“I have always had blood on my hands. You need to have blood on your hands too.”
Anthropologists and religious historians classify most of Africa’s non-established religions as ATRs, or African Traditional Religions. There are many ATRs in sub-Saharan Africa, and most, if not all, believe humans would be forever healthy and happy if it not for the works of evildoers; call them pranksters, jokers, or just greedy takers. No matter how those of established religions feel, believe, day-to-day rituals are there for a reason, good reason.
Most of us are monotheistic in nature in that, in our own unique ways, we believe in only one Higher Being or God. Most religions of this great land we call Africa, however, are polytheistic. They believe in multiple divinities—beings that are sometimes human, other times not—that stand between us and the one God above. It is not wrong to believe this way. For most, it is the only choice so one day they can reach that Higher Being.
Those who wish to gain insight from God must first converse with one or more divinities through prayer and sacrifice. We all know prayer has a power source that can’t be touched or measured, but many people do feel there is great power in prayer. In Africa, sacrifice is just like prayer; it is a common, accepted way to communicate with a higher being. Ritual and associated dogma are parts of a sacrifice; we need to perform those acts to ensure the sacrifices are successful.
For the religions of Africa, two things must be remembered always. First, anti-cosmic events happen because of moral, behavioral lapses. These religions have moral precepts as we do, and when they are not followed, bad things happen. There are ways to bring balance back, but they differ depending on what negative power source is at play and why. Unlike established religions, these religions do not have one way of accomplishing success or proceeding in life without great sacrifice.
Established religions force us to ponder. Will I make it to heaven one day? Will I die and have seven virgins by my side? If something bad happens, we look at it simply as bad timing, bad luck, and sometimes the wishes of our Higher Being. In the end, most of us prefer to blame strife on divine action. But African beliefs are simpler, straight and narrow. If misfortune strikes, there is always one tangible question. Why me? That is the core of their faith. You must use the diviner to find out why something bad happened to you and take actions to change it by balancing the bad with good. This is why rituals are so important. Some rituals are used to ensure adherence to moral precepts, and some rituals help us do what’s necessary if our lapses in moral precepts bring us misfortune.
“My story is tied directly to the first,” Mary Margaret said, looking directly at Anna. “You were a healthy six pound baby girl, and for that reason only, you needed to have an old tribal symbol–a simple straight line–carved into the sides of your small angelic face. It was a two-step process whereby the diviner makes the cuts and then uses linen paper to sop up the blood. According to custom, no blood should ever touch the ground or another person. When the paper was saturated, it was placed onto a fire and the smoke from the burning paper rose to the sky. It was a symbolic ritual to protect your life as a bush female. Contrary to how your pa behaved in Kimberley, he was not an absent father in Johannesburg. Two or three times a week, he took a longer route or slowed his pace so he might have an opportunity to see me and catch a glimpse of the baby I was carrying. He seemed eager to visit me, the one he claimed he loved and would always protect.”
Mary Margaret never told us the other woman’s name, but the woman with her that night, when Ou Balie Pickens walked into the small shack, was a diviner. She was ugly in a scary way, an old hag we would call her today. I’m sure the sight of her holding a knife to the face of his baby must have been a frightful sight, compounded by the quiet murmuring chants and the strong smell of sour incense that filled the room. Back then, animists would have called the old hag a drukum, a female witch. Those who adhered to bush-flavored Islam and Christianity knew exactly who she was and what she was doing.
Ou Balie Pickens knew right away what he was seeing. It was not a christening ceremony, a circumcision ceremony, or the killing of a lamb at the time I was given my name. He probably would have been overjoyed if he had simply walked into an innocent Muslim doopmaal naming ritual. But he walked in on us just as the knife touched my face.
In the bush, a woman about to give birth knew when her time had come. Then, without a soul to care for her, she would walk alone out into the bush to have her child. It is painful and dangerous for the child and the mother. It is frightfully isolating for the mother; she is all alone, and no one will come to her until the baby’s first cries are heard. But it is done that way. The child and mother must be alone, in the bush. That was how Mary Margaret, then a baby named Francis Jean, was born, and it was how her parents were born. And that is how she had me, all alone, albeit not in the bush. I was born on a dirt floor, in a dirty Johannesburg shack. Thus, bad karma was destined to follow me. The ritual that night was an attempt to balance it all out.
Mary Margaret told us that Ou Balie Pickens was both shocked and angry. “She could have died. You could have died,” he screamed at her. “Francis Jean, you must let go of your family’s bad ways. They’re not civilized and not right for the child. She is colored, not black. You have to remember that.” He swore he would not let anything happen to me, and that included the tribal ritual of taking my own blood and letting it burn into the heavens above. That’s when he took me away, unscarred.
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