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A tale of modern-day slavery raises troubling questions

Published:Friday | October 12, 2018 | 12:00 AM

Bernice L. McFadden's Praise Songs for the Butterflies weaves through the steely web of human existence where traditions collide with modernity, secularism with spiritism, and the sacred with the profane.

McFadden's driving campaign to shed light on ritual servitude in West Africa garners momentum with each passing moment, and we shudder at the revolting scenes of rape, starvation, and disfigurement of girls who become trokoski - a pawn to atone for an ancestral sins.

Abeo, the daughter of Wasik and Ismae, and no more than nine years old, is swept up in this purported law of divine justice. Children, almost all girls, are served to priests, intermediaries between God and man. But this arrangement is a stain on humanity, a sacrilege.

An investigation at Wasik's high-paying job leads to his suspension and the end of an enviable lifestyle. As the family situation disintegrates, his grandmother reminds him of an atonement that must be made. She reminds him that he must appease his god, not a Christian god, but the god of his ancestors for a wrong long committed.

Abeo must be sacrificed. His wife resists but is weighed down by religious and traditional duties. She is the wife of Wasik, after all.

The plot thickens.

"Your family is suffering. You go to that church and pray to that god, but what does he do for you? Nothing! Wasik balled his fist in anger. His mother was right ..."

The author places the scene of this horror in the fictional state of Ukemby. Still, its proximity to Ghana's Elmina Castle and The Door of No Return (where millions of slaves were ripped from families and sold) is telling. Her characters tour the castle. Abeo is very present. But slavery is not a thing of the past. Sophoclean irony was never this real.


Haunting words


Inevitably, evil befalls Abeo. "It was dark outside when they slipped the white robe over [her] head and delivered her to Duma. She had a sense of what was to follow." The haunting words of the those before her reverberate: "He will touch you with the hand of God and your belly will grow big with child."

With the passing of the priest rape escalates in the village. "Sometimes fathers brought their sons - schoolboys who barely understood the workings of their own bodies, never mind that of a woman's. They were all the same to Abeo: fathers, sons, old men, young boys, Duma - all deplorable, all despicable. So no, Abel didn't know who had fathered her son ..."

Stark and hauntingly lugubrious, the author sets the stage for her cause cÈlÈbre. Intentional or not, Butterflies veers into choppy territory. McFadden's work reflects the intrapsychic conflict of the "black imaginary".

Characters see their surroundings through a split prism. "At the Church, Ismae welled with pride as she watched Abeo prepare to take, for the first time in her life, the body of Christ."

Later, it is the European religion she had embraced that commanded her in Colossians 3:18 to submit to her husband. "Not only that, but on her wedding day, her own mother had reminded her - for the hundredth time - that Ismae's place was not ahead of he husband, not beside him, but behind him."

Decisively, colourism is ever present, from the caricaturising of the evil, black man to the "fair skin and light-coloured eyes" of a slave girl that quenches, more than any other, the sexual thirst of a rapist. And that rapist is stereotypically African. Duma, the son of the village priest, "had the blackest heart." He is referred to as "The Evil One and sasabonsam: a vampire. He is "tall, dark, and lanky [with] a flat nose that was so broad, it cast a perpetual shadow over his lips [and] his wide-set, slanted eyes imparted him with a serpentine quality that matched his personality.

"His father is no less hideous, his long toes and black teeth startle all who encountered this vile elder."


A rock and a hard place


That splitting is again evident in Taylor Adams, "the only child of a black mother and a white army office who had abandoned the family just one year after she was born," just enough time to turn her against an entire race of people. But her visit to Africa shifts her racial paradigm. "The revelation that her African brothers and sisters were practising the same atrocities that men had engaged in centuries earlier placed Taylor between a rock and a hard place."

Predictably, "Taylor returned to New York a changed woman. The plight of trokosi hovered over her like a rain cloud."

Shockingly, and indeed, slavery does exist on the continent. Citing Gandhi, Adam responds. She builds a rehabilitation centre, salvages lives and herself in the process.

In one key example of McFadden's dichotomous work, Adam's friend, Allen, engages the evil Duma in a quasi theological debate boasting of his god's magnanimity, a god that commands him "to educate [the girls], teach them a skill, ease them back in society and find them work".

Throughout, there is a thread of white Saviourism (westernisation) that emerges from an otherwise captivating tale. Fetishism, the natural spirituality of every indigenous people (as per Hegel's 'objective spirit') is somehow reduced to sadism, sexual violence, and prostitution. This must be vigorously challenged. Fetishism in pre-colonial or modern day Africa bears no resemblance to what is presented in this work (albeit fictional).

Shedding light on ritual servitude and the overarching abuse of patriarchy is more than commendable but not at the expense of fetishism's sacred beliefs and practices.

More than anything else, Butterflies showcases the intrapsychic conflicts and dysfunctionality of an oppressed people. Purely for psychoanalytic value McFadden scores big.

Book: Praise Songs for the Butterflies

Author: Bernice L. McFadden

Publisher: Akashic Books

Praise Songs for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

ISBN - 978-1-61775-575-0

Available at Amazon

Ratings: Interesting read

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