I still find it hard to believe that it's already September, so many events have taken place this year that I haven't seen the month of August spinning before my eyes.
Why August? Because in August I try to reproduce at home a ritual that is quite special to Benin. There, August is the month of energetic cleansing. It is the month where a small yet important festival happens, the festival of the wind aka "Yêkè-Yêkè". it's a ritual practice of the Lawson family, during which some women of community who are crowned with and dressed in medicinal plants parade through Cotonou (the economic capital) while singing and reciting incantations. It is said that they chase away the wind.
I remember when I was little that their passage was a show for me, it was a parade in a small group, which could go unnoticed, but nevertheless attracted attention. And like all children, I was extremely afraid of them, but my mother explained to me when I was growing up that it is a ritual that is done to ward off bad spells and prevent the little illnesses linked to the change of season from spreading too much. Because over there, August, September and October are months with cold and rainy weather, and where many people get sick quite naturally. They therefore take advantage of the high winds of this season to chase diseases out of the country's borders.
At home, the cleaning ritual was also very important. My parents cleaned when a child was sick, when my father was leaving or returning from his business trips, after a guest had left, after bad news etc... all reasons were good to clean, in order to bring back a better energy in our living place.
It is a practice that I have kept with me, so you can imagine what place it has taken in my life this year with the presence of COVID-19, the rise of social justice movements, and the collective mourning that the black community is going through. My ritual today looks like a mix of intuitive gestures as well as the use of tools collected from around the world that are:
Sage smudge, Tibetan bools, Crystals, Essential oils etc...
But the truth is that all these tools are not native to Africa and so this time I was interested in what my parents and my ancestors used in their cleansing rituals, what are the beliefs, gestures, cleansing rituals that are specific to African ancestral philosophy? (this is only a small non-exhaustive list and there are certainly thousands of such rituals, given the size and density and the ethnic and cultural richness of Africa).
The traditional broom
Made of natural fibres, the traditional broom is found in many cultures. It is called "the master of the house" in African homes. Its function is to make things clean, to sweep away everything that is undesirable and harmful and that is why it is part of the tradition and of many rituals.
For a cleansing ceremony, our ancestors would hold the broom in their hands and sweep the air with it, from right to left, while moving in an anti-clockwise spiral around the room. This movement in space is thought to help break down negative energy.
Important: The broom used in the cleansing ritual is only dedicated for this purpose and shouldn't be used to sweep the floor with.
In the Otamari ethnic group, a community found mainly in northern Benin, there was a belief that the ashes recovered after wood or charcoal had been burned were believed to have protective powers against seasonal, highly contagious diseases, or epidemics. When this was the case, they mixed water with ashes and obtained a pasty liquid that was used to paint the facades of houses with, in order to protect themselves from contagious diseases.
Salt and water
Water and salt are two elements without which we cannot live. Being purifying and soothing, water has been the primary cleaning tool since the dawn of time. No ritual is performed in Africa without the presence of water. Coupled with salt, they form a powerful energetic duo and therefore perfect for a purification ritual.
The simple fact of having a permanent water spot in the house is more than enough to clean the space, or else keeping the water in a bowl, an open gourd and leaving it in a corner of the space to be cleaned is already good enough. The water is poured on the floor, accompanied by prayers to evoke the protection and presence of our ancestors with us.
In the same way, the salt is put in one of the bowls, or wrapped in bits of cloth and placed in the four corners of the space to be cleaned. Salt, like water, helps to absorb the negative energy of a place and a body and brings a feeling of peace and tranquillity.
Lemongrass is a tropical herb which grows very easily in Africa. It has been used in cooking and as an herbal remedy for thousands of years in Asia and Africa. It has an amazing energizing scent which is refreshing and encourages clarity and focus. It is known for its purifying, cleansing character, and is thought to foster openness. It is sometimes used to promote clear, open communication.
Our ancestors would use it to prepare a bath, drink it as a tee and also burnt it in the space they intend to purify, to repel any negativity from entering the home.
Burning gums and resins
Gums and resins are natural substances that exude from trees as a response to injury, and collected by tapping, picking, or cutting the tree. The hardened sap is generally referred to as gum or resin. They utilization can be traced back to ancient Egypt where graves have been discovered to contain traces of fragrant resins such as frankincense and myrrh, the two most known African resin & gum. It is widely believed that Egyptians would have used incense to hinder the presence of demons and likewise as an offering to their gods during worship and ritual. Within their houses, ancient peoples burned resins and gums in a brazier or censer that released pleasantly scenting smoke. It wafted upwards, carrying the prayers and messages of men and women to the gods.
Frankincense, and Myrrh the most sacred of gums and resins, were used for blessings, protection, purification, purification and consecration rites and to ward off evil and negativity in the environment. The mystics of old held that vibrations emanating from an incense burner produce first a physical effect, then a mental effect, and finally a spiritual effect, the last being the true purpose of incense burning.
Offering meals, sharing and humility
"When there is enough for one, there is always enough for two" is the African mantra for generosity and above all sharing a meal with others.
Our elders carry within them the belief that offering the meal to others, generosity and humility in serving others in general, is an effective way to receive the blessing of others. Whoever receives is filled with positive energies and vibrations that automatically reflect on us and on the places where the meal is shared. To give is to receive in abundance.
Incantations and chants
Incantations and chants are given force by oral tradition, a practice whereby the social, political, economic and cultural heritage of the people is communicated by word of mouth from one generation to another. It was the most predominant part of communication in many parts of Africa. Prior to colonialism, the African society used oral tradition as a veritable tool in information gathering, sharing/dissemination and indeed worship. Incantations and chants are ubiquitous around African rituals and are powerful way to invoke ancestors and to praise a higher force. They are carefully used and only recited by the elders and the initiated, for instance while watering the soil, sweeping with the traditional broom, bathing, burning gums and resins etc…. in any process of cleansing ritual.
African spirituality and philosophy are based on culture, which is linked to how people live their lifes. The philosophy which focuses mostly on the African knowledge and wisdom, and spirituality which focuses on keeping the world in harmony. It is the core of being African, and focuses on thewell-being of the community.
According to Mbiti (1991), « African spirituality and philosophy have shaped African’s cultural, social, political lives and economic activities. It is from this understanding, knowledge, and wisdom that Africans are in a relationship which is called communalism, in a relationship with the environment hence calling the earth Mother Earth, in a relationship with their ancestors who are seen as providers of safety and can be called in times of calamity. In order to live in harmony or in a mutual relationship, Africans believe that your philosophy and spirituality should be tuned to that condition. »