Cross-continental mental lines: doors to open, love to keep

One of the stories most hard to understand and admit that ever happened to us along our journeys comes from Africa. It was in 2010 when me and Berit spent an intensive month of experiences in Benin, West Africa, where we were digging into its worlds of voodoo and Rastafarianism.  See the stories here.

We also met an incredible soul, a true and humble Rastafarian and promising artist Joel Doussou, who became our Beninois Godfather. I also performed a crazy musical gig on stage with him for 3000 people! When leaving Benin, he gave us his paintings as gifts to remember our shared experiences. Mine had a spider on it – the thing I was afraid the most at the time – to fight my phobia.

A few months later after returning  back to Estonia we heard this terrible news. That he had been killed. Brutally murdered. In flames. By radicals. For what? For the sake of some extreme fetishist voodoo? For jealousy of his success? For conservative thought?

This was both as mysterious as a deep personal mental shock that made me feel five years older in two days and didn’t allow me to sleep for weeks. But his beautiful art work is still with me, decorating my room in Tallinn, keeping the memory of his warm nature and sunny smile. Making me still feel close to Joel.

Couple of months ago I met another warm and sunny soul here in Tallinn. He’s a Buddhist monk, an fruitful academic and a funny and caring friend. Chipamong Chowdhury also appeared to be my neighbor in my new temporary living space (seems that I will remain temporal forever, never-ending story in a life of an anthropologist?). And as a caring friend Chipamong offered me a hand while moving my stuff from one place to another. And so I documented with my video camera this little journey where Africa meets Asia, where Rastafari meets Buddhism, where sweet memory meets present testimony, where love meets life, where there’s always doors to open and love to keep.

Of parallel realities – how the culture shock hits you in Estonia

When we were finally done with our stories about Africa we’re ready to look back and see how the African way of life melted into the Estonian way of life.

When there’s somebody talking about cultural shock, then they usually refer to the classical one – you go to a foreign country and suddenly everything’s new and weird.

They talk about the first shock you experience at the very beginning, and about the second one that hits you a few months later when you try to get to know the new culture and the deep differences between you and the culture become apparent and are difficult to get accustomed to.  But very rarely, if at all, somebody chooses to talk about the culture shock that hits you the moment you come back to your own country. Spending a weekend in some European capital can’t fully strike you. But when you decide to take a longer trip and do that with new people, when you live in a totally new world for some time, surrounded by new rules and norms, have to cope with new sense of time, new rhythms, new aromas, with a new family and a new name – then the old and familiar Estonia appears to be in your perspective. And if you go home with this new luggage then basically the same process as experienced at the beginning of the trip is restarted – things seem to be weird.

Time
The first couple of weeks, where ever I went, I managed to arrive a couple of hours late. And all of it seemed so natural to me. I’m still trying to get used to the academic quarter of an hour. Hereby I’d like to apologize before my friends, acquaintances and lecturers, because even this academic quarter of an hour is nothing when compared to the African way of life and sense of time.

Cheers!
The second shock arose from the local love for alcohol. Drinking has become a norm and we seem not to be able to count the number of cloying drinks we consume a night. So I decided to cancel my birthday party that should’ve been held right after arriving from Benin. Instead I asked a few friends over and we baked a fantastic cake. We listened to the same CD Chiaka had playd day in day out the whole night.

??
The third shock, the most fundamental of all, came from the feeling that these two worlds are incompatible. In Africa I was Fifame, which in its incredible speed developed into a separate unity, a separate personality that had something of Terje and something from South-African Frida. But the rapid identity melange changed me the most towards Fifame. Since in Benin I had been as thirsty for life like a young predator, ready to consume everything, ready to change for an experience, ready to live like a Rastafarian and honour fetishes, Fifame formed rather selfishly turning her back to Terje, forgotten in Estonia. Back in Estonia the burden from the uni laid on me with a stamp that wanted to make me a Terje again. Fifame slowly faded in me. But almost every day there was a phone call from Benin and Chiaka’s smooth voice reminded me a faded part of myself: „Fifame…Ca va, Fifame!”

