In the modern internet-based society, cultural appropriation from African Traditional Religions occurs often in my opinion. Everything from eclectic Paganism adopting deities, to commercial Conjure claims of being an expert on Orisa traditions, to Neopagan Vodou have collectively jumped on the bandwagon of adopting practices derived from African religions. The argument can be made that persons seeking or claiming enlightenment do so with a clean heart and good intentions. There is nothing wrong with seeking truth.
Unfortunately seeking truth is not always what happens. If you need a tooth pulled, going to a student intern who read a book on dentistry and decided to begin yanking teeth for pay with rusty vice-grips seems to me like asking for pain and trouble. Appropriation is a spiritual equivalent.
One symptom of appropriation is the monetary aspect. Yes our beloved ATR faiths do charge for certain things and rightly so. It takes time, hard work, and experience to learn the correct way of doing things within each House or group. Derechos (fees) have to be paid. Would a person consult an expert in any other field without having to pay, or a doctor? However, monetary goals seem to be at the forefront of appropriation-based issues especially from commercial internet shop owners. Fraudulent “Damballah Elekes”, “Oya grave dirt bottles”, “Yemaya La Sirene Mojos” and “Pomba Gira Homosexual Love Gris Gris bags” among other silly things seem to be increasing on the internet in my opinion. This is an unfortunate aspect of appropriation as far as fabrication of things that do not exist within the traditions being supposedly drawn upon. Caveat Emptor, indeed.
Another aspect is personal aegis and eclecticism. Many of us see all the time people claiming this or that person works with so-and-so especially with Vodou and Orisa entities. Anecdotal stories exist that describe people with unusual paths being able to work with things that normally require long study, experience, and initiations. It is true that the ways of the Powers that Be are many and who can know them all? No one. Usually though the internet shop that opens immediately after such a declaration is kind of suspect. Especially when for example, you have a Pagan with no formal training who now makes Oya oil for sale $19.99, come on down. When politely questioned about their training they can become quite angry and defensive.
Syncretism is another argument often bandied about. Such things as Esu, St Michael, Exu, Ellegua, and Legba all being lumped into one crowded container of description and being called the same being by persons outside of tradition occur often. As stated, the argument usually goes thusly: “If African Traditional religions used syncretism, why can’t I?” There are numerous reasons why this is not generally appropriate. None of these deities are the same thing. Their traditions while related in origins perhaps are not the same thing. Lwa are not Orisa, Pomba Gira is not a Lwa… the list is long. Syncretism comes from within and not from without. It happens for a reason. Let them be what they are. Taking time to get to know them on their own terms is a valid experience.
Synthesis is another aspect of appropriation. Things completely new are attributed to deities by persons outside of an accepted tradition. Usually this fabrication results from a sense of ego or personal empowerment as well as lack of education in my opinion. Granted these entities do say things in possession that may be completely new, or through their oracles. This seems to be the exception to the rule and not the normative. It’s especially unlikely to have come from an outside source.
A common thread tossed about today is Pomba Gira being called the Goddess of Homosexual Love. It is true, Pomba Giras do care about the people they walk with regardless of orientation. These magnificent guides see the soul and not the labels of society. That is part of the beauty of Kimbanda. However there is so much wrong with the above “Goddess” statement. Pomba Gira is not a Goddess. There are legions of them, and not just one “Goddess”. Each of them is different and has different tastes and personality. Each deserves respect for the powerful and wonderful beings they are.
But yet the appropriators state that theirs is the way, even though they invite disruptive energy into their lives with such assumptions about a beautiful tradition. There’s a well-known “Pomba Gira Ritual” at a festival. Considering some of the Pomba Giras can be downright mean and their energy can be very disruptive when the proper cleansings are not done (or if they don’t like you for some reason), would you want to invite that spiritual heat into your life unknowingly? Kiumbas (negative shades) are the guardians of Kimbanda and they are often attracted like dark moths to workings within this realm. Without knowing how to cleanse the self and dispel them one invites trouble and obsession.
Another example recently witnessed on the Internet was a Palo Mayombe firma for Nsasi being used by a non-initiate as a “Road Opener” firma and drawn on someone’s walkway. No credit appeared to be given to the tradition or entity involved and perhaps monies changed hands. This seems highly disrespectful as well as inappropriate and potentially dangerous from a non-initiate. Palo is well-known to be a “closed” system and cannot be worked outside of initiation. Honest seekers of the way are a good thing. Assumed authority even though the path has not been trod that is another issue entirely.
Cyber bullying is another aspect to this trend. Persons who stand up for tradition are occasionally called “bullies” by the appropriators. True, sometimes a vigorous defense of tradition can spill over into that angry realm and that is unfortunate. However intelligent discourse on the subject as well as pointing out politely that something is wrong is not bullying. Especially in regards to honest people being potentially spiritually damaged or taken advantage of financially or otherwise.
There is an interesting phenomenon right now on the internet. The bullies themselves cry that they have been bullied when the chickens they sent out come home to roost. It’s a rather fascinating topic with one person even supposedly encouraging their followers to attack someone they disliked with group candle work. Ironically clever: the bully convincing their followers to lend their prayer energy to a group-bullying being called “defense”. Persons encouraged to do group work to attack another who has done them no ill because of a personal grudge on behalf of a leader would do well to question the motive of the work. It does not make for good character. It does not invite good energy into one’s life.
Often the “You’re a know-it-all then aren’t you?” defense is offered. No one who is human knows it all. The path is a constant road of learning, and when you cease to learn it ends. Some things just aren’t right however. As an example a person claiming to be a Catholic Priest after reading a book on it, and then offering sacraments would be Not Right. Common sense points this out.
Many of us have to swear to uphold tradition as part of initiatory rites. The paths to the Creator are myriad, but so are the precipices we can fall from. As ever-learning students of tradition and good character it is our collective duty to stand up for tradition, politely, calmly, and with a cool head when asked. Complacency does not lead to positive change.