Genesis of the We All Have Five Fingers Project
One moonless night in 1999, I saw one of my photographs on a billboard. I should have been excited. I’m a commercial photographer.
Instead, I was really disappointed. Over and over I kept asking myself, “Is that all there is?” Next month there will be another image, probably not mine. I felt this deep gaping hole right in my chest, a vast void in my very being. So I went home to read, pray and meditate.
Suddenly, I was in Africa crossing crocodile-filled rivers. I went searching for the most remote tribes to learn their stories, myths and archetypal dreams. I sought out the shamans, elders, chiefs, witch doctors and storytellers. I pitched my little tent in villages where I did not see outsiders for weeks.
I had learned that DNA and anthropologists tell us that we, all of us, all Modern Humans are distant descendants of people who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. So I figured that these ancient ancestors must have told stories around the cooking fires to explain the big questions of life. Questions like what happens after we die, where did the first person come from and is there some supreme being or God in charge.
Conjecturing that my own beliefs and religion are just variations on those primal myths told before our ancestors left Africa, I figured that today’s remote tribes just might have frayed threads to those original time-buried stories. To help me understand the mysterious metaphors and symbols I heard, I create illustrations and words.
Africa changed me. This quest became an 18-year odyssey.
Join me in this journey to hear ancient stories I am the first and only person to ever record. Learn what secrets I found in the Birthplace of Modern Humans. See emotional lessons I learned to traverse today's divisively tumultuous human life on our planet. And, did I in fact unearth the Garden of Eden-like roots to my own beliefs and religion?
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.