Ori Eni Ni Orisa Eni, Vol. IV

This depressing-ass, ratchet-ass, long-ass story is an unexpected continuation of a series on the complicated nature of my embrace of the ancestral lifestyles of my heritage and my misadventures reconciling them as an atheist. The first three posts (found here, here, and here) answered questions I’d been asked by numerous people, such as “What do you believe?”, “How are you atheist but practice an IAL (“Indigenous African Lifestyle”) and other traditional elements?”, and “Will Goku beat Superman?”. Okay, not the latter, but you get the point. They hopefully also established a general framework I could build from in the larger discussion and a means for those curious to comprehend the basics.

I felt that continuing it couldn’t hurt, as my spirituality and lack thereof is something constantly evolving, although there remain constants I’ve mentioned which will never change. I won’t repeat them. That said, because I know there are some who’ve wanted to ask this, some things are simply personal and not meant for a casual audience. There are hard decisions involved in the process.

Yet, I abhor elitism and gate-keeping, so there are other things that I can share when appropriate. Most importantly, these reflect my particular experiences and are far from absolute. Question anyone who suggests theirs are. Those who know me outside of this page can inquire and I’ll gladly share a bit more.

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10. Ancestors Before Ocha

Tío Abuelo Bob, and my Tía Abuela Rosa

“There must always be a purpose in each offering and libation you make,” he said. Priest. Babalawo. “Your ancestors are not passive entities, but living spirits that continue long after they’ve passed. Honoring them before the orisa or any other divinity is everyone’s birthright. It doesn’t matter what you do or don’t believe as they will always be with you, so don’t let anyone tell you that lie.” I nodded silently as I heeded his words, reflecting on one of the mantras I’d been taught: Ancestors before Ocha.

I remembered the water resting within the sieve I’d reserved for them; how it was a portent, a source of life reflecting a journey through the unknown. A channel that would guide all who followed its current. It was an oasis that quenched and soothed anyone who tasted its waters. Or, it was a wave, a tide, a tsunami that could consume within a roiling cyclone just easily as it could nurture; rendering the waters hostile, turbid instead of providing clarity.

I recalled the liquor that was sometimes poured in their honor, and how it was more than a vice; it was a tongue of dzo erupting from a well-placed spark. A beacon that signaled them, requesting their attention; exciting, invoking, and spurning each of them into action while the dzo refined all it graced. It was a wildfire that would devour evil within a domineering inferno when summoned. Or, it was a supernova, a conflagration, a volcanic explosion that could consume within a feral blanket of lava just as easily it could comfort those bombarded by cold; rendering the atmosphere scathing, vitriolic instead of providing purity.

I took note of each offering I shared with them, even a portion of the meals I sometimes cooked for my family whenever my health was better. I knew every morsel was more than a buy-off; each was an opportunity for communion with them. It was a feast, a celebration that assured me the Memories, Histories, and Narratives of them were ever-present. Another means of attuning with them and acknowledging the legacy that had ultimately shaped who I was while I established a rapport with my Antepasados, Eggún, and Togbeawo. Or, it was an offense, a disaster, a feud that could ensnare families within a clusterfuck just as easily as it could unite them; rendering the offering poisonous, spoiled instead of providing satiety.

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When the time came, I made tsifodi again and kept that advice close to my heart. I didn’t want my Antepasados to become tools I exploited, only approaching the altar I’d dedicated to them whenever I wanted something. It would’ve been hypocritical to not believe in prayers that theists made while practicing the secular equivalent just as fervidly. The love I had for them when I called them back into existence represented a bond that transcended temporal limitations as I learned more about each of them.

I remembered the stories relayed to me of an Ancestor who’d endured slavery years after the Union had abolished it. She’d been forced into peonage through racist laws alike many other Black folk, made to work on #FFFFFF plantations under conditions that made it nearly indistinguishable from the antebellum. But she’d never, as a genealogist in our fam recounted, let a cracker whoop her back. No #FFFFFF man or woman would shatter her spirit.

