Tuesday, 1 September 2015
Ancestors and deities: an August of spiritual aliveness
When I was younger I overheard certain conversations between grown ups that both baffled and terrified me. In my African Guyanese home there was always some heated political talk that favoured PNC politics; bemoaning the loss of Burnham, how he'd be turning in his grave because of the way the country had turned out contrary to his apparent excellent leadership; as though his earnest work was being undone. They spoke about a back in the day when Forbes Burnham had sanctioned shortages of basic commodities (flour, Irish potatoes and so on), which was considered a good economic move on his part. Burnham was spoken of as a champion of the (African people), a hero - I imagined the great orator he was when they spoke about him. It would take years before I realised that not all Africans considered him a hero - and when I learnt of the fate of Dr Walter Rodney, who attempted to unite the Guyanese masses regardless of race I had to rewire my mind from the Burnhamite programming.
Along with the racially biased politics there was OBEAH! Somebody - or several - were always 'working obeah' on somebody else for some bizarre reason. And the thing seemed to work - there were always victims - a house burnt down, babies still born, or sold (through some accident that killed them), man taken away from his wife (who might mysteriously leave her to live with another woman - the probable one that did the obeah wok, he works his life away and gives the new woman all his money, doesn't have any time for friends or blood family) and so on. Then there was the bacoo - wicked, miniature creatures planted or owned by someone which either 'worked' for them (bringing them riches, transitory or longlasting depending on how well they were'fed') or which wreaked havoc on their enemies. Bacoos were described as something/beings that could be seen by those who had eyes to - often children could see them. The very idea of these things frightened me; they were of and out of this world and had some impact that was real. Yet worse that these was Ole Higue - a monstrous woman that preyed on innocents - children/babies; she turned into a ball of fire as she prowled through the night to do her work. If they're not protected by some very smelly root called asafeoetida or a piece of blue cloth Ole Higue would 'suck' the child like a vampire. Visible marks appeared on the child's body in the morning which signalled that they had been victims of Ole Higue.
Countless stories like these I overheard - who and who did the 'sucking' or had it (the ability to do it or just 'it' the big mysterious 'suck') that seriously scared me. Naturally I had no aspiration to return to Guyana if these conditions of negativity were awaiting me there.
Comfa too was often spoken about - sceptically - curiously, how so and so head 'does hold he/sheh.' It would take years before I got the hang of this head holding sheh/he thing - which meant that the person would go into trance (become spiritually possessed and dance). Some of the possessed became mystically acrobatic, doing somersaults, dancing on their heads, falling fitfully to the ground - any possible and seemingly volatile outcome was possible - it didn't matter what their age - it could happen to anyone. Some people 'stayed away' when drums were knocking to avoid the randomness and potential of going into trance or being overtaken in this way by spirit. And who were the spirits that took them? Sometimes they were recognisable, as a familiar (the possessed dancing in a way similar to a deceased relative) other times it was an unknown spiritual entity. I suppose this explains part of the collective fear of it.
There were odd occasions when it was obeah (man or woman) who would be sought to deal with some serious illness when medical intervention failed. So if nothing else I soon understood that obeah worked both positively and negatively. But it would be some time before I 'read' it that way. And 'reading' it literally became my life - for it was the basis for my postgrad studies at university. The narratives had an unwitting purpose!
In any case before my conscious rereading of African derived spirituality and practices I was baffled by the negative emphasis of these discussions I overheard. At the time I never questioned my elders, I just listened, absorbed and stayed silent in my fear and ignorance.
Fast forward through years of processing these narratives; assessing my own experiences of spiritual and natural signs; realising that the negative emphasis was unfair and had a historical basis I'm now in a comfortable place of acceptance or realisation. Obeah is a power, this is true. Like all power it has positive and negative uses. The effect of any given power is connected to the force behind it - or the energy that drives it. Intention yields the outcome - as 'willed action'thus making it 'manifest.'In the Yoruba tradition of Ifa, this power or willed action is called 'Ase' (a - sheh). It means 'so be it' or 'it is so' a bit like the 'Amen' Christians use (leaving aside its connection to ancient Egypt of course). I have observed a growing appreciation of Ase, not least from myself but many others who are opening to the way of spirit and the spiritual traditions of African ancestors.
It's not surprising, given my own situation of elders speaking sceptically and negatively about our spiritual experiences/cultures and traditions that the 'opening' has taken so long. Rather the reconnection, even 're-cognition' has. The dehumanisation of African traditions and culture through European conquest, slavery and colonialism is chief among the reasons for this. And I must add that I didn't find comfort/comprehension either in the biblical narratives that were also hotly discussed in my home. Symbols of witchcraft - the witch of Endor who roused Samuel from his grave for example (and other death to life mysteries); divine wrath - when Lot's wife was turned to salt or Jehovah sanctioning his favoured Jews to take over another group of people's land (mirrored in reality by the Israeli/Palestinian never ending tyranny); that moment when God commanded Abraham to kill his son Isaac before sadistically changing his mind and said kill the lamb instead (the lamb! as a burnt offering!); the immaculate conception (boggles my mind if I read it literally) and images of Christ nailed - nailed to the cross (if I read it literally) all frightened and fascinated me just as the real life stories my elders spoke about. The emphasis was different, however. There was an acceptance for one thing that the latter narratives were in order - pregnancy without sexual intercourse was accepted as 'natural' since the baby was 'Jesus' the saviour who would have to die for our sins. Sins? These too had elements of terror in them - because one had to believe that I was born a sinner. How? Why? I fled my confusion by conceding to the call of spirit one day and here I am!