But because of those phone calls it arose more colourfully than ever. Life in Benin had been like a parallel reality that cannot be compatible with the fast life here that appreciates work, rationality and success.
If you like, then in Benin you can freely speak to the spirit of your dead grandfather. No one but you sees him, but it’s real. In Estonia you’d be scoffed at. In Benin they dance nine days in a row at a voodoo ceremony. In Estonia no one would like to spend more than two hours at a concert. In Benin the basis of economy is cocaine, in Estonia it’s the risen retirement age. In Benin they smoke weed to be connected with the god. In Estonia people drink to forget everything for a moment. In Benin everyone is a brother or sister to you. In Estonia people make friend on Facebook. In Benin there’s time but no money. In Estonia time is money, but still there is neither.  In Benin they consider trance a sacred state, a climax of a voodoo session. In Estonia every state where your conscious is a bit changed it’s considered a taboo. In Benin every day the electricity disappears for hours and nobody could care less. If there’s a drift in a system in Estonia, everybody panics. Etc.

This is where the shock comes from.

Mad ride on motorbikes through the doomsday in Benin

When traveling in Africa you cannot be quite sure of anything that has to do with traveling arrangements – no wonder when the buses stop running or the road is packed with traffic. Hundreds of other things could happen. So if we had a flight back to Europe in the evening from Lagos, which is located in another country, we knew very well that we have to wake up very early in the morning to be sure we get there on time.
But we woke up still in Ouidah and we had a lot to do: dressmaking for my new djembe (time: 1 hour), buying some palm wine from the market for our friends in Estonia (time: half an hour), saying goodbye for the family (time: half an hour) and also the things that seem so natural here – the last rituals with a White Mage (time: 2 hours!). We will be flying in the evening, but we keep on looking  towards the sun with a calm Mage, saying the necessary spells in Fon language, and eating magic seeds for different matters.

 However, when we finally got on the bike we had to find our beloved rasta family in Cotonou, with whom our adventure in Benin took off just about  a month ago. But as soon as we were together again, we started enjoying the African rhythm.  And suddenly we were not that much in a hurry anymore, that we couldn’t make some music with our rastaband and chill out in their cozy home in the Cotonou underground. The family was together, which is, after all, the main thing, and our best  friends were there –  Joel, Samsun, Chaka, Christian, Abiel, Auberge. So we had our rituals of great spirit, and my new djembe got its mercy from the professional. This was supposed to make me also a professional djembe player, as soon as I get back to Estonia.

So no wonder that the time stand still. We had a flight from another country, and we still had to cross the wildest state border I have ever seen – the one of Nigeria-Benin. But we kept on enjoying our songs such as „Aujourd’hui Africa Dit NO”. The sun was hot and I had tears in my eyes, as I was feeling such a warm love for life of being right here right now with all those people I adore. Joel and Samson- “Toujour positivité”. Back then I didn’t know that it was actually the last time I see them telling it. Always positive thinking.

When reality finally started to knock on my neck and  we got back on motorbikes,  now together with a gift of Joel’s paintings, the fate started throwing sticks on our spokes. First of all, the bike smashed  mercilessly Chaka’s leg, then Christian ran into a small accident. Then it seemed that all of the Cotonou ATMs were out of order, just today. And as our giant paintings were hiding the view from the rear view mirrors, I had to work hard on myself to keep on breathing and staying calm.  Finally, we got informed  that we were hopelessly late – “Do you really think that today anyone still travels to Lagos?”
“But we  have the flight,” we could only mumble for  reply.

Gradually an idea of Benin becoming our new homeland for a while started forming under my  brain cells. There were many attractions, of course, such as pineapple, the sun, rasta family… And maybe it’s not the best idea to fly Afriqiyah Airways and via Libya.
Near-endless hassle with dozens of taxi drivers and other nosy men, however got to the point that we were able to put the paintings and the drums on the taxi, and we ourselves took the motobikes until the border of Nigeria, mentally prepared to face all kinds of bribe demands of paintings and smuggle them to Europe even if we had to give our soul for them. And it all went… great!
We had  not even a cent of money or a gram of food when we finally had crossed the border, heading towards airport. Luckily we  had traded a bottle of water and a packet of banana chips including the price of the taxi.
Farewell Benin! Farewell  brothers, Christian and Chiaka!

