Mama Africa

A documentary film reclaims precolonial histories and spiritualities between Nigeria and Venezuela.

Still from Mama Africa.

For Afro Venezuelans, Africa is a sacred land that embodies and represents histories and spiritualities they lost when they were forced to other destinations and times. Their imagined connection with the continent is a repertoire of cultural practices and beliefs that live in tension with the Catholicism that many of them embrace. Mama Africa grapples with the community’s longing to re-connect with Africa. Directed and produced by the Afro Venezuelan filmmaker Benito Marquez, the documentary focuses on Yoruba religious practices and their resonance with the spiritual life of Afro Venezuelans.

Afro Venezuelans incorporate Oludumare, who according to Yoruba religion, is the creator of everything in the universe, into their spiritual life. One poignant example of Oludumare’s manifestation involves a form of divination known as Ifa. Ifa is not only a source of knowledge and spiritual practice, but also a notion that captures times and spaces beyond western imperialism (experienced in the transatlantic slave trade as well as colonialism). Ifa becomes a hope for re-rooting the African de-rooted through slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism, because, as the Nigerian Professor Owo Baba Onigbinde says, “Ifa is where [they] are created.”

Another critical source of connecting spirits with the living and Africa with its diaspora are Yoruba practices of music, drumming, and dance. This is reiterated by Solagbade Popoola, the Nigeria- based Yoruba religious leader. What goes on in the diaspora, according to Popoola, “is just an extension of what we do here … it means that connection between the diaspora and motherland has never been cut. We may not see it physically but it was never cut … but it is always there … it is only for us to explore it.” One useful way of exploring this connection is music. For Popoola, music is a central medium of communication among people as well as between spirits and people. He says music “brings all of us together all the time … I have listened to most Cuban music and Brazilian music; they are actually Yoruba music.” Echoing this, another Yoruba man Olorum Nimbe Popoola stresses, “distance might have taken us away from each other. There is one thing you should always know. Blood is thicker than any other thing … we might be apart in terms of distance, but we are always together … the blood ties [sic] is always there.” This sentiment is accompanied by an open invitation for the diaspora “to trace their origin back to Africa: be it Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya … anywhere. It is what they need to do because this is where their origin is,” as Ifagbenusola Popoola insists.

Mama Africa interweaves the personal and the political by zeroing in on the recollections of individuals and linking them to broader issues. As a result, viewers get to appreciate how race, colonialism, capitalism, and the struggle for freedom and inclusion infuse Afro-Venezuelan spiritual practices and community understanding of those practices. Participants in the documentary share their frustrations and grievances about how colonialism and neocolonialism dispossessed Africa of its social, economic, political, spiritual, historical, and epistemic wealth. This is most visible in the Nigerian activist Oludayo Adeyinka Adetayo’s statement where he reflects on western domination and resource exploitation. For Adetayo:

The problem with Africa is white supremacy … you see, Africa has the richest soil, the richest raw materials, the richest anything you may think. We have copper, iron, zinc, petrol, gas … but the problem we have in Africa generally is white supremacy. America, England … IMF, the United Nations put so much pressure on Africa. They are taking Africa out of existence … capitalism is like a poison. It is eating us. Capitalism is about greed, selfishness, oppression. Capitalism is an evil way of making some people richer and some people poorer. That is why the Western world will always suppress […] people fighting for the masses.

Similarly, the search for one’s roots is seen as a collective struggle central to reinforcing cultural political, legal, and economic claims by African diasporas. For instance, Afro Venezuelan activist Lendis Solarte critiques the lip service of identity celebrations like the “day of Afro descendant Afro Venzuelans.” He also acknowledges that under the presidency of Hugo Chaves Frias “we were made visible … there is a law against racial discrimination … that is an extremely important step … we are already inserted within the laws of our country.” But for Lendis, the struggle should not end there. He says:

Because we have some representatives in the political part, or because we have about two governors, or maybe three mayors who may be Afros or blacks, or because we have two or three ambassadors who can be black, I consider that the work does not end there. I consider that the work is for example in doing what is being done. That young people do not have the need to travel to the big cities to professionalize, also that new opportunities be opened …

As much as this documentary places the Afro Venezuelan desire to re-connect to Africa within broader historical and contemporary struggles against global and historical inequalities, it practices its own curious form of marginalization, in that almost all of the voices are male. Women are mentioned mostly in passing or when they appear they say only a few words. For example, we hear about women when Lendis Solarte speaks about his relatives. The first woman, Jacksnellys Cleofe Rojas, appears at the twenty-second minute mark to pray for her family and the Afro descendant community as well as briefly explain her work on drums and drumming. One wonders how this narrative of connections lost and re-forged would have sounded if the women also spoke.

Further Reading