Africa

Dancing the Diaspora

How West African spiritual practices withstood colonialism

by Yeye Luisah Teish

You are invited to take a walk, or rather to dance through the African diaspora.

The first thing you will experience is the rhythm of the drum. The drums, carrying the heartbeat of humanity, entice your blood to move smoothly through your veins. The rhythms affect your muscles, and compel you, no matter how shy you may be, to follow that sound to its source.

Being led by the power of sound you float around the corner, searching for the source of this enchantment. You arrive at the ritual space.

It may be the courtyard of a compound in Nigeria, where a sacred insignia has been drawn in the dirt with a broom made of palm fronds. Clay houses, both square and round, are decorated with murals depicting the legendary figures of the area, perhaps Olokun (the Owner of the Deep) or the ancient Mother of the Cosmos, Nana Buruku.

If you are sauntering through the neighborhoods of Mantanzas, Cuba, you may encounter an entire street lined with shrines and temples dedicated to saints with black faces and African or Taino names. The Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Haiti, Trinidad and Tobago all celebrate the spirits in similar ways.

On New Year’s Eve the beaches of Bahia, Brazil, are lined with handcrafted boats made of banana leaves. They contain offerings of food, jewelry, candles, and prayers. Thousands of these little boats are laid on the shore. Songs are sung to Imanje, the Great Mother of the Ocean, and exactly at midnight, a great wave comes and takes the offerings out to sea. It has been this way for hundreds of years.

If you are brave you may cross the bridge that leads to Sorte Mountain above Caracas, Venezuela. There you’ll find shrines to María Lionza, the Wild Woman in the Woods. She rides a tapir and has a lover standing guard in each direction, four men named Don Juan. Although these tropical spirits represent the Forces of Nature, they can be revered anywhere: in celebrations held in the park, in an apartment or a decorated garage, in Miami, New York or San Francisco.

Whichever place you find yourself in you will behold magnificent altars, draped in beautiful fabrics, adorned with flowers, feathers, fruit and folk arts depicting the images of the Orishas, the Saints and the ancestors of the respective families sponsoring the celebration.

As you enter this sacred space you may be cleaned at the door with a wand of burning herbs or a bowl of salt water. Sometimes you will be asked to scrape your shoes on a woven mat. This is done so that you can leave your mundane concerns on the other side.

Look around you. What you see is a sea of bodies, dancing in rhythm to the drum. Their skins are chocolate, caramel and vanilla. They are dressed in luminous white clothes; they wear many strands of multicolored beads.

The white clothes are offset by scarves of various colors representing the Orisha that person is dedicated to:

Those wearing red and black are dedicated to Eshu-Elegba-Eleggua, the trickster magician of the Pantheon. All ceremonies begin and end with him, and his priest will probably move through the congregation playing jokes on people, unexpectedly.

Those wearing red scarves are devotees of Shango the Lord of the Flame, the King of Justice, Courage and Strength.

The very humble devotees of Obatala may be dressed in white clothing to exemplify the meaning of that name, Obatala (the King of the White Cloth, the Clouds). They are required to be ethical and wise, and to remain cool tempered at all times.

If you feel the wind stirring and imagine there is a rainbow whirling around you, a devotee of Oya, the Queen of the Winds of Change, has just danced past you in her multicolored skirt while waving her long black horsehair switch. For sure, your life will be different soon.

Yemaya, the Mother of All of the Orishas, will wash you in her blue waters and silvery moonlight. Yes, she looks like everybody’s mother, with large angular breasts and big fisheyes. You want to snuggle up to her and be nurtured. But she is also the mother of secrets, and she’ll tell all your secrets to the whole house if you are hiding something.

The coarse fellow Ogun’s priest may be bare-chested, dressed in a grass skirt and brandishing a machete. He is the tool-maker, the Wild Man in the Woods and the Lord of War. When his devotees dance they whirl and twirl their machetes, they clang and spit fire. Move out of the way to keep your head on your shoulders.

And then a calmness comes over the space. Everything smells fragrant. Everything feels good. Laughter fills the room for no apparent reason. A beautiful woman dressed in sparkling shades of gold circles the room. She carries a plate of honey in her hands and she smears it over the faces of those she favors. Oshun, the Goddess of Love, Art and Sensuality has entered the room and blessings are on their way.

All these people and all these traditions are the results of hundreds of years of inter-mixture between the descendants of Africans who were brought across the Atlantic to this hemisphere, the indigenous people (the Taino, Carib, and Warao) and southern Europeans.

The combinations of ancestor reverence, nature worship, herbal medicines, practical magic, drums, dance and pageantry have blended into a culture that has withstood colonialism, economic shifts and ecological disasters. Through the centuries, the drum—the heartbeat of humanity—has embraced, enticed and seduced people from every continent.

You are invited to follow its beat around the corner and down the street, to move among the bodies, to surrender to spirit and become one with community, history and nature.

CONTRIBUTOR

Yeye Luisah Teish

Yeye Luisah Teish is a teacher, dancer, storyteller and high priestess. She also is an author, most notably of Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, her father was an African Methodist Episcopal and her mother was a Catholic, of Haitian, French and Choctaw heritage. Yeye Teish is an Iyanifa and Oshun chief in Yoruba tradition. Yeye Teish is one of the most well known Yoruba priestesses worldwide, who is celebrated internationally in Goddess circles as a writer and ritual-maker.

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