Christian, Rastafari, Voodooist – all in one man

“Black magic, black magic, …you have used these words so often that it invites the evil. Now there is nothing else left to do than to sacrifice a chicken to the voodoo if you want to continue living in peace,” says the white sorcerer  just after meeting the rastafaris who have told me to live in peace with nature and never kill a living animal.

The white sorcerer, of course, was invited by Chaka, to make us finally understand the differences between good and bad magic. And of course it looked like something organized by Chaka – no word or hint saying that I have been sitting next to a magician already for half an hour. Once I found out about this tiny detail and started to pay attention to the weird man, I noticed his crazy eyes, looking straight through my mind.

What exactly he had said is not within my premises to uncover. But after his hours long discussion these words stood in my notebook:

* Salt

* Bath (for protection)

* Parfume

These inner conflicts caused by the multitude of wise men’s words, were growing more and more uncomprehending. And especially difficult was to understand how can they all believe all these things and all at the same time.
To be a rastafari and a voodooist, a priest and a rastafari, a voodooist and a priest or all the three at the same time. To write on your wall “Rastaman” and “Vodoun”, smoke weed and sing freedom songs. Then enter the church and later come home for an other sacrifice and greet the people in your rasta-way. That all seems so controversial: to be a christian and a pagan, to believe that you cannot kill anyone and then to kill for sacrificing blood of chicken and dance a dance of snake while shouting: Hallelujah!
A magical perfume with salt is waiting for my decision-making on a shelf. Should I wash myself with that to keep the dark spirits away? Does black magic exist only if I believe in it? Or only if I’m in Benin? On one side it seems so silly to continue the African traditions here in Estonia, the the same time – didn’t I just ask a friend residing in Peru to sacrifice some coca leaves to do well in my thesis submission? And if the fetish really fulfills my dreams, I would feel the need to thank it, wouldn’t I? So does it mean it’s possible to believe in Pachamama in South America and in a voodoo in Benin at the same time, while giving my support also to the rastafaris? And if I take a piece of beliefs along with me from each country, it will finally grow into chaos, wouldn’t it? It seems that the Beninese voodooists-rastafaris-christians don’t seems to see a problem in this. Religious tolerance is something to be learned from here for sure. 

Sacrify a chicken! Lick the powder made of eagle head! Communicate with the voodoo spirit disguised as a pile of scrap metal! – How much can an Estonian head bear?

Magical market

We had made it clear to Chiaka a long time ago that whenever there’s a real mage near us, we’d be more than glad to meet him. Since no mage came, no mage came. We’d already get accustomed to the African way of life and sense of time that confirmed arrangements didn’t get us going. We were concentrating on here and now, forgot about the past and didn’t think about the future.

But at this random moment, when I was ready do disappear into the anonymous swirl of street markets, Berit grabbed me from my sleeve and told to sit with her – this lanky man in white, with weird dreadlocks, is the White Mage.
When the White Mage started talking, he kept on talking. It felt as if the words that came from his mouth were flowing from a space touched by the otherworld that now through his identity united with our world. Chiaka and Berit quietly crept away, because magic works the best in one-on-one communication and so the mage’s voice was the only one that in this hot morning rang in the shade of the palm tree.
The mage talked and talked. Monotonously, aptly, sometimes taking my and his breath away. Every third sentence began with: “Here, where you are now, there…” As if he saw me from a odd perspective, or studied from the distance from another space or dimension.
At first his tied sentenced composed more and more intact pictures. Finally he came to an understanding what has to be done for my well being. He wrote everything necessary into a notebook. It said:

  • A ceremony for Ogon god,
  • A ceremony for a snake (with honey),
  • A bath for mermaids,
  • Powder,
  • Talisman (to protect luck).

