Tue | Dec 6, 2016

A Spiritual feast that united the Caribbean - 'That night, there were elements of the Christian, Pocomania, Orisa, Vodun, Condumble, Spiritual Baptist, and Revivalist faiths.'

Published:Sunday | February 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Dr Glenville Ashby, Contributor

In the dead of a frigid night, the exotic and rich spiritual culture of the Caribbean was celebrated with passion, spirit, and reverence.

Midnight ushered in a moving, stunningly visual spectacle till darkness surrendered to the dim light of dawn. The occasion was an unqualified triumph.

A quiet neighbourhood was transformed by unreserved drumming that seemed to speak with exigency. Never was there a single complaint. That night belonged to Caribbean spiritualists. Everyone, including law enforcement, had cooperated.

It was an exposé of the history of a people determined to preserve their Yoruba traditions despite overwhelming odds. On that special night, nationals of multiple nations sang, danced, and drummed.

There was caution when the deities of the faith manifested. There was exaltation as these gods beckoned them to sing louder and drum harder. There was exhaustion, and at times cathartic weeping of the horses (mediums) when the gods abruptly left their bodies limp and wasted.

There were prophecies, recriminations, healing, and moments of levity as worshippers interacted with their gods. More interestingly, there was a sense that this is not a culture easily understood. One has to be cultivated in its ways from birth.

The raiment of white, gold, yellow, blue, and black signified the devotees' association with a particular god. The unorthodox handshakes represented the mystical nature of the faith and its esoteric character.

The singing of Yoruba sounds in a manner indistinguishable from an African native was refreshing and bewildering. For sure, the Yoruba faith is like any other, with its own system of cosmology and soteriology. Yes, there is atonement, and there is salvation through earnest worship.

A Yoruba oral tradition states that Olodumare (God) first spoke to Eleggua (god of the cross roads who holds the key to any feast), saying:

"You shall be the porter of the life; you will govern all paths and will rule there. Those that deserve an opportunity you will see it through and make it so. You will dispense who shall receive the help and deserve to get ahead. You shall come even before me, till the end of time. Everyone will come to you first, or everything will be done in vain."

And this night, the gods appeared, one by one: Eleggua, Ogun, Shango, Osin, Yemoja, Oshun, and others, each displaying a different message, style, character, and power.

They were dramatic, theatrical, but unfailingly authentic. But it was Ogun, the warrior god and powerful spirit of metalwork who proved indelible, awe inspiring, and commanding as he wielded a cutlass (machete) with blinding dexterity, while dancing with a rhythm and aggression that mesmerised.

Interestingly, a feast known for its unmistakable Afrocentricity, began with litanies and supplication to Jesus, Mary, and Roman Catholic saints.

It is this aspect of the Yoruba faith in the Caribbean that remains a thorny issue as academics, advancing a Pan-African theology, attempt to weed out any form of Christianity. So far, they have lost the battle. The history of blending the two traditions is well known. Slaves had given African gods the attributes of Catholic saints, but this ingenious and existential strategy had never weakened the African identity.

Over the years, many devotees have become more knowledgeable and expressive. There is never that urgency to efface Christianity from Yoruba worship. Arguably, the most revered Caribbean 'Shango' man, Pa Neezer, was versed in both approaches.

Pa was said to be a creolised product of Christian and Yoruba traditions and was able to reconcile the two into one unitary expression, finding universality in the 'Godhead'. During his legendary feasts, he performed Roman Catholic prayers, sometimes for hours, but when the Orishas (African gods) manifested or possessed some congregants, he was equally adept in the Yoruba faith.

That night there were elements of the Christian, Pocomania, Orisa, Vodun, Condumble, Spiritual Baptist and Revivalist faiths, as devotees followed in the footsteps of Pa Neezer. They spoke in a single language. They were one indivisible nation. Their cultural affinity was undeniable; their shared history, unquestionable; the love for each other, hardly debatable.

This was an emblematic feast that taught countless lessons, the most important of which was the potential for veritable Caribbean unity based on shared cultural experiences. It was a reminder of the senseless politicking and insularity that have doomed Caribbean integration. If only for a night, faith in action succeeded, where politicians have failed.

Dr Glenville Ashby is a social critic and president of Global Inter-faith Council Feedback: glenvilleashby@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter@glenvilleashby