When I wrote my last blog post, instead of saying you should check back in with me next week, I should have said check back in next month. Between planning a summer camp and finishing up two courses in school, I haven’t had much time to really think about anything else, let alone write. I also turned a year older since my last post…and so did my mother and one of my nephews, and my other nephew graduated, so it’s been busy, but in a very positive way.
Okay, so let’s continue talking about what you should know when starting out in African spirituality. Here’s one thing people should definitely know:
#3: It’s not cheap.
African spirituality consists of many rituals and ceremonies. Daily practice, like prayer, meditation and giving of offerings, doesn’t cost much of anything, except for the cost of a few items to offer the ancestors and orishas.
However, the ceremony to receive those orishas isn’t cheap. Receiving the shrine of an orisha requires many ingredients – including animals – and the labor of one or more knowledgeable priests who certainly deserve to get paid for their work. Initiating to an orisha, which is more complex than receiving an orisha, requires more ingredients – yes, more animals – and more labor. So that’s definitely not cheap. Though some iles (spiritual houses) have some practices to make ceremonies cheaper, the cost of ceremony can still discourage people from committing themselves to African spirituality.
My advice to those starting out on the path is simple: Don’t stress yourself out about it. What is meant to be will be. If you were told you need to receive this orisha and that orisha or if you were told you need to initiate as soon as possible, understand that when it is time the ancestors and orishas will make it possible. If you were told you need to receive an orisha and it’s just too expensive right now, do your best to pray to and take offerings to that orisha as much as possible and trust that your intentions are understood. Same thing for initiation. Pray to and take offerings to the orisha you should initiate to or, if that is unknown, pray to and take offerings to the orisha of your godparent. Sometimes, that’s all that is needed anyway…but that’s for another post!
Ultimately, spirituality can’t be bought and it’s not meant to be stressful. Do your best and leave everything else up to Olodumare and the positive forces of creation. Really, what else can you do?
#4: Your paradigm has to shift.
One of the things I get asked often is, “Does Ifa have a book? Like Christians have the Bible and Muslims have the Qu’ran?”
The answer: No.
African spirituality is an oral tradition. Information has been handed down, from priest to priest, parent to child, for ages. Though many priests have written wonderful books about tradition that certainly have many lessons we can learn, there is no definitive book in an African spiritual system. There is a movement to write one in the Yoruba tradition but I don’t think this a wise move.
For one, the idea of there being one authoritative text is very Abrahamic-religion-ish. (No shade to those traditions.) For many of us in the West who are used to understanding religion in this way, we often don’t realize that this is very new way to approach religion when we consider the whole timeline of humanity. The most ancient traditions were oral. The oldest religion that has sacred texts is Hinduism, and those texts are consider a guide rather than a source of ultimate truth to be read literally and obeyed.
The idea of one authoritative text could seem comforting at first because we want everything to be spelled out for us. What to believe, what to wear, what to eat, etc. African spirituality is very much the opposite of that. There are no formal dogmas involving who or what God is. In Yoruba tradition Olodumare is the name of the being (force?) that could be considered equivalent to “God” but that idea is often debated. There are certain times when there are strict rules, like during the iyawo year when a new initiate must wear white and follow some other protocols. but most of the time the rules are very much related to an individual’s destiny. For instance, I may be told in divination a certain food is taboo for me but it is perfectly fine for you to eat it.
Another reason why I am against the move to create an Ifa Holy Book is because, ultimately, someone or some group decides what should go into it and no one is agenda-free. Everyone has some sort of lens by which they make critical decisions. I don’t believe my lens should define your truth and I am not quick, at all, to assume anyone’s lens should define mine. This is exactly why I was considered rebellious when I went to church. I am not interested in hierarchical structures that define who is in and who is out or what is true and what is right.
Another reason is why I am against this is because of something I learned from Malidoma Some’s book Of Water and Spirit. He explained why many elders of his tribe, the Dagara people of what we now call Burkina Faso, refuse to learn to read and write. They believe that when we make something abstract and symbolic, like thought and speech, a concrete tangible entity like an alphabet that can be written and translated, the mind becomes less able to accept symbolic, spiritual reality and instead fixates on what can be quantified. Sounds familiar, right?
So to really practice African spirituality, we must be willing to see reality in a new way. Not only must we let the idea of one authoritative truth die, we must be willing to accept a host of ideas that Western thought deems impossible or evil. Ancestors speaking? People getting possessed and giving advice and healing? Mixing weird ingredients and speaking power into them in such a way that when used one experiences real, tangible change? This is all very real in an African-centered paradigm of reality.
#5. Trust your gut.
Your mind may lie to you but the core of yourself, your gut, always knows and reveals the truth.
So many people have really terrible, some downright horrible, experiences when they first come into African tradition. I have heard so many horror stories, involving getting cheated out of money, paying for ceremonies that were intentionally done incorrectly, and even physical and sexual abuse. I am beyond grateful that I had and have amazing elders since I began on this path. (Shout out to my godmother Iya Sade Ali/Omi Saide, my godfather Baba Richard Onque/Odun Ala and my Oluwo Baba Taiwo Adesola, and all of the my other elders.) Not that everything has always been sweet and good but nothing involving some of the ilk I have heard from others.
I am a quintessentially rose-colored glasses kind of person. I truly believe the best in people and want to believe that every priest, spiritual adviser, or anyone in the helping professions has the best of intentions. I’d rather believe a priest was just trained incorrectly than believe they intentionally did someone wrong. But, I can now say, that this is just not always not the case. I personally know of cases where priests have done spiritual work for people that they were not qualified or trained to do for financial or other benefits (namely bragging rights).
When a person is cheated by unscrupulous people it is never their fault. We can’t blame the victims. However, sometimes people do mention that when in these situations they felt like something was wrong or something was off. They fought internally about it, perhaps thinking about the times the person was helpful and loving and did some good, and concluded, “Well, maybe I just don’t understand. This person is a priest and I am not. The must know what they are doing so let me just have faith” or something along those lines.
If something doesn’t seem right, most of the time it isn’t. If you are feeling rushed to do ceremonies and pay big money, are receiving shrines with little to no ritual (the priest just hands it to you or drops it off…no divination, no prayer, no nothing), are discouraged from asking questions (some questions may be inappropriate due to context or environment but most questions are perfectly fine), or are told you don’t have a spiritual connection and therefore you cannot rely on or trust yourself, something is awry.
Please, please, please don’t just go along with something that makes you feel uneasy or causes doubt within yourself. Trust yourself. If something doesn’t feel right, it’s okay and acceptable to walk way. Ultimately, spirituality is about your growth and development and these cannot be placed on a back-burner to fulfill someone else’e egoic needs.
I hope this was helpful to someone out there. As always, if you have any questions send me a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.