It is often a big challenge for one to dabble with such a topic given the cultural-religious stereo-typical descriptors inherent in such an engagement, and also the possibility of being misunderstood. However, my short commentary seeks to make sense of the phanerons often used in visual exposition of African Traditional Religion (ATR) through film as a metaphorical representation of the binaries of ‘evil’ versus ‘good.’
These binaries about ATR as witnessed in Nigerian films such as a) Sins of the Fathers (actors: Pete Edochie, Liz Benson and Kenneth Okonkwo), b) Suicide Mission (actor: Richard Mofe Damijo), c) Living in Tears (actors: Peter Edochie, Ini Edo and Hanks Anuku) often present tradition as ‘evil’ with the end result being the triumph of Christian ethos over evil through prayer. It is these visual representations that in this piece I shall call phanerons.
Phaneron, Film and ATR in context
A phaneron is not something that we are always categorically conscious of. It is a state of the mind that acts as the ‘script’ for the interpretation of daily experiences, occurrences and representations.
It is usually denoted through various phases and ways, but exists in these social codes which grant us social meanings about the world we live in and how we tend to depict some social phenomena, for example, in the films, the phenomenon of witchcraft as the depiction of everything related to ATR.
Further, the key components of film as metaphorical representation are three-fold: understanding, (visual) performance, and talking, i.e., the concept is metaphorically structured, so is the visually represented activity, and consequently the language used is also metaphorically structured in a bid to offer a particular meaning, for example, the continued use of the phrase, ‘thanks be to God’ and the negative depiction of ATR.
Thus a cultural dichotomy of orders of signification is presented where ATR stands as a synonym for ‘backwardness’ and ‘primitivity’ while Christianity is presented as ‘modern’ and ‘progressive.’ It is this phaneron of primitivity in African traditional religions that I seek to challenge especially given the view that African writers like Ngugi wa’ Thiongo, Valentine Mudimbe and John S. Mbiti also acknowledge the impact of religion in the well being of a society in Africa.
While it is difficult to define what religion is, the centrality of religion in identity formation, reconstruction and maintenance of people-hood is clearly acknowledged. It is from this level of religiosity that identity and belonging are continuously moulded.
In the ATR, the celebration of the abode of ancestors is not worshipping them but part of the process of praying through them as the vehicle for intercession on behalf of humanity. However, the presence of one God who is mightier than everything is acknowledged like in Christianity. As a result ATR tend to be at peace with every other religion given the flexibility with which followers are able to switch.
ATR in African films (Nollywood)
It can be argued that the current visual representation of ATR presents witchcraft as the central thesis. Further, in films like: Sins of the Fathers, Suicide Mission, and Living in Tears, ATR is presented through visual representations using bad characters whose main focus is to harm others in society with the use of what is called; ‘juju’ or ‘black magic’.
Most Nollywood films whose main theme is to show the triumph of good over evil tend to present this line of argument. This representation is usually aggravated by the constant reference to prayer as sign and symbol of victory over ‘evil.’
This semiology of visual representation in these African (Nollywood) films requires a detailed academic engagement and possibly a call for back to the source crusade in a bid to engage the philosophy of ubuntu, a concept whose backbone celebrates being, time and space.
In conclusion it can be argued that without a clear course to towards the source the pride of Africanness including the plurality embedded in the philosophy of ubuntu, especially the dictum, ‘I am because we are’, continues to lose meaning in the current tide of globalisation and by the new versions of visual evangelism.
This above commentary on African traditional religions in African films has been edited to comply our editorial word limit. If you would like to read the unedited copy of this research paper, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org