Africa in Our Lives: Todd Rámon Ochoa

Todd Ramon Ochoa
“We owe to Africa a robust and as yet unexhausted concept of affliction.” – Todd Rámon Ochoa (Photo courtesy of Todd Rámon Ochoa)

Although he stumbled upon African-inspired communities in Cuba by chance, Todd Rámon Ochoa has delved headfirst into this unique area of study, examining Cuban-Kongo praise feasts, ritual masters, and healing processes. We look forward to hearing from him as well as a diverse group of panelists this Friday and Saturday at BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World.

Hometown: Mexico City, Mexico, and Bridgman, Michigan
Field of study: Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies

What led you to study African-inspired communities in Cuba?

I started working on African-inspired communities in Cuba by chance. I was an anthropology graduate student studying the pervasive black markets that kept Cubans alive in Havana in the early 1990s. After some time it was possible to see that most goods and services circulated in relatively predictable ways, as a “system” you could say. Among those things that did not conform to the “black market system” were items destined for consumption in African-inspired feasts. I was drawn to this this extra-systemic logic in that it revealed so much about the black market system, the Cuban state, and commodities in Havana in general. The welcome I received by those who hosted the feasts allowed me to see that this extra-systemic logic applied to many aspects of African-inspired praise in Cuba. Eventually, I came to see that the processes of feasting and healing that are Kongo-inspired praise in Cuba offered fascinating alternatives to Eurocentric thought and being. Besides being a lot of fun, and great community, I was hooked on the conceptual offerings made by these feasting and healing processes.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.

I like science a lot, especially astronomy and physics. In my work, this translates into concepts that help me connect things I learn in Cuba to the lives of my students and readers. For example, when I was writing my book, Society of the Dead, I struggled to properly convey how the dead saturate everyday life for people who participate in Kongo-inspired praise in Cuba. While I was working on this problem I read about the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, which is ancient light emitted about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. The way the CMB is described by physicists and astronomers helped me find words to describe the dead in Kongo-inspired praise. The term I came up with was “the ambient dead,” by which I mean that the dead in Cuban-Kongo praise saturate the living, they are the potential that makes shapes in the world possible at all. In my theoretical work chaos theory and non-linear dynamics also inform my language choices. I hope to teach a course on astrology next year.

What has been the most exciting moment in your academic career so far?

I am fortunate in that my academic career has been very exciting. Any time I am with healers and ritual masters in Cuba is very exciting. My work these days on praise feasts in rural Cuba puts me in very exciting situations with lots of extraordinary music, dancing, and impersonations of the dead. One exciting thing in writing Society of the Dead was connecting references to things “Jewish” in Cuban-Kongo praise to the Catholic Advent calendar and to 19th century Cuban-Catholic anti-Semitism in general, then figuring out how Cuban-Kongo praise and healing turns this anti-Semitism against itself.

Tell us a little bit about your current research.

I am presently working on an annual feast in rural central Cuba. This feast is for a power referred to as San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé. The power is also referred to as a “santo,” as in Catholic cosmology, and as an “orisá,” as in West African cosmology. San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé is a “santo-orisá”, a sovereign over illness, healing, and death. The feast is a very open affair, open to the whole community. The goal is to achieve the impersonation of San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé by as many of those gathered as possible, though out of hundreds present this usually means 2-3 people. To come into physical contact with San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé is a life-changing gift. I have been visiting this community for over a decade and have come to appreciate the feast for San Lázaro-Babalú-Ayé as a very important instance of African-inspired praise in Cuba.

What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?

I like teaching Black Atlantic religions, especially in the US south. The religions of Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil are utterly novel to most students, but at the same time there are distant echoes with US African American praise styles that make students receptive. Then the poetry and emotional strength of the religions I teach takes over, and it is remarkably easy to build sympathy among the students. The African-inspired religions of Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil are always a challenging revelation to students and accompanying them through that experience is a privilege.

I also like teaching about sacrifice and its centrality in the making of sacred things.

What would you tell students who are debating whether or not to study Africa?

Any undergraduate interested in studying Africa will find universe upon universe of puzzles and marvels to engage. Africa is enormous beyond comprehension, fractal in its complexity, and astonishing in its beauty. Africa and Africans will never let a student down.

Why is the study of health and science in Africa important?

One reason is that healing is a vast topic that encompasses biomedical as well as social affliction. We owe to Africa a robust and as yet unexhausted concept of affliction, which allows researchers across disciplines to address healing practices in great variety. Affliction includes physical illness, emotional loss, misfortune, and debt, among many other sufferings people confront. To study the genealogy of “affliction” as it appears in the scholarship on Africa is to simultaneously to study the limits of the biomedical sciences in their aspiration to corner the market (sometimes literally) on the concept of “healing.”

Give us a teaser for your presentation at BIG STORIES + CLOSE (UP) RESEARCH: Health and Science in the African World:

I am giving a presentation about an old doll’s head that made a profound impression on me in Cuba.

Profile produced by Kyra Fox.

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