The Vanishing Rituals and Ceremonies of the African Continent
Above: African Heritage House bathed in morning light. Copyright Maya Mangat
Published: The Star newspaper, Kenya – 2 March 2019
“It’s my dream to set up a pan-African centre where artists from all over Africa can come and see the creativity from all parts of Africa,” said Joseph Murumbi, Kenya’s first foreign minister and second vice president.
He never lived to see his dream for his house that had one of the most extensive and valuable collections of all things African, was allowed to fall in ruin after he sold it to the government on condition that it would be turned into the Murumbi Institute of African Studies. Murumbi died shortly after that in 1990 when he saw his once cherished house and indigenous garden in Muthaiga, Nairobi bulldozed away.
I’m at the African Heritage House and it’s way past midnight as l turn the pages of the African Twilight, the two-tome volume, mesmerised by the full-colour images of an Africa that few have or will ever see.
In it l see what Murumbi would have hoped to showcase of the continent’s heritage – of the arts that inspired the likes of Picasso and Matisse; of African textiles woven in silks, raffia and bark cloth and intricate jewels in gold before colonialism came in, and of the African architecture that inspired his long-term partner and aficionado, Alan Donovan to build the African Heritage House.
I have spent many a night under the watch of Mt. Poi, the 8,000–foot high monolith which is Africa’s largest in the Ndoto Mountains in north Kenya – and l did not even know that there is a sub-clan called the Ariaal of Rendille-speaking Samburu who have their own culture that’s in the African Twilight depicting the rituals and ceremonies that are fading away.
As dawn lifts the mist over the sprawl of Nairobi National Park, there could have been no better place than the African Heritage House to have turned the pages of African Twilight for the house is everything African from the architecture to the textiles. In a few weeks, it will be the setting for the launch of the books and the final extravaganza that the legendary Alan Donovan of the house will put on that is aptly titled, the African Twilight – with Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher – the co-authors of African Twilight in attendance.
In the depths of the Congo forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo where few dare to go because it is even today a volatile region, Fisher and Beckwith did venture. They arrived just in time to see the Salampasu initiation and write: “As we approached the village of Mbangu we were met by three chiefs wearing beaded crowns who greeted us and led us down a narrow path to the sacred forest. We arrived just in time to photograph the final day of the boys’ Mukanda initiation.”
The image in the book is of the forceful ndumbu mask whirls in front of the newly initiated boys. It was the Pende ritual spirit dance where young boys in tribal costumes come out of the forest for the initiation ceremonies. It hadn’t been recorded since the 1970s.
Traveling in dug-out canoes, on foot, camel, car and whichever way possible to the most remotest of places deep in sacred forests to the tops of holy mountains, the two women have criss-crossed the length and breadth of Africa over the last 40 years, gaining the trust of the people they photograph and working at a pace dictated by the ceremonies and rituals. In many incidents they are the only foreigners ever allowed to photograph sacred ceremonies such as the ones in the Kuba Kingdom in the DRC.
The Making of African Twilight
In the 1970s, the two women began photographing African ceremonies imbued by the beauty and power of African aesthetics. Neither dreamed that 40 years later they would be still at work and authors of 17 unrivalled tomes on Africa, of spectacular ceremonies never photographed before like the coronation of the voodoo king in Benin that happens once in a generation or the historical Igue ceremony in the royal palace in Benin City in Nigeria. Many are a ceremony that has not changed in centuries.
The authors quote the African shamen, Malidoma Patrice Some in a forward to their books, “When you start, you own the journey. As you progress the journey owns you.”
Half of the ceremonies portrayed in African Twilight no longer exist.
As Donovan works on the last extravaganza, he also ponders over the fate of the African Heritage House and the Murumbi Trust set up by Donovan to look after the Murumbi African Heritage Legacy. He also wants the epic house to be turned into The African Heritage Institute.
“Always look inward. Don’t look outside of Africa at the West or America as superior. Look inward and see if you can live with yourself,” Donovan quotes Murumbi.
But the tragedy continues as African leaders look out to fast track the much needed development on the continent. In African Twilight, Beckwith and Fisher bring out the plight of the pastoral people who live on the south of Omo River in Ethiopia. The Gibe Dam, the big hydroelectric dam being built on the Omo River, is destroying the river flooding and may turn Lake Turkana a pale shadow of its former self. The pastoral people are losing their land, their grazing land, and their culture.
“It is a huge issue and we felt very strongly that traditional societies should be able to develop at a pace that suits their own making instead of changing overnight and pushed into settled people. They should be able to choose to actually evolve at their own pace. And here they’re really being terminated; their whole being, their whole culture is being terminated overnight,” write the authors.
The Gala night was held at the African Heritage House on 3 March 2019 to great success.