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Blood, honor and the fair weather goat

Fri, Mar 20, 2009

Culture, Elders, Traditional Afrikan

Blood, honor and the fair weather goat

He should have honored their ways.

When a county health inspector threatened to press charges against the members of Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina for scarring themselves in a tribal ritual, members of the village performed an ebo, or animal sacrifice, to one of their deities, asking for help. “The following week,” says Bale Oyewole, 63, one of the founders of the village, “the health inspector died of a heart attack; since then we’ve been left alone.”

It’s Voudou
Oyewole says they don’t call it voodoo in Oyotunji; they call it orisha voudou. The word voudou comes from the West African word for religion and the word orisha means deities or spirits. The word voodoo — associated with evil, malice and other negative connotations — is a media perversion of voudou, he explains while proudly smoothing out his agbada, a colorful, flowing African robe. Oyewole adds that the health inspector’s death was never asked for, and that today the village gets along well with local authorities.

The power of orisha voudou is real, says the former Pentecostal, but it’s not how Hollywood portrays it. Orisha voudou, says Oyewole, champions doing good, honoring one’s ancestors, venerating the orishas, making offerings, and celebrating the vibrant and festive Yoruba — Western African — culture. Oyewole says switching from charismatic Christianity to orisha voudou was not a big leap. “They both like to make noise,” he chuckles.
But educating people about the truth of voudou is fundamental to Oyotunji villagers. “We don’t stick needles in dolls,” says Oyakunle Olugbemi, 58, a voudou priestess for 30 years. “You can’t come to the village and say, ‘This person has bothered me — can you kill him?’” she explains as she tosses timber on a bonfire in preparation for that evening’s Hwedo Festival, honoring the unknown dead of the African people. In fact, she says, orisha voudou priests and priestesses take an oath in the village to do no harm.
The Village

Oyotunji Orisha Voudou priestOyotunji Orisha Voudou priestOn a secluded road leading up to the village, a sign reads: “You are leaving the U.S. You are entering the Yoruba Kingdom … built by the priests of the voudou cults.”

Nestled snugly in a wooded patch of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Oyotunji Village sprawls over a 10-acre kingdom, complete with an oba or king, a royal palace, open air shrines, courtyards and a bazaar with stores selling African artwork, jewelry, herbs and clothing. More than 20 people live in the village, and dozens more participate in the many religious festivals held during the year. Tourists seeking divination and other forms of spiritual advice bring in revenue for the village.

Oda Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I founded the village in the 1970s. An artist living in New York, he grew fascinated with African spirituality after a visit to Egypt in the 1950s. Upon returning home, he continued his study, and traveled to Matanzas, Cuba in 1959 where he became the first African American initiated into the Yoruba faith. During the 1960s, he traveled back and forth to West Africa and learned more about his heritage and voudou.

Adefunmi soon realized that the voudou practiced in North America — in the form of Santería, Candomblé or Obeah — was a corrupted version of African voudou, tainted by Christianity. Adefunmi longed for an authentic African voudou in America. In 1970, he established Oyotunji Village in a remote, swampy area near Sheldon, South Carolina with that aim in mind. The first few years were rough for the Oyotunji pioneers — mostly New Yorkers cleared and filled in the land — but by the late 1970s, population peaked at 200. Many villagers attribute the population decline since the 1970s to better employment opportunities in the cities.

Today, Oyotunji is also a training Mecca for voudou initiates who have opened bookstores, boutiques and temples from San Diego to Washington, D.C.

Remembering the old folks
Practicing a combination of ancestor worship, divination, animal sacrifice and even reincarnation, devotees of orisha voudou claim theirs is the world’s oldest religion. “It all starts with the ancestors,” says Baba Akinwon, 54, a voudou priest who has lived in the village for more than 15 years. Akinwon says the rites of orisha voudou are reserved for those of African descent because non-Africans do not have the proper spiritual lineage.

Sitting regally near the village entrance gates and sporting a cane, dark shades and a long African gown, Akinwon says orisha voudou honors dead ancestors through prayers, offerings and dedicated family altars. In Christianity, Akinwon says, believers are not encouraged to communicate with deceased relatives, but in orisha voudou it is believed that departed loved ones can still advise and assist those who seek their guidance.

“If you sought out your ancestors’ wisdom when they were alive,” Akinwon asks, “why would you stop after they passed away?”

Blood sacrifices
Tortured cries fill the village air. A short walk and craned neck wins a glimpse of a rite that visitors are forbidden to see: a pair of bloody hands holding the slashed throat of a chicken in its last moments of flailing life. Oyotunji performs animal sacrifice — legal in America under a 1993 Supreme Court ruling — as it has been carried out for centuries in West Africa.

“It doesn’t make me squeamish anymore,” says the buoyant Obasegun Adefunmi, 17, who held one of the chickens with its neck cut as its blood spilled into a pot. “I grew up around this. I have seen this done thousands of times.”Adefunmi says he laughs at those who say that animal sacrifice is cruel. “I don’t see it,” he insists, with traces of blood still spattered on his forearms. “It’s a sacrifice. The blood is the life force for all life. It has ritual power.”

Bruce Friedrich, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says that while animal sacrifice is wrong, Americans should not be too indignant about it. “With 10 billion land animals slaughtered for food every year in the United States,” Friedrich says, “anyone who is eating meat has no room to cast a stone.”

Friedrich says it’s better for PETA to invest its resources in promoting vegetarianism than trying to persuade Oyotunji members to end a rite they and their ancestors have been performing for thousands of years.

Egunleti Adelabu, 65, a grandmotherly looking voudou priestess and tour guide, says that blood sacrifices are just a small part of the offerings made in the village. Most of the offerings to the orishas — there are at least 206 — are in the form of candy, candles, food or liquor left at their altars, she says.

Raised as a Baptist, Adelabu says she found orisha voudou by asking herself as a child how Africans worshiped God. Impressed by what she learned — including the role that offerings played in the faith — she joined the Oyotunji community in 1982.

Sacrificing at the altar of Oya
All offerings are made to give something to the deity first before seeking their assistance, Adelabu says, while bowing and reverently straightening out a can of ginger ale and a jar of strawberry jam left in front of the shrine of Elegba, the trickster deity.

Animals sacrificed in the village include chickens, rams, roosters and goats, Adelabu says, as she passes a white goat, perking up its ears while enjoying a mouthful of lush grass.

Animals were not the only things once sacrificed. Upon dedicating a new village, human sacrifice was a part of Yoruba culture, writes Rob Davis in his book American Voudou. And in 1972, when a Black Panther with outstanding warrants was shot and killed in self-defense by an Oyotunji villager, the death took on deep significance for the first King. Oba Adefunmi told Davis: “We’d already started building the village by then, so we construed it as, hey, look how the gods had worked that deal.”

“Ebos [sacrifices] work,” insists Olugbemi. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo — one of the most destructive hurricanes to batter the United States — was heading for Oyotunji. Faced with evacuation and certain ruin, Oyotunji villagers sacrificed a goat at the altar of Oya — the deity of wind — asking that their village be spared. Shortly afterwards, says Olugbemi, the hurricane unexpectedly altered course and spared the village with only minor damage.

Olugbemi says no hurricane has struck Oyotunji for the nearly 40 years that it has existed, “thanks to honoring Oya, the ancestors, the orisha voudou way,” she says.

And for today, as the sun shines bright, the weather appears good over Oyotunji Village and no one looks happier than the white goat still chomping on the lush grass.

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