Genesis of the We All Have Five Fingers Project
It started in 1999, as my personal quest to learn the oral stories, myths and archetypal dreams of Africa's most remote tribes. It evolved into a 17-year odyssey where I became the first person to ever record those ancient stories. The insightful wisdom and "primitive" perspective offered by the elders, plus Indiana Jones-like experiences, offer rich lessons to traverse today's divisively tumultuous human life on our planet.
When I learned that DNA and anthropologists tell us that we—all of us, all modern humans—descended from ancestors who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago, I wondered what kind of stories about life's big questions—like what happens after we die, where did the first human come from and is there some supreme deity—did those ancient ancestors bring with them as they left Africa?
Conjecturing that there just might be threads to those original stories today among Africa's least-touched tribes, I journeyed to the Birthplace of Modern Humans. Over and over I went to secluded corners of the continent seeking the shamans, chiefs, elders, witch doctors and storytellers to listen and learn.
Along the way I realized that the stories I heard just might be the time-covered tap roots of my own beliefs and religion.
To help me understand the mysterious metaphors and symbols of what I heard, I create illustrations and words to capture the spirit of those tribal stories and archetypal dreams.
Journal entries from my journey to the Birthplace of Modern Humans
Crossing the Omo River in a wooden dugout canoe, Ethiopia
Suddenly I found myself crossing crocodile-filled rivers searching for oral stories. Now that might sound like an Indiana Jones-like adventure. But let me tell you, I arrived into Africa the same way I showed up to my first day of 7th grade gym class: alone, insecure and naive.
Stepping into the tippy canoe, Doubt tapped me on the shoulder: "Janis, what the hell are you doing here?" Doubt was my constant companion.
Busso Village, Konso tribe, Ethiopia
I'm looking for isolated tribes, those least touched by outsiders. I thought they just might have some direct threads to the stories our ancient ancestors told before they left Africa. So I'm searching for the chiefs, elders, storytellers, shamans and witch doctors to learn about the tribal stories, myths and archetypal dreams—dreams with common meanings understood by the entire tribe. In the West, we don't have many if any archetypal dreams—well, maybe getting rich.
Entering a battlefield for God
There was so much I didn't know or understand
On the way to the tiny Bedik tribe in remote southeastern corner of Senegal, my interpreter told me he would kill me if he said anything disparaging about the Quran or Muhammad.
That shook me. It was personal. It was like a fire-breathing dragon jumped onto the journey's path. The Bedik—who were animists and a little Christian—were afraid of Muslims. While I had come searching for ancient stories, perhaps the seeds for modern beliefs and religion, I had to carefully watch the interaction between his Muslim interpreter and the animist/Christian Bedik.
Village children see the stranger with their first eyes, their child's eyes
Fortunately, in the coolness before sunrise, in remote Ibel village, curious kids came to see the stranger. They rubbed my skin and laughed. One boy timidly took my hand. I can still feel that dusty hand in my hand. Then somehow we all held hands and walked through the village like migrating geese. Tears of joy streamed down my cheeks. This wasn't Disneyland. This was real. To these little children the different cultures, different religions, different ethnics didn't matter .
They looked through their first eyes, their child's eyes, the curious eyes that see the world as a place to explore, where everyone is a potential friend. This was the magic of acceptance.
I create illustrations to help me understand the stories, myths and dreams I heard.
Remote tribal elder tells world leaders: "We are all made by God. We all have five fingers."
After days of interviewing the Konso tribal elders I asked: "What advice would you give world leaders?" Now these guys are tucked away in a remote corner of Ethiopia, and many Westerners would call them primitive.
After a long silence, finally one elder started: "We are all made by God. We are all the same. No mater what your tribe, no mater what your religion, no mater what your beliefs, we all bleed the same color blood."
Then he raised his hand with fingers outstretched to conclude: "We all have five fingers."
In this age of anxiety and fear of the other, fear of the other's religion, this elder's insight gave birth to the Five Fingers Project in the Birthplace of Modern Humans:
We all bleed the same color blood. We all have five fingers.