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.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried