FINDING MY WAY HOME
Interview with Yann W. Tanoé
Can you tell us a little bit about your background and origins?
I am Yann W. Tanoé, I have a very diverse background, my African identity is made up of Ivory Coast, Ghana and Fulani. All in all I consider myself of Akan Ethnicity but also share origins from Lebanon. I grew up in West Africa up until the age of 12 but have firmly kept my connection with the African spirit alive mainly through the creative wealth that overflows from the continent. The African continent has always remained the source of all my creativity and inspiration…there is a certain spirit and connection that we Africans share with our mother earth that is extremely tough to break or to erase. I think that this is what sets us apart as a people.
I received a semi traditional upbringing. My father’s family was for the most part, mainly ‘European’ (French) and Catholic. My mother’s family in contrast was more traditional, I would say that it was my gateway to more of an authentic Akan experience. Traditional festivals were celebrated, protocol was strongly observed at each big occasion and the ancestors were omnipresent. I come from a noble family on my mother’s side and this afforded me the opportunity and privilege to see my grandfather as a traditional ruler in all his splendour.
What awoke my curiosity about African spirituality from a very young age was exploring the question about who I was? Certain rhetorics already inhabited me within…one of these was…what was it that held all my culture together? What was it that determined the rules, the protocols? Why were there periodic animal sacrifices? Why were there libations poured at the beginning of certain gatherings…who were these the prayers addressed to? What did the term ‘Nyamien Kpli’ (God almighty) mean? I guess I never had the courage to break out of character and ask…because though I didn’t really know an awful lot, I did understand enough to know that certain things were sacred and maybe needn’t be discussed.
How did you come to explore African Spirituality?
How I came to search into my traditional spirituality and belief system was a sort of natural progression for me…growing mainly in England, I was bombarded with Africa through the eyes of the West…where our contribution was barely acknowledged and where we were not given the right place that we deserved in the evolution of humanity…instead, we were almost blamed for holding humanity back…because of our ‘backward’ and alien cultures…this affected me for many years growing up, yet, instead of deterring me it pushed me closer to want to explore and find out.
I started exploring African spirituality as I started going back more regularly home to my native province. I must say, I went with the intent of drawing parallels to other spiritual paths and faith I had studied, in order to give me some sort of mental starting point. I guess my approach was almost an educational one. But even amidst that, there was something that grabbed me about the teachings and principles that governed the code of conducts. Something that was bigger than me but yet that I fitted into comfortably. I strangely felt at home in that way of expressing and understanding spirituality.
You see, I believe that we all have a spiritual language, an intimate way to understand spirituality and this all comes down to our understanding of who or what God is.
To the African, our spiritual language is an intricate part of our metaphysical identity. Hence why being at ‘one’ with it makes us whole in more ways than one. Our distance from it, in my opinion only results in the fragmented identities and the frail mental health that we tend to notice in our ‘Afro’ communities.
It was this search for entirety or balance in a metaphysical sense that pushed me to dive further into the principles. I talk about principles, language and precepts because they come first, practice follows after understanding the philosophy and the word.
What specific traditions do you adhere to and can you explain some of the main tenets in that system?
The spiritual tradition that I have begun exploring is from the Baoulé culture (my Akan ethnic group) my family has venerated water energies for generations. In fact from both my family groups I am from two lineages of water deities the N’Zi (N’Zi river, (central Ivory Coast) and the Tanoh (Tano River, Southern Ghana).
They are the ancestral spirits, energies that have been following our families for generations, they were the protectors and the canal to higher divinity. We believe in one God, Nyamien Kpli and his will is executed through his energies (as I call them) here on this earth plane. We also believe in Assiê, the earth as a female energy and Assiê Usu (genies and servant energies represented by many aspects of nature) that families venerate for protection. There are an array of other nature energies, too many to name. Interestingly, we do not venerate or give offerings to Assiê (earth) because we believe that it goes without saying that it is a privilege to honour our mother.
Water is the canal for life of all forms, it is emotion, and to me emotion is our personal truth on this earth plane. As I learn to understand the water element of my spiritual makeup I begin to understand the subtle making of life. Water is the essence of prayer in my tradition, it is used as libation. It unites the heavens and the earth, as it is poured onto the earth, as it hits the earth the dynamic energy of ancestry is awakened. It is a way to summon the ancestral and higher energies of purification, protection and balance. It is powerful.
The way I have been taught is that we don’t work for the energies but rather with them, in partnership – they need us being of flesh as much as we need them. This union/ partnership is symbiotic, a harmony that links the world of the seen and the unseen in one…an aspect upon which cosmic balance depends upon to happen.
