African spirituality grows throughout Caribbean

Published: Sunday | December 15, 2013 Comments 0
Baba Erin Folami. - Contributed
Baba Erin Folami. - Contributed

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

Baba Erin Folami is tall, candid, and an unapologetic Pan-Africanist.  The Yoruba tradition (Ifa) under which falls the spiritual teachings of Vodun, Santeria and Orisa has struggled over the decades to assert its rightful place among the mainstream religions in the Caribbean.

"The correct spelling is Yarraba, not Yoruba," Folami cautions, before giving me a guided tour of his home that houses innumerable icons and shrines to the orisas and his ancestors.

"Ifa is the guiding principle of our people. Nothing should be done without full understanding of the consequences of one's actions," he explains.

"That is why it is so important to consult with your Odu," which he describes as, "a chapter in the cosmic realm that holds the key to your birth," and "can be accessed through divination." Only then can you grasp the path before you and respond with clarity.

Folami, who also goes by the name Chief Alagbaa, has spent years in Nigeria and extols the tradition as the way of aligning oneself with the cosmos.

Many are gravitating to Trinidad to initiate into the Ifa tradition.

"Jamaica, in particular, is ready," he says. "Many Jamaicans are coming to learn the authentic way of worshipping the orisas."

A syncretic faith

He acknowledges Pocomania, but views it as a syncretic faith infused with Christian teachings, with only a modicum of Ifa tradition, not unlike the Spiritual Baptist movement in Trinidad and Tobago.

"We initiate them into Ifa and they return to Jamaica spiritually knowledgeable to teach others about the fullness and richness of our past and present."

Trinidad, he says, has become the hub for Ifa training for West Indians because it's logistically advantageous, relatively safe, and much cheaper than travelling to Nigeria or Haiti where linguistic factors can also pose some problems.

"Ifa," he notes, "is the complete, unadulterated system of divine guidance bestowed to our people 400,000 years ago in South Central Africa."

He stresses that "Islam, Christianity and all other forms of worship that have evangelised our people will never bring enlightenment and material progress because they hold only bits and pieces of truth. They are recent creations of man and fall short."

It was only days ago that I met Baba at the Oshuna Centre in St James, where Iya Kambiri officiates.

She is dynamic, assertive and welcoming. She deliberated before responding to my enquiries, mindful of the sensitivity of the subject in an environment that once forcibly suffocated African religious expression.

Before entering the shrine and under her guidance, I paid obeisance to Legba, the gatekeeper. Iya related her spiritual journey that started as an Anglican, followed by a foray into metaphysics and mysticism.

Raised with a strong sense of African identity, she was called by the orisas to delve into her history, her ancestors and the spiritual tenets of the tradition.

She related her special affinity to Oshun.

"Oshun represents wealth, love, sensuality and money. She ensures the smooth running of the household."

Baba sang an excerpt from a song in honour of Oshun: "Iba Osun sekese, LatoJuku, awade we mo. Iba Osun Olodi Idi," which she translated as: "Praise to the spirit of mystery. Spirit who cleans me inside out. Praise to the Spirit of the River."

Iya Kambiri awakes early daily to clean the shrine, to pray and contemplate.

"Three o'clock in the morning is the ideal time for connecting to the orisas. You find yourself getting up at that hour ... really, it's the orisas that wake you."

She noted that the orisas in the shrine, for example, Esu, Yemoja, Orunmila, Ogun, Ibeji, Obatala, and a host of other "powers," are equally revered.

"Sometimes you appeal to one more than the other, depending on the circumstances. If you are embroiled in a court matter, Shango is there to fight on your behalf."

Springs, ponds and water adorn the shrine. "Oshun flows. She is an orisa of the water."

Iya Kambiri called the impressive, soothing surrounding "a family and community shrine". She spearheads "Dancing in the Road Children," a community group that highlights the accomplishments of ordinary folks who are usually bypassed when national awards are conferred.

Women's empowerment organisation

She is also at the helm of Beauty Creates Energy, a women's empowerment organisation that trains women to understand and harness their natural instinct to lead their families and communities

Days later, I returned to Baba Folami's home. I was given an African name after an exhaustive ritualistic procedure involving divination, and later advised to offer an Ebo (feast) for Ogun, my patron.

"All hindrances to success and a long life, which are your right by virtue of your Odu will be cleared."

The Ebo, I was told, can be performed in absentia, although I will be asked to recite special prayers while the ceremony is conducted.

The Ifa initiation, on the other hand, required my presence - three to seven days in the forest guided by experienced babalawos (members of the priestly class).

I am mulling over Baba Folami's counsel. I remain prudent but not cowed, ever mindful of the doctrine of Iwapele that reads: "At the end of the day, the principles of good character override all."

Dr Glenville Ashby is the president of the Trinidad and Tobago Interfaith Council International Corp or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby.

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