Many ‘Faces of Africa’ Filled With Hope

When Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher met in the late 1970s they began a journey across sub-Saharan Africa, envisioning that one day they would create ‘a colorful, comprehensive, detailed record of the most important ceremonies that brought African individuals to life,’ according to Fisher.
What they accomplished became a visual conduit for the exploration of an Africa not colored with AIDS and civil unrest, but with intricately crafted, socially significant rituals that are slowly evaporating from Africa’s cultural sphere. Their work is a sign of hope that one day a more culturally sensitive and politically aware lens will filter the views of Africa for the eyes Western observers.
On April 1 in Humanities Instructional Building 100, the Bowers Museum in conjunction with the Beads Society of Orange County hosted a lecture and exhibition by Beckwith and Fisher entitled ‘Faces of Africa,’ featuring a collection of photographs, video clips and jewelry from traditional African tribes. The lecture focused mainly on the courtship rituals of the Dinka, Karo and Pokot tribes of Eastern Africa. Beckwith and Fisher also paid special attention to the accessories and decorative adornments used during these rituals and the significance behind their utilization.
In essence, the cultural artifacts of these tribes told a story about their wearers who were both playful and serious, filled with strength in their traditions and yet unafraid to show individuality and playfulness. Beckwith and Fisher paid special attention to the uniqueness of each tribe. As Beckwith noted, ‘What few people realize is that there are over 1,300 different ethnic groups on the African continent, each with their own languages, ceremonies and traditions.’
The courtship rituals of the Dinka of Southern Sudan during their dry season celebrated the commencement of adulthood. The Dinka have a strong connection with their cattle as not only a resource of life support but also a spiritual connection to God. They decorate their bodies with the ashes of the burned dung of the cattle and emulate their dances and jewelry after the lyre-shaped horns of the animal. Colorful beaded corsets are also worn by the men of the tribe to express their maturity and the cattle-richness of their family.
This pattern of beading to show a person’s depth of maturity and social status can also be found in the Pokot tribe of Northern Kenya. The Pokot use beaded skirts to indicate those females who have been initiated into womanhood and express the sophistication and astuteness of their character. The female initiation into womanhood is a very structured and complex ritual which includes tribal circumcisions that had been carried out for hundreds of years despite being outlawed in many African governments. Beckwith commented on the development of alternative rituals that preserve the spirit of circumcision without the mutilation.
‘Please understand though, that in order for them to change, the change has to come from within, driven by the Pokot themselves,’ Beckwith added.
The final tribe explored during the lecture, the Karo tribe residing along the Omo River of Southern Ethiopia, was an especially poignant example of fading traditions. In a ceremony that only happens once every 14 years, the men of the Karo villages climb a sacred mountain and perform rites of passages ranging from group dances to circumcision. The men also decorate their bodies in elaborate patterns using a paint made from ashes and animal fat. They also use feathers to imitate birds which they believe will most strongly attract the women.
The lecturers were mindful to note the rapid pace at which these traditions are vanishing due to political upheaval and the pull of the Western world. As Fisher pointed out, ‘Twenty-five percent of what we’ve recorded no longer exists.’ Beckwith and Fisher felt obligated to combat this slow decline of tradition by recording as much as they could of it. ‘We also realized how privileged we’d been to experience such a beautifully gentle culture where the people felt very at one with themselves and also very related and in balance with their environment and their animals,’ Fisher said.
Ellie Ettner, a Santa Ana resident in attendance, was drawn to the idea of two women exploring and documenting African cultures. ‘I was impressed by the tenderness and compassion of the presentation. They let the people tell the story themselves,’ Ettner said
Anne Jennings, an anthropologist and author on Nubian culture, was appreciative of Beckwith’s and Fisher’s explanation of the purpose of the rituals which avoided simply noting their exotic features. ‘I enjoyed [the presentation] very much. I read their books before, but was disappointed with the lack of meaning about the ceremonies. With this

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I was able to get more. I appreciated that they lived there for months and learned the languages,’ Jennings said.