Egúngún, right here in NYC

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As may have been clear when I wrote about it in February, I was in serious awe and admiration of the egúngún masquerade that I saw during the Vodoun festival in Benin. I really didn’t know much about the tradition before visiting; I had mostly just seen photos that blew my mind and convinced me to visit. Since then, I’ve been reading up on it, and the subject grows more and more fascinating with every word. It also grows more and more confusing in certain ways, due to nuances in the cultures, religions, and ceremonial practices of close but not entirely similar peoples who share the egúngún tradition, like the Fon in Benin and the Yoruba in Nigeria.  So, I will quote liberally from authoritative texts rather than try to explain things in my own very unauthoritative words.

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Last weekend I was excited to visit the Brooklyn Museum for their exhibit of an egúngún costume made some time between 1920 and 1948 in Nigeria by a family called Lekewọgbẹ. The museum describes the exhibit as:

“the life story of a twentieth-century Yorùbá masquerade dance costume (egúngún), from its origins in Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́, Nigeria, to its current home in Brooklyn. Composed of over three hundred textiles from Africa, Europe, and Asia, this egúngún swirls into motion during festivals honoring departed ancestors. Centuries old, egúngún is still practiced in Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and in the Yorùbá diaspora.”

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Also according to the Brooklyn Museum, egúngún is a Yoruba word that can refer to three distinct but related things: “all Yoruba masquerades, a specific masking society and related festivities, and the particular masks used in those events.” Egúngún masquerades go back hundreds of years to the sixteenth century.

“Most often appearing at annual festivals that honor immortal ancestors, egúngún also emerge on special occasions or at moments of need. The masks are vessels for communal ancestral spirits and, as such, are active only when occupied by those forces or ny maskers embodying those spirits. Men who perform egúngún remain human while temporarily taking on a spiritual dimension as they physically manifest unseeable ancestral forces. As dancers must conceal their human form to achieve this, they also wear gloves and long socks; a mesh panel at the front permits them to see during performance. …

During festivals, the masked egúngún travels from the shrine or grove to the streets and public centers, accompanied by drummers, singers, ritual specialists, and crowds of followers. These festivals reunite ancestors with the living, who assure the success of their community by lavishing praise and ceremony on the returned relatives. Spreading breezes of blessing in return as it whirls and dances, the egúngún allows the ancestors to participate in the present.”

My interest was piqued when I read that the egúngún tradition is alive and well in the Yoruba diaspora, including Brooklyn. A quick Internet search led me to the realization that the annual Isese Festival featuring an egúngún masquerade is just around the corner on Sunday, June 2. It starts at 11:00am at Locks of Nu Natural Hair Salon, 2000 Fulton Street. The procession will then make its way through the streets of Bed-Stuy. It is firmly on my calendar and I can’t wait to go. If you’re in the NYC area, I encourage you to come, too!

Here’s the invite from their site:

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a super shitty story

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I don’t know why but I have been looking forward to telling this story since the moment it started with a bang. Perhaps there is catharsis in the public airing of my literal dirty laundry. Perhaps I am a perverse exhibitionist. Perhaps I just like talking shit.

On that note, I plan to italicize every statement in this post that is both literally and figuratively true. Because if I’ve realized anything over the course of this very shitty time, it’s that the word “shit” is a stand-in for basically anything and everything in American culture. Why is that? Could it be that our culture is as obsessed with poop as I am? I’ll come back to that later. First I have to tell you how this shit started. Continue reading

Ghana: Kakum National Park

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I am so behind on posting about my travels. This is the conclusion of my January vacation series, more than three months after the fact. But as you’ll soon learn, Ghana was the gift that keeps on giving, so perhaps it’s fitting that my final post about the country is written from the vantage point of someone whose body left months ago but whose digestive system remains stuck there. My next post will deal with that sordid affair, but for now let’s stick to Ghana’s natural beauty, on full display at Kakum National Park

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Our Lady, Notre-Dame

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After living in Paris for much of 2017, my last week was the one between Christmas and New Year’s. On December 22, I stayed out all night with a couple of new friends and we bar hopped from speakeasy to speakeasy. I meant to post about it here but I never did (maybe I will get around to it one day…).

The idea to visit a bunch of speakeasies in one night came to us after we discovered a shared passion for exploring the city. The challenge to stay out all night was my addition to the plan. I believe that spending 24 hours wide awake in any given city reveals otherwise unknowable things about it and also inspires high-on-life-low-on-sleep euphoria that forever solidifies one’s connection to it.

That’s exactly what happened on that night in Paris. We visited four or five speakeasies between 10pm and 4am. After we decided we had had enough of bars, we made a last-minute change of plans and wandered around until we found a 24-hour brasserie close enough to the Seine to hop out at dawn and watch the sun rise over the river.

