Orisa: Resilience in the Diaspora and at Home
by Iya Melissa
Today, June 3, 2017, is the Yoruba New Year. But, what does that mean?
It can be as challenging to discuss the Yoruba culture as it is to discuss Candomblé – both are words that we use to describe what can be, at times, vastly different practices or beliefs.Yoruba people, while having the same origins, live diverse lives and have unique cultures whether they are in Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Brazil, Cuba, or Brooklyn! What binds us is our shared history, that we descend from Oduduwa and acknowledge Ile-Ife as the cradle of civilization.
Candomblé, while having Bahian roots in Brazil, transforms as well depending on the principal African deities being worshipped (Orixá:Ketu, Vodun:Jeje, Inkice:Angola). Not only are there differences between the nations of Candomblé (in terms of the liturgical language being used and particular customs and rituals), but the religion itself changes a bit depending on where it’s being practiced. Candomblé in Bahia is different than it is in Rio, or São Paulo, Milan, San Francisco, Uruguay or New York. No matter where we are, both Candomblecistas and Yorubas have common threads that bind.
I was recently interviewed about how Yoruba religion has persevered over the years both in the diaspora and in Nigeria. Around the world, Orisha shrines are often vandalized, adherents attacked, and communities even have to combat proposed legislation seeking to limit the ways in which our religion can be practiced. Regardless of whether or not our communities suffer antagonism in Nigeria or the diaspora, resistance is a common thread that binds.
I remember in the mid to late 1990’s, Yoruba priests in Nigeria were working diligently toraise more awareness about traditional religion (esin ibile – roots/traditional worship). Magazines were published to share knowledge about Orisa and demystify misconceptions. Cultural centers in big cities became more active in promoting events to draw crowds. Some temples even began to mark Saturday as their holy worship day (not ignoring the traditional Yoruba calendar) as a way to carve out space for themselves in the religious market where Muslims have Fridays and Christians have Sundays. A movement began for uniformity.
Today, with Internet access in Nigeria better than ever, we even have access to live feeds of festivals and ceremonies! We see evidence of young children, the future, being active participants in keeping Yoruba traditions alive. This is resilience at its best. Part of this movement is the art of normalizing and codifying certain structures. One such structure is a universal Yoruba New Year.
We’ve always had a Yoruba calendar (kojoda); traditionally with 4 days, and with colonialism the creation of a 7-day calendar. Traditionally, as an agrarian people, Yorubas, like most farmers, mark time with the harvest seasons. Most localities considered their new year to begin with the harvesting of yam, a crucial element in the Yoruba diet. Because yam was not collected on a universal date, there was no concept of a universal New Year celebration. There has always been, however, a “New Year” season – roughly between May and August depending on where. Public celebrations (odun – the Yoruba word which refers to both celebrations and years) of major Orisa take place during this time, most notably (or, perhaps, most publicized) Obatala, Osun and Orunmila.
Presently, however, and due in large part to the work of Remi-Niyi Alaran, there is an awakening of traditional Yoruba culture even for those who do not follow the traditional religion. Thanks to modern technology (Ogun ye!) and improved communication (Laroye Esu!), Yorubas can all move in the same direction and keep the same calendar.
It’s beautiful to see that while in the diaspora, many are fighting to preserve the ways of our ancestors, many in Nigeria are fighting to revive and maintain the ways of our ancestors. May Yoruba culture all over the world continue to move forward!