Books: Driving out spirits - African Ceremonies by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher Abrams pounds 95, 2 vols;

Justin Cartwright on the vanishing world of tribal ritual

I weighed these volumes on the bathroom scales; 16lbs. This is the coffee table book of all time: glorious, stirring photographs of African dances, puberty and seasonal rites, warriorhood, burial, healing and ancestor worship.

The sheer beauty of some of these photographs is stunning. Beckwith and Fisher are both photographers who have devoted a large part of their adult lives to recording the sights of Africa. Beckwith has had a long and rewarding relationship with the Masai, and has seen everything from circumcision to the legendary Eunotu. Now the two of them have roamed far, to see the Dinka Cattle Camps, the beautiful Himba of northern Namibia, the Islamic Tuareg festivals, and the graceful Swazi Reed Dance. And much, much more. I have seen the Swazi Reed Dance and another, even more spectacular Swazi ritual involving hundreds of warriors - in ordinary life farmers, civil servants, teachers and so on - and they are both spectacular. I have also seen the Venda Python Dance, carried out in a small village by the light of a fire. One of the girls taking part invited us to her 21st at her parents' large house nearby. I make these points because I wonder how long it will be before the young of Africa turn their backs on these ceremonies. In Venda, the boys will no longer take part except under duress.

Of course there are places in Africa where CNN does not reach, and there are peoples so isolated that they have hardly seen a car or a white man. But Africans, like everyone else, are joining what is known as the global culture. It is neither global nor a culture, but we know what the phrase means: a certain awareness of popular trends and states of mind, something which teenagers are particularly attuned to. The practices of the bush are seen in many urban communities as faintly embarrassing. That is not to say that folkloric events for visitors will not increase: in Johannesburg now you can see all manner of dancers in feathers and fake leopardskin performing in the relative safety of shopping malls. But in general there is an ambivalence among African leaders towards the old ways. So this book, in all its beauty, is, sadly, the record of something which is passing.

At the same time it is certain that Africans will not forsake their traditional beliefs. Ben Okri once told me that in Nigeria a businessman on the way to an important meeting, if he sees a chicken in the road, will have to consult a seer in order to know what the chicken signified, no matter who was waiting for him in some boardroom. Wole Soyinka was a spirit child, a category of particularly ethereal children, who only partly inhabit the real world and may be recalled at any moment.

Claude Levi-Strauss, frequently traduced, makes the point that religious practice is simply a way of explaining the facts as a society finds them. There is no higher class of religion. If proof were needed, these photographs tell us that every society at all times strives in its own way to fix itself in an uncertain universe.

The text, although informative, is not up to the standard of the photographs. Too often there is an inchoate attempt to suggest that there is great wisdom and enlightenment in these ceremonies, as though their purpose were to provide us with a Laurens van der Post-like revelation. For all that, this is a wonderful and important record of the richness, diversity and numinosity of African ceremonial.

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