Christopher Voncujovi, father of Sena and Pele Voncujovi (’17 & ’19), was born in Ghana to Christian parents. Although his grandfather was a Vodu priest, his own father, a high school teacher discouraged him from Vodu calling it “backward.” He was unsatisfied with organized religion because he wanted a more personal connection to the divine. As a result Christopher read extensively about spiritual traditions around the world and was eventually drawn to Hinduism. He spent the next few years practicing yoga and eventually ended up in Varanasi, India. He practiced Tantra Yoga for ten years under the Hindu organization, Ananda Marga.
However, after realizing that Ananda Marga was more religious than spiritual he left the organization in 1987. Still seeking spirituality he was reintroduced to Vodu by Togbe Tudzi, a one-eyed Vodu priest in his early hundreds. In Christopher’s words: “In five minutes Tudzi showed me spirituality I did not have, even after 25 years of practice.” He was surprised by Vodu’s potency and decided to become a practitioner. He is the founder of the shrine Afrikan Magick Temple.
Ifá is an ancient Yoruba system of belief and divination. This divination system is geomantic, meaning that objects–in this case aviñi seed pods—are thrown by a diviner (bokor) and the binary results recorded. The bokor records “1” if the pod faces up and “11” when it is faced down. Unlike other forms of divination that depend on oracular powers, Ifá utilizes a system of 256 pre-determined signs (kpoli) that are interpreted by a bokor for a given problem.
The Ifá geomantic system consists of 256 signs in hierarchical order. Each of the 256 signs of Ifá has its own songs, proverbs, stories, rituals, herbal remedies and guidelines that are employed by the diviner to interpret and solve a given problem. It thus takes a lifetime to master Ifa.
Spirit possession is encouraged in Vodu, in part because it honors both the possessor and possessed. During possession, the possessed can speak languages they usually cannot speak, have an acute knowledge of herbs and their uses, and even become clairvoyant to benefit humanity. A person after possession usually does not remember their actions during possession. The vodu (spirit) chooses which person to posses – not the other way around. It is an honor to be selected as a spirit medium because many practitioners never get possessed even if they strongly desire it. The possessed, regardless of gender, is called the vodu’s wife.
Mawu Ese: God of Destiny
Mawu Ese is the creator of mankind and the God of Destiny. The Ese refers to the destiny of each person believed to have been written in advance by your inner subconscious self. It is however, subject to repeated editing or rewriting with the help of divination and ritual sacrifice. Therefore, everything in one’s destiny can be acted upon. It is like shifting between parallel universes. Your destiny is in your hands if you know how to navigate it. Common Ewe names associated with Ese are Sena (Gift from Destiny) and Senyo (Destiny is Good).
What is Voodoo?
The word Voodoo or Vodu comes from the Fon and Ewe languages, spoken in present day Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Vodu can be translated simply as “spirit.” Vodu acknowledges that there is a spiritual plain that is interconnected with—and can therefore affect—the observable world. The ultimate purpose of Vodu is to allow practitioners to live in harmony with nature and society. Vodu, like many other African religions, utilizes ancestor worship, divination, spirit reverence, and spirit possession in its practice.
What will Africa lose if it loses traditional religion?
If we lose our indigenous religions, we would lose the traditional healers. If we lose healers we will not only lose a spiritual specialist but also one of Africa’s best keepers and sources of African history, wisdom, and culture. Since the majority of indigenous African religions are oral by nature we would be losing an indispensable treasure trove of knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. This will not only be a serious loss for Africans, but also for academics, researchers, writers, and general seekers of wisdom.
Women in Vodu
Female Vodu priestesses (Hunsi) hold the same level of respect and authority as male priests because a healer’s worth is dependent on the efficacy of their techniques, not gender.
The power of women was very recognized in traditional Ewe society. However, in contemporary African societies, the spiritual power of women is sometimes the basis of discrimination. Women with psychic abilities are more likely to be ostracized in society than men by being labeled as witches. Such women are even exiled to “witch camps” by their communities. It is important to note that the stigma around traditional African spirituality exacerbates this problem. De-stigmatizing Voodoo will thus allow more women to freely express their spirituality without the fear of judgment.