I remembered the tía I’d never known personally who lived in a rest home, isolated by the onset of dementia due in no small part to Epilepsy; how her sisters Santa and Otilia never stopped visiting, recording their experiences for the rest of the familia to see. I remembered so many others, and I would call them forth with this rite.

I remembered the Fish brothers who later parted for reasons unknown; some of them changed their surnames — as was wont in those times, I heard — and built a new life up North as Fishers. I remembered the time their descendants — including myself — found each other again in that immense ocean that comprised our family tree; how these Narratives reminded me of the importance of honoring those still alive just as equally, not only in ceremony or rite, but in conscious action: Ancestors before Ocha.

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I often wondered if the modest offerings and libations I provided to my Antepasados whenever I performed tsifodi would ever honor them alike the elaborate ones I saw others firmly immersed within these lifestyles made, often multiple times weekly. Even my mentors served their Ancestors in rites that would make anyone envious. But I remembered a Babalawo’s reassurance; another mentor’s encouragement; the advice an Iyanifa imparted while she recounted her own journey.

One’s intent was superlative; even the simplest shyt that I did could carry greater significance than grandiose displays of other people if their hearts were dishonest. Honoring my ancestors meant more than periodical feeding sessions at shrines devoted to them; it meant living and acting as they would’ve expected me to when they were alive, especially in my social dealings.

My mentors reassured me I would establish a foundation just as strong as theirs by mastering that approach. Even if I could not, would not believe in certain things in the same means they did, I’d somehow managed to understand a concept that transcended theological positions: Ancestors before Ocha.

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11. What It Truly Means To Heal

“A Depressed Family Portrait, Vol. 2”, by moi

“These are the things you’re missing,” Baba said while I stood beside him one evening, though I was merely a child compared to his stature. I always was. His hand stretched outward and before us lay a congregation of people in the street where my Home was. Streetlights and candle flames were scattered throughout every avenue and alleyway imaginable. Drumming marched behind choruses and chanting that followed powerful, exuberant voices singing in a host of tongues, each recalling the spirits, who lived in the voids of time itself.

The living were joined by those who had died and yet were now alive on this night. Yet, the black they wore was a celebration of this triumph, not a macabre obsession. Visitors had come when they heard I was returning to Baba after years of avoiding him, to celebrate the reunion of a father with his son, of a brother with the rest of his siblings and family. Soon, I would be reunited with my Mother, who lived in the Ocean itself.

“This is the Good you have been afraid of, even ashamed of. Love yourself, ‘cuz you’re beautiful and if anyone has a problem with that I will fuck them up,” Baba motioned for his rum and took a swig. “I was first, and will always be here for you. Now go and meet the rest of your family,” Baba nudged me forward, and the sequined-patterns on his black tux shimmered as he pointed toward them, from the Joven to Aflakete, even others I had not quite met yet. I nodded, and greeted them all, even dancing alongside them and inquiring who each of these strangers was. They lived in the town I’d known since childhood.

Soon, I would realize this town was alive. I would venture along many Roads from then on, into areas just as mysterious within the places conjured within my subconscious, but I would always be able to return here if I chose. It was my Home. So I walked that Road, calling my family into existence at every one of its boundless intersections, building a map into the very stars that never stopped glinting, even in bright daylight; acknowledging the healing that could come if I were somehow able to persevere.

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It was humid outside, the skies grayed and the air warm and yet slightly cool. Yet this town was my Home, so I walked it barefooted, as rich clay soil caked upon my heels. Soon I reached a field not far from my house; a modest plot where yerbas and the like were harvested to make atike and other medicina, all owned by a Kongo brotha that lived nearby.

Moderately tall with ebony skin, he was dressed like an ordinary farmer, save the boumba he carried with him. Like the griot, he called me over to him as he dug into the moist soil, collecting stalks and varying treasures while dirt clumped on his fingers. A jar nearby was where he stored most of them, and I could sense without even seeing the contents that there was a powerful dzoka brimming inside of it. It was alive.