The brasserie happened to be just across the bridge from Notre-Dame, and as we walked across the plaza in the first hints of light, I realized that the cathedral would open to the public in just fifteen minutes. Nobody was waiting outside, so after another last-minute change of plans, we were the first to go in when the small entrance within the huge wooden doors opened.

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I had passed Notre-Dame many times during my nine months in Paris, but I had only been inside once before, on a family trip to Europe when I was 13 or 14. It was so packed that I could barely see a thing, and I was therefore underwhelmed. This time, the cathedral was nearly empty, very dark, and decorated for Christmas.

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The stained glass in the rose windows looked black; it was still too dark outside for the colors to shine through.

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Although the light inside came from electricity, there was so little of it that the cathedral resembled how it must have looked when candlelit hundreds of years ago.

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The only thing I could hear was the sound of my own footsteps falling and snatches of a hymn being sung by choir members near the altar. Maybe they were practicing for the next night’s midnight mass, or maybe they were getting ready for the first mass that morning. I walked through the nave feeling the sacredness of the space, the peacefulness of the moment, and a deep gratefulness for having visited Notre-Dame in such a special way.

Watching the cathedral burn this evening was heartbreaking. Notre-Dame connects millions of people who have been awed by it for over 850 years, and if that chain is broken it would be a tragedy for all of humanity. But it would especially be a tragedy for all those who have not yet visited and felt its power.

That goes for people of all religions or none at all. Notre-Dame belongs to all of us – the “notre” is everyone’s “our,” not just Catholics’. I’m not a religious person, and if I were it would be in the Jewish and not the Catholic faith. Yet cathedrals move me in a way that feels unexplainable, given my lack of belief. Actually, it is entirely explainable. Gothic architecture objectively evokes an emotional response, a sense of wonder and holiness. While cathedrals hold a special purpose and meaning for Catholics, they are special, full stop, for everyone.

In my opinion, Notre-Dame is not among the most beautiful of Paris’s cathedrals, but it is one of the most magical. It has towered majestically over the banks of the Seine since the 1100s, when Paris was in its infancy. Created by humans in a remarkable feat of engineering and ambition, it has witnessed and outlasted countless other human dramas including the Revolution (and all those other counter-revolutions and rebellions I once learned and have since forgotten about) and two World Wars. It was around before the plague! Almost every important figure in French history must have been inside at some point.

It is a beloved fixture of the Paris landscape, at its heart and in its heart. As I said, I’m not religious. I identify as agnostic, and if I had to choose one way or the other, I’d say I don’t believe in God. But in spite of that, I found myself praying this evening. “Please, God, in whatever form you take, let there be some sort of miracle that allows Notre-Dame to escape nearly unscathed. Please let nothing truly irreplaceable be lost. Please let it be possible to rebuild so that people still feel connected to humans who lived a thousand years before them. Please let Notre-Dame continue to survive threats of destruction, just as it has done before, as a testament to the sacredness, ingenuity, resilience and beauty of humanity itself.”

That December morning in Notre-Dame, we only spent a few minutes inside, because we didn’t want to miss the sunrise entirely. I took for granted that the cathedral would always be around, but the dawn would only last a few more minutes. We quietly left the cathedral and walked around to the back of it, where these views awaited us.

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My heart aches to think about the view looking back at the people in those buildings tonight.

Ghana: Elmina and Cape Coast

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The bulk of the planning for my Benin-Togo-Ghana trip went into the Benin portion, and I figured that I’d play it by ear in Togo and Ghana. Had I done a bit more research ahead of time, I would have realized I’d want two days to explore Elmina, Cape Coast, and Kakum Park. Instead, I tried to cram it all into one very long day trip that started at 6am and ended at 9pm in Accra. There was not a minute of downtime in the itinerary, aside from a lunch that tried to kill me. More on that another time. Continue reading

Ghana: Accra

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I’m heading to Sierra Leone tomorrow, and I still haven’t posted photos from the Ghana portion of my vacation, nor from the Casamance region of Senegal, where I went for work a couple of weeks ago. In an effort to catch up,  here is a quick and dirty recap of Accra (and you can read a few stories about some of the women I met in the Casamance here).  Continue reading

Togo: Lomé

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At the border between Benin and Togo, I got out of the car and walked across the border on foot. There were no problems, just a little bit of a wait. My driver, who had some sort of laissez-passer travel document, went across in his car and met me on the other side.  IMG_6043

From there it was about an hour and a half to Lomé, where we parted ways. I had a day and a half to wander around the city before I was due to cross the border into Ghana and head to Accra. Continue reading