Voodoo – Brothers seek respect for African spiritual practice
HAVANA, Cuba — Two weeks ago in a cool, tiled room in Havana, Cuba, Sena Voncujovi handed me a chicken. As instructed, I held it from behind, thumb and forefinger slipped under its wings. I thanked it, whispered my struggles into its left ear and my wishes into its right one, before passing it back to Sena, who calmly pressed a knife to its throat and offered its life to Eleguá, the spirit guardian of the crossroads. A moment later, his younger brother Pele snapped a photo for Instagram.
Sena and Pele Voncujovi are not typical political science students at Middlebury College, though they are that, too. The brothers practice an ancient yet ever-evolving form of spirituality commonly referred to as voodoo. Yes, voodoo — the “dark art” that Hollywood movies portray with shrunken heads, pins and dolls.
However, according to the Voncujovis, the reality of this form of African spirituality might be very different from what you think.
The brothers, raised in West Africa, have been practicing voodoo for years. While Pele is still only a practitioner, Sena made the decision to become a fully-fledged babalawo, or voodoo priest, four years ago. While they don’t sacrifice animals here in Vermont, the two are currently working to raise awareness about their tradition and demonstrate to people at home and abroad how it can be compatible with a modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle.
To prepare for their presentation this Saturday at the college’s Amka Conference — an event dedicated to “awakening the Middlebury community’s attention regarding issues relevant to Africa” — the two recently led a trip to Cuba to explore the connections between West African voodoo and Cuban santería. As part of their effort to broadcast more accurate information about voodoo to outsiders, they brought along a handful of students, including myself, to join them.
The word “voodoo” or “vodu” — as it is more properly spelled — originated with the Fon and Ewe peoples of Benin and southwestern Nigeria and directly translates to the English word, “spirit.” The term refers not to a religion in a Western, monotheistic sense— which can be separated from other aspects of one’s everyday life — but to a holistic worldview, Sena said.
Although the highly complex spiritual system takes a lifetime to master, it contains a few fundamentals that are more easily explained.
At the core of vodu, there is a physical world and a spiritual world that are interconnected, Sena said. “Everything that has a material surface has a spiritual surface.”
Not too dissimilar from the ancient Greek pantheon of gods, goddesses and deities, vodu is polytheistic and recognizes a large number of distinct vodus, spirits or orishas — each with its own name, history, personality and function. However, unlike the Greek gods who were feared and appeased, spirits within the vodu spiritual system can be controlled and employed to solve problems if one possess the proper knowledge.
“All of these orishas, in many ways, you can say that they’re independent of us but in other ways, you can say that they’re inherent to our consciousness and that we just acknowledge them and do rituals for them, so that, they in turn, can help us,” Sena said. “The practice of controlling and manipulating spirits to use in your daily life is what we call vodu.
“Back home, the practice … is not a religion. It’s more like a way of life.”
Mawu Ese is the female spirit who is regarded to be the creator of humankind and the God of Destiny. Within vodu, each person’s destiny is considered to be pre-determined but re-writeable through the tools of divination and sacrifice, he said.
Sometimes, a divination session will call for the blood sacrifice of an animal. In these situations, it is believed that the atse — an energy understood to permeate the universe — of the animal is transferred to a specific vodu or spirit. Ritual sacrifice requires humane slaughtering techniques as unhappy animals make for poor offerings, said Sena.
“Although the (practice) has been stigmatized, it is functionally identical to mainstream ritual sacrifice such as Kosher or Halal,” he said.
Once the sacrifice is complete, the meat is usually eaten, he added.
Although sacrifice is a major dimension of the practice, the term can apply to many things other than sacrificing an animal. From giving up certain foods or dear habits to offering old clothing, the ritual of sacrifice is considered to be essential for evolution and personal development, said Sena. “If you want to gain something, you have to give something.”
In my case, I sat down for a divination session with a very experienced and highly regarded babalawo in Havana. The results of that session required me to work with a babalawo to offer a white hen to Eleguá in order to ensure that he continue to guide me down the best possible path during this chapter of my life. In Cuba, where many people practice santería, it was easy to find a chicken for this purpose and other necessary materials.
In Middlebury, on the other hand, it can be much more challenging, said Sena. Living on campus and not having access to a car make it difficult to find and keep livestock. So, while they’re here, he and Pele refrain from performing animal sacrifices, he explained.
However, when situations arise that do call for a blood sacrifice, they’ve developed a few work-around strategies.
