Where I Had A Mind-Expanding Experience.
After twelve days traveling in Côte D’Ivoire, West Africa
and visiting many tribal villages, I can’t wait to go back. My mind stretched like a rubber band, enabling me to embrace and appreciate different customs, traditions, and weltanschauung. By mingling with many indigenous people as we did and learning about their lifestyles, rituals, and animist beliefs, I departed Côte with an ideology that opened new spiritual pathways in my brain. At the same time I left behind a large Ivorian family of brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, and cousins of all ages I didn’t have before. I look at my photographs from this trip and remember my new family fondly, and hope the divine spiritual powers will keep them safe and healthy.
Folks at home are amazed with my pictures,
but some shake their heads in disbelief when I tell them about the “supernatural” I observed. Other friends seemed more interested in knowing what the food was like and whether I had wifi in our hotels. But I was ecstatic when a handful of adventurous friends begged to go along the next time I travel to West Africa. It’s really not surprising that people have limited interest because until you experience tribal Africa personally, it’s really difficult to comprehend such a complex society with norms so different from ours. Americans who believe in the power of ancestral spirits might be labeled crazy or called a wiccan, but this belief system is accepted by and inculcated in the majority of the Ivorian population.
In our twelve days of travel we just skimmed the surface and absorbed only a tiny bit of the belief system. However, I fully adhere to the adage “seeing is believing.” Even at our advanced ages, my husband and I feel that by exposing ourselves to these new “isms”, we also affected our own spiritual growth in a personal and experiential way.
About 60% of the Ivorian population adheres to indigenous beliefs, known as animism, with the other 25% Muslim and about 12% Christian. And even those who practice Islam or Christianity still observe rituals that worship the spirits of their ancestors.
Almost every day we were exposed to a different ethnic group
as we traveled in the north, encountering the Baulé in Bouake, the Senufo in Korhogo, the Fulani near Odienne, and the Dan/Yacuba people on the road to the town of Man. While each tribe has similar beliefs about ancestor worship, sacrifices, initiation rites and celebrations, they individuate by different fetish priests and divination ceremonies, sacred spaces, and ritual observances. Each group has their own initiation rites for young boys passing through to manhood, varying in degree of hardship and length of time. Interestingly, the vast majority of Ivorians believe that a person’s soul lives after death, so funerals are elaborately celebrated. They believe that spirits, good or bad, can exist in any living or inanimate object, such as masks or wooden sculptures. With this belief system in mind, our guide, also from an animist background, suggested that we gather all the African artifacts we bought so he could conduct a purification ceremony to expunge any negative spirits, lest they accompany our treasures brought home.
I loved everything about Côte except the humidity,
but my favorite experience, one of many, was the afternoon we spent with the Dozo hunters near the town of Odienne. The Dozo are descendants of the old Mali empire and a subgroup of the Malinke tribe. Their history includes Samory Touré, a war leader and slave hunter who became famous for his war against the French colonial army, which was able to defeat him only after many years of fighting. His army included the Dozo hunters, known for their courage and mystical powers. Although there are no longer wars to fight, this lineage is highly respected, and their mystical powers are still passed on through a long initiation process. Today the Dozo are considered guardian angels who watch over villages and mediate local disputes.
The experience with the Dozo was meaningful to me because it was so intimate and personal. Although some of my photographs might help, let me try and describe the scene. First, when we arrived at the open-air structure which was our meeting point, a small group of Dozo musicians were playing their traditional instruments and waiting for us. Shortly thereafter, a half dozen more men rode in on their shiny motor bikes to greet us. All wore ceremonial hunter clothes made of bogolan fabric that uses fermented mud and plant dyes. Some jackets were covered with amulets, which are believed to possess magical protective properties. Others wore court-jester style hats and some carried rifles to indicate their role as a protector. In contrast, one guy, a master at playing the Coro, a popular stringed instrument, looked like a hip-hop artist wearing cool-looking sunglasses, and a younger fellow couldn’t take his eyes off the cell phone he was holding. We sat on benches across from the Dozo men, and through our guide speaking both English and French and a local guide who knew French and the Dozo dialect, we asked simple questions, like “how does one become a chief?” Although I’m sure we were not the first Westerners they’d encountered, we probably still looked a little weird wearing our Ex-Officio travel clothes and carrying bulky cameras.
What surprised us was their generous invitation to join them in the forest, to hike to their sacred site and observe their fraternal ceremony. While the Dozo men rode their motorbikes to reach the forest, four musicians climbed into our mini-bus, played their instruments and serenaded us during the entire drive.
At first the hike was flat and easy, but eventually we started climbing, which meant crawling over some rocks and slippery dry leaves. Our feet were able to find safe places to land because of the indentations made by the many who had come before us. Once on top, we watched their ritualistic dance and prayer-like ceremony, knowing that music serves as a bridge between the living and the ancestral spirits. We were invited to join them dancing, but when told we could make a silent wish when touching the powerful boulder, I opted out because it meant, as they described it, an animal would be sacrificed in our name. Not fully believing in how wishes are granted in this society, but not wanting to bring harm to a living creature, I politely declined.
At sunset we began a slow descent to a flat area under the trees where a small fire was built, around which they danced and performed a ceremony that I would describe as “magic or supernatural.” Among other inexplicable phenomina, a solid stream of water was wrung from a tribal hat that had been shown to be dry. Indigenous people, like the Dozo, do not use the words “magic or supernatural,” but instead refer to “sacred ancestral powers,” which come through spiritual insight.
At the end of this heartfelt ceremony, we gave thanks to the Dozo and their ancestral spirits for making this afternoon possible —
for allowing me to be temporarily immersed in a belief system that is so inconsistent with my grounding in the theological and spiritual constructs of the Western world. Encounters like these are the main reason I travel. I enjoy going to destinations where I can observe and participate in unique experiences, encounter the extraordinary, and have conversations with people who live in worlds far removed from my own, like the Dozo.