The Hidden History of African Voodoo

In Search of Voodoo: Roots to Heaven

Directed by Dijimon Hounsou (2018

Film Review

Produced and narrated by Binenese actor and model Djimon Hounsou, this documentary is a autobiographical documentary film exploring the history and characteristics of African voodoo. Despite a lengthy discussion of European colonizers to wipe out voodoo belief systems, most of the film focuses on voodoo drumming, dance and sacrifice rituals. Personally, I was quite disappointed by the scant focus on the importance of trance-formation in voodoo rituals.

Hounsou describes Benin* (where it’s an official religion) as the birthplace of voodoo, although many Africans adhere to this belief system in Nigeria, Ghana and central and southern Togo. The word voodoo derives from vodu, meaning “spirit” in several West African languages (eg Ewe and Fon).

The voodoo currently practiced in Benin acknowledges a supreme (female) being called Mawu-Lissa, as well as lesser gods of the sun, mood, sea, rivers and Earth. There is also a trickster god who facilitates communications between the gods. Most practitioners deny that voodoo is a religion, but rather a way of life that emphasizes strong interconnections between humankind, the rest of the natural world and a spirit world consisting of the gods and the spirits of deceased ancestors.

Voodoo practitioners in Benin also engage in Ifa, a system of divination, involving the decoding of over 200 binary symbols to predict a person’s destiny and character.

Drumming and ritual dancing are heavily emphasized in African voodoo rituals, largely because they result in trance formation. This enables practitioners to better communicate with Legba or deceased ancestors who intervene between human beings and various gods. Blood sacrifice of chickens, with participants consuming the sacrificed animal, is also important in voodoo rituals.

African voodoo thrives in rural Benin, though a few shrines persist in the cities. There is still considerable competition between voodoo and Christianity and Islam, the other major religions in Benin. In many churches, Catholic and voodoo rituals are combined.

Sorcery (spells and curses associated with voodoo in the New World) is frowned on in African voodoo. Likewise healing undertaken by voodoo practitioners is based solely on the healing properties of specific plants.

*Benin is a country in West Africa. Formerly known as Dahomey, it’s bordered by Nigeria, Togo, Burkino Faso and Niger.

The full film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

The Lost Civilizations of Africa


Directed by Basil Davidson (1984)

Film Review

Africa is a 1984 documentary exploring the great civilizations of Africa. In it, late historian Basil Davidson demolishes the myths Europeans concocted about Africa to justify the 400 year slave trade – these myths concerning a continent of subhuman savages persist to the present day. Davidson reviews archeological evidence, ancient African and Europeans artwork and historical records and contemporary tribal traditions that survive from past civilizations.

The documentary is divided into 8 episodes of approximately 25 minutes each.

Episode 1 Different But Equal – studies the depiction of blacks in medieval and renaissance European paintings to show how the concept of race was created in the 16th century to justify the immensely profitable enslavement of human paintings. He starts with an examination of cave paintings that point to a highly advanced Saharan civilization prior to the Sahara’s desertification (around 7,000–8,000 years ago   and the prominence of black-skinned the 3,000-year  civilization Egypt enjoyed under the pharaohs.

Episode 2 Mastering a Continent – focuses on Kushites and the great Nubian civilization to the south of Egypt. The latter converted to Christianity and persisted until the 11th century when it was destroyed (by Saracens) during the Crusades.

Episode 3 Caravans of Gold – discusses the vast commercial trade network (extending as far as India) centered in Timbuktu (Mali) and the Ashanti civilization (in modern day Ghana). In the 14th century, Mali converted to Islam. Under the guidance of Muslim scholars, Timbuktu became a global center of Islamic scholarship in law, literature and science.

Episode 4 The King and the City Within – describes the civilizations of Huaser, Benin and Ethe in modern day Nigeria.

Episode 5 The Bible and the Gun – covers the arrival of the Europeans and the devastating of slavery on long established African civilizations. Over 400 years, the African continent lost approximately 15 million skilled craftsmen and farmers. As the slave trade declined in the 18th and 19th century, Europeans opened up Africa’s interior in order to exploit its rich natural resources. As in Latin American and Asia, Christian missionaries played a fundamental role in this process.

Episode 6 The Magnificent African Cake – gives an overview of the extensive European military campaigns that flattened African resistance to colonization. By 1914, Liberia and Ethiopia were the only two countries not under European military control.

Episode 7 The Rise of Nationalism – relates how forced conscription in World War I and World War II radically changed Africans’ view of Europeans and fueled demands for independence. The Gold Coast (later renamed Ghana by President Dr Kwame Nkrumah) would launch the first independence struggle in 1945. Davidson contrasts this with the more bloody independence struggles in Kenya, Algeria and other countries with substantial(European) settler populations.

Episode  8 Legacy – explores how the adoption of European-style Parliamentary systems proved disastrous for many African countries. Davidson blames this on the fact that Parliamentary government is based on a well established class divisions. It worked poorly in Africa owing to the continent’s historic tendency towards egalitarianism.


Third World Mental Health Initiatives Put US to Shame

People and Power – Out of the Shadows

Al Jazeera (2015)

Film Review

Out of the Shadows celebrates the hard work of third world activists who have dedicated their lives to bringing mental health care to their countries. It presents a striking contrast to the neglect and abuse the mentally ill experience in the US.

Globally half a billion people suffer from mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar illness and schizophrenia – more than all AIDS, malaria and TB cases combined. Yet owing to profound stigma, publicly funded mental health services are virtually non-existent in many third world countries. India, for example, spends less than 1% of their health budget on mental health. And in Togo, mentally ill men and women are chained to trees.

The documentary highlights activist-created programs providing free mental health services (funded by private European and Canadian donors) in India, Benin, Ivory Cost, Burkina Faso and Jordan.