In search of direction and purpose in life, African Americans, Latinos, Jamaicans, Cubans and Brazilians in America become Ifa worshippers and consult priests
By ABDULRAFIU LAWAL / Boston, Massachusetts
The grey staircase banister leading to the five-bedroom house smells of fresh paint. As he opens the kitchen door while reciting some Ifa poems in Yoruba language laced with American accent, the neatness of the kitchen and fragrance of rose air freshener become convivial.
The kitchen area reveals a dining table with four chairs, a refrigerator and gas cooker on the far left. Moving through the passage to the divination room, one needs to take off shoes before proceeding further. On the right is a black wooden shelf containing books on Ifa authored by scholars from all over the world. Atop the shelf rests a black gong, pictures and Ifa divination chain, opele.
Unlike the room of an average Ifa priest in Nigeria, this room has no strange wall hangings. In the middle of the room there is a rug, two small chairs facing each other, a small table between and some Ifa paraphernalia. On this table, you have a divination tray carved from wood known as Opon Ifa containing Iyerosun (divination powder), carved ivory object used to invoke Ifa during divination (Iroke) and cowrie shells (Eerindinlogun). Welcome to the home of Tony Vandermeer, an African American Ifa priest, known as Babalawo, located in the Dorchester area of Boston, Massachusetts, United States, US.
Vandermeer, an enigmatic character in many ways, hails from Harlem, a part of New York, which is a predominantly black settlement. Harlem is famous in America for producing a generation of black intellectuals. He comes from a family of seven. Coincidentally, he also has seven children, five boys and two girls. This is unusual in America where most families do not have more than three children. It is however not the only unusual thing about Vandermeer. Equally unusual is the fact that he does not celebrate Christmas, Easter or any of the Christian holidays in the US, which is predominantly Christian.
Rather, he observes the Ifa new year (odun Ifa) and other celebrations recognised by his religion. As an Ifa worshipper, Vandermeer is known for his practice throughout New England and beyond by his students and clients. New England is a region in the northeastern corner of the US consisting of six states namely Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
So why would someone in America, the land of opportunities, need the services of an Ifa priest?
One of his clients, Yvette Modestin, a social worker and coordinator for Network for Afro Latin American and Afro Caribbean Women, says divination allows her to understand the sequence of events unfolding in her life. According to her, “I have been in the position where Ifa divination has spoken directly to a situation that I was in. I actually find it hard to explain because it is an internal thing that happens, that validates the next step you are about to make.”
Modestin, founder of Encuentro Diaspora Afro who through her association with Vandermeer also embraced Ifa religion, says it has cleared confusion and pains from her life. “Ifa has become my voice and whisper because I felt like my ancestors were speaking to me. I had tapped into something that was deeper than me. This is what has been calling me and what I need in my life,” she said.
For Askia Toure, a 73-year-old writer, poet and political activist who says he comes for divination when his mind is troubled, Ifa is a direction giver. “Ifa is a blessing for me because I get the right answers. I grew up in the African American church, my father was a deacon. Then, I had influence of Sunni Islam. My whole life has been a search for how best to communicate with my creator. After a very traumatic experience in my life, I met Wande Abimbola,” Toure said.
Similar to what obtains in Nigeria, African Americans, Latinos, Jamaicans, Cubans or Brazilians in America who are Ifa worshippers consult priests when searching for jobs, setting up a new business, contracting marriages and facing other challenges of life.
Bridgit Brown, an African American blogger and writer in Boston, says she had an Ifa divination when she was going to work in West Africa for the first time few years ago. She wanted to know how the journey would turn out and the divination revealed that it would be a major success. “And it was. It also told me to be mindful of the importance of ordinary things, and to not just see wealth in terms of money, but in terms of having those things which are of basic needs: food, shelter, love, and so on, which is very contrary to the American way that I grew up knowing,” she said.
