The relaxed outlook towards different religions in my childhood home was possible thanks to our customary mythologies, which are characterized by both perseverance as well as tolerance.
There is a signpost on a side road in the heart of the American South that reads You are leaving the US. You are entering the Yoruba Kingdom. The post is right by the entrance to a bona fide Yoruba kingdom in Beaufort County, South Carolina called Oyotunji Village.
A few years ago I interviewed their king, Oba Kabiesi Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II of Oyotunji, who told me that this notice was there to remind visitors that when visiting his village, they are not only leaving the US physically, but also spiritually. His late father, the first Oba of Oyotunji, Efuntola Adefunmi, set up Oyotunji having become a Babalawo or Yoruba priest when he was introduced to the Orisha (divine forces) and Odu Ifa (the oral scripture of Yoruba mythology) in Cuba, a country where Ifa and the Orisha are integral parts of spiritual practice.
Cuba and the US are not alone in importing the Yoruba theological outlook, there are an estimated 30 million Ifa and Orisha practitioners globally and in Brazil alone there are over two million. In Jamaica there’s a town called Abeokuta with Orisha shrines, Trinidad has numerous Orisha yards, there are Kele cults in St. Lucia and native Yoruba speakers in Grenada to name a few sites across the world that are tied together by the spirituality of their ancestors. Yet in Nigeria, birthplace to Ifa and the Orisha, the attention given in social institutions to this spiritual export falls short.
Nevertheless the Orisha have stubbornly continued to guide society. For instance, I grew up in what might be considered quite a typical Nigerian family residence. It was a two-storey house that consisted of several flats. My parents and I lived on the top floor. On the ground level, lived my dad’s older sister and my cousins. There were smaller one-bedroom flats, which were inhabited in turns by various young uncles and aunties.
Eventually when one of the flats became my aunt’s office, the other became the dwelling of my late grandmother. The house was also cohabited by workers, nightwatches, drivers, apprentices and house-helps. In other words, it was always full of people, and everyone single one of us was religious. However, hardly anyone shared the same religious faith. My mum is Protestant, my dad is Muslim as my grandmother was, my aunt and cousins were Catholic and those who came and went all practiced a potpourri of organised religion.
Nevertheless – and this is where the Orisha play in – there was always religious harmony in our compound. Eid el-Fitr was as much of a celebration as Christmas was, and Ileya went down like Easter. The relaxed outlook towards different religions in my childhood home was possible thanks to our customary mythologies, which are characterized by both perseverance as well as tolerance.
In one of my favourite books of 2012 – *Of Africa* – its author, WoleSoyinka, writes: ‘Orisha do not proselytize. They are content to be, or considered not to be. We need not embrace the Orisa, however, to profit from the profound wisdoms that can be extracted from the Ifa. Our repositories of exclusive spiritual truths can learn from this ancient, unassuming faith of our forebears. Ifa is tolerance.’
Today there are reckless forces of religious fundamentalism ravaging Nigerian society and we would be wise to preserve and celebrate the insights that our ancestors left in our care. These powerful and beautiful teachings can guide us, however gradually, to develop alternative, harmonising outlooks to ease not only religious conflict but also political and ethnic tensions.
Spiritual development is introspective and hence does not need naming, I think. I still cherish some of the mythical and historical verses from both the Quran and the Bible that I became familiar with as a child. As an adult I have become increasingly curious – and appreciative – of the Orisha and I look forward to probing further into the Odinani, Bayajidda and the myriad myths that enrich this country’s history.
I think it’s time that we all started to take deliberate care to understand and protect the spiritual philosophies that are rooted in this land and that have given meaning and a sense of purpose to millions around the world.
Minna Salami is a writer, commentator and blogger. Her blog is www.msafropolitan.com
30 Days 30 Voices series is an opportunity for young Nigerians to share their stories and experiences with other young Nigerians, within our borders and beyond, to inspire and motivate them.
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