The White Mage
When Berit had spend her few hours listening to the White Mage’s monologues, we took our bikes and drove to the market to get the necessary products. Berit was trying to find a chicken she was supposed to sacrifice to voodoo. I, for Ogon’s satisfaction, had to find certain herbs about which Chiaka talked as if he was talking about the most elementary things. I found that weird enough, what is more, the White Mage had told me to buy an eagle’s head for making the safety powder!
We drove to the eagle head market. The mage chose a suitable head, I bought it and then the Mage was supposed to make a powder of it. I should have a taste of that powder every day.

But the main challenge was yet to come. I had to carry out a ceremony for Ogon – it’s a voodoo god, which fetish was standing in Chiaka’s garden.
Chiaka swiped old palm tree leaves from round the pile of scrap metal, which was looked as the temple of god, making the place look a bit more sanctuary. Then he mixed a number of oils and powders, which one by one had to be sprinkled on the fetish. This was supposed to be food for the fetish.
Meanwhile the White Mage threw some colas into the water bucket, which in its own language meant whether the fetish was ready to talk to you or not. If the colas are in an open position the fetish will talk to us. If not, then not. Open colas, talking fetish.
I hunkered down before the fetish and tried to sharpen my senses and pretend solemnity. And actually I didn’t want to pretend. I wanted to believe, or try to understand what does it mean to believe the fetishes, to believe voodoo, to believe the magical power of the pile of scrap metal. I tried and tried, I really tried so much, but the fetish didn’t even plan to change into something more than a pile of metal that’s covered with spicy flour blend…
Chiaka and the chicken
After the ceremony I was physically and mentally worn out. I had wished to experience something that would touch my soul, but it seems I’d tried to believe the impossible – before me there was still a lifeless pile of scrap metal, which I, in my diligent solemnity, had poured the gook, saturated with spices, and petrol on the top. The fetish showed no sign of life. A subjective experience in its realm was not experienced and the voice of the fetish faded in the sea of my fantasy full of hope.
But maybe it was me, I’d like to think. Maybe I just can’t read the communication of voodoo souls. I’ve been ruined by the noise, don’t understand the code, don’t even notice it.  Voodoo talks to me but I don’t hear it.
Possible.

In Tartu I don’t lick the powder made of the eagle head on daily basis, but the talisman given by the White Mage is always with me. It’s worth believing, just in case, because as Chiaka said, truth in Benin is always a bit hidden, a bit in the shade.

Our first discussions with a fetish

Who has understood from our first letters that voodoo is a chaos, then it is not completely that blurry – every chaos forms an order in the end.

This time the voodoo ceremony took place in Chaka’s girlfriend Charlotte’s family. To make sure that we will be back from our illegal trip to Togo on time, they gave us the schedule. This time it was a thank you celebration for one marriage and another house buying, thus the party lasted for three days. As says the list: 12pm: ritual dances, 2pm: sacrificing the goat, etc..

Needless to mention that by the time we finally arrived at the celebration according to the African time, the goat was already dead and lied breathlessly on the shoulder of a woman who was sucking its blood. A victorious shout following them.

                                                                

When it was 2pm, there started  a dance and the sounds of the drums echoed over the streets. Like said in the list, the iniciated started to fall into trance. One crawling in the sandy ground, the other one screaming, the third one taken away with her bra hanging loosely, dragged to the secret backrooms of the event. Chaka said some of them spend days in isolation, while being in trance. Again there was a chaos for my eyes but a perfectly registered event was following the list.

But this time the situations changed. If so far we were allowed to be just the observers, then now being part of Chaka’s family they gave us a permission to enter the family temple. To perceive the sacrity just a bit, we had nothing left to do than to imagine ourselves as voodooists. So there we were with Terje, kneeling down the earth all dirty and dusty and staring at the fetish.

                                                       (one mini fetish from the garden)

“Now wish something” taught Chaka.

We were both looking towards the fetish but however much we tried, all we saw was just a huge pile of stone and metal trash, flooded with colourful oils, boiled beans, powders and other unidentified stuff.

