How do we establish a healthy dialogue with our past without affecting our ability to remain in the present? Remaining fully in the present is often regarded as an essential part of letting go and centering our focus to our current situation. However, is paying some of our attention to the past a complete disservice or are there ways in which we can connect with our past to understand ourselves better and navigate our present in a healthier way? Connections to ancestry is a strong feature in a lot of the history of African societies and kingdoms. This connection was used, in part, to establish healthy dialogues with the past as a means to equip people with knowledge to resolve obstacles or challenges of the present. One example of this can be seen in the art of the Fang people which was used, in part, to symbolise the close connections established with past and present.
The Fang people have inhabited regions of present day Equatorial Guinea, north Gabon and the South of Cameroon since the 19th century. The Fang were a nomadic people known for their skills in agriculture and art as well as their ability to cultivate space and inhabit deep within the rainforests of central Africa. Here are some features of the close connection between present and past among the Fang:
Sculptures: Byeri (the cult of ancestors) was a key aspect of Fang culture. As a people that were very mobile, changing settlements every two or three years, part of their way to commemorate the deceased of their villages was through the Byeri sculpture: “each Fang lineage (ndebot) retained the skulls of their most illustrious ancestors, considering them to contain their super natural powers that had allowed for their success while alive” as described in Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary by Alisa LaGamma. The bones and skulls of deceased community members were gathered into bark containers which were protected by the Byeri sculpture. The sculptures played an important part in Fang society by acting as a bridge between past and present, they were a means for the Fang to connect with their ancestors and seek assistance for challenges that arose in their lives. In addition, the sculptures were used during the initiation process of young Fang men to educate them about their ancestors and used as a way for them to experience the energy and essence of the ancestors of their lineage. It was perceived that the sculptures were “the embodiment of mvoe, a sense of well-being and unsurpassable harmony that encompasses physical good health, psychological stability, and social peace”, which draws attention to the importance of creating a space to establish a link with your past to assist in manifesting calm in your present.
Family: The strong connection to ancestry among the Fang can also be seen in the names reserved for infants within a family, stemmed from the belief that offspring were the embodiment of ancestors. Ate means father in the Fang language, this term was used by fathers when addressing their infant sons. This serves as another example of the close connections to past and present established among the Fang which assisted in establishing a sense of Bipwe (balance) in the communities.
Feeling lost in the present can be an overwhelming feeling which can trigger stress and anxiety over how to navigate through life. The presence of Byeri among the Fang offers an insight into one way of connecting past with present to manifest a sense of balance. By setting aside time to create a dialogue with our past, this can offer insights into how challenges were tackled by those of our past and provide us with much needed inspiration to shape our responses to the challenges that we encounter in our present. We cannot live in the past, but we can definitely learn from it.
Fang Reliquary Figure – Smart history
Eyema Bieri (Reliquary Guardian Figure) – Imo Dara
Fang reliquary art: Its quantities and qualities – James Fernandez and Renate Fernandez
Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary – Alisa LaGamma
*Image taken from Pinterest