Bleak Sunsets & African Spiritual Technology
It’s bright and I’m scrolling again, on Twitter this time. Bitcoin and NFT prices are crashing, discourse around the overturning of Roe V. Wade dominates our digital town square. From tech to biology people all around the world seem to be trying to decipher what’s real, to uncover the truth. Is a foetus a real human? Are NFTs real art? Can a decentralised digital currency succeed? It’s hard to read with UV rays bouncing off your screen. Nature is calling me back to it. The only thing I know for sure right now is that the sun is real. There’s no disputing it, it exists outside of the pantomime. It rises and sets regardless of human activity and will likely follow this cycle for a couple billion more years after all of us are long gone. It doesn’t need us like London needs us. Not to rehash Anarcho-primitivist “return to nature” sentiments, but take the night bus across the city, and pay attention to what's happening outside your window. Hopefully, you’ll see what I mean.
I happen to have started believing in demons on one of those rides. Maybe as a means to cope with the schizophrenic nature of the city and its ability to fluctuate between polished glass skyscrapers and dystopian-esque landscapes in the blink of an eye, or maybe because they are actually real. According to the Bible, they are. According to the Bible, there are also several types of angels yet only a few happen to have taken a stronghold in our collective consciousness. How did we determine which angels were the most real?
The sun stops blaring in through my window. I google what the other angels look like and some are not too far off from how we’d typically depict demons. One takes shape as a pair of interconnected burning rings with multiple eyes, another a large singular eye with wings. The most intriguing of them all, to me, the archangels, supposedly emerge as sunbeams. Currently cancelled artist Kanye West once tweeted: ‘Iterations of ideas are how cultures evolve’. So why do we shy away from these iterations of angels, are they not our ticket to infinity? Isn’t knowing things that may appear frightening, foreign or pernicious could be pure, holy and loving a lesson we want to pass down?
The algorithm suggests a video on African spiritual technology. I click on it. An hour, eight minutes and thirty-six seconds of scripture from the University of Ghana’s former Associate Professor of religion and ethics Kofi Asare Opoku:
AFRICAN PROVERB FROM VIDEO: TRUTH IS LIKE A BAOBAB TREE, NO ONE PERSON HAS ARMS LONG ENOUGH TO EMBRACE IT.
AXIOM FROM KOFI OPOKU: THERE IS NO SINGLE CULTURE THAT HAS ALL KNOWLEDGE, ALL TRUTH IN ITS EMBRACE. IF WE WERE TO SURROUND THE BAOBAB TREE WE’D VIRTUALLY HAVE TO HOLD HANDS BEFORE WE CAN SURROUND IT.
Arched over my screen I begin to tunnel through the crevices of my mind. Submerged in its vast interconnected canals I attempt to create meaning from all this. Then, without warning, memories begin to flow, appearing in strange syncopated bursts from various phases of my life. Mediated encounters with artefacts linked to the spiritual traditions of tribes from Cameroon and Tanzania, the countries I spent a significant portion of my formative years in. Most of them, shrouded in negativity and the dismissal of said objects as evil, primitive or idolatrous by the people around me, a perspective I naturally adopted myself. However, Opoku’s lecture offers an alternative take on African spiritual traditions. He reminds us some of the oldest civilizations known to man existed on the African continent and the knowledge and practices of these people allowed them to function prosperously. In the lecture, Opoku shares a story of a faction of a European construction company on a mission to build a harbour in Ghana held up by their failed attempts to remove an ancient tree with heavy machinery. Following several failed attempts they turn to a spiritual leader of a nearby community who touches and speaks to the tree after which it is uprooted by a few men and some rope, or so the story goes.
The metaphysical aspects of this anecdote are difficult to blindly accept but aren’t what strikes me about the story. I think what's important here is how the narrative juxtaposes two understandings of the world. Opoku’s story reminds us of the existence of valid alternative modes of being, operating and understanding outside of the traditional frameworks of Western knowledge. Rarely do we encounter media that not only places distinctly African modalities in proximity to western ones but also allows them to triumph. There may be reasons linked to force, angulation and the structure of the tree which explain why the spiritual leader and his men's methods were better suited for its uprooting. However, these do not undermine the understanding and connection the people have to the land. A knowledge that may exist outside of the western view of the world. Something akin to what American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna often refers to as ‘the mystery’: strange inexplicable things we experience, unknown knowings we tend to write off as deja-vu or coincidence. I find traces of it when I think back to the feelings that arose from my aforementioned ride on the night bus. A trip I have taken a hundred times before, through streets I spent the better part of the last decade on, but hadn’t taken the time closely examine.
I look up from my screen and catch the sun disappearing behind Canary Wharf’s monuments to capitalism, HSBC, Barclays, Citi Bank and the iridescent lights of the city take its place. It’s almost like nothing has changed. The city still bursts with life, the stars erased from the sky by its glow.