Legba is the guardian of the crossroads and the gatekeeper. He is usually placed in front of the gate or behind the door of an Ifá priest. He is also a trickster who acts as the intermediary between the spirit and physical world. As the only divine messenger of the heavens he is prayed to at the beginning and ending of every ceremony. He is the equivalent of Hermes in Greek mythology, Ganesha in Hinduism, and Eleggua in Santería.
Legba represents the part of our consciousness activated when we have to make a decision—in other words, when we are at a crossroads. Since Legba has the key to every door (every opportunity, every outcome), he is capable of guiding us to the best decision. He likes offerings of palm oil, coconuts, grapes, honey, cigars, and candy.
In Vodu, the drum plays the drummer. The drum possesses the drummer and provides the beats and rhythms to be played. This is why the drum is also considered a spirit and is prayed to before being played. The Ewe people say “evua gli vodu,” meaning the drum awakens the vodu (spirit) inside of you. When the drums are playing, many people get an overwhelming urge to dance or display their prowess. It is like a state of ecstasy – a kind of spirit possession – while being fully conscious. The spiritual significance of drums led slave masters to ban drumming on the Caribbean plantations to avoid revolution. They knew that the African drum had the power to make slaves fearless.
Vodu and the environment
Plants and nature are at the core of African spirituality because they are the raw materials needed for the practice. Herbs are used to make herbal medicines, construct vodus (spirits), cleansing baths, and much more. Each vodu has specific herbs associated with it that can be used to create a physical representation, an energy point, of it to be utilized by a practitioner.
For example, in constructing Vodu Heviesso (a fire spirit), a healer will use atakui, a herb associated with the element fire. For this reason all plants are viewed as sacred because they can be used to benefit humanity. Environmental stability is thus crucial to ensure the plant and animal biodiversity necessary for the practice of Vodu.
“A few years after I was born in Tokyo, my family moved to Ghana because my parents feared the potential discrimination my brother, Pele, and I would face in Japan for being black. Because I am labeled an “other,” regardless of where I go I have learned to appreciate my unique background. For me, learning about Ewe culture and spiritual traditions makes me appreciate and cherish my African identity. This has allowed me to be confident with my identity wherever I go in the world. My love for my culture and the need to present it positively taught me that Africans are not lacking in any way and made me realize that Africans, from across the continent, need to be proud of their achievements and traditions and cultivate an image of themselves and their self-worth that is not dependent on a colonial identity.”- Sena Voncujovi
Fumigation is the act of burning incense (sage, lavender, cedar, frankincense, etc.) or dried herbs to cleanse an area. It clears spiritual and emotional negativity that has built up in a body or a space. When we walk around we not only accumulate physical dust on our bodies, we also amass spiritual dirt. Fumigation removes this negative energy. It also makes it easier for spirits/ancestors to communicate with you in a given space.
A divination occurs whenever a decision needs to be made or a problem needs to be solved. In Ewe culture, a skilled healer is a skilled diviner. To avoid bias it is best not to tell the diviner your problem until after the divination is done; and the diviner is done narrating your specific predicament. The diviner should be able to tell the person what is specifically happening, why it is happening, and what should be done to solve it. A diviner’s worth is dependent on the how well he or she does these three things. The point of divination is not mere clairvoyance but to give specific spiritual, behavioral, and dietary advise to the individual to become the best versions of himself or herself. Divination is thus a great tool for gaining self-awareness.
Vodu and other faiths
African traditional spirituality is open to syncretism. There is a proverb that says, “The sky is large enough for birds to fly around without one having to bump into the other.” For example, a talisman or fetish might contain written verses from either the Quran or Bible or even a seal from Kabbalah. The traditionalist believes in the efficacy of other faiths because God, if he exists, shows no favoritism.
