For many African children raised in Christian homes, there are certain topics kept hidden in the basement nobody dares enter. They come with warning signs reinforced by the fear of God, labelled devilish or barbaric. We overhear stories of family members who visited witch doctors, late grandparents who spoke through the vessels of their grandchildren and generational curses which can and must only be broken by the power of the holy spirit.
I grew up in a Pentecostal church established in Zimbabwe, where I was born. Although rooted in the Bible and the fundamental elements of Christianity, we spoke our own language (Shona) and upheld our own cultural traditions. We were a community in the truest sense of the word. But while I loved many things about our church, I could never shake the feeling of being trapped. I worried that my faith wasn't genuine but instead came from a fear of hell and damnation.
My family emigrated to the UK from Zimbabwe in 2000. My parents did a remarkable job of preserving our Shona language, traditions and general ways of life. I say remarkable because inhabiting the land of a nation which once colonised your own is no small feat. As Maureen Grundy wrote in her essay "Colonization and Christianity in Zimbabwe": "Colonization of a land, of a people, brings with it many losses that are difficult, perhaps impossible, to rediscover when the nation finds freedom again."
Although I have only known a "free" Zimbabwe – the country gained independence in 1980 – I still feel the effects of colonisation. Namely the loss of our indigenous spiritual beliefs. Grundy’s essay points out that the colonisation of African countries in particular "has proved to be a disruption of traditional culture and an imposition of Western beliefs and values on longstanding indigenous customs and rituals."
"In post-colonial Africa," she continues, "the greatest, most overt legacy left by white settlers is religion […] With white domination of the African continent, the Christian faith took hold as the governing and superior theology. While countries have gained freedom from their oppressors, Christianity often remains as a central principle of African faith with any traditional spirituality existing peripherally."
At school in the UK, African history lessons began and ended with slavery, and at home, there was always an irreverence (read: denial) towards the spiritual beliefs of my ancestors, which suggested to me that they were myths not worth mentioning. Still, I remained curious, searching for what I felt was a missing link.
African literature has been essential to my efforts to learn about the belief systems that existed before Christianity became dominant. My reading began with mostly west African writers: Sobonfu Somé, Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and most recently, Akwaeke Emezi (who uses the pronouns they and she).
Emezi's debut novel, Freshwater, set to be published in the UK in November 2018, really resonated with me. Each page illuminated areas of my life. It felt like Emezi knew the missing element of my 'self' that I’d been seeking.
The main character of the novel is called Ada. Born in southern Nigeria "with one foot on the other side", Ada is Ọgbanje, an Igbo entity (a spiritual being akin to the people who mostly occupy southeastern Nigeria). In an article for BuzzFeed, Emezi writes that Ada's "core conflict was that she was embodied: that she existed, that she had selves, that she was several. I didn't know any other books by African writers that asked or answered the questions I was working with, but I very much wanted to find precedent." Ada’s conflict of "selves" is not a mental illness or a case of multiple personality disorder, but a spiritual conflict that cannot be defined in Western terms because it exists in an Igbo reality. Rooted in an African ontology, the book completely strips the "myth" from mythology. I found it thrilling and unsettling to read.
During a talk at the 2018 Africa Writes Festival in London, Emezi referenced their favourite quote by Toni Morrison: "I stood at the border, stood at the edge and claimed it as central. Claimed it as central, and let the rest of the world move over to where I was." By writing about spirituality before colonialisation and documenting this through Ada's transcendental coming-of-age story, Emezi has centralised her ancestors' stories and beliefs, giving them a place and relevance in the present day.
I am grateful to have this book, written so thoughtfully by an author who I came to know via Instagram some years ago. I grew to love Emezi's unapologetic presentation of self on social media: posting videos dancing to Soca music, documenting their natural hair journey, colourful outfits, beautiful travel pictures. In their work, I saw many facets of myself represented.
Emezi's social media presence drew me closer to the reality of the story, especially since it is autobiographical. It was the self-assurance I needed to finally accept that I no longer identify with Christianity. While I believe in divine power(s), there are just too many contradictions in Christianity for me – too much guilt, too many shackles, and a painful history I cannot ignore.
Rejecting so much of what I have known is a scary feeling; it risks hurting those who raised me. Inspired by writers like Emezi, I feel it’s time to rediscover my spiritual identity, starting with reading more relevant works by Zimbabwean/Bantu writers and embarking on a solo trip to Zimbabwe and South Africa, because there is only so much that west African writers can do to inform my existence.
I’m currently reading These Bones Will Rise Again by Zimbabwean writer Panashe Chigumadzi. There is a quote in the book which sums up my sentiments: "There are many questions and I am looking for answers. The kind of answers that slip past the facts of history books or analyses by pundits and experts. The answers I need are answers to politics that are about how we live, hope and dream, cry, laugh, pray and believe. As I search, I realise that if I want different answers, I need different questions. The kind that the Jairos Jiri Band is asking: 'Where was our ancestor spirit, our great ancestor, while we were suffering?'"