Trails of white smoke filled the air as flame heated a sieve and amber-colored liquid bled into its water from the yerbas soaking inside. I needed healing, he said, and he’d show me how, so I watched and listened. I then saw him produce another jar, filled with equally-powerful magic within and spirits he’d made a new Home for, including things I will never utter here. It was alive.

“You should take care of it,” he suggested, although it was more of an order. “Allow it to grow and blossom. Tend it carefully as you walk the Road, and use the medicine inside whenever you grow sick.” This farmer, this curandero, nganga, boko, had taken great pains to collect what he’d prepared for me and did not wish it wasted. I thanked him with a firm shake and he replied he didn’t mind; he’d do it again if necessary.

“Follow me,” he stood and walked further into the field, his feet bare. He’d show me how to make the atike myself, to cultivate the yerbas and raíces. I would know the land so that I could recognize when the things I needed for my medicina were available.

Yet before I left, he inscribed dzo into my very flesh, applied more atike so I could fight off my sickness. It would protect me for the rest of my life, he promised, and I knew his words were true as my arm throbbed, but not in pain; it throbbed in something else, vibrant and hot with the sting of a cleansing ointment that washed my very essence it seemed, but I could not, would not believe in such things. Yet, I could believe in the invisible transformation taking place within my body as the medicina took effect. It was alive.

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He sat by the tree, my tree, a towering kapok that I’d planted with Baba one day. It was still young and had yet to mature, but it held many Memories all cultivated from the Antepasados who resided within it. I thought of Gran Bwa, who still knew the Histories of generations before when he was merely a sapling in Guinee, and I longed to know those Narratives and to become one with them, for they were alive, meant to persevere, release, perish, and blossom anew with each season. It was my soul, though I could not, would not believe in such things, and he was tending it. I was healing.

He was Indio. Also a curandero, bohike, with medium-length, unkempt black hair often draped alongside his cheeks as he knelt each day, cutting plants with a bareta to make new medicina. Shirtless with a necklace of raíces dangling across his chest. Sacred ones, that expelled evil itself through limpieza. Smoking tabaco whenever he rested from his work, but never near that sacred place where magic thrived and spirits roamed. Always thanking the forest for the gifts it offered him whenever he asked permission for its greatest secrets. Then, he beckoned with a single, impatient wave, and I approached.

A small pyre burned nearby as he boiled leaves and other things I could never name, stirring until they became a strange, grainy elixir I’d never seen. He poured some into a sieve and bade me to drink it.

“Drink this,” he said, “and it will make you whole. But only when you need it.” So I did, and the world around me transformed into something too wonderful to describe verbally. Many days later, I met the bohike again. He’d made a new batch of the mysterious substance, and bade me ingest some more.

“Drink this,” he said, “and you will see who you truly are.” So I did, and the world became vibrant, tendrils of light and energy emanating from every tree and glistening star in the night sky. My eyes slid down to the rest of my body, searching, analyzing, and I realized nothing I saw of it was recognizable. I was no longer a man trapped within depression; I’d found a path to freedom, though I’d not reached it yet and was far from “cured”.

The crushing anxiety I often experienced, completely incapable of expressing who I was within this limiting shell began to diminish. However, I was not a butterfly emerging from a cocoon alike the cliché. I was not merely male or female. I was something else: a shade, a Phoenix, a feral survivor becoming what I had always wished to see when I looked into the mirror, but I could never utter it here, even if I wanted to. I was healing. It was alive.

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A part of me continued to see the peculiar adventure I’d taken as a means of bettering my mental health; another saw it as an attempt to examine something else, almost aboriginal in nature. Like the town I often explored in dreams and meditation that I’d known since childhood, I traveled deep into the waters of my subconscious, trying to understand the Narratives, Histories, and Memories that had somehow survived, often through a very pronounced and deliberate adaptation.

