From birth to death: an archive of vanishing African rituals seeks a home

Whirling masked spirits clad in raffia and laughing children daubed with clay dance across the pages of “African Twilight”, the latest book by two photographers documenting rapidly vanishing rituals across the continent.

Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher have traversed 44 of Africa’s 54 countries over four decades, documenting rituals used to mark milestones such as birth, death, and courtship, the graduation of girl to woman or the moment a warrior becomes a respected elder.

Now their archive – comprising more than a million images, hundreds of artifacts and field diaries, and thousands of hours of video – is looking for a home.

They want the collection to go to a university in Africa or some other venue that will guarantee access to African artists, historians and researchers.

“This record of Africa won’t be taken again. It can’t be taken again because 40 percent of it is already lost,” said Fisher, a vivacious Australian draped in beads and red chiffon for their book launch in Nairobi on Sunday.

Heat lightning flashed across the sky as models, acrobats and dancers showcased traditional music and textiles at the event at Africa Heritage House, a private museum. But conflict, climate change, and the spread of technology are erasing or transforming many such customs.

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