It has been almost seven years since I underwent my first initiation and over eight years since I started on this journey as an aborisha (a follower of orisha). In some ways it seems like I have been doing this all of my life and in other ways it feels like it was just yesterday that I was going to visit an orisha shrine for the first time.
I have been reflecting a lot lately on what it means to be in Orisha tradition and thinking about the things I wish I had known when I first started. By no means am I an expert and I am sure this list will have changed a bit in another 8 years, but these are my thoughts right now. For the next few weeks, I am going to share some insights I have learned along the way.
#1: African spiritual tradition does not grant you entry into an Afro-topia.
I came into tradition through being an African-American Studies major at Temple University (#TU-AFAM!). I had the previously of diving into African and African Diaspora history, culture, and politics. It was amazing to be in a space where being African-centered, becoming more conscious of yourself as an African person, honoring ancestors, and loving Blackness was paramount.
So…being in African tradition should be similar, right?
For some people, the fact that most people who practice African spirituality have very little knowledge of Africa, African and Diasporic history, and African culture isn’t a big deal at all. For me, though, it was huge. I didn’t expect every initiate or priest in Yoruba tradition to speak perfect Yoruba, wear African clothes all day everyday, or be able to quote Cheikh Anta Diop, Marimba Ani, John Henrik Clarke, or Francis Cress-Welsing. But I did assume that if a person is living with African deities like Shango, Oshun, Oya, and Ogun in their homes then they would, you know, love Africa, African culture, or have some kind of interest in it. At least little bit.
But, you know what they say about assumptions.
The reality is that the average person in Orisha tradition may have a little more knowledge of Africa and African culture than the average Black person not in tradition, but not by as much as I would have thought. In fact, some African-descended people in African tradition don’t even consider themselves African.
I know, I know! Malcolm taught us this so long I go I thought we’d all get it by now. Alas, this is not the case. So if you are expecting an Afro-topia, you won’t find it in African tradition. However, if you are expecting an African spiritual tradition with beautiful Black and Brown people with a variety of levels of African consciousness, then you’ll do just fine.
#2: You/your godparent will always be doing something wrong in someone’s eyes.
The beauty of African spirituality is that it doesn’t have dogma (though some are trying to move it in that direction). How one practices the tradition is largely based on location (West Africa, Cuba, Brazil, etc.) and lineage. Because of this variation there is often more than one way to do the same ceremony, for instance.
However, many people think that their way is not only right and better but is also THE ONLY WAY to do something.
If you are a novice in tradition, this is probably how it will happen for you:
You are in regular conversation at a drumming or some other spiritual gathering. Maybe you just received your elekes (spiritual beads that officially begin your path in the Lukumi Orisha tradition) and you are riding high after having your ceremony. Someone may casually ask, “Who was there when you got your elekes?”
You: “Oh, it was my my godmother/godfather, and my ojigbona (second godparent).”
Now you are wondering what you said wrong. “Um…yeah, that’s it.”
“Humph! When I give elekes or when my ile (spiritual house) gives ilekes, we have at least 10 people! That’s how it should be done.”
Mind you, there are some things that are absolutely wrong in orisha tradition. Like, if you receive an orisha, you should actually have something in the pot. (Yes, some people have had empty orisha pots.) Or if show up to what should be your initiation and only one person is present to do your initiation and there are no animals present, take off running in the other direction.
But there are some things, like how many people are present for an eleke ceremony, that is entirely up to the Iya and Baba in charge. The only thing that is wrong about receiving elekes if if you just buy some elekes from the botanica and put them on without them getting properly consecrated. Having your godparents present vs having everyone and their mom present is inconsequential.
So, please ignore folks that do this. Of course, when you are a novice you really have no idea if your godparent is cheating you or not, which takes a great deal of faith and trust. However, pray to your ancestors that if something is really wrong with how your godparents are doing things that the ancestors and orishas will intervene. But don’t concern yourselves too much with the opinion of others. Not only will you be stressed out but there is a huge chance that if your godparent gave you elekes and 10 people were present that someone else would say, “Humph! Well, I had 20 people!” See how that works?
Okay, check back with me next week for some more things I wish I knew when I came in tradition. And if you have any questions, leave me a comment or send me an email it firstname.lastname@example.org.