Yet there was more; I wanted to know why so many of us still offered libations despite never being raised within a culture with ancestral veneration as an inherent aspect of it. I wanted to know how the imprint of customs otherwise unrecognizable to most of our people continued to cast a glaring shadow over us, whether continents apart or even centuries after, although there were obvious exceptions to this.

I wanted to know why Baba had come that day, just before the Fête Gede of all moments, ironically; why the others, several of whom I’d never known about nor heard of before, had also appeared in that sacred place. Why Otilia, James, and the other Ancestors chose to resurface at this particular moment in my life, instead of when I’d still been grieving them freshly. Perhaps it spoke to our own emotional complexities, resilience, and need for survival; I liked to imagine neuroscience, in combination with breakthroughs in anthropology, would one day be able to explain it. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be explained at all so much as appreciated.

My interests, however, had to extend beyond generic questions of religion and notions of spirituality. Each was a social institution formed and influenced by the civilizations they existed within, from the Gede rite that originated from the thousands of Gedevi — the original people of Abomey — sold to the French, along with the other rites representing the tribes who practiced them. The caminos that represented the manifestations of the Orisa as exemplars of countless societal roles and units humans experienced. The Native and African Antepasados of Borikén whose practices were maligned by the upper-class Espiritismo movement as antithetical to the progression of our people in propaganda campaigns, revealing deeply-ingrained cultural erasure, especially anti-Blackness via the co-opting of African customs as exclusively Native.

Only in recognizing how these practices and lifestyles I embraced evolved and adapted — especially in opposition to Imperialism — could I truly begin to come to terms with whatever that shade, that Phoenix, that feral survivor refused to surrender, if not a Divine or anything like the sort. Only then could those particular wounds at the least, begin to heal. But my healing would not come through psychedelics coopted by hipsters for recreational use; what those curanderos I knew were administering was something far more practical in reality; something I would never be able to utter.

I liked to imagine I was in that field with them at my Home each time I took my time completing various exercises I’d learned as part of physical therapy. Legs wobbling violently from atrophy as I performed squats with the grace of a drunken elephant. Tension headaches causing waves of pain to trumpet. Yet, perhaps by placebo especially, those same symptoms slightly diminishing just enough to make each episode bearable. My arms and legs strengthening while I perfected each routine. I felt my heart, colliding inside of my chest with each ferocious tremor, gradually calming ever so subtly.

That, was their medicine. I was healing.

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12. The Last I’d Expect, And Yet the First

Statue of Legba, by Cyprien Tokoudagba, in the Tropenmuseum. Photo by Iolanda Andrade

They say the seventh was not always a great Vodun. He was the last of them, proven when he was Mawu’s youngest and Her most spoiled, a magnet for jealousy. She kept Her son close and none else but him could speak to Her or for Her. The other Vodun had forgotten how to speak that divine language, save him, and he alone had learned every human language possible, so he became the one whom all mankind would seek to open the way for mediation with Her and then report of Man’s deeds. So was he the last, and yet the first to whom those who sought his Mother spoke, even his siblings.

The seventh was Her most intuitive, they say, proven when he created the first dzoka and loosed it upon Men on a whim, exploiting the mischief the snake caused by selling them the only cure to its vicious bites. He taught Awe his secrets for a price, whom in turn gifted it to all mankind, but Aflakete would never walk the earth as he had before once his Mother discovered the first of his many misdeeds, cursed to forever remain invisible as punishment. So was he the last, and yet the first to sire Magic.

The seventh was Her most gifted, they say, proven when Mawu gave the Vodun a challenge to decide whom among them would be their chief: they would each single-handedly play the drum, gong, bell, flute, and dance before Her in harmony. The mighty Hevioso, gloating over his imperious strength, was first. He failed. Agè praised his own talent as a famed hunter in addition to his might, but he too was unsuccessful. Then Gu, boasting about his own power, uncanny artisanship, and command of the mighty flame, also failed Her trial. Mawu then called the seventh and bade him try. The seventh did all She asked of them successfully and satisfied Her demands, winning the challenge. So was Aflakete made first of the Vodun, the chief always greeted before the others.

