The Case for Ceremonies and Rituals
Recently, I've developed an obsession with African ceremonies and rituals, triggered by Instagram and furthered by internet "research" (i.e., Googling for hours in a trance while real life goes on somewhere else.) What strikes me is how much these practices bring communities together and strengthen bonds between families and within families.
First, I was drawn to the pageantry; who doesn't love costumes and processions? But beneath all the glorious imagery, important social and spiritual needs are being addressed. Needs that we first-world countries are increasingly ignoring or denying.
Abissa is a tradition of the N’zuma people of Southeastern Côte d’Ivoire and Southwestern Ghana. The 14-day festival is a time of forgiveness and rebirth, a time to let go of grudges while celebrating through dance, clothing, music and spirituality. During an accusation-repentance ritual, people are expected to ‘come clean’ as they take stock of the past year.
To kick off Abissa, a parade starts with a group of drummers who lead a path to the center of the village. There, people dance around the drums, decorating their faces with clay. Cross-dressing is a common sight at the festival, with people often adopting the identities of those who have wronged them during the year.
Everyone is open to some form of criticism through visual display, even the village elders, and all are expected to let go of these grudges for the oncoming year. Abissa is also an opportunity for families to demonstrate their power or their belonging to a symbol (such as water, fire, yams and eggplants). To dance the Abissa, whatever your social standing, you can wear anything except luxurious clothing. Amen to that!
Sierra Leonean photographer Ngadi Smart documented the festival in 2017 and her photos led me to discover other festivals, like the Homowo Festival in Ghana, where celebrants literally "hoot at hunger" in remembrance of a precolonial famine. First, there is a month of silence, with a strict ban on noise and fishing. Then, a series of events take place, including a parade of twins and a boat-race between traditional warriors.
Like Abissa, Homowo is also a time for reconciliation across families. Family issues are discussed across households and disputes are settled. Libation is poured to the spirits and ancestors, and hunger is laughed at and ridiculed.
I could go on and on about other traditions and rituals but you get the idea. While these practices seem primitive, we have little in modern life to compare with their power to strengthen bonds and heal the soul. Now when families fight, they move away and stop talking to each other. When people feel wronged, they file lawsuits. When loved ones die, we can't wait to cremate them and get it over with.
Death is especially difficult for Westerners to process, in the absence of rituals for mourning or for maintaining a connection to the dead. In Japan, the annual Obon festival marks the return of deceased ancestors to Earth. The three-day celebration begins with the lighting of fires and lanterns to guide spirits home. Most families erect two altars of fruit, incense, and flowers—one for their own ancestors, and a second for any spirits who have not attained peace.
Catholics and Jews still have rituals for attaining adulthood, but for secular society there is no way to mark this rite of passage. Even wedding rituals are truncated compared with India, where rituals begin fifteen days before the wedding. Do Americans still throw rice at the newly married couple? I remember throwing dry pasta at my sister and her husband, because I forgot to buy rice. At least I tried to honor a ritual, even as a grumpy teenager!
I wish there were ceremonies and rituals for divorce, for menopause, for when your kid goes off to college, for your first orgasm and your first broken heart. What about your first tattoo or your first STD? What about buying your first house or learning to drive?
Thinking about Abissa, I've been wondering what costume I could wear to reflect some person who has wronged me in 2018. There's the saleslady who suggested I get a facelift. She wore something shapeless and black. There's the pair of huge women who wouldn't get out of my way at a jewelry counter, one of whom turned and snarled, "Can't you wait?" They wore stretch pants and French manicures. The possibilities are endless, and the year isn't even over.