My name is Louise Müller and I am a West Africanist, who is conducting research on the role of New West African films in the empowerment of West African women in southeast Amsterdam (the Bijlmer district), as a follow up of my postdoctoral research for the Research Institute for History and Culture at Utrecht University. In 2009-2010, I carried out a media use and reception study in the Bijlmer district for this institute. The majority of all West Africans in the Netherlands live within the Bijlmer district; in addition, a large number of African-Surinamese people live there. I conducted interviews on what media these West Africans and African-Surinamese people use, why they use them and for what purposes they use them. My main concentration and that of the rest of the focus group was on the role of media in the formation of identities among migrants in the Netherlands. In terms of media I researched both the frequency of use and the interest in the content of old and new media. For example, I asked questions about the type and names of programs that these West Africans listened to or viewed on old media like the radio and television and on new media like the Internet. Previous Bijlmer studies of the Dutch cultural anthropologists Ter Haar and Van Dijk made it clear to me that religion is very important for the identity formation of West Africans in the Bijlmer district. For the remaining part of my research I therefore focused on the significance of media in terms of religious identity, especially of West Africans.  One of the results of my research on media and the religious identity of West Africans has been that the majority of these inhabitants of the Bijlmer are very fond of viewing New West African films. One of the characteristics of these films, which originate from the 1980s, is that their makers often do not receive formal education at one of the state academies for film making in West Africa and are not connected to the West African State Film Industry Corporations. The birth story of these films is that ordinary West Africans started to use digital video cameras that engulfed the West African markets to retell stories and tell new stories that derived from their oral tradition and were close to the reality of life in their communities. This new technology allowed individuals situated outside the state-controlled realm of cultural production to produce films that gave space to their own views of life and concerns. Most of these films were based in West Africa and were created without the help of financial resources from the Western world. As a result, the budgets of these films were and still are most often very low. To reduce costs many of these films are produced quickly and often in no more than two weeks. The production crews are small and shots are made in real localities, which gives the films a highly realistic outlook, despite the occult themes. A favourite theme of these films is, for instance, the deceit of witchcraft mothers and false prophets or the devil who buys a person’s soul in exchange for money that he or she receives by the performance of money rituals (sakawa). Initially the actors and actresses in these films were non-professionals, but today many of the films are made with a (semi-) professional crew who is educated at local film schools that mushroom in the urban areas of West Africa. Most popular in the Bijlmer are the Ghanaian films, because most of the West Africans in the  district are of Ghanaian descent. The Ghanaian films are also most popular among African-Surinamese people, who share their cultural heritage with Ghanaians. In the shopping centres, ‘the Amsterdamse poort’ and ‘Kraaiennest plaza,’ New West African films are sold in several shops alongside grocery products and some video shops that specialize in African highlife, hip life, soul and gospel music and the New West African video films. So far the result of my research is that in terms of narratives these types of music and films appeal to the religious life and experience of the Bijlmer’s Black Diaspora. One of their recurrent themes is the practice of witchcraft, which is believed to bring misfortune. A very high percentage of West Africans worldwide believe in witches and the effects of witchcraft. In West African culture evil witches are believed to be the cause of most misfortunes in life such as barrenness, problems with getting married and conjugal problems, poverty and illness. For many West Africans the way out of being their victim is to convert to Islam or Christianity. They believe that these world religions can spiritually empower them and protect them against witchcraft. The members of the Black Diaspora in the Bijlmer, who for the majority are Pentecostal-Charismatic Christians, listen to West African music but especially view the Ghanaian films because they feel that the messages in the media help them to strengthen their faith in the Lord. They see Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity as a form of protection against evil witches and as a source of white witchcraft that can bring them wealth and prosperity, like white Westerners. The mentioned songs and films are full of examples of West Africans who live in nice mansions and drive big cars. The moral message of many of these songs and films is that anyone who is in connection with the evil spirits of witches can gain prosperity, wealth and personhood. However, when one gains these avidities in life by some sort of deception and at the cost of others, one’s glamour will be short lived. Only by conversion to Islam, but especially to Pentecostal-Charismatic Christianity, one can count on eternal personhood. A recurrent song in these popular art forms is that ‘what you sow is what you reap,’ which implies that only those who do good in life will receive good, and vice versa. This belief is embedded in the West African indigenous religious, but it also makes world religious conversion beneficial. In the Bijlmer, the messages in the Pentecostal-Charismatic songs and films are most popular, because they affiliate best to the religious life and religious experiences of the West African Diaspora, who form the majority of the Black Diaspora members that show an interest in these popular African art forms. The songs and the films bring a message of hope, because in the light of the Holy Spirit, wealth, prosperity and personhood become within reach of every believer regardless of one’s personal situation.

 

 

 

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