Updated: Mar 15, 2018
By Nancy Monnya
We have watched Marvel’s recent ground breaking movie, Black Panther, directed by Ryan Coogler, and have all come up with interpretations of the movie; from the representation of Killmonger, to the role Africa has played by neglecting to open channels that would have allowed Africans in the Diaspora to reconnect with their motherland. Discussions have been sparked by the technologically advanced Wakanda and we are seeing the rekindling of African pride. Something that was virtually non-existent. We have also seen dialogues around the depiction of women, especially the role of the Queen mother, the tech-wiz Shuri, and most importantly the Dora Milaje, who were evidently inspired by the ancient warrior women of the mighty Dahomey Kingdom, present day Benin.
Noticeably the dissecting of this movie always leaves one of the most crucial parts, in my opinion, the most important of all the depictions in the movie – African spirituality. This is a topic that most people, sadly Africans too, avoid in any situation, and the same is happening with the discourses around this movie.
“Camagu!” This is a phrase in the Xhosa language of Southern Africa, which literally means ‘greetings’. But Camagu cannot be liked to phrases such as hello, or hi which are also greetings in the English language. Ba kwa Ntu, who are known as Bantu, are a people whose spirituality was and still is not reserved for special days, or events and venues as observed in many religious practices. umuNtu is regarded as the physical form in which the spiritual form, the essence of Ntu, resides. This is not to say the human form carries all the supreme energy that is Ntu, but rather it carries part of it; as the human form is part of that which is creation and creation carries the essence of life.
Ba kwa Ntu spans the length and breadth of Africa, from the Ngunis in the south to the Igbos in the west, Luba, Sukuma, Kikuyu of central parts of Africa and many others; some of which Western demarcation of Africa’s people and their languages has left out. Just as the Xhosa’s say Camagu! All the other tribes have their own sayings reserved for greeting and acknowledging the ancestors.
One of the most important ceremonies in the movie’s mythical country Wakanda, is the coronation of the King. This involves a journey to the ancestral land where the new King T’Chala meets his ancestors who were also Kings before him. This journey begins with the new King drinking the mythical herb as Zuri the diviner makes incantations for him to be transported to the land of his elders. These incantations are preceded and followed by ‘Camagu!’ a greeting and acknowledgement of the ancestors as well as an agreement to the incantations. It is common practice for those who go to seek the assistance of an inyanga, a diviner or healer, to say ‘makhosi! or camagu!’ at the beginning of the consultation as a greeting, during the consultation as acknowledgement and agreement, as well as at the end of the consultation to symbolize acceptance of the messages from the ancestors as well as a form of farewell. The new King is then buried, while still alive to symbolize his transcending the world of the living. Not only does this highlight one of the most important practices in African spirituality, which is the veneration of ancestors, it also shows the process of the rising of the departed in the ancestral plane. Having been buried and risen in the land of his ancestors, the new King T’Chala becomes a revealing signifier of the process of life and death in African spirituality; that life does not begin and end but rather it transcends to another plane of existence.
We see the old King T’Chaka and those who preceded him on the tree. They remain in their spirit form, the panther; while the old King goes down to meet his son. This is symbolic of another aspect of African spirituality, be that it has a name such as Ifa, Voudoun, or as widely recognised - African spiritual belief systems. The veneration of ancestors involves having one or two of your departed loved ones being the ones used to deliver messages to you. These are people who you know and can relate to, people you would trust. It is the same with young King T’Chala and the old King T’Chaka. His messages could have been delivered by any of his ancestors but it has to be his father, whom he knows and can easily relate to. What transpires on the ancestral plane includes the young King being told to ‘stand up now that he is a King’, and an opportunity for him to have closure. These highlighted some of the important reasons for the veneration and acknowledgement of one’s ancestors.
Eril Killmonger’s journey to the ancestral plane is different, yet still symbolic. His journey takes him instead to his departed father’s apartment. This is important for these reasons: Erik’s father was not buried at home, and therefore did not join his ancestors. Africans we refer to a person’s passing as ‘joining their ancestors.’ Erik’s father did not get that chance because his brother did not afford him the honor. This in turn denies Erik the honor of meeting his ancestors, and not just his father. He is therefore left with only one spirit to guide him, a lost spirit, as his father pointed out. This seemingly insignificant part of the movie highlights the importance of proper burial that African spirituality does not take for granted.
