The Politics of Words


Words are important, very important. They can control and limit our perceived realities or distort our understanding of it. It is why it is essential that we make efforts to be much more aware of the terms and labels we use as well as to never hesitate to let others know the impact of the ones they choose to use, particularly concerning matters of African Spirituality, seeing as it remains an area of ignorance in the mainstream discourses surrounding faith practices.


It still surprises me also how many terms have perplexing connotations and how many are also sadly, grotesque distortions from the original.


Take the word Voodoo for instance, a Hollywood term wholly based on misrepresentation but is a take from Vodu, which in the Fon and Ewe languages of West Africa represents the essence of the Supreme Being in those traditions. The Hollywood version is utterly blood and gore and overwhelmingly negative with consistent associations with the idea of ‘devil-worshipping’, rather interesting as the very notion of ‘devil’ is absent in African cosmologies in the same archetypal form as found in mainstream religions.


Black and White Magic is another interesting term of reference. That matters of the immaterial can be colour-coded raises concerns of the influence of socio-racial ideologies. Even though it is also hotly contested that it is meant to just imply the use for a ‘good’ purpose or ‘bad’ purpose, why can’t these other words not be used instead, is my contention, because they mean the same without the colour coding. Surely it makes sense that in the racially charged culture of the West, really the World, can the concerted effort to use one less term that can possibly taint a community of people be too much to ask?


Witch-doctor is a term that lays bare an oxymoron in terms of functions. Here, a witch, a concept that implies the practice of wrongdoing, is juxtaposed right next to a doctor, an inference to one who provides much needed services for others. How can two such conflicting ideas exist in the same individual and yet it’s hardly questioned when bandied about in discussions concerning African Spirituality.


An idol is definitely a bemusing one. I was in a conversation recently with a friend who was telling me that at university she was told that traditional practitioners use idols, specifically figurines that we apparently ‘worshipped’ and are agents of the ‘devil’ from mother Earth. I had to ask her where she thought the wooden cross on her neck came from. She seemed to not get the connection, so my next question was about why she was wearing a cross made from wood, also from Mother Earth whom she had just mentioned as being evil, then wearing her wares must make her cross evil? She didn’t have a retort, but its such arrogant attitudes based on ignorance that can stigmatise traditional systems further


There is a huge list of such terms in use and this will be the first article of many on this subject, else we may else up with an excessively long read.


As is clear misrepresentations, misnomers and oxymorons abound that only further prevents others from getting a clear picture of what African traditional practices are really about.

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