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I knew the seventh walked with us all. “He escorts everyone on their own path. Every person has a Legba no matter their position in life,” Baba said, as well as many priests and priestesses, but I could not, would not believe he walked with me. I didn’t even believe in Her, his own Mother, nor his Father, let alone any supposed “Divinity”. I still don’t. How didn’t that offend him?

Perhaps he really did know every path, even the atheistic one. Perhaps he understood the pain that I held inside of chasms that could fill the Marianas Trench, for he had learned to translate that agony into a language no human could tangibly speak. Perhaps he saw that no deity or “spirit” could truly fill it.

Maybe that was why Aflakete announced himself on that day, his day, in fact; accepted the offerings made with each rite as genuine rather than fraudulent, blasphemous; trusted me enough to complete the task he’d prescribed to me through Afa. So was he the last I would ever think to embrace, and yet the first beyond those I’d already met in that sacred space known as my Home that I would come to accept. Or at least the Narratives, Memories, and Histories of him. I could believe he lived through those things, if nothing else, so I did. He was alive.

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I was in the marketplace this time, lost within a swarm of people. A city of trade just a few miles away from Home. I imagined some of this legion were travelers not unlike myself, engaged in just as many transactions for a time. They would attain what they needed while scouring this mystical place, and then they’d return to the Road all people walked, filled with boundless intersections and golden trails. Even I would return to it, I thought, as I journeyed to meet my Mother who lived in the Ocean alike I had Baba when I returned Home for the first time.

I had not come to purchase anything; no wangas, Florida, cascarilla, Palo Santo, tabaco, ataku, atike, nor any ebo. No yucca, plátanos, coquito, bliwo, mofongo, jollof, or bacalao for an offering. I was not hungry either, although the perfume of those myriad foods remained tempting. I was just passing through this time. There were many faces, some of which greeted me, others absorbed in their own personal affairs; all of them flooded my eyes in a sea of pastels while sunlight kissed their robes. They were not the ones I’d come to see, however.

Dusk eventually began to spread its curtain and I found myself leaving the main thoroughfare to find a place to relax elsewhere. I enjoyed the camaraderie and vibrance emanating from every conversation I spied, but alike any time in the public, I’d had my fill. I needed to be alone for a while, invisible. So I found myself drifting away from the crowds and deep into sheltered corridors where I could blend with the darkness.

Then, I spied her, seated in the shadows while dim lights highlighted her; waiting, if not resting from a journey of her own. A stout woman, a mother, who smiled as I sat across from her. I felt mirth fill this otherwise quiet place as all other sounds were incredibly muted, save the voice of one: her son. His gaze was pensive, curious, and filled with an intuition that studied me heavily, bearing witness to mysteries now emerging from a shapeless ether into a perceivable nature.

I thought of Gbadu, whose sixteen eyes were omniscient as the divinity spied earthly affairs from her home atop a palm tree that towered amongst the clouds. Gbadu, communicating through the palm nut while Aflakete mediated, would foretell the doom of all men as she harnessed the sixteen keys given by her Mother. I longed to recall the Histories contained within each of the doors those keys opened; not so that I could discern mine, for I could not, would not believe in such things. Instead, I’d seen and known this child much alike I’d known the Joven from my youth. That, was a History I could believe in, so I did.

“What did you look like when you were my age?” the child asked, brown eyes matching brown skin as he peered into my Ori.

I couldn’t answer at first; I’d forgotten the language that communicated those Memories.

“Do you have a picture?” his voice was elevated, eager; his countenance brimmed with excitement and impatience. “I want to see if you looked like me!” he added.

Me, back when I was innocent, in the park with Otilia.

