Behold ‘Babalawo’ in America

The world has truly become small. Abdulrafiu Lawal, in the United States of America visits a ‘Babalawo’ and reports on his encounter.

The gray staircase banister leading to the five bedroom house smells of fresh paint. As he opens the kitchen door and murmurs ifa poems in Yoruba laced in American accent, the neatness of the kitchen and scent of rose air freshener is convivial. Moving through the passage to the divination room, one needs to remove shoes before proceeding further. On the right is a black wooden shelf containing books on Ifa authored by scholars from all over the world. On top of this shelf are a black gong, pictures and ifa divination chain, known as opele.

Unlike the room of an 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 the table is a divination tray carved from wood known as Opon ifa containing divination powder (Iyerosun), 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 Dorchester area of Boston,Massachusetts,United States of America.

Vandermeer, an enigmatic character in many ways hails from Harlem, New York, a predominantly black settlement, famous 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.

Unlike most Americans, he does not celebrate Christmas, Easter or any of the Christian holidays. Rather, he observes the ifa new year (odun ifa) and other celebrations recognised by his religion. He is known for his ifa practice throughout New England and beyond by his students and clients. New England is a region in the northeastern corner of United States consisting of six states namely Maine,Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachusetts .

Why would someone in America 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. “ 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.’’

According to Modestin, “ 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.’’

For Askia Toure, a 73-year old writer, poet and political activist who comes for divination when his mind is troubled, ifa has shaped his direction in life. ‘’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 (Prof) Wande Abimbola.”

Prof Abimbola, a former vice chancellor of the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife is a world renowned ifa scholar.

Similar to what obtains in Nigeria, African Americans, Latinos, Jamaicans, Cubans or Brazilians in America who believe in it , consult an ifa priest when searching for jobs, setting up a new business, failed marriages and 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 a few years ago. She wanted to know how the journey will be and the divination revealed that it will 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.’’

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 qualities he has learnt from ifa in dealing with clients are honesty and patience. “No divination can bless one unless one’s ori (godhead) 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 concretizes what is it you came for and manifests.’’

First Contact with Ifa

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’’. The priest was of Jamaican ancestry who got initiated through the Cuban system and was part of the African Americans who set up the poipular Oyotunji Village in South Carolina.

In 1983, sensing that his life had not really changed for the better, the father of seven met some Cubans who introduced him to their own form of ifa practice. He was given a caudron,beads of various deities (awon orisa),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.

The turning point

However, his romance with ifa took a turning point when he met Wande Abimbola, who is spokesperson for Babalawos worldwide (Awise Awo Ni Agbaye) in the Unites States.

“I began classes on the ancestors, orisas and ifa for four years. I knew more than I have ever thought which necessitated my doing a serious study around ifa’’, says Vandermeer.

Comparing the Cuban system with the Nigerian style of ifa practice, he says studying under Abimbola who has a long history with the religion and a linguist made him understand the ifa philosophy. “Like the notion of iwa pele (good character and humility) which set the tempo for my getting deeper in terms of practice. Though the Cuban system was based on the Nigerian practice, not being familiar with Spanish made it more difficult studying under Cubans.’’

Like the proverbial journey of a thousand mile beginning with a step, getting his first hand of ifa signaled his sojourn to the esoteric and spiritual world of ifa priests. Vandermeer ended up studying with Abimbola for 12 years. “If people come for divination, I would help or 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.’’ This culminated in his initiation in Oyo in 1999, adding that when he got involved, his mission was to use the ifa “to get the kind of spiritual balance and guide that I need to navigate the challenges of life’’ but his destiny decided otherwise.

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 will be and may determine what his schedule will 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.’’

He says going to Nigeria where he was in seclusion as part of the initiation process made him appreciate how ifa related to his character, that of other people and the notion of sacrifice. “ The notion of ori, were concepts that makes a lot of sense, stories around Esu and the idea of being able to reconstruct your life. Someone in a bad situation can be better if he makes efforts. That is why the Esu is on the opon ifa and the in the ebo (sacrifice), Esu gets something’’.

Why would an educated, widely travelled African American choose to become an ifa priest? Vandermeer says before embracing the 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.’’

However, he makes a distinction between his relationship to ifa and its relationship to Nigeria stressing that he was not tracing his roots to Nigeria. Though, his parents are all from the United States, he believes they have links to Ghana and Sierra Leone.‘

Stressing that some may dispute his claim of being an African, he supports his claims with the statement of Malcom X that “putting puppies in” the oven, does not make them biscuits.’ So as Africans, just because trans-Atlantic slave trade brought us here does not make us less Africans. For me, exploring ifa as one of the gifts of Africa, the birth place of civilisation,you see the richness in terms of its value systems and philosophy which intrigues me.’’

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.

In the United States, Prof. Abimbola 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 estimates that ifa religion has over 70 million followers in Africa and the Americas.

In 2005, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) proclaimed ifa as one of the 86 traditions of the world to be regarded as masterpieces of oral and intangible heritage of humanity. By this proclaimation,ifa joined the league of heritage elements that require urgent measures by the state to preserve it. Abimbola, on the other hand, has become an ambassador of sort conveying the message of religious tolerance around the world including a visit to the pope.


Ifa, like any other thing coming to America from Africa, is associated with some negative stereotypes such as voodoo or something primitive. But to Vandermeer those stereotypes have not discouraged him in any way because history rewards those who research it. “We live in western imperialist society which played a role historically in slave trade and being part of society of people trying to dominate African people. Part of colonialism says what the coloniser does is right and the colonised whatever they do is wrong. So, their belief in god is wrong but their belief in the coloniser’s god is correct.’’

