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Title:When secrecy goes global: Vodún, tourism, and the politics of knowing in Bénin, West Africa
Author(s):Landry, Timothy
Director of Research:Gottlieb, Alma J.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Gottlieb, Alma J.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Dominguez, Virginia R.; Keller, Janet D.; Silverman, Helaine I.; Stoller, Paul
Department / Program:Anthropology
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):West Africa
Abstract:The transnatinal flow of African religions to the Americas via trans-Atlantic slave trade has been well documented (e.g., Clarke 2004, Largey 2006, Olupona and Rey 2008). However, until this study, scholars had not yet studied the reverse direction in the trans-Atlantic dialogue that now connects Western spiritual tourism industries and Vodún in contemporary West Africa as they develop side by side to meet the needs of both local and international peoples. Addressing this important theoretical gap, I explore how spiritual tourism currently reshapes religious landscapes in Bénin while at the same time Vodún retains its vitality at the local level. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade left an indelible mark on the social landscape that bridges Africa and the African Americas, the flow of African religions did not halt with the abolition of the slave trade. Instead, African religions such as Vodún have continued to move between Africa and the African Americas. Recently, tourism has played a significant role in the transformation of Vodún into a transnational phenomenon. This discussion spotlights the ethical implications that surround the ways that “culture” is “produced” and “consumed” by a variety of local and international agents. Highlighting issues of racialization, power, and post-colonial politics, in my dissertation I examine the ways in which people mobilize concepts and processes of religious secrecy as they engage in dynamic encounters both with each other and with international travelers. In so doing, I explore ethnographic accounts that focus on the ways that local religious practitioners (especially followers of Vodún/Voodoo) negotiate, and in some cases broker, secret religious knowledge through interactions with international tourists. Based on 21 months of fieldwork (3 months pre-dissertation and 18 months doctoral research) in and around Ouidah, Bénin, I examine how local Fon and Yorùbá peoples experience secrecy, while also attending to the transnational movment of secret religious knowledge throughout the African Atlantic as evidence of “realness” and “authenticity” – especially as it relates to spiritual tourism. Drawing on a humanistic approach, I interpret social and symbolic meaning through the lived experiences of many social actors including Jean (my mentor), Marie (my research assistant), and myself. Throughout the dissertation I juxtapose my experiences as a diviner’s apprentice (Chapter 2) with those of foreign spiritual seekers and local Vodún practitioners. As I struggle with belief (Chapter 3) and my own involvement in active economic networks and occult economies (Chapter 4), Jean and his family help me, and many other foreign travelers, understand Vodún in ways that resonate – or, in the words of one tourist, “just make sense.” Focusing on such tourist encounters, I examine the politics of spiritual tourism (Chapter 5) especially as it relates to race and power. I conclude (Chapter 6) by presenting new ways of thinking about how people experience secrecy and firmly position Vodún as a globalizing religion that is supported the the neoliberal conempution of secret knowledge in West Africa and beyond. Here, I discuss tourism, racialization, and power as international travelers engage with secret spaces, objects, and knowledge. I argue that it is in the ways that people maneuver through social spaces of secrecy that one finds value and meaning. Ultimately, I examine the ways in which race, economics, power, gender, and social networks converge to encourage, or hinder, the local and transnational expansion of West African religion
Issue Date:2013-08-22
Rights Information:Copyright 2013 Timothy Landry
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-08-22
Date Deposited:2013-08

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