Africanist Anthropology Has a Lot to Offer

I knelt on the stiff prayer mat in silence. The keeper of this shrine in southern Togo asked me to lead prayers and propitiations to the tron (spirits) that morning. I had never before been expected to make formal, public praise to the spirits. I felt unsure and self-conscious. “But I’m Catholic,” I said, lamely attempting to withdraw. “So am I,” he replied with a look of amusement. Teteh, the shrine-keeper, was a regionally respected healer and sofoga (high priest) of Gorovodu. An ageing, gregarious, and eclectic individual, he reached into his pocket and produced his confirmation card. It displayed a faded picture of the archangel Michael. “Michael is God’s soldier, and here, Bangede is the warrior of the tron. They are the same and I serve both.” He did not mean they were literally the same entity, but rather that they had the same purpose and possessed similar potencies that he could draw upon as a healer and spiritual leader. I stared at the small oven-like compartment of Kunde, husband and father of the tron and the keeper of the law. He was to be saluted first, followed by the five members of his divine kin-group. The shrine-keeper’s eldest son, Koffa, sensed my nervousness. “You said you wanted to learn, so learn,” he said, slapping me on the shoulder and laughing. He was correct. They were doing me the favor of allowing me to lead the morning ritual, and so I squared myself in front of Kunde and did my best to imitate the cadence of general supplications that I had watched and recorded for weeks.

My purpose in this predominantly Ewe ethnic community was to conduct shrine ethnography on Gorovodu. Gorovodu is a pantheon of spirits and ritual complex widely practiced in southern Togo and Ghana. It is frequently referred to in scholarship as the “Islamic Vodún,” meaning it is a ritual complex embedded with symbols and practices that are intentional appropriations of Islam. Spreading to the coast from the northern territories of Ghana and Togo in the early twentieth century, the Gorovodu spirits served as witch-finders during the high tide of colonialism, before developing into a powerful healing order. It is not a centralized religion and no one shrine dominates over others. Instead, shrines represent an archipelago of religious centers whose relationships are based on the life histories and various expressions of agency of the founders and contemporary keepers. They link together ritual networks that extend regionally and globally, where they anchor moral points of reference and cultural points of memory. Each shrine has a unique history and spiritual significance that evolves through environmental transformation, technological innovation, cultural contact, and political change. Increasingly, shrines and their ritual constituencies act as the base for founding nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to represent the congregation and community to the government and development agencies. It was this regional trend and its relationship to my research program that led me to Teteh.

A sofo (priest of Gorovodu) leads the author in propitiating the spirits. Eric Montgomery.

A later foray into ethnographic fieldwork came when I accompanied my graduate school mentor to his field site in Abomey, Benin, a country known in contemporary tourist literature as the “cradle of Vodún.” I developed an intense interest in ritual potency, the ability of religion to empower people through individual engagement with spirituality. Pursuing this interest was put on hold during my PhD research in southwest Haiti in 2006 and 2007. My research there focused on the anthropology of development and its offspring, critical NGO studies. Working with asosyasyon peyizan (peasant associations), I sought to understand the issues relevant to local farmers and the social solutions they engineered to solve them. As part of this research, I worked with groups to draw the attention of gwo ONG, large NGOs from the United States and Europe, to local communities in order to attract development funding and other resources such transnational institutions commanded. Unlike the community in southern Togo, here it was made quite explicit that, as far as my published research was concerned, Vodou was to remain a “hidden transcript.” People wanted no part in another outsider coming and exoticizing their beliefs. When I first sat down with the president of a well-respected asosyasyon in his courtyard to introduce myself, I felt the same trepidation as I did sitting in Teteh’s shrine, staring at Kunde. How should I begin? For what should I ask? And what will be asked of me in return?

As Teteh always said about prayer and offering to the spirits, “You never go to your mother and father empty handed to ask for something.”
In Haiti and West Africa, while studying development and religion, I found that participation sought and found me rather than me seeking to participate. My friends and research participants frequently put my research goals to work in ways that made them complimentary to those of the community.

As I assume the contributing editor position for the Association for Africanist Anthropology (AfAA), I reflect upon these experiences. The AfAA is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary and both the United States and Africa are undergoing environmental transformation, technological innovation, and political change. These times offer challenges and opportunities. We must seize these opportunities so our association will remain perpetually engaged, collaborative, and intentionally dynamic.

I look forward to collaborating with our membership to create monthly columns that are forward thinking yet reflective; columns that challenge us. They may focus upon current research, debates, and/or innovations in methods, pedagogy, or theory as they relate to Africanist anthropology. They may be biographical, overviews of oneself and one’s work, or topics that members feel need to be brought to the fore and shared with the AfAA and wider AAA community. Questions to explore in this year’s columns include the following: How do we represent and teach “Africa” in our current era of discourses ranging from “shithole countries” to Afrofuturistic conceptions seen in Black Panther? What can Africanists bring to scholarship and public forums outside of “Africa”? How can Africanists engage art, music, literature, and other humanities in Africa and the African diaspora? Finally, where can we meet, join, and collaborate with our social science counterparts in Africa itself? In many ways these questions are being answered. I want to draw upon the strengths of our members to generate an Anthropology News column that pushes our boundaries and takes us into the next twenty-five years. If you have a column in mind or want to share your own story, please email me at [email protected].

Christian N. Vannier holds a joint lecturer position in the departments of Africana studies and sociology, anthropology, and criminal justice at the University of Michigan, Flint. He is the co-author of An Ethnography of a Vodu Shrine in Southern Togo and co-editor of Cultures of Doing Good: Anthropologists and NGOs.

Cite as: Vannier, Christian. 2018. “Africanist Anthropology Has a Lot to Offer.” Anthropology News website, June 11, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.882

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