The mental crises meant I have spent a good number of years trying to understand and connect with my ancestral traditions. Where others might have (re)turned to 'the Christian God' whom I was brought up to 'fear' (!) during this period, I opened to my ancestors. I still had the perception of 'god' but I could 'hear' my grandparents (Ma and Pa) communing with me and I accepted their 'voices.'
Emancipation in Guyana - takes place on August 1st. It's a time when African Guyanese (in some cases other Guyanese) celebrate, they wear African clothing and congregate at the National Park. Here in the UK, the Carnival (happening as I write) is held in memory of African ancestors, their struggles for liberation and justice (linked to the Notting Hill riots). Every year in Yoruba, more specifically in Osogbo there's a big festival honouring the goddess Osun, a well worshipped Orisa. I can't say exactly why but this August I have felt the reverberations of ancestral spiritual energies which maybe reflect a shift in consciousness.
Following a ritual to honour Osun I collaborated with an Osun priestess to organise a workshop introducing others to African Traditional Spiritual practice. A few of us had been to the river and some wanted answers about what the ritual meant - what were some of the symbols. The workshop was supposed to answer some of this.
It took place on Saturday 29th, It was focused on the Orisa Osun; included pouring libation (to Oludumare, Orisa, ancestors), collectively building an Osun shrine, sharing introduction to Ifa (spiritual/religous tradition of Yoruba) and the power of Orisa, especially Osun whose vibration we welcomed. By this I mean spirit manifested powerfully and was embraced. The energy was magnetic, as one of the sister who experienced it says: 'I felt like I had encountered a rebirth.'
The positive response to the workshop revealed the need in our community to reconnect with our ancestral wisdoms, our right to be fearless champions of these, to take pride in them - and they are as varied as we are on the Continent and the diaspora. Though varied, they speak one unifying truth. The individual is invested with spiritual power (Ase) to be in tune with forces of nature (Orisa/deities in the case of Ifa) that enable us to align with our higher purpose. That higher purpose is DIVINE. Let's make no mistake and when we speak boldly of this divinity - we are reconfiguring ourselves to become empowered.
The Ifa tradition encourages the development of 'good character' a deeply, ethical and moral calling or quest than it might appear to be. It's not easy to have good character (Iwa Pele, as it's called in Yoruba). Ifa tradition is also about self transformation. Guided by our inner being or conscience, which Ifa calls Ori we begin the journey of aligning fully with the purpose we've each come (returned) to do. Balance and harmony and the collective responsibility for evolving our humanity are deeply woven into the Ifa tradition.
Osun, one of a number of Orisa represents many wonderful aspects of life - love, fertility, abundance, sensuality are just very few. She ameliorates; her honey smoothens, her cool water, embodied in the essence of rivers is soothing. So the earnest devotee refers to her as they would any loving parent when the need arises to be tenderly nurtured, and assured that all will be well, since they appear ready for healing and humbled. We bring her the gifts she adores in exchange for the grace, beauty, abundance, peace etc that she'll provide. We love her as she loves us. We want to exude her essence, spreading sweetness and joy as we journey through life; touching the lives of others gently but powerfully; enriching ours by reflecting beauty and creativity. Yet - she is not to be confused with a 'soft', 'wet' weakling of a woman. She is a fierce defender (as any woman would their children who needs her protection); she demands respect - for that's a natural right; if you wrong an Osun initiate/devotee - genuinely wrong someone that has shown you nothing but love - then naturally a fierce, warrior/disciplinarian side unleashes. So we take care in our relations with each other - brother to sister, sister to sister, brother to brother and so on.
The day was a blessed one. I give thanks to the energies that prevailed; the positive forces that joined us. To Esu for opening the way, to Ogun for clearance, to Osun for descending, for the ancestors (egun) for being with us always.
I mark the contrast between this expression of our ancestral practice, which I see as positive and empowering and the psychically confusing narratives about the world of spirit and spirituality which I was exposed to as a child. I continue to hear these negative impressions about obeah and comfa and so on, but the difference is my own understanding, my own interpretations. I still hear that so and so (especially in the part of Guyana my family are from) get 'bacoo' or went to the obeah man/woman to do this or that to their neighbour, and I wonder about the use of this power in negative ways - to harm another. This appears to be a wholly disfigured understanding of the purpose of our ancestral practices. Of course where harm has been done to you, one would defend one self by any means necessary as we saw with Boukman and Dessalines. In other words, use what ever form of POWER to effect real change rather than wasting the energy on a petty problem which is harmful to individual and collective community empowerment. Herein lies the most purposeful benefit of honouring our ancestral spiritual practices and traditions.