Another proud display of African spirituality is seen during the King’s coronation, when he is stripped off the Black Panther’s superpower. The same happens when he is about to go through ritual combat with Erik. As the power of the mythical herb removes the superpower from him, the entire gathering starts rocking in unison. Not only is this a signifier of the importance of working in unison spiritually, it also mimics some of the people of the Dogon’s mask dances, and most noticeably the Sangoma dances of Southern Africa. The Basotho of Lesotho also have similar shoulder rocking dances during Lebollo ceremonies, when the young initiates return home covered in their traditional blankets. These shoulder rocking dances can also be found in traditional dances by men and women. These dances are refered to as Mokibo, or Kiba in Sepedi, one of the official languages of South Africa. The Sangoma shoulder rocking is normally done while kneeing, either at the entrance of the yard before they (the sangoma initiates) enter the yard; as well as during a consultation and when amaThongo (ancestors) are manifesting. When amaDlozi, which are spirits that possess a person to become a healer, which are different from amaThongo, are at work, the rocking can also be noticed, and it is often involuntary. The same shoulder rocking can be observed with spiritual consultations with a Voudoun priest or priestess.
***photo cred: flikriver
Spirituality in the movie appears to be linked to everything, including the technology around them. Whether deliberate or not, this points to the ancient Kemetic knowledge of spirituality and science. In ancient Egypt, spirituality and science were inseparable, and this appears to be the same in Wakanda. The same herb they use during their spiritual rituals is used to power their technology. It is sown into their clothes and appears to be in everything around them. Vibranium is the energy that holds Wakanda together.
This is the revelation of how science stems from that ancient knowledge, the knowledge that things such as the magnetic field are not the discovery of some clever intellectual, but rather a result of the movement and relationship of what is called energies. They understood these energies to essentially be spiritual manifestation of elements such as metals and other natural objects when aligned in the correct order. The human body is made up of the same elements that are found in nature and there appears to be a link, a need of one by the other. Wankanda is a reminder of that interdependency that humans have with nature. This is the essence of African spirituality; that the essence of life and the supreme energy that led to the creation of the universe, runs through us as well as through everything that lives, from animals, to rocks to tree. The powerful little herb can be likened to the plant medicines and herbs that are used in African believe systems, and their potency; muti, mere, ogwu and so forth as known in our native tongues.
N’Jobu, Erik Killmonger’s father responds to King T’Chaka’s greeting by saying, “We thank Bast”. Bast or Bastet is the ancient Kementic goddess who is often depicted as a cat, and is known as the protector of the royal house. The acknowledgement of this goddess bridges the gap that seems to keep the ancient Kemetic beliefs systems distance from the rest of Africa’s spiritual systems. Depicting Wakanda as venerating amaThongo as well as acknowledging the goddess Bast seamlessly bridges that gap.
Another link to ancient Egypt is the crossing of arms that is done by general Okoye, and the Dora Milage, by Shuri and her brother King T’Chala when they greet each other, and pretty much by everyone in the movie. It is commonly known as the Osiris cross and seen as a representation of life.
The depiction of spirituality in the movie may appear subtle, but they cannot be missed by those who have come to understand African spirituality. And as we are all aware, the power of motion pictures lies in our ability to retain visual information and be influenced, consciously and subconsciously, by it. By the depictions in the movie, not only did the director Ryan Coogler manage to bring to life the aspirations of Africans across the world, to see an Africa that is self sufficient; an Africa that knows her riches and strives to connect all its people across the world, he has also managed to inspire young people and show that just like Wakanda, Africa can use it’s richness in minerals to technologically develop itself. Lastly, Coogler and the cast managed to bring to the screens a positive and un-watered down African spirituality; one that is neither demonized nor feared. It is in fact a normal way of the Wakandans and the foundation of their success! The Wakandans know their gods and the importance of amaThongo.
Video showing shoulder rocking by Basotho of Mafikeng in South Africa. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FVMPeejCFVk (Video cred: Janissa Balcomb)