“But if you wish something from the fetish, you will have to make a sacrifice, you know that? You can promise it to bring something. This fetish loves eating..” Chaka turns to his brother: “Hey, what was it that your fetish loved?”
Brother: “Well he eats almost everything, but most of all he appreciates beans and alcohol.”

Chaka to us: “So wish for something and promise it to bring some beans, let’s say half a kilo or a kilo, or alcohol. But remember – if your wish comes true, you will have to come back here and thank the fetish.”
Chaka was dead serious and I was searching for a serious wish just to make sure that I wouldn’t have to return to Benin for some small reason. Then I continued my discussion with the pile of fetish. Once in South America it had been easy, the stones were talking to me, trees were talking to me, but for some reason the fetish in Benin was silent. I was stinging it with my thought from here and from there, trying to find some common basis of communication, but nothing. The feitish was still silent. An other 15 minutes passed before the fetish and I started to relieve our mistrust and for a second built something like a connection. Although I must admit out communication was difficult to get going, I would still return there in case the wish really became true. You never know what a fetish can do in return for ingratitude.

We finally stood up and felt as if we had done something over our powers. All this time Terje had had a serious face but now I learned that apparently her conversations were not as flawless either. But now we know at least that talking to the powers of nature is more close to the heart than chatting with a fetish.                                                                                                                   

Rasta for right

Pére Jah

Rastafarians in Benin gain power and a Rasta greeting among the young is as common as the French greeting with sharing kisses on cheeks or the Russian hand shake. But of course, everybody knows what a real Rasta should be like and acts in accordance to his beliefs, taking others as a bit unfortunate followers of the lifestyle.

Just like that, the Abomay Rasta family believed that emphasizing one’s looks and having dreadlocks don’t make you a Rasta at all. Rastafarianism is in your way of thinking and living. This is why they kept talking about the positive way of life and the ability to reach god through a plant, at the same time playing the drums.

Ouidah’ Rastas, taking Chaka as an example, expressed their belief through home graffiti, they wrote Bob Marley or Rastaman so big it covered the walls. However, the music came from a crackling CD and through the plant they got connected not only with the god but with a number of beneficial clients.

But in Benin there’s also Famille Jah, a Rasta family who declare themselves founders of a new movement and this is the reason why some other communities are disturbed: what gives them the right to believe that they are the utmost Rastas of all?

Having a discussion over it, Chaka answered as usually: Why do you ask from me, I’ll take you to them. And once again we were standing behind a new door, a dictophone in our hands, ready to ask some questions.

Jah-family repatriated from Guadelupe to Benin about ten years ago and started living here in the spirit of Panafricanism and spreading their beliefs.

By now they’ve built their own living quarters and a school by the lake, natural economy is what they rely on. Virtually everything they have on the table is from their vast gardens where in the plant avenues there are signs depicting names that are historically important for the Rastas, the flowers combine a map of Africa. “Madagascar included,” Father Jah specifies.

Father Jah asks us to repeat: Africa sans frontieres and explains how Africa should be a unified state. Africa is the birthplace of people and it should be kept and loved as a whole. Although the Bible talks about the Garden of Eden, we all know that it’s Africa it’s really talking about. Why should we have the frontiers that bring anger and wars if we could share the opportunities and produce what Africa has to offer?

Why should we export to Europe if all African states should cooperate? The god has given the humankind agriculture and real Rastafarians should aim for it again. This is the sacred mission of Rastas.

Father and Mother Jah are presumably in their seventies already, and when looking at them one can see they haven’t had their hair cut for ages. Because when people were born there were no hairdressers in the world, there were no cut hairdos and not even scissors. Valuing the natural way of life they see no point in limiting their looks.

Being close to nature is the key phrase they sing to their children and what they pass on in their school. Agricultural works and learning handicraft occupies most of the time the children have, they can even make a coffee pot out of a tree from their back yard.

We listen to Father Jah and take a bite of soya cake and a sip of soya milk.

„You don’t eat meat, do you?“ he asks just in case. „Nobody has a right to kill an animal,” he stresses while pointing his finger. This sentence starts echoing in my ears a few days later when we meet the White Mage.