Thu | Apr 9, 2020

The Yoruba religion Part III – From Christianity to Yoruba religion

Published:Saturday | March 9, 2019 | 12:22 AMPaul H. Williams/Gleaner Writer

The Yorubas of Togo, Benin and southwestern Nigeria were one of the largest ethnic groups brought to the West Indies where they were enslaved on plantations. They were not allowed to take their material possessions with them, but their religious practices and beliefs were permanently embedded in their psyche.

Though the practices were suppressed on the plantations, they were secretly carried out, and survived significantly in places such as Brazil and Cuba. Yet, despite the survival of the Yoruba religion and practices in the Western Hemisphere, the conversion of many African people to mainstream western religions, such as Islam and Christianity, was permanent.

Traditional Africans religious practices were regarded by white missionaries as “dark” and “evil”, and were vigorously discouraged. This attitude was passed on to African people who abandoned their traditional beliefs and practices, and were converted to one Christian denomination or the other. Yet, there are hundreds of cases where people have turned away from Christianity back to the religion of their ancestors because Christianity was not fulfilling their emotional and spiritual needs.

Overcome immense grief

One such person is Nakia Brown, who writes about her evolution from Christianity to the Yoruba religion in the religion section of an online magazine called VICE, on July 31, 2017 in an article called ‘I left Christianity for an ancient African faith’. The essence of her piece is: “The Yoruba religion helped me overcome immense grief and connected me with my ancestors.”

Her father died in 2009 when she was 15, but, she said, “My family tried to comfort me with sayings like ,‘The Lord has called him home, but these words offered me no solace. I couldn’t understand God’s plan as I grappled with how empty I felt.”

Her father, like she, was a Christian, but his death presented her with questions which Christianity could not adequately answer. “How could I believe in the Father after losing mine?” she asked. And the grief continued for years. “But I instinctively knew that if I wanted to mend from my father’s death, I would need to connect with something,” she writes.

She started to explore her history as a black person, found a popular black-owned bookstore in Baltimore and “immersed” herself “in the ideas of thinkers like El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Dr Frances Cress Welsing, and Assata Shakur”.

“I read these authors to remember myself. Their ideas and thoughts were a part of a unique healing process, one that tore down my self-hatred, built up a sense of black collectivism, and gave me more concrete ideas on how to navigate the world as a strong black woman without the protection and supervision of my father,” she writes.

In her search she discovered the Yoruba religion. “For me, once I was exposed to it, it just made sense. The Yoruba religion felt like me, faced with challenges and loss, but steadfast with the power to carry on,” she says.

Brown was introduced to the University of Baltimore’s Cuba Study Abroad programme, and decided to go on board because, she said, “I was truly ready to heed the call of my ancestors and connect with something greater than myself.”

In 2016, she left for Cuba to study the Yoruba religion. On the first day in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean island she met an elderly female who practised ‘espiritismo cruzado’. “Espiritismo is Spanish for spiritualism and cruzado refers to Santeria, the name of the Yoruba religion once it mixed with Catholicism in Cuba,” according to Brown.

Her knowledge of communicating with spirits was passed down to her from her father, and she had been practising it all her life. The woman died shortly after they met, but she was instrumental in Brown’s healing, she said. Through a ritual, she invoked the presence of Brown’s father, after which she said, “An ancestor is strong with you.”

“This is an important concept in the Yoruba religion because our deceased loved ones are not gone, they are our guides. In the Yoruba religion, it is taught that one should acknowledge, honour, and consult ancestors,” she writes, “This approach to understanding life and death helped me come to terms with my pain. Death was no longer finite and life had depth and dimension. The two worlds were connected, and my father was closer to me than I realised … It helped me feel linked to my father and in tune with powers greater than myself after years of pain, grief, and isolation.”