Yemoja is the Yoruba Orisha or Goddess of the living Ocean, considered the Mother of All. She is the source of all the waters, including the rivers of Western Africa, especially the River Ogun. Her name, Yemoja, means “Mother Whose Children are the Fish.”
YEMOJA FESTIVAL is a 17-day annual celebration that showcases Yorùbá religion and spirituality in a comprehensive festival programme of Òrìsha dance, songs, and propitiations.
One all-important thing you must remember as a first-time attendee of the Yemoja Festival is; you don’t need that bag full of clothes, your entire skincare regimen, a change of shoe, and a book to read.
From the walk to the point of wait in Yemoja Temple where the Babalorisha prepares sacrifices and the body Yemoja mounts – his body. To the procession to the river where sacrifice, worship, and prayers are delivered to the deity Herself. You will log your burden of luggage and the prayers nestled in the crook of your neck, and if you aren’t wearied by both like I was, you will be wearied by that luggage till you regret it over and over. The water makes it all better in the end.
According to the 2018 CIA World Factbook, practitioners of African spirituality make up a paltry 0.6% of Nigeria’s population. That number contains various traditions in addition to Ifa tradition – from Igbo spirituality to the Hausa Bori tradition among many others across the country. This, of course only represents the number of those comfortable enough to stand and be counted as practitioners of African spirituality, a thing many devotees hold off on due to prevailing stigma among the Muslim and Christian majority in the country.
The lament of Ifawemimo Omitonade — the priestess to Yemoja, in this 2020 Aljazeera article documenting the festival in the pandemic year — decrying how many people consider traditionalists as fetishists is not an exaggeration.
Until recently, Nigeria’s popular culture – in TV, Feature Films, Literature, even Music, where you hear singers serenade a beloved by pondering out loud if she used ‘Juju,’ to make them love her so much – is rich with these kinds of misconceptions that reduce African spirituality to a mere fetish.
What is all the fuss about fetish?
A fetish (derived from the French: fétiche; which comes from the Portuguese: feitiço; and this in turn from Latin: facticius, “artificial” and facere, “to make”) is an object believed to have supernatural powers, or in particular, a human-made object that has power over others.
The Portuguese developed the concept of the fetish to refer to the objects used in religious practices by West African natives. This colonial history of reducing African spirituality to a mere attribution of inherent value, or powers, to an object, is the only one of many issues that African spirituality faces in the modern world.
If you have never been to a Yemoja Temple, and your only frame of reference for this tradition is what your pastor or Imam taught you about its wrongness, your mental image of one could be of resigned virgins prepared for human sacrifice and a mindless horde of chanters extolling said sacrifice. And who will blame you?
The reality, in truth, is a gathering of devotees in celebration of the boon of the Mother Goddess, and in prayer for continued prosperity, healing, and revelation. The sacrifices are food – fruits, yam; fresh and porridge, beans, pigeons, and white-furred hens as well as ram/sheep.
By comparison, the only difference with commonplace sacrifice items in Islam and Christianity is that traditional spiritualists have more variety. And for good reason.
October 31 was the grand finale of the Yemoja Festival in Ibadan, when the Arugba procession holds, with different groups of Orisha devotees dancing to the rhythm of thrumming drums in front of the Yemoja Temple. Then heading to the Ogunpa river with the guidance of the Babalorisha, they offer sacrifices and prayers to the Mother Goddess.
The sacrifice, widely misconstrued for something evil, is essentially fish food. The sacrifice intended to please Yemoja as her children – in the waters, feed, and she blesses those above waters that they too may prosper.
It is the cycle of life enacted with every veneration of the Goddess.
If you get the chance to be prayed for by the Iyalorishas – as a first attendee of the Yemoja festival – I advise you to take it unless you are too squeamish about it to entrust yourself in their hands.
Few experiences can match the feeling of standing in a circle of spiritual community, sharing connection beyond the superficial, as the Iyalorishas cast blessings over you and bind evil from you. Holding in her outstretched hand a gourd in which sits Schnapps – a spirit drink heavily associated with honouring the ancestors among other rituals of traditional spirituality, the lead Iyalorisha prays as everyone in the circle and room chants Ase – the Yoruba equivalent of Amen.
Fewer experiences still can match the feeling of grounding when a mouthful of that same spirit after it’s been prayed on, is spritzed into the air by the elder who has prayed for you, the droplets falling with an alcoholic chill on your face, arms and clothes. The remaining spirit is passed around for everyone to take a sip.
It is a testament to the warm welcoming nature of polytheistic spirituality that these rituals aren’t closed off to outsiders. Not Muslims or Christians, nor even the non-Yoruba, if you are devoted to the tradition and wish to partake in its rituals, the door is ajar for you. And, of recent, that door is increasingly seeing younger Nigerians pass through it. This writer is a testament to that.