In his dorm room, Sena keeps a small bottle of cow blood blended with moonshine as a preservative and a container of corn powder mixed with chicken blood, which can be used as stand-ins. Lacking actual blood, Sena said a combination of palm oil and corn powder is an acceptable, temporary replacement. In moments when a real animal sacrifice is non-negotiable, the brothers send a Facebook message to their father in Ghana to perform the ceremony on their behalf.
“There has never been a country I have thought about more before visiting than Cuba,” said Sena, explaining that the spiritual and historical connection between vodu and santería has long held his and his brother’s interest.
Santería evolved from the spiritual practices of the West African slaves who were brought to the Americas. To avoid the persecution of Spanish colonists, the slaves began using the names and images of Catholic saints to represent various orishas, an adaptation that has allowed the spiritual practice to survive and flourish through present day.
Despite the way santería has changed over the last 500 years, both the brothers were struck with how many elements were still so similar to their practices in Ghana. “There is this stereotype that African culture is static, that it’s not dynamic but when you go to Cuba, you can see that it’s been extremely dynamic,” Sena said. “It’s changed its whole language but it’s been able to maintain its African gist.”
Pele noted that one of the highlights of their experience in Cuba was sharing photos and videos of their
ceremonies back home in Africa with locals on the island.
“When we showed them pictures of the things that we do in Ghana, the Cuban people were super happy,” he said.
Sena recalled one incident from a nightclub when a young Cuban recognized his bracelet as having to do with vodu. When Sena told him that he was a babalawo from Africa, he excitedly ran to his friends to share the news.
“People were so proud of their spiritual practice,” he said. “Tears were coming to my eyes, I was so happy. I was getting goose bumps all over my body, not just because I was seeing people who knew but just the fact they were so open.”
That stood in stark comparison to the discrimination vodu faces back home in Ghana.
VODU IN GHANA
Born in Tokyo and raised outside the Ghanaian capital of Accra by a Japanese mother and a Ghanaian father, the Voncujovi brothers were initially exposed to vodu through their father, Christopher, who is also a babalawo.
While they grew up with talismans, herbal baths and a general understanding of the existence of a spiritual world, there is a big difference between being exposed to the worldview and actually practicing, Pele said. Both brothers decided to begin practicing as they entered their teenage years and made it clear that they made their choices autonomously and were in no way obligated by their father’s spiritual life.
Even though their family openly practiced vodu, their beliefs were not accepted by society at large — an anti-traditional stigma they feel many African people have carried over from the colonial era.
“My friends used to tell me that what I was doing was evil and that I would burn if I didn’t go to church,” Sena said. Friends, teachers and other adults used to call him a “devil worshipper” and instructed him that he needed deliverance.
Although growing up in a climate that opposed their beliefs could be trying, the Voncujovis learned strategies over time to engage people in dialogue.
“Back in the day, the approach I used to try to justify my practice would be hostile,” Pele said. “Then, as I got older, my approach changed to asking people, ‘OK, why is this evil?’ At that point, you can bring in the context of colonialism and how an African tradition existed before. Once you present that side of the argument, people don’t think you’re just trying to convince them; they start to question themselves.”
A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
The Voncujovis attribute their unique outlook on African spirituality to the opportunities they’ve had to leave Ghana and see the world.
As their mother’s family resides in Japan, the brothers grew up making an annual trip to the Asian nation to visit their grandparents. Due to the distance between Ghana and Japan, they invariably spent extended layovers in cities throughout Africa, Europe, and South and Southeast Asia, an experience that familiarized them with much of the eastern half of the world. They first made their way to the western hemisphere through United World College, an international group of 15 schools across the globe that collectively bring together students from more than 150 countries. While they didn’t overlap in the program, Sena and Pele both spent their final two years of high school at the United World College of Costa Rica before coming to Middlebury.
THE VONCUJOVI BROTHERS, Sena (seated) and Pele, relax on the main quad at Middlebury College, where they are both students. They use a variety of methods, including social media, to raise awareness about the African spiritual practice known as voodoo, or vodu, and to demonstrate how it can be compatible with a modern, cosmopolitan lifestyle. Photo credit: Neil Steiner
Having seen and lived in so many parts of the world has made them cherish the aspects of their heritage that are uniquely Ghanaian.
“It gave me a different respect for my culture and where I come from, especially my spiritual practice,” Sena said. “Knowing that we, as half-Ghanaian, half-Japanese people coming from a traditional background, we really have a unique perspective and unique opportunity to present this information to people that other people don’t — not because they’re not good enough but because they’re never given the opportunity.
“It’s made me want to capitalize on that and to use our position to further the cause and be the voice of these people who are never heard.”
Editor’s note: David Fuchs is a Middlebury College junior and an Addison Independent intern.