THE EXPLORER'S JOURNAL

Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa

 

(Bantam 1994) by Chester Higgins Jr.

 

I feel like I've been exploring Africa all my life. I was in junior high school when I first came across a photograph of an ancient Kemetian statue in my parents' encyclopedia. On those pages I discovered people who looked like me, and I knew then that Africa offered a reality far different from the one I was living.

My experience up to that point had been with African Americans in my segregated hometown in rural Alabama where I was deeply involved in the spiritual life of the community, taking my place as a child minister every Sunday on the pulpit of my Southern Baptist Church. My discovery of Kemet expanded my spiritual horizons and sparked a lifelong curiosity. I made my first trip to Africa in 1971 when I was 24, and have been going back ever since.

For the past decades I have been happily exploring the rich spiritual vocabulary of African cultures. As I became acquainted with some of the many religions in Africa, I first found them different and divergent, one from another. For me the only unifying factor was the deep belief in the power of the spirit that grips all of

Africa. But as I read, studied and struggled, gaining more and more intimacy with the people and their ceremonies, the differences fell away and I began to see a continuity, a similarity in African spiritual thought and beliefs. Over nearly three decades of taking photographs of ceremonies and practices, I recognized gestures and stances even some expressions on the faces of modern-day practitioners that seemed to mimic those of ancient worshippers depicted in statues and on the walls of Kemetian tombs and temples.

In my academic research on African spirituality, I came across French anthropologist Marcel Griaule and his writings on the Dogon in Mali. From him I learned that the Dogon people had ancient knowledge of the star Sirius and its companion star, centuries before the twin was visually documented with modern telescopes in 1862. The fact that the ancient Kemetians had the same astrological knowledge strengthened my interest in this ancient West African culture. Could there be further evidence of a link between the two belief systems? In 1993, I went to immerse myself in the Dogon desert culture searching for any living visual signatures within their ceremonies that might have retained semblance to ancient Kemetian theology. My documentation of these ceremonies became an integral part of the chapter on spirituality in my book, Feeling the Spirit: Searching the World for the People of Africa (Bantam 1994).

Illustrations/Photo captions

Mali, 1993. Dogon elders perform this ceremonial Kanaga procession. These men dressed as woodcutters represent some of the figures of the Dogon creation myth and show the Dogon cosmology in which the world oscillates between chaos and order. These ceremonies are aimed at maintaining balance.

Senegal, 1993. These women are using plants in a ceremony the Ndeup healing practice in Rusfisque, on the coast of Senegal.

Yoff, Senegal, 1973. Shoes are removed before entering traditional African homes.

Mali, 1993. The Grand Mosque of Djenné was first built in the thirteenth century, destroyed by French troops in the eighteenth century, and then rebuilt as an exact replica in 1904.

Agadez, Niger, 1974, I came upon this woman offering her noon prayers inside the courtyard of her family compound.

Ireli, Mali, 1993, Adobe cliff-dwelling structures of the Dogon people who migrated to Mali around the fourteenth century, replacing the Tellum people.

 
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