JUST AS there is not one Africa, there is not one god system. The multifarious ethnic groupings spread across this vast continent - a disparity of vital importance to the African psyche - all maintain an equally complex and individual infrastructure of gods, deities and natural forces to be communed with, honoured and feared. Alongside these age old beliefs there are converts to both Christianity and the Muslim faiths, all of which gives some slight insight into the sectarian isolation and appalling treatment some factions seem able to dish out to the others without remorse.
The most powerful traditional religion is Vodun - an intricate (and flexible) system that integrates the living, the dead, ancestors and deities, and the supreme being: Mawu. Women are at the heart of this society and seen as manifestations of the force of nature. But unlike Christianity, Vodun can be adapted to suit any African situation and is therefore most harmonious with the pragmatic African character.
The powers of the various belief systems are imbued in both men and women alike. In sub Saharan Africa, society is distinctly matriarchal and women are both powerful and to be feared. Across Africa, accusations of witchcraft are widespread and many women are murdered or victimised based on nothing more than falsehoods and anonymous rumour.
Children are equally subject to superstition and taboos. There are thousands of children loose on the streets of Kinshasa in the Congo, accused of witchcraft and being 'possessed'. The locals are terrified of them and they have been known to be horribly mistreated by 'exorcists' who believe the child must suffer to be returned to god. The birth of twins is equally subject to mixed reaction (oddly, whilst the world average is one in 80 twin births, in Africa it is one in 20). It has been known for one twin to be put to death but this was countermanded by a powerful deity (the Fa oracle) and today twins are usually left alone. In the Vodun religion and throughout the Gulf of Guinea, twin birth is seen as a blessing, They are worshipped across the Gulf of Benin. The Yoruba celebrate the 'one in two' babies regarding the individual to have been born twice (ibeji) with one physical father and one spiritual. But whether welcomed or shunned, most Africans regard twins to have supernatural powers.
In a country where everything, from having your house struck by lightening to being ill or having other misfortune, is a result of supernatural interference, the 'gatekeepers' between this world and the deities wield real power. And it is ironic that in a crime ridden country, most of these magical, mysterious religions have severe penalties for lying, thieving and anti-social behaviour.
To Western eyes some aspects of the tribal rites can appear comical, notably the accent on wealth, which equates directly to power in the African eye. Goods and chattels from foreign sources are historically much prized by the practitioners of Vodun and the other mystical religions. Some highly serious ceremonies are strewn with brightly coloured plastic toys and cheap novelties that strike a discordant note amidst the ritual clothing and traditional carved effigies otherwise present. But this, in a way, just goes to illustrate how anything can achieve a symbolic power if so directed by the priest or priestess. Even though a disbeliever, Daniel Lainé himself went through a 'welcome and safety' ritual in Togo before he began his African tour, and records that he definitely underwent some spiritual change at the hands of a Mami Wata priestess.
This is a fabulous documentary about an Africa that stands at the crossroads of tradition and the modern world. Daniel Lainé has taken some outstanding images under what must have been far from easy conditions as a white man amidst private and secret black African ceremonies. These are accompanied by fascinating and informative annotations. A superb production from Flammarion does full justice to a tremendous and original project.