Sunday, September 6, 2015

Mamishie Rasta

*This was originally written on August 14th, but due to the laziness of the author and his general ineptitude, it is just being posted now. Get on top of your shit, Machado.

In my life, I have very few hard and fast rules, but I do have some. Most borne out of experience and yet others from premonition. People who know me well may know one such rule: if, in your wandering, you ever come across an individual smoking more than one cigarette at a time, run--there is some wild shit afoot. Whenever the invigorating power of a single smoke just won’t cut it, whenever both time and circumstance dictate such a supreme nicotine fix, perhaps you have arrived at a moment that is somewhat unmanageable. Evacuation is likely the best card to play.

And yet, despite my convictions, I instead found myself far less flight-given even as a writhing Ewe man, doused in seawater and his own sweat, stood just in front of me with two 40-centimeter blades drawn across his own abdomen and neck while he drug vigorously on two spliffs the size of cigars.

But before we get here, maybe I should offer some context:

Pops, the bartender, had been serving me plenty of beer over the past few days.

“You look skinny, Mario. You need to eat more. You need to drink more.”

Pops is the kind of doctor I need--a funny, wry, no-dread Rasta serving up drinks and a philosophy that places good ganja and good friends at the center of this quite, tropical universe. But he is right: between the diet I have maintained during fieldwork in some rural communities, the bout(s) of giardia, and the malaria that I would later learned had been swimming in my system for a few weeks (at least), I had indeed lost weight, quite a bit actually.

“I need my medicine, Pops.”

Pops giveth. A liter-bottle of Club beer manifests in front of me. I feel better already. Amen.

“You should go see Mamishie Rasta, she is very powerful.” Pops encourages me, very matter-of-factly.

I am intrigued. “Who is Mamishie Rasta?”

And this is where the tale begins: Mamishie Rasta, before she was Mamishie Rasta, was just a normal village girl who one day wandered too far into the surf and disappeared into the sea. After a fruitless search, her family held a funeral and laid her memory to rest, if not her body, which was lost to the waves. For many years, it was so, and in the silence that should be expected from the dead, there was no further word of the girl from the village. Then one day, out of the waters of the Gulf of Guinea appears a women dressed in a pure-white gown with dreadlocks that reach longingly, like roots from a banyan tree, down past her knees towards the ground.

Mamishie had been reborn. This is the second-coming, my friends.

Her family questioned, her neighbors pried, and after a careful examination, it was discovered that this mythical creature was in fact the reincarnation of their beloved. But Mamishie had returned with a purpose, with something to share. During her years of absence, she had lived in the ocean among the mer-people--a community of half-seahorse, half-humans that bestowed upon her the sacred knowledge of their gods and divine medicine. Mamishie had returned to spread this knowledge among her people.

The story is amazing and as Pops fills me in on the details (which, even as a good Christian, I can tell he completely believes), I find myself in need of no more encouragement. As a rather godless person myself, I find such a story just as plausible as any other religious narrative. Plus, I am skinny as shit and at this point, after the weeks of disease and drink, anything Mamishie might offer would really be incidental. So after a 1 cedi ($0.25) taxi ride, we find ourselves seated in a hot, windowless room in front of a woman who is even more magnificent in person (not necessarily elegant, certainly not refined, but with a distinct aura of the sea) than the stories we’ve heard.

Our consultation begins, somewhat fittingly, with strong drink: alomo bitters and palm wine, a shot a piece. The bitters don’t go down quite like the palm wine, but we can’t be rude. In my book at least, wasting good drink is a capital offense, quite socially inexcusable. So with this refined sense of maturity and respect, I graciously agree to help my friends and polish off a few more helpings. God help us all

After a brief discussion, we are led into another room with a low-hanging corrugated-tin roof. With few words exchanged, we are gestured into some plastic chairs where we are left to watch the spectacle soon to unfold before us. The room itself--more of an extended porch occupying a courtyard tucked within a labyrinth of closely-built mud and brick houses--was flanked by a series of smaller rooms acting as shrines to a pantheon of gods and goddesses. Around the small doorway leading into each structure, mythical portraits and scenes were depicted with the respective names of the gods scrawled in bold, black letters. The two I remember most vividly are Papa Tongo, a drum-playing merman riding a horse and clothed in leopard skins, and Mamiwater, the penultimate goddess who bore a surprising semblance to Mamishie Rasta herself.