African spirituality is pragmatic. It is about getting tangible results and not maintaining a unitary doctrine. This pluralistic worldview has allowed African religions to thrive in the diaspora. Examples include Cuban and Venezuelan Santería, Haitian Vodou, Congolese Palo Mayombe, and Brazilian Candomblé.
In Vodu, sacrifice is seen as necessary for survival, but this includes being mindful and appreciative of those sacrificed. Before an animal is sacrificed it is given water and told, “Thank you for sacrificing your life to carry out my message.” It is believed that the Atse (an energy that pervades the universe) of the animal is transferred to the vodu and energizes it after ritual sacrifice. Though blood sacrifice has been stigmatized, it is functionally identical to mainstream ritual sacrifice such as Kosher or Halal and is relatively humane: after the sacrifice is offered, the neck is snapped ensuring no unnecessary suffering. Treating the animal well is synonymous with the quality of the offering; an unhappy animal makes for a poor sacrifice.
Who can Practise?
“Vodu allows me to connect with a power that is not specifically located in African culture but in the very fabric of the universe itself. The power to live with meaning, intent, and potency of will ”
-Vikram Kaleka ‘16.5, a biochemistry major at Middlebury College.
Any serious, interested person can practice Vodu with the help of a guiding teacher. As pragmatism—not doctrine—is the goal, Vodu practitioners must learn to be spiritually independent by knowing how to invoke vodu (spirits) to solve specific problems. For example, Vikram Kaleka, born to agnostic parents, is a practitioner, and was initiated into Afrikan Magick Temple in the summer of 2015.
Vodu: Religion or Spirituality?
Vodu, like many African religions, is not a religion but a way of life. It is not a religion because religion implies that it can be separated from other aspects of one’s life. Vodu cannot be separated from Ewe culture, society, or environment because it informs the way the Ewe view the world and interact with it. Vodu is thus the root of Ewe culture, language, ethics, science, art, and so on. The Ewe people believe in the oneness of all things. This interconnectedness necessitates that everything: the river, trees, sea, mountain, the extended family, and even a door, is respected because of its sacred nature.
In the summer of 2015 Pele collaborated with artists Gigi Gatewood and Sunita Prasad to create a short film titled "Like a Knife: The Real Vodu" that documents a modern Ghanaian family balancing their international cosmopolitan life with the practice of African traditional spirituality and medicine. The primary goal of this short film series is to use observation, expert accounts, and close-up views of the traditional practices to demystify Vodu. Beyond a general introduction to the history and practices of Vodu, topics include: herbal medicine, spiritual guidance, animal sacrifice, spirit possession, gender, and the nature of oral tradition.
Christopher Voncujovi: A Vodu Priest and Stage Magician
Apart from being a Vodu priest, Christopher Voncujovi is also a world-renowned magician who has performed in countries like Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Canada, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana. His career as an entertainer demanded an itinerant lifestyle, and as a result, he was able not only to travel but also learn African, Indian, and Western styles of magic, the combination of which he refers to as Afro-Hindu Magic. Mr. Voncujovi has performed at a wide variety of venues: nightclubs, hotels, trains, theaters, cruise ships, theme and amusement parks and elsewhere. He has also performed for events such as the 9th Ordinary Summit of the African Union (July 2007). He is an active member of The International Brotherhood of Magicians.
Sena and Pele Voncujovi have practiced Vodu since birth. They both attend Middlebury College and are former students of UWC Costa Rica. Sena (’17) studies International Politics and Economics, whereas Pele (’19) is still undecided. Although Sena is more knowledgeable in Vodu practice and philosophy, Pele has a gift for photography and film that greatly complements Sena’s talents. Together, they produce work that promotes the understanding and de-stigmatization of West-African religions: including, photo exhibitions, short films, public talks, and more. Follow their Instagram (voncujovibrothers) or Facebook (ReVodution) pages to learn more about how they balance their cosmopolitan lifestyle and their Vodu practice.