same order every time. There are rules we follow. You have to abstain from sexual activity for 24 hours prior to every fet. You will only learn these things when you talk to and interact with initiates.
Not everyone who comes to the ATRs are meant to be initiated as clergy, just like not everyone who joins the Catholic church is meant to become a priest or a nun. Most people in any religion are laypeople, and that’s perfectly fine. You can serve, work with, and love the spirits as a layperson. The clergy path isn’t for everyone. Many sevite (servants of the lwa) get a leson (Vodou reading) from a manbo or houngan, learn which spirits walk with them, how to serve them, and are perfectly content to serve their spirits privately. They may attend fets, speak to the spirits, and consult a priest/ess when they have a problem or want to get magic work or healing work done.
The path of a layperson, a non-initiate, is a perfectly noble and honorable path. It’s not easy being an initiate. You have to carry a lot. It’s beautiful, and rewarding, but not easy.
If you’re going to learn, please learn the right way. Ayibobo!
Bonjou zanmi mwen: