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Mad Masters: Spiritual Decolonisation in the Hauka and the Kivung Movements

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Koriam’s Law (2005)

by Hannes Schumacher

How to emancipate ourselves from spiritual colonisation?

Today it should be clear that the prefix ‘post’ in postcolonialism does not merely refer to a linear time-frame dealing with the legacy of former colonies. A first hint lies in the shift of focus from the material base to the so-called superstructure: religion, art and culture. Spiritual colonisation, moreover, is not limited to a dichotomy of ‘us’ (i.e. the colonisers) and ‘them’ (i.e. the colonised). In the present context, everybody is a little coloniser, not only colonising others but also ourselves. The task of spiritual decolonisation is thus not limited to macropolitics but extended to the micropolitics of every single body and its immediate milieu. Spiritual decolonisation concerns all of us still living on the ruins of this planet and will be a decisive task concerning our fate at the edge of extinction.

Both the two cases I want to bring into the discussion are confronted with exemplary forms of spiritual colonialism: military discipline, religious conversion and cognitive capitalism. And both develop unexpected practices which mimic the colonial rule in an outstanding way that radically exposes it and simultaneously provides unique techniques for spiritual decolonisation in each locality, respectively.

 

Case 1 : West Africa 1955 : The Hauka Cult in Les maîtres fous

Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (1955) depicts the life of migrant workers from Niger in the city of Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast (today Ghana) in West Africa, which was then colonised by the United Kingdom. Its urban setting and its focus on intra-African migration already questions the clichés of a purely indigenous people which would have been untouched by the promises and challenges of modernity. To the contrary, the Hauka cult is a wholly modern movement that syncretises so-called indigenous ritual practices with the brute fact of colonial oppression.

On a special Sunday morning, practitioners of the Hauka sect leave the city to participate in a unique ritual in the countryside organised by the Hauka priest Mountyeba. Wooden rifles, a rough symbolic of the Union Jack and a messy statue of the British governor with his moustache, his sabre, rifle, horse and palace form the setting of the scene.

Les maîtres fous (1955)

Following the initiation of a new member and the expulsion of another (with wooden guns), the first possessions of the Hauka start to overcome the participants. They increasingly become possessed by spirits of the colonisers – the corporal, the captain of the guard – and exaggeratively imitate (or mock?) their military march, their salutations and their rigid discipline of command and obedience. Thoroughly in trance with saliva dripping from their face, they literally perform a grotesque role play with their colonisers as protagonists.

Naturally, Rouch’s film was criticised by both the African and the European audience. Africans who sought to establish a more ‘civilised’ idea of Africa in Europe felt accused by Rouch’s brutish and ‘primitive’ depiction of the Hauka cult; Europeans, on the other hand, rightly felt attacked by its radical exposure of colonial practice. What is at stake in Les maîtres fous, however, is actually a positive idea of such indigenous practices, no matter how bizarre they may appear. At the ending of the film, we see the members of the Hauka cult re-integrated in their daily work in Accra, juxtaposed with the terrifying images of yesterday, now all with a tremendous smile. What Rouch suggests, is that the ritual practice of the Hauka cult is a spiritual technique to counter psychological exhaustion in the face of colonial oppression; simultaneously, his film depicts – in a hyperrealistic way – the very core of spiritual colonialism: “this violent game is just a reflection of our [own] civilisation.”[1]

Les maîtres fous (1955)

Most striking are the countless parallels that may be found in contemporary rave culture: leave the city for a celebration or ceremony in nature and return to the city with a new smile, with a new vision of the world. More classical examples are the Eleusian mysteries and the Saturnalia in ancient Rome: Chiara Baldini links these ancient cults with contemporary festivals where societal hierarchies, homophobia and gender inequalities are overcome in a collective experience of alchemical fusion.[2]

Rouch’s film, moreover, makes us aware of the power of performance as a decolonising technique. The joy of changing ones roles has always been a driving force in emancipatory practices and all the more freeing it becomes when we take up the roles of our worst enemies as do the members of the Hauka cult. It is important to take note that this is not a becoming-colonisers but – to the contrary – an imitation or rather a mocking of them. There is always a thin line between imitation and becoming, a line that, however, makes all the difference.

