Over the next few days, I am going to provide a little food for thought about the loss of cultural identity that has profoundly impacted Africans across the Diaspora. Remember that the descendants of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that live off of the Continent, are perhaps the only collective in the world that does not know their origin. We are African, but Africa is a continent of fifty-four countries with thousands of different cultures and dialects. Today’s micro-discussion is on religion.
My people are from Benin Republic, formerly known as the Kingdom of Dahomey. Despite Benin being a virtually unknown country, with a total population similar to that of Pennsylvania, it was a major factor during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Our traditional historians, known as Griots, told me that about 60% of Africans throughout the Diaspora have ancestors that traveled through the slave port in the Village of Ouidah, Benin Republic en route to the New World.
During the Slave Trade and subsequent colonization, Europeans brought Christianity to the region. They began to indoctrinate our people with their Christian beliefs and images of a blonde-haired, blue eyed god. Around the same time, North Africans were spreading the word of Islam and encouraging black Africans to join the religion. Essentially, we had two choices; either we accepted a god from people that enslaved us and thought us to be less than them. Or we accepted Islam and the prophets that promoted equality for all believers in the the eyes of Allah. According to Dahomean Traditional Rulers, this is how Christianity and Islam spread throughout in West Africa.
We gained our independence from France in 1960. 1975 brought the change of our name from the Kindom of Dahomey to Benin Republic. In 1992, it finally became legal to practice our traditional animist religion again. Until that time, our medicine women & men/shaman/babalawo/priest, used interchangeably, were forced to practice underground. It was a very difficult time because unlike in dominant culture, it is impossible to truly separate religion and culture. It is one and of the same. There are many Christians that faithfully go to church every Sunday, but when someone is ill, they seek the healing of our shaman; two very opposing concepts. In many parts of southern Benin, the Caribbean and North America, our religion was practiced under the cloak of Catholicism. If you travel north in Benin, you will see traditional rituals being performed by people dressed like Muslims. This has caused a bastardisation of the religion and a lot of confusion. We have lost a significant component of our culture.
If you are Christian, try to imagine not being able to worship in your church home. As a Catholic, think about the inability to receive communion. For our Jewish friends, visualize no access to the synagogue. Muslim brothers and sisters, envision being forbidden to pray five times a day and visit the Mosque. So much of our identity and resilience lays at the feet of our spirituality. Just food for thought….
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