Are there any particular practices that you apply in your life?
I could go on about the intricacy of the particular practices and principles that I apply in my life but there are certain things that should remain in their sacred space . There are however three main particular practices that I apply and that ground me that I can share and they are applicable to anyone:
One is ancestor care. In my tradition we are to care for our departed ancestors, we routinely leave food offerings at our designated shrines in order to mend, maintain or enhance our relationship with them.
Secondly, one of my favourite rituals to witness or take part in is libation, the action of pouring liquid (water/ alcohol) in order to request from the unseen world, honour our ancestors or even strengthen our relationship with the other world. It is our form of prayer if you will.
Thirdly, I love the concept of offerings – giving physical food or items for spiritual ends. I love the understanding that to receive one must give. Giving offerings here on earth is a way to honour God and the creation. I find that beautiful.
Moreover, on a more technical level, I also see our spiritual beliefs as the first type of spiritual ecology. These spiritual beliefs were the first and were designated in essence to protect and look after nature and the world. They inspire and convey a sort of spiritual reverence for the physical. The concepts of ‘totems’ as we call them in French (forbidden items of foods, drinks or animals) were the first conservation techniques of the old world. They enabled one species of animal/ fish or crop to be left untouched to thrive by stopping one group to consume it – totems vary from family to family in a village and therefore each clan may have a different animal, fish or crop that is sacred. This in practical terms enables a range of flora and fauna to be preserved in some way. Totems were also the first ‘medical advice’ as they were often prohibited for a family because they were object of allergy or health complications. So for instance a family would not eat eels, crustaceans or certain type of fish because in the olden days an ancestor got ill or died from consuming it – so upon spiritual consultation it becomes established that this animal is a totem for the generations to come. In our traditions and beliefs, I believe that this form of conservation can be seen as a spiritual practice.
What impact has it had on your life since you started active practice?
Understanding and connecting with my African Spiritual path has enabled me to feel settled. The concept of ‘sitting’ in my traditional Baoulé is very important. It represents being grounded and rooted physically and spiritually. There is a saying that says ‘Amuen wâ tran lô’ (the concept of sitting your soul in its ‘home’). Meaning that the more you learn about who you are and where you are from, the more you ‘sit’ and ground your soul in the human and spirit world. In a strong way, I feel that way. I simply feel more and more grounded as I grow.
As a young African I feel emancipated, rehabilitated. My mind is free to be unapologetically African and unashamed. I find this aspect to be crucial for people of Afro descent nowadays as we battle with the system and ever rising cases of mental health issues. Who can be our doctor? Who can understand the fibre of our being? Who has our wellbeing already understood? Of course our spirituality and especially its teachings have the answer. Our spirituality is our soul itself.
What are your opinions on how mainstream religions trying to demonise and stigmatise African Spirituality and what could be done about it?
We have been demonised since the word go. The moment the world set eyes on us. So this is nothing new. It will continue and will always be omnipresent. Though this question is interesting, I have however always wondered why we have felt the need to prove to non-Africans that our spirituality/ belief system / philosophies are worthy of recognition? What do we have to prove? And who do we have to prove it to? The world or ourselves? I believe that there is a point where we stop trying to prove ourselves to the world.
Worthiness is a personal issue. We only owe it to ourselves as a race and people to continue to raise awareness and rehabilitate our own people. We give ourselves our own worth, we do not have to wait for others to validate and humanize us, we have done that for far too long. Therefore my main answer/ solution to this ‘problem’ is to continue to pioneer this great ‘Afro renaissance’ that is occurring right now where more than ever before, the ‘children’ are turning towards the fathers, and creatively shaping their ancestral energy into expression for rehabilitation, through the arts, literature, philosophy, spirituality etc…I believe this to be a powerful spiritual shift because connecting what was disconnected holds a certain force. We need to utilise and harness this force to push us into our next phase of evolution.
Any advice you can give to anyone considering or curious about African Spirituality in general?
I definitely encourage people in general from an educational viewpoint if anything. I believe that learning about African spirituality as a rule opens the psyche and kick starts a new mental process in the soul. It is that powerful. The philosophical value alone is unparalleled. It is a code of life, a code of conduct and a code of existence that shows you your place and its purpose in the web of creation. It rehabilitates you as an African or a person of Afro descent. You do not necessarily need to join any Afro movements, associations, or groups when you are open to African spirituality. Its philosophy alone will have the answers to your questions and future direction. As a race, as a people we are in crucial need this rehabilitation.