He describes the negative strand around ifa like blood sacrifice, witchcraft and devil worship as nothing but imperialists’ propaganda. He emphasises that research done by many scholars around the world has proved that ifa is more valid than many other belief systems. “I have studied how Christian missionary society used its relationship with those in power to convince people that Christianity was the way and not to believe in their own indigenous belief system’’, he says.

Working as an ifa diviner in America is not without challenges especially language, says Vandermeer. “We as babalawos in the Diaspora especially North America don’t have that type of learning community that exists in Nigeria. This is one of our dilemmas, how do we build communities among practitioners so that we are able to learn and share more knowledge around ifa’’. As a way out, he had to get people who understand Yoruba language to help him out.

He notes that another challenge is learning the odu and ese ifa in English which is kind of problematic. Stressing that Nigeria has a stronger apprenticeship model where a young person goes to live and study with the babalawo. Though, he says this does not make them inferior to other babalawos but a mere difference in cultural context.

“ We are at a unique place because we understand the culture here. When we look at ifa as a people here, we are able to relate those circumstances in relation to ifa. The babalawos in Nigeria are at a higher level in terms of history as some know five or six generations of their families involved in ifa”, he said. Another challenge is sourcing herbs because the country has laws protecting forest reserves. In this case, he relies on his contacts in Nigeria for help especially from Prof. Abimbola.

As a way to expand knowledge of ifa, Vandermeer formed a study group of 24 people consisting of young and the old who meet once a week to learn ifa songs,chants and the orishas.

Another unique difference between Ifa diviners in the US like Vandermeer and Nigeria is that they have paid jobs through which they feed their families. He is a senior lecturer in the department of African American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and working towards his doctorate degree.

Passing it to the next generation

In keeping with the African culture of maintaining family traditions by passing it to off- springs, Vandermeer is grooming his 13 year old daughter, Adetutu, whose name rituals was performed by Prof. Abimbola.

Like a Muslim or Christian preacher will call the name of God before doing anything, Adetutu, laced with innocence and oblivious of the challenges of becoming a success story as a black person in America chants “ifa lo loni, ifa lo lola,ifa lo lotunla pelu e” before answering the reporter’s questions. “ Every morning, I get my kolanut(Obi abata),some water , recite my odu ifa and throw it to the ground, that is how I say my prayers. My friends in school do not know ifa is my religion, but they notice I wear different Yoruba clothes especially on Fridays’’, she says. At her age, she already knows how to interpret the message of ifa when kolanut is thrown and helps her father in doing sacrifice (ebo) for clients.

Her mother’s name at birth was Maria Clemencia but in 2003 became Fatuma Atoke, after her initiation, says the hospital staff were surprised when they refused to give her a name immediately after Adetutu was born which is the usual practice in America. “Over 200 people attended her naming at our home with Baba Wande Abimbola presiding. The hospital asked us why we had to wait to have a gathering. I told them this is the way we want to do it.’’

Challenges facing African Americans

For African Americans who believe in ifa, it goes beyond being a guide to resolve the puzzle of life but partly an answer to racism and something to give them a true a sense of belonging . Also their relationship with Africans from the mother continent has been saddled with tension and mistrust.

Toure who pioneered the African American and Black studies programme in the US at San Francisco State University in 1968 says it has been a struggle to maintain a small bit of their African heritage. “The racist colonialists claimed the African was sub-human and a little more advanced than the ape. Ifa gives us a common way of thinking, looking at the universe and ancestral grounding for those us in the Diaspora and our brethren in the mother continent. We in the Diaspora can be viewed as the lost tribes who have been re-linking with motherland and re-establishing respect for African traditional religion and spirituality.’’

For Modestin, who has spoken at the African Union (AU) , United Nations (UN) and travelled all over Latin America, coming to the United States made her realise the excruciating effect of racism. She says this experience compounded her problems because “you are told you are not black enough because you were not born here and you are not Latino enough because am black.’’

Ayoka Onifade, a mother of two whose name before her conversion to ifa religion was Maura Gaines, says it has enabled her to redefine herself. “ My conversion has given me a stronger sense of identity around being an African woman. This has a different political ideology because the sense of being hyphenated African-American, like what does it mean ? When I was initiated in Oyo, I felt I was home. It changes who you are and how you see the world’’.

Onifade was initially a Christian, moved to Cometic religion and then converted to ifa. She and her husband also had the only Yoruba ifa wedding in New England conducted by Abimbola. Her two children Oyade and Ifatayo,aged nine and 11 respectively had their life story divined by Prof. Abimbola and their names were chosen from the odus.

Though,Onifade has not been able to trace her roots to any country in Africa,she would love to go back to live in Nigeria. “ I have committed myself to ifa and Yoruba culture, hence I will feel more comfortable in Nigeria. When I came back to the US, I was homesick for three weeks. It was difficult to re-acclamatise because I felt I was home. I had a profound experience in Nigeria,’’ she confessed. Vandermeer captures the plight of African Americans more succinctly.

“ Here, in the African American community that we have been stolen from our native countries. Our languages have been stripped from us; we are made to believe we are somebody else. And we still suffer from a different level of oppression”, he says.

Askia Toure and Modestin believe ifa can be used to unite Africans in the mother continent and the Diaspora. “This could be a way for us to begin to understand each other a lot better. This could be a place to validate ourselves within ourselves in a way that we would not get in other platforms,’’ she says.

Pro. Vandemeer (3rd from left).

Counting his blessings, Vandermeer says studying under Prof. Abimbola is a “transforming’’ experience and ifa has made him a “seeker of knowledge’’. This is because he is now interested in learning many languages fluently like Japanese Akida,Spanish, Suriname and Cape Verdean Creole as well as Yoruba.

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