I thought of a single image of myself, face beaming with one of the few smiles in my childhood photos that were genuine, as I stood in front of a jungle gym in a Brooklyn park. My skin golden and not as pale as it’d become due to years of sickness; a future I could envision without the scars I’d later endure still fresh on my mind. I promised to find that photograph, and share it with him.

“I’m sorry for him bothering you so much!” his mother chuckled. “I do have to say though, that it’s nice to see him have some company to enjoy while we’re here. We’re often alone, and he don’t usually have someone to play with.”

“It’s no problem,” I replied. “He seems pretty bright. So, you just passing through?”

“We are, yes. Been a long way from Home, but we’ll be heading back in the morning. Say; you think you can find that picture for him when you get the chance? We’ll meet up with you again,” she twiddled her thumbs while her hands were folded.

“Sure,” I replied. “It was nice meeting you both.” She acknowledged my response with a calm nod, as I waved goodbye to her son while I departed. So were they the last I’d expect to meet while lost within that wondrous city, and yet the first who would remind me of what my Eggún, Togbeawo, and Antepasados loved within me; what I could one day love if I ever stopped hating myself.

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The dzo danced a final time as the candle wax waned beneath its glow; the portal created by the water I offered still sparkled, and the offering I made sat before it until it was consumed. The single most important thing ever asked of me thus far had taken place, and yet I remained unsure, lost in a purgatory of sorts between my atheism and that shade, that Phoenix, that feral survivor that believed in something, if not a Divine or Fa and Kpoli or Guinee and Orun. It could not, would not believe in those things. So why did I expend my time then? I honestly don’t know.

My primary goal remained the same: honoring my Eggún, Togbeawo, and the rest of my Antepasados foremost, paying tribute to Otilia, James, and the others. While the lifestyle(s) they wished me initiated into were still a mystery, such mystique, in spite of the frustration it caused, was something I accepted as inevitable.

It was never an easy path; a dear friend I knew had spent countless years preparing to be crowned into Lukumí, and others I knew or followed had sacrificed just as much time in pursuit of their own journeys, whether as a Paler@, Ayahuasca priest, Mambo, or even Akomfo. Nonetheless, the limitations I experienced only made the goal of completing any communal rites and ceremonies harder to envision as possible.

How could a person incapable of traveling most of the time — let alone driving — accomplish vossa I’d been prescribed that required such? The creation of Aflakete’s shrine and other rites I could never name, for example, took more than half a year to complete because of those limitations. There were other mundane tasks — although mostly suggestions rather than requirements — that were impossible for me to fulfill.

Thus I remained an outcast, relegated to mentorship in many cases at a distance. I remained a prisoner, longing to escape the confinement imposed upon me; watching as dreams I’d had since my childhood — wanting to be a Marine Biologist, for example — died in front of my eyes. I refused, however, to ask for pity. Just as I promised Otilia and the rest of my Antepasados, Eggún, and Togbeawo, I would earn anything I pursued.

Nonetheless, being a nonbeliever embracing elements of my ancestral heritages left me in a perpetual state of self-doubt. No amount of encouragement from friends and mentors — a few involved in the priesthood themselves or studying to become such — could assuage it. Afa couldn’t. Baba couldn’t; Otilia couldn’t; James couldn’t; the Joven and the others that now dwelled in that Home I’d known since childhood couldn’t. That shade, Phoenix, feral survivor hidden within the Histories, Memories, and Narratives that comprised my very being couldn’t. Aflakete couldn’t. Even my family and closest friends, especially those who accepted what I practiced, and my mentors couldn’t. I hadn’t left a minefield just to stumble back into it again.

Instead, I thought of that boy, my brother, my “twin”, whose name I can never utter even if I wanted to, and I saw myself again. Even I couldn’t. That shade, that Phoenix, that feral survivor, however, could, so I began yet another search into a place I’d long thought had been hidden for eternity. A spiritual place, but one without a Divine ruling it, because I could not, would not believe in such things. It’s owner shared my flesh, my Narratives, Histories, and Memories; it even shared my spirits. It shared me.

Ori eni ni Orisa eni.