The Okoroshi: A Review By Emily Pensulo

We say it is our culture. That those who die are not gone but exist in a world we can’t reach when breath still lives in us. They linger over us. Watching everything we do. Punishments or blessings in the palm of their hands. Ready for those who have earned them. The departed long for us to know them and to once more be a part of our world. But they are ancestral spirits now. No longer in the vessels that make it possible to walk on this earth. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. There’re some they’ve captured among us and entrusted with knowledge of who they are. Witchdoctors and spiritualists – mediums between the seen and the unseen world. In days before chiefdoms and kingdoms became countries, we worshipped ancestral spirits. Brought sacrifices to them. We conceived children, crops grew, people did not die of spells. And we were thankful for this.

When the white man came, he said our culture was evil. A worship of demons. We needed to be set free from this thing that kept us bound. We did not see it that way. How could the white man judge what he did not understand? Still, we took what he came with and gulped it down. Education and vehicles, white-collar and blue-collar jobs, trains and planes, the internet, and cellphones.

I am sold to the white man’s way of life. To this way of existing where everything can feel never enough. Something new today, always something better tomorrow. Like a cat chasing its tail, so am I in this life of never-ending wants. And when it got too much, I remembered my culture; the ancestral spirits. The Okoroshi.

And that’s when he appeared to me. In the night, in my dreams. I was sure I would die; fear is as deadly as poison. He danced as though to shake off his scariness and put on an aura of friendliness. Then he chased me, and I ran and ran. I woke up in a sea of sweat from this place that felt so real. Night two, things were different. He chased me and I ran but I gathered the courage to stop. We embraced. I thought we would become the perfect companions.  But I disappeared and became him. The Okoroshi.

For a while things were good. No money worries. No job worries. No rent worries. I only danced and captivated people. Overnight I became a thing of wonder. A tale of success. They threw notes and coins at me. I made more money than I did at my job. I should have remained happy, but something was missing. Where was I in all these things, where was my will, my intellect, my desire, my freedom to choose?

I want to regret all this, but I can’t. I should have kept running and never stopped. Trapped, I now walk the streets of Africa. From Abuja to Nairobi to Lusaka. Through 54 nations of a great continent. They are all like each other. People living in slums and battling disease, having empty bellies and hands always asking for more.

So now if I could I wish I would ask why ancestral spirits let people die of hunger and easily treated diseases. And if I could, I would wonder if there was something else that was agreed to, the fine print in the contract that causes more harm than good on the day Africa decided to call on ancestral spirits and pay homage to them.

Maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t. Who am I to say? All I see is that while the world moved ahead, Africa remained behind. And the ancestors remained silent.

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