But the material scene slowly and easily fades into the back of my mind. The room was populated by somewhere between 30 and 50 people (such details, as well as a specific chronology of events, remain quite elusive for reasons that will soon become clear). There was a group of shirtless, sweaty men playing a massive array of drums in the far corner while a cluster of women and young children sang rhythmically, occasionally venturing into a dance as the music took them.

This went on for quite some time, perhaps an hour or two or more. In reality, I have no idea how long we sat there watching, the scene was hypnotizing, intoxicating, and as much for the music as for the various fires being lit, joints being passed around, and piles of gunpowder being lit by a small contingency of priestly subjects. The room soon became as thick and heavy as the ocean with a cacophony of sound and smoke and we were all swimming in it--awkward white visitors and community members alike--as the evening began to thrust itself in a different (and unforeseen) direction. At this point, with bellies full of booze and lungs and heads full of earth and smoke, we were all along for the ride.

The drums, the drums, the drums, incessant like a fever and soon reaching to a pitch of madness, began pounding any sense of reason from the atmosphere. Their tempo was conducting the collective departure attained by those possessed souls around me.

I say possessed and I mean possessed.

A few men had arrived on the scene, maybe 3 in total, but it is hard to remember exactly--maybe more, maybe less. These men were quite literally possessed by spirits: spirits that lent great power, spirits that make men strong, spirits that breathe unrepentant life into a world otherwise occupied by well-dressed Sunday-morning churchgoers. Their possession threw them into an intense, almost violent sort of bodily ritual as they stormed around the entire scene from one end of the room to the other. Sometimes they crawled animal-like on all fours. Sometimes they seized rabidly on the floor. Other times, they leaped and stomped the earth in rapture, grabbing any number of various knives and machetes to press against their bodies. Some used blocks of wood to hammer the blades against their abdomens, others simply ran them (with the dull-side against their skin) like saws across their throats.

The spirits make you invincible. The spirits make you strong.

Throughout this process, these men were supplied by the various priests with a chain-supply of hefty spliffs (great hand-rolled cigarettes containing a sweet mixture of tobacco and marijuana) with which to sup their insanity. It was somewhere around this time that I found myself face-to-face with the gentlemen described at the beginning: a twenty-something fisherman whose sinewy body was playing temporary host to one of these various spirits. Swinging, sawing blades in hand and two-spliffs dangling menacingly from his mouth, he only seemed to stop smoking for the brief moments that he howled and yelled and screamed at the heavens. And if I had any lingering doubt as to the authenticity of his possession they were definitely assuaged by the supernatural capacity of the hits he drew from his herbs. They were full and deep and holy and they raced past his throat and lungs and went straight down into his abdomen which lurched forward and sunk backward in fits of hysteria and trembling.

At one point, he placed his large machete on the ground, grabbed my arms and pulled me from my chair. It was unexpected, but I felt wholly unworried, having been cruising at the same altitude as this entire room for some hours now. My only conscious thought in that moment, I remember, was that maybe I could catch a few drags from his spliff, but he had other plans. I was led--not forcefully, but certainly not with any choice to the contrary-- across the room and in front of Mamishie Rasta herself. She was seated unassumingly in the background, having spent the hours monitoring the entire scene and smoking slowly.

My new-friend, in all his possession and intention, pushed me down onto my knees in front of Mamishie. I was then somewhat shoved into a position of reverent prostration at her feet, with occasional respites in which I was expected (and obliged) to place my forehead against Mamishie’s knees. All the while, my friend was likewise placing his forehead against my shoulders and my chest and shaking violently and screaming and just carrying on as if such contact was killing him.

