During the summer of 2015, Sena and Pele Voncujovi collaborated with Middlebury College Professor Germain (Gigi) Gatewood and Visiting Artist Sunita Prasad to collect footage for a short documentary “ReVodution.” The documentary follows a modern Ghanian family in Accra as they balance their international, cosmopolitan life with a commitment to upholding the traditional West African spiritual and herbal practices known as Juju, Vodu, or Voodoo.
Voodoo in Ghana
A Multicultural nation, Ghana’s population traverses a wide variety of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups. Today, the majority of Ghanaians practice Christianity or Islam. Before this, traditional spiritual and herbal practices were prevalent and still practiced by a minority population.
Due to Ghana’s deeply colonized past, Voodoo has long been stigmatized and marginalized. As a result, the average person in both Africa and beyond is likely to have misguided and prejudicial understandings of these ancient rituals and beliefs.
Fighting the Stigma
Sena and Pele were born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and Ghanian father. They relocated to Ghana when they were both very young, where their father, Christopher Voncujovi, continued his practice of traditional religion. “Growing up, I would see our traditions and how they are practiced,” said Sena.
Being part of the minority that practiced traditional religion often meant being stigmatized. Growing up, the brothers often experienced prejudice because of their spiritual practices. “I remember so clearly that my teachers would call me a devil worshipper because of my family’s practice,” Sena recalled, “I remember so much that I had to fight in class and argue with my teachers because it’s such a close-minded view. They just did not tolerate any difference.”
“It is a practice that is very stigmatized right now, not only in the world but in Ghana, where it originates from,” added Sena, “That is why we wanted to make a documentary that kind of demystifies the tradition.”
ReVodution is Born
In 2015, Sena traveled to Puerto Rico to work on a sustainable permaculture farm and learn about their practices. The farm, an NGO, was dedicated to educating students about sustainable practices. “I did a workshop on sustainable living, sustainable water collection, and herbal medicine. And herbal medicine I was very interested in; I felt it was very similar to what we were doing in Ghana, and so it made me think, ‘What if we made an NGO that was based on education?” Sena remembered.
Sena used his Middlebury connections to find people interested in helping him make a documentary that would kick off his plan to start an NGO dedicated to teaching the world about Voodoo. He first recruited Middlebury Visiting Professor of Studio Art Gigi Gatewood, a photographer with some experience with Voodoo. Gatewood enlisted a friend, Sunita Prasad, as a project photographer. They were joined by Middlebury student Vikram Singh Kaleka and recent graduate Salvi Tony Hoxha. Joined by Pele, the team became six.
“UWC really opened my mind. It opened both our minds. I really did not value what I was doing until I went to UWC. You appreciate what you have, especially in your new home, because you start to become another. It is only when you become another that you can distinguish what makes you different from other people. You start to realize what distinguishes your culture from another culture and the most beautiful part of your culture. For me, what stood out when I came home was my spiritual practice. It is a very rare opportunity to be born in a family that does this because even in Ghana, people don’t know about our practices… UWC was instrumental in forming or solidifying that part of my identity.”
--Sena Voncujovi ‘13
13 Days in Ghana
Over the summer of 2015, the team spent 13 “packed” days gathering footage in Ghana. Throughout the trip, they visited six shrines throughout the country and collected over 50 hours of footage. “It was very, very intense,” said Sena of the long days.
Throughout the trip, Sena and Pele’s strengths complemented each other very well. “His knowledge of Voodoo and his passion for Voodoo is much stronger than mine,” said Pele of his brother, “I practice, but not to the extent that he does.” Pele, on the other hand, has a strong background in videography. “Pele’s very good with the videos. I’m doing most of the talking, but Pele is very good with videography and photography,” added Sena.
While filming, both of the brothers were surprised by the reception of their questions by the people they interviewed. “Honestly, I thought the responses would be much more leaning toward the negative, that almost everyone would say, ‘It’s bad, it’s evil,’ but then when I actually went out there, there was a fair amount of people that spoke about how Voodoo is not bad--it’s our tradition, and we’ve got to respect it,” said Pele.
Although many people were less negative about Voodoo than the brothers expected, most people had little to no knowledge of Voodoo beliefs or practices. “That’s what gives me validation--that, yes, there are people that want to learn, so we should teach them,” said Sena.
“I got into photography when I was at UWC. Because I grew up in Ghana my entire life, I didn’t think it was anything cool or special. When I came back, one of my main jobs was to photograph and film for the documentary. I started filming different parts of Ghana--Voodoo talismans, things in the shrine--and I started to appreciate the beauty of what they have to offer… Photography just opened my mind to appreciate more what we have here in Ghana. At some point, I was just like, ‘Ghana is so beautiful.’”
--Pele Voncujovi ‘15
” documentary premiered in 2015, and today it has grown into a movement to digitally preserve and demystify Voodoo through observation, expert accounts, and close-up views of the traditional practices, as well as to consider their traditions within the context of contemporary globalized culture.
Sena and Pele have lectured at 14 universities worldwide to over 1,500 people, filmed six more short films, produced more than 240 hours of educational video content on Youtube
, and continued to educate Voodoo through blogs and publications.