The method of divination for Vandermeer’s clients is also similar to that of Nigerian Ifa priests. All a client needs is to give a small consultation fee, whisper his intentions on it and Vandemeer consults Ifa for answers. For him, Ifa divination is a vehicle to help the society rather than an avenue for material gains. “This is why I have no fixed price for divination. I have students who come with coins or a dollar from their pockets. I tell people who come to see me that if they are doing well, I am happy to be part of it.”
He says some of the qualities he has learnt from Ifa in dealing with clients are honesty and patience. “No divination can bless one unless one’s Ori (inner self) accepts it. It is a two-prong process involving divination and sacrifice (ebo). So, if you are not gonna go through the process, don’t even bother. This is because the idea of sacrifice concretises what is it you came for,” he said.
Vandermeer recalls his first contact with traditional African religion in 1978, when he was about graduating from the university. “Things were kind of rough, I was having problems with the mother of my daughter. I went to an Obatala priest for divination which enabled me to get through these problems but things got worse in 1983.” This Obatala priest was of Jamaican ancestry who got initiated through the Cuban system and was part of the African Americans who set up Oyotunji village in North Carolina.
In 1983, sensing that his life had not really changed for the better, this father of seven met some Cubans who introduced him to their own form of Ifa practice. He was given a cauldron, beads of various deities (awon orisa) like Esu and Osanyin. Still not fulfilled, Vandermeer left the Cuban house in 1994 when he met a Nigerian, Afolabi Epega, whose father had written a book on Ifa in the early 1900. However, his romance with Ifa took a turning point when he met Abimbola, who is spokesperson for Babalawos worldwide (Awise Awo Ni Agbaye).
Vandermeer ended up studying with Abimbola for 12 years. “If people come for divination, I would help on any kind of spiritual work like ebo (sacrifice). At this point, he (Abimbola) had set up the Ifa Institute in Atlanta where people were coming to see him.” The interaction culminated in Vandermeer’s initiation in Oyo State in 1999, adding that when he got involved, his mission was to use Ifa “to get the kind of spiritual balance and guide that I need to navigate the challenges of life.”
But as fate would have it, his destiny decided otherwise. He soon became a full scale Ifa diviner, though with a difference. One unique difference between Ifa diviners in the US like Vandermeer and Nigeria is that they have paid jobs through which they fend for their families. In addition to being an Ifa priest, Vandermeer is a senior lecturer in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and he is currently working towards his doctorate degree.
Like adherents of Islam and Christianity who observe their morning prayers before leaving the house, Vandermeer begins his day chanting Ifa verses, odus and ancestral chants for Egungun and throwing kolanuts before Esu. The essence is for him to have an idea how the day would be and determine what his schedule should look like. “If it is caution and I don’t have to go out, I will stay indoors. If I have to, I will be cautious,” Vandermeer said.
So why would an educated, widely travelled African American chose to become an Ifa priest? Vandermeer says before embracing Ifa religion, he had developed a sense of himself as a descendant of Africa. “So it made sense to me that my spiritual system should be one that related to Africa.”
Ifa divination system and religion associated with Yoruba history is common in most cultures in West Africa and later Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The divination system uses an extensive corpus of texts and mathematical formula interpreted by the diviner. The Ifa literary corpus, known as Odu, is made up of 256 parts subdivided into verses called Ese. In the US, Abimbola, a professor of Yoruba language and literature, has given it so much prominence through his works, especially in the last two decades. Its philosophy centres around belief in Olodumare, the Yoruba high God, humility and honesty. Statistics from the Council for Parliament of the World Religions estimate that Ifa religion has over 70 million followers in Africa and the Americas.
According to Yoruba myth, Ifa is one of the 401 divinities sent to the cradle of Yoruba civilisation in Ile Ife, Osun State, by Olodumare to carry out specific tasks on earth. Some of the other divinities are Ogun who is in charge of hunting, war and iron implements; Esu, the universal policeman and keeper of Ase;and Ifa who is in charge of divination because of its mental capacity. This role earned Ifa the nickname Akerefinusogbon (the young one whose mind is full of wisdom).