Mamishie looked on. She looked over me. She looked through me. I was in a moment of complete abandon, so incredibly far away from any familiarity that I could draw upon, any memory that might provide me with even a rough blueprint of how to navigate such a place and such moments. It was release on a whole new level and I was burning with something like passion or madness or the reckless singularity that exists at the edge of the cliffs of experience, understanding and knowledge itself.

During a lull in the commotion, or maybe I was just coming in and out of the present, I had a distinct thought--in my head, I heard the soothing voice of a pilot (is this what god sounds like?), and the quiet ding of the fasten-seatbelt light turning off. “We’re gonna be experiencing some turbulence….uhhhhhh, just hang tight…this might be the end. We hope you have enjoyed your flight with us and we hope to see you again soon in the afterlife.”

My last clear memory of the evening is watching my possessed friend, barefoot and glistening with sweat, standing in a bed of hot coals, smoking two spliffs like a fiend and howling into the night air. Through this all, from the beginning of the drums until the soul-rattling climax, the village children wandered in and out, sometimes dancing, sometimes singing, but otherwise treating such a setting as completely normal, even playful.

The drums gradually wound-down and the smoke cleared along with my mind. Sober thoughts rushed to my rescue and my senses became hyper-acute as soon as we stepped into the night and could smell the salt in the air yet again. We walked home slowly, talking little. It was a normally sleepy evening in the villages we passed along the coast with a silence punctuated only by the occasional passing motorcycle or nightjar flying overhead. The whole experience had lasted good 6 hours or so, although in all honesty, in the moment, time seemed quite a foolish notion altogether.

The next day I woke, bright and gleaming as the morning. I was still skinny and I still had malaria (thankfully outpaced by the daily doses of Malerone running through my blood), but I felt like a fucking king. I spent the day on the beach watching the waves without a word.

Whenever I see some manifestation of indigenous beliefs, whether nakedly displayed in its own right or covertly smuggled into the rigid framework of Christian dogma, my thought is almost always: eat shit and die colonialism, eat shit and die religious predation.

Maybe it’s because I am afflicted by a body of intensely rebellious bones, or maybe it’s because I am na├»ve or immature, but the forces that allow such traditions to survive despite the depraved delusions of a hegemonic modernity never cease to inspire me. As much as the exploitative powers of this world--economic, political and religious--have sought to flatten the map and assimilate diversity into their monochrome vision of a deranged world order, the capacity and endurance of the human spirit remains inextinguishable. Despite the wholescale dissolution that colonialism, the slave trade, and missionary conquest have wrought in many corners of the world, such persistence of traditional beliefs is a fact of life that no amount of violence and oppression can change.

I reflect back on the sterile church services that I endured in my youth and I can’t help but think about the demotion that such a bleached-white interpretations of spirituality offer to god. As if he/she/it were something easily consumed, like a multivitamin or a gentle laxative, during the safe, controlled suburban rituals of Sunday mornings. I place such thoughts against the incalculable insanity and zeal that I experienced during my momentary tutelage under Mamishie Rasta. There is no comparison.

In a small fishing village along the eastern Ghanaian coast close to the border with Togo, Mamishie Rasta has created something incredible--a raucous, animal-sacrificing belief system that celebrates equal parts life and death through the rousing effects of drums and plenty of drink. There is no holy book, there is no tithing, just an abundance of fervor and the liberation induced by uninhibited spiritual transcendence.

But I will stop myself before I pontificate too much upon such things (this is a long fucking blog post as is). Hopefully, this story itself will provide more by ways of explanation and understanding than any of my foolish attempts at faux-academic mumbling.

Suffice to say, I prefer my god with a little flavor. And a little bit of herb doesn't hurt either.

From Ghana,

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