„Belief in spirits is an absolutely essential prelude to a religion, and is the first stage of its development” – Edward Burnett Tylor
Spirits, magic, spells and curses – all of these words conjure up images of religious and ritual customs, bloody ceremonies and various potions. Ceremonies connected with death and re-birth, honouring different gods, animals and objects. Deciphering and transmitting news from gods and ancestors.
To meet and photograph the indigenous inhabitants who practice Animism, the oldest and most primordial form of religious belief, has long since been my main reason for travelling to Africa. To immortalise in my camera’s digital memory the people I met, trying in this way to make their existence last. To save from obscurity their religious practices and beliefs, which for many centuries have had “truth” imposed on them by Christian inquisitors, Islamic invaders and, recently, over-zealous missionaries. To meet the natives, who have lived until quite recently in complete isolation and now due to an increasing influx of tourists are slowly losing their traditional skills and knowledge. Their naturalness and primitiveness. Their culture and tradition.
The heat of the desert, the ruggedness of the mountains, the humidity of equatorial forests. River crossings, steep cliffs, storms, heat waves and tropical rains. Roads that are roads by name only. 45 thousand km around Africa. 6 months, and much less time spent on preparations. The vehicle, equipment and me, personally. Reading reports from travellers, studying literature and maps. Searching for exceptional places, interesting cultures, wild tribes. But Africa isn’t just a beautiful content, in many places it’s still uncharted, often dangerous. There are unstable countries and regions. Places of bloody wars, armed conflicts, terrorist attacks, kidnappings for ransom and regular bandit attacks. We couldn’t avoid all of this. The night-time ambush in Nigeria, the violent explosions in the Congo, riots in Sudan are just a few examples. Was it really worth taking such a risk just to take pictures of the inhabitants of “the Dark Continent”?
And all out of curiosity about Africa. Particularly the people living in the wild there. What’s so interesting about them? The continent they share? Their origins? Maybe the colour of their skin? What connects all of them?
The religion they follow. Animism is the thread that links all the
people I met and photographed.
“Animism (lat. animus,–anima – spirit) – a form and characteristic of religious beliefs based on the idea that all objects in the universe (cosmos) possess an invisible and immaterial spiritual substance that gives them life and guides them (spirit or soul). Animate objects in nature are also imbued with this substance (e.g. people, all species of animals and plants) as well as inanimate objects in nature (e.g. constellations, planets, mountains, lakes, rivers); all physical—natural phenomena (e.g. rain, thunder, lighting).” Z. Drozdowicz (ed.), Zarys encyklopedyczny religii, Poznań 1992.
Mauretania – The Sahara
Our first obstacle to overcome. And our first real challenge, test of the vehicle and our own courage. We’re in the Sahara. We’re heading towards Guelb er Richat, also known as the Eye of Africa or of the Sahara, a rock formation with an unusual shape which until recently was believed to have been caused by a meteor strike. The Eye of the Sahara is one of the few geological formations that are more visible from space than on earth. Indeed, it was discovered during one of the space missions at the beginning of the 1960s. Currently scientists believe that this formation was not the result of a meteor strike, but is an un-erupted volcano. It’s on the terrain of Guelb er Richat that we first get lost. Maybe not completely lost, since we have GPS we can always go back the way we came. We just can’t find the way to the next oasis. But thanks to this, we have the chance to spend our first night in the Sahara in the company of some friendly Bedouins.
In Senegal it’s much more pleasant, friendlier and safer. Heavenly views, lots of tourists, safety.
Mali – The Descendents of Visitors from Sirius
Glowing with hundreds of shades of orange, the Malian Bandigara Escarpment has been the home of the Dogons for hundreds of years. These are a people with an amazing culture who believe that long ago they were visited by a creature from Sirius. Whose exceptional knowledge of the cosmos is proven by their detailed knowledge of stars whose existence no one in those times, not even astronomers, had discovered.
Driving up to the foot of the escarpment that stretches along 150 km, every so often we pass extraordinary collections of tiny mud houses. Above them loom the vertical cliffs, several hundred metres high, and in them dozens of small, dug-out caves that you can only get into by climbing down a line lowered from the top of the cliff. We drive up to one of the villages where we’re immediately surrounded by a crowd of curious children. Shouting to each other they accompany us on our climb to the top of the cliff. At the top, the vertical wall of the cliff and mud constructions stuck to it appear before our eyes. Over 600 years old, they remember the times of the first Dogon settlers. From one of these, the oldest resident of the village emerges, a man over 100 years old. Hunched over, supporting himself on the vertical wall, he carefully shuffles towards us. The ideal moment for a photo session.
We make our way back to the bottom of the cliff after sunset. In complete silence and accompanied by a million stars lighting the way. It’s too late to travel further, so we put up our tents a few hundred metres from the escarpment and its extraordinary inhabitants. But we still feel their presence, seeing the smouldering glow of their fires in the distance that go out just as quickly as they’re lit. Time to sleep.
Since we’re visiting the Dogons, we couldn’t miss visiting the nearby village of Djenne and the Great Mosque there. It’s the largest holy building made of mud in the world.
Togo. Builders of Miniature Palaces.
According to our guide, 25% of the population is Catholic, 15% is Muslim and 10% Protestant, but as many as 50% of the population of Togo are followers of Animism. A cult of animals, plants and objects. Fetishes and amulets can be bought in every larger town. Welcome to the land of the Batammariba. Their traditions and beliefs. Their extraordinary coexistence with the surrounding nature, with which they live in perfect harmony. The Batammariba believe that every thing has a soul, every tree, spring, rock has its place in time and space. Close to every village, the Batammariba have their holy forests, trees or springs where they cultivate their traditional religious customs and initiations. We’re not allowed to go there.
But we can go to the equally extraordinary houses called takienta. Famous for their unique architecture, their small fortified castles that from a distance look like their walled French equivalents. Some of them date back to the seventeenth century when the slaves of the King of Dahomey escaped from slavery and built them to protect themselves. Without any tools, only from mud with straw to hold them together. As a result, every rainy season, every intense downpour demands renovation works without which every takienta would quickly turn into a shapeless mixture of sand and straw.
Every structure consists of several little towers connected by a high wall and a small entrance leading to the centre. Inside, there are two storeys separated by a wooden landing – in the upper part there is the kitchen and the rooms where the inhabitants spend most of their time. The bottom part serves as an enclosure for animals, while the cone-shaped towers are used to store grain. The construction of these houses that look like little fortresses once had the task of holding off attacks by enemies who, once they got inside, would fall into a lethal trap, attacked with a hale of shots from the upper part of the fortress.
In front of the door of each takienta, you can’t help but notice several mud mounds of various sizes – these are altars. Covered in red and white stains and feathers, the traces of bloody rituals and sacrifices, they symbolise the honoured gods and the spirits of ancestors, the former inhabitants of the takienta. These ensure the inhabitants’ happiness, good health and protection against various dangers. Each of these unusually picturesque little castles is an excellent background for a photo session with their extraordinary inhabitants.