Purpose of practising African Spirituality : to reclaim individual and collective power: so that Africans as a group of peoples are “empowered and energised from within and get their total energy from their own self source” (from a paper by Chief Sangodasawande presented to the symposium on Ifa in Trinidad in July 2015).
What is Ifa? It is the traditional 'religion' of the Yoruba. It embeds an entire system of transformation. It allows us to take from it that which will benefit our life/spiritual purpose and destiny, working in harmony with the forces of nature to achieve and maintain balance. It involves a complex system, called divination through which mankind is able to align with their life purpose/destiny in pursuit of maintaining balance and order.
What is Orisa? The word Orisa translates as ‘select head.’ In Ifa Orisa refer to spiritual forces that guide consciousness. There are several Orisa in the Ifa tradition. Each have their own characteristics, powers and prohibitions.
Your Ori: the word means ‘head.’ It relates to ‘consciousness.’ Being guided by and aligning with one’s Ori is the means through which transformation (of self and spiritual development) takes place. The development of ‘good character’ is of chief importance for Ori:‘Ori ki buro ko fe de ale, ile ti iwa nikan lo soro (transl: no matter how bad a person’s destiny may be, there is an amendment; but the more difficult to amend is an individual’s character.’)
Divination then may easily be considered the means by which we transform our lives and reconnect with our spiritual purpose/destiny. It allows the individual independence but encourages them to be guided by their Ori (head/consciousness), which in turn enables transformation and rightful living.
There are many ways to divine. It is to do with reading any one or many signs that will allow us to decide how to adjust our lives to ensure we align with our destiny. In Ifa this form of divining is done using cowrie shells. There are 16 original signs (16 is considered a magical, cosmological number) which have 16 possible outcomes each. Totalling 256.
Offerings: (or Ebos) are specific to each ORISA. OSUN, for example, loves honey. We offer this to her in ritual practice, along with others that are particular to her.
ASE O (pronounced – a-sheh) is like a note or sounding of spiritual power. We use it as an invocation to EMPOWER the energies/prayers/requests we make.
Who Is Osun?
Osun is the river deity of Yoruba tradition. She is the owner of cool sweet waters which she uses for cleansing and healing. She is the orisa of fertility, creativity, sensuality and feminine essence. She is a healer and herbalist. Women appeal to her for children, to cure gynaecological problems and to heal ill babies. She is an intelligent and wealthy business woman. She is also a warrior and a leader of powerful beings (Ajes or witches)
She divines with 16 Cowrie Shells or Merindalogun which was taught to her by her husband Orunmila (another Orisa).
Osun is powerful and empowers all persons who call on her. The Ifa odu (sign/narrative) called Ose Tura demonstrates the power of Osun. It states that Olodumare had sent 17 Irunmoles (divinities) to the world, 16 men and just 1 woman which was Osun. She was ignored by the men when any important decision was to be made. This caused disorder as everything fell apart. The men went to Olodumare to find out the cause of the drought and barrenness in the world. They were told that they had left Osun out of everything. The men had to appease Osun. Osun said that if she gave birth to a son all will be forgiven. They prayed and Osun gave birth to Ose Tura which is the orisa Esu. Esu is the divine messenger who takes our prayers to Olodumare. Therefore reverence is given to Esu first before any spiritual work is done.
Osun is the good mother who demands homage, respect and supplication if her powers are to be placated and accessed. Osun is a gentle warrior who uses wisdom, diplomacy and sweetness to solve disputes. This characteristic of Osun is shown in an odu from Nigeria which tells the story of a town of women who had rebelled against the men, the men complained to the king who sent the 16 male deities (Irunmoles) to capture the women. All the male deities failed to capture the women so they eventually sent the women. Oya went first but she was defeated. Yemoja was sent, then Osun. Osun went to Ifa and after making necessary sacrifice she went to the town of the women beating a calabash and singing. “Sewele, Sewele, she sang, Osun is coming to play.” Osun does not know how to fight Sewele, sewele. The women saw her and joined her singing. They dropped their weapons and followed her back to the town.
As Yeye Osun, the good mother of women and men, she is responsible for the continuous engagement and harmony of both sexes. She is the mother of fertility, intimacy and the male and female relationship. If men and women were not having sexual relationship procreation would not occur to bring forth children.
African traditional spiritual practices are as varied and vibrant as the peoples of the continent and in the diaspora. However, there is a single point of unity between them. This relates to the individual’s responsibility toward their alignment to spiritual purpose. When the individual pursues this alignment they activate the ‘consciousness’ that is referred among other names as GOD.
Click here for drumming and dance