Six men in flowing white robes stride across the square in Maryal Bai. One village elder, his features gnarled, is wearing a leopard-skin hat. Akoon Duong is a priest, as are his five companions. To demonstrate his spiritual power the old man brandishes an elaborately carved spear, as do the other "spear masters" - the high priests of pagan nature worship. Akoon Duong has inherited these trappings of power from his grandfather, who in turn had received them from his own grandfather.
The men thrust their spears into the muddy ground and dance. One of them pounds out the beat on a bush drum. Scrawny arms flail upward, quivering in ecstasy. They render their songs in high, reedy voices. If there were a drought, they would have had to invoke Deng, the rain god. But this is the wet season; malaria can strike at any time, so they pray for deliverance from disease.
Maryal Bai is in southern Sudan, 15 miles from the no-go area between the Islamic government's militias and the guerrillas of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The village was the demarcation line for the recently ended North-South war and the escalating conflict in Darfur.
Just a few miles to the north, Sharia law - with its punishments extending from whipping to dismemberment - prevails. The South is mainly inhabited by Christians. For decades the region has been ravaged by fighting. Usually over matters of faith.
Camped along the majestic Gazelle River are thousands of refugees, the sableskinned, long-legged people of the Dinka tribe. Once they had fled to Darfur from the war in the South; now they are returning to the lands of their ancestors.
Time has stood still
The clash of civilizations and religions, the focus of so much debate in Europe and America, can be witnessed firsthand here in Africa. And today Maryal Bai is one of its many fronts. Islamic Fundamentalism is advancing from the west, penetrating all the way to the continent's eastern reaches. In some regions it collides head-on with an equally aggressive brand of Christianity. The clashes are becoming increasingly bitter because the desert is expanding, bringing more poverty in its wake. According to Georg Brunold, a Swiss expert on African affairs, a front line is crystallizing here that will spark "decades of war."
Yet, as hard as the two great monotheistic faiths have struggled for supremacy, they have failed to wrest power from priests like Akoon Duong. With its nature deities, the old African mythology is often the only stabilizing force in a world full of suffering, displacement and death, where everything is in constant flux but rarely changes for the better, where - in many respects - time has stood still. This is a world populated by nymphs and sirens, by elfin spirits, sun and moon gods, and by animal deities such as cows, stags, lambs and calves.
At the end of the 19th century, the British ethnologist Edward Burnett Tylor coined the term animism (the Latin word anima means soul or breath) to describe this pantheon, correctly assuming that plants, animals and objects also have souls in the minds of these "primitive peoples."
Cult of the dead
Despite the best efforts of Christian and Islamic missionaries, some 40 percent of the people in Burkina Faso, western Africa, are still considered animist. In East African Ethiopia, a largely Christian domain, the figure is still thought to be 10 percent. Yet these numbers remain pure conjecture. In truth, religious distinctions have long blurred, indeed evaporated, in Africa. Someone who attends church in the morning and the mosque at midday might easily invite a voodoo priest over in the evening to read the kola nuts.
Practically everywhere the cult of the dead intermingles with Christianity, according to religious scholar Fritz Stenger from the Catholic University of East Africa in Nairobi. "There is scarcely any distinction between the secular and religious spheres; faith is omnipresent," says Stenger.
Should a child succumb to malaria, the relatives - according to Stenger - would partly blame the lack of effective medicine. However, the belief that its death was willed by God would carry greater weight. It is therefore no surprise that doctors attending to the sick often arrive with the preacher, medicine man and local sorcerer. Stenger, who has spent more than three decades in Africa, has observed this coexistence of divergent faiths throughout the so-called "Dark Continent."
In Kenya, for example, the modernminded Kikuyu, flashing cell phones and Ray-Bans, happily journey to Mount Kenya and pray to Ngai, the supreme God of the animists - despite often being members of one of the numerous Christian sects, such as the Pentecostals or the gospel churches. In this way, Stenger adds, Christianity and the pagan belief in nature deities and demons mutually impact one another. The existence of a god of creation in nearly all pre-Christian African religions encourages this process.
This cross-fertilization is not as strange as it may sound, even to Christians in the West. Something quite similar occurred there centuries ago, "when pagan Germanic customs mingled with Christian rites," says Stenger. "Even Christmas - that most traditional of Christian celebrations - has ancient Germanic roots."
In Benin City, Nigeria's "human trafficking hub," where the women from the region's slums begin their journeys to Europe's red-light districts, the path to the gods of nature runs through a backyard reeking of urine. The voodoo priest Chief John Odeh receives his flock in a white gown. His upholstered throne is trimmed with red satin. Beside him hang drums made of cowhide and the sword-like insignia of his position, known as Eben and Ada.
"Christianity has destroyed our culture. The people have lost faith in our ancient gods and values," the animist priest laments. Ape skulls, amulets and shells are laid out on the concrete floor of the adjacent garage. Figures of Ogun, the god of iron, Orunmila, the god of wisdom, and Olokun, the god of waters, adorn this unusual shrine. Osalobua, the supreme God, punishes theft swiftly and without mercy, says Odeh. And the dead hear every lie told by the living. "The pastors go to church in the morning and preach Christianity," says the voodoo priest. "And in the evening they come to me and speak with their forefathers."
Does He approve?
Odeh shrugs his shoulders. "Christianity cannot compete with our ancestors. Your God is impotent against Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. That's why the Christian pastors in Nigeria all die so young." The voodoo priest is holding some kola nuts in his hand. He scatters them on the dusty floor and prophesies the future. His predictions are as accurate as horoscopes in the yellow press.
Odeh celebrates his masses in Otofure, a village some 20 minutes from Benin City. This, inside the tropical jungle, is the realm of Owa Oba Asoon, a weathered wooden figurine with a greenish sheen that embodies the King of the Night. The priest blows into his cow horn, the altar boys beat their drums. The ground is littered with animal skulls, fetishes - and empty liquor bottles.
As the voodoo mass begins, Odeh flourishes a chicken over his head, mumbles unintelligible incantations and pours liquor over the skulls. Then he takes a knife and cuts the bird's throat. Blood fountains in every direction, splattering onto the wooden fetishes - crudely carved figures with huge penises. More liquor is dispensed, another invocation mumbled, bringing the juju ceremony to its conclusion. Tribute has been paid and the King of the Night appeased.
Satisfied, Odeh pockets the $100 this service nets and hustles to his car. The faithful are waiting in the city. Nervously he glances at his watch, which is made of gold. His car too suggests an affluent lifestyle. "Oh well," he says disingenuously, "that's how things are nowadays. Nothing's free in life except death."