Praise and Worship

I had heard the rumour that Rio de Janeiro was out of this world, and last year, I was accorded the privilege of confirming this for myself.  As soon as I set foot in Brazil, I fell in love with the place. Well, I exaggerate a little, it must have happened the following day, because on arrival I went straight to bed, after travelling on three flights for 21 hours between Cape Town and Rio. I was also jet-lagged because I lost five hours in the process so a full night’s sleep was the only thing on my mind when I landed. The next day, I woke up, refreshed and even managed to squeeze in a morning walk before breakfast. This is when I was smitten. The air felt festive and everything I saw seemed to be celebrating life. Over the next few days, I came close to imagining what paradise should be. All my trials and tribulations, especially those caused by my research, were forgotten. I even contemplated abandoning my studies all together to become a Samba dancer.

You might not have guessed that I was in Rio for a conference. Thankfully, this conference was not only about presenting academic papers and there were several cultural activities in the programme. On one occasion, our group that consisted of academics from several countries in Africa, were invited to a church that practiced an eclectic form of indigenous African religion. We were received with great enthusiasm, probably because we were from the very continent that inspires this religion. The members of this church were Brazilians, most of them of African descent, and their belief was largely based on the Yoruba traditions of Nigeria, though there were other influences, and artefacts from all over Africa adorned their church.

After a beautiful display of dances and explanation of their beliefs, we, the Africans, were asked to share our own stories about Africa. I suspect that the expectation was for our stories to, in some way confirm their beliefs. What followed was a moment of awkward silence punctuated by blank stares. All the while I was thinking ‘don’t look at me, everything I know about indigenous African stuff, I read in Wikipedia’.  To save the day, one of my colleagues gathered the courage to stand up and relate the history of his clan with all the attending cultural practices. The stage was now set.  One after another, an African would, with pride, tell the story of their ancestors and clans and ancient religious practices. With hindsight, I now see that I should have been clever enough to text my Grandpa, at that moment, and ask for some information about our clan. To make matters worse for me, I bore no gifts like some of my colleagues, who presented the priestess of this church with cultural items which she received with great veneration.

To make up for my complete uselessness at this event, I joined in the final dance where we circled around a totem to the beats of very African sounding drums. As the tempo picked up, the increasing intensity of the dance reminded me of an African mask dance I saw in a movie once. Some of the members of the church then went into a trance like state, and at this stage, the Africans were now exhibiting varying emotions, ranging from amusement to utter shock. It occurred to me, as I was thinking about this article, that the Portuguese who landed on the Coast of Africa, centuries ago, must have had reactions very similar to that of my colleagues when they (the Portuguese) witnessed a mask dance by African natives. I hope the irony of all this is not lost on you.

Aaahhh...I could write a book about this, but this post is way too long.