 

Case 2 : Papua New Guinea 2005 : The Kivung Movement in Koriam’s Law and the Dead Who Govern

Gary Kildea & Andrea Simon’s Koriam’s Law (2005) challenges the notion of the so-called ‘cargo cult’ in Melanesia that – after all – seems to be a Western misconception based on the underestimation of indigenous practices. [3] From the beginning of the film, the local Peter Avarea is depicted as an indigenous philosopher, what further questions the intellectual privilege of former Western anthropologists. “I’m not working on a cargo cult”, he states. To the contrary, what Avarea has in mind – and the film shows in practice – is a genuine syncretism of Christianity and indigenous beliefs.

Although his father was a witch-doctor, Avarea used to be a preacher and believed in the Bible until he recognised that there was a secret wisdom in the story of Christ which the missionaries did not reveal to his people. While missionaries still insist that locals should give up their traditional religious practice, Avarea argues for a radical re-interpretation of Christianity in accordance with indigenous beliefs. The three spiritual leaders of the Pomio Kivung movement – Koriam, Colman, Bernard – opened up his mind.

The traditional religious practice that still exists today is based on the ritualistic ‘feeding’ of the dead. But for the feeding to take place, villagers will have to give a small amount of money (Pidgin: mani) which is collected in a so-called Novena bottle, the centrepiece of the ceremonial house. In the village square, villagers confess their sins in a ceremony and throw some coins into a box for their sins to be entirely redeemed. Although the meticulous documentation of these funds in the ‘office’ of the movement may remind the viewer of a cargo cult, the funds were further used, for example, for the building of a school.

Koriam’s Law (2005)

In the Kivung movement, money (mani) is considered as a thoroughly religious entity or magical power which is able to bring political and social change. In contrast to Marx’s metaphor of ‘commodity fetishism’ in the West, the fetishism here is literal: in the extreme periphery of global capitalism, one may speak of a hyper-capitalism that reveals capital as a religious – rather than pragmatic – force. Above the worldly government, it is ultimately the dead who govern: a theocracy/necrocracy that mirrors so-called ‘secular’ governments all around the world, ultimately governed by the god of capital.

But the film not only reveals the true structure of so-called ‘developed’ countries. It also depicts the Kivung movement as an interesting example of autonomy and self-organisation. The Kivung movement is no cargo cult, not because it wouldn’t imitate the West but – to the contrary – because it actually functions. Apart from being a religious movement, it may simultaneously be considered as a successful grassroots project that functions bottom-up through private funding and without the need for a centralising (worldly) government. Grassroots initiatives that in the past few decades have been mushrooming around the world [4] may be considered the locus of spiritual decolonisation, a locus that is able to give place to the practices discussed above.

*

Somewhere on the furthest outskirts of this planet, there must be a Corona cult that compresses all our fears and fantasies about the virus, all our madness about vaccinations, masks and social isolation into a religious ritual. Corona sculptures will be built, injections will be used for initiation, face masks will be the central element of the performance, all possessed by the coronated queen of a new age.


About the Author

Having studied all around the world, Hannes Schumacher works at the threshold between philosophy and art focusing on post-apocalyptic aesthetics, chaos theory and mysticism. He is the founder of the Berlin-based publisher Freigeist Verlag, co-founder of the grassroots art space Chaosmos ∞ in Athens and member of the artistic collective Vandaloop.

Notes

[1] Jean Rouch, Les maîtres fous (1955)

[2] Chiara Baldini, “Her Share of Divine Madness: Women and the Feminine in Ancient Ecstatic Rituals”; see also Antonin Artaud, “The Alchemical Theater”, in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary C. Richards (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 48-52.

[3] In the cargo cults of Melanesia, locals imitate Western technology with natural materials and related practices in rituals, allegedly believing that this would cause delivery of goods. However, this is a too simplifying explanation of Western anthropologists, thoroughly neglecting the spiritual dimension of indigenous practices. See e.g. Lamont Lindstrom, Cargo Cult: Strange Stories of Desire from Melanesia and Beyond (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1993).

[4] See for example, Educational Heurism I-III, ed. Georgia Kotretsos, The Telos Society Press, 2021-22.

 

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