OrisaLifestyle in Trinidad is characterized by an amalgamation of Yoruba traditions, especially Ibadan and Oyo. Of course, it also has been influenced by the contributions of Ibo, Congo and Mandinka practices, not to mention those of the Hindu.
Of particular interest, however, is the Adja Fon - Dahomean - influence, which was brought to my attention during a recent visit to Trinidad. In Trinidad, the Fon are known as Rada, which derives from the kingdom of Allada. While at a ceremony, at Ile Orunmila, I met a lady at a ceremony who was of Dahomean descent. Since then, I had heard bits and pieces about a flourishing Rada community in Belmont district of Port of Spain.
In 1868 a man named Abojevi Zahwenu- Papa Nanee - got a parcel of land in Belmont, Port of Spain. There, he built his compound, which he called Dangbwe Comme [House of Dangbwe]. Dangbwe is the serpent deity, whose worship is rooted in Whydah, but is well-known in Haiti and everywhere the Fon people have gone. The book by Wade Davis called the Serpent and the Rainbow is based upon the mythology and rites associated with Dangbwe.
Abojevi was a bokono, which is the Fon equivalent to a babalawo. As such, he served as a diviner and spiritual advisor in his community. Remembered today as Papa Nanee, Abojevi left a legacy as a great and selfless medicine man. More importantly, perhaps, in his own time, his wisdom, kindness and service made his name a household word in Belmont. He joined his ancestors in 1899 and was laid to rest in the private burial ground near the compound.
As fate would have it, I was driven by the front compound en route to Laventill. But, as we attempted to back onto the main road in our car, it became so cumbersome that we ended up having to enter further into the cul de sac to make a three point turn. It was at that moment that we actually drove up to the very gates of the Rada burial grounds, where I briefly paid my respects and took a quick picture! Just behind the iron gate, you can see a tombstone.
Carr, Andrew. A Rada Community in Trinidad
During the full moon of November 2018, I visited with the illustrious, Senator Barbara Burke, who introduced me to a particular ceremony, called mourning. Although she did not give any concrete details, I was instantly intrigued by what I heard. For example, both Orisa devotees, as well as Spiritual Baptists participate in the mourning rituals. In fact, it is through mourning that a person might discover his or her path of devotion. I distinctly recall Senator Burke telling me that, if you come out marching, you're a Baptist and if you come out dancing, you're an Orisa person.
Beyond those two general designations, the mourning ceremony also shapes and defines a person's role and responsibilities within the spiritual community. For example, within the Spiritual Baptist community, one might be a Leader, a Mother, a Shepherd, a Pointer, a Nurse, a Prover, a Captain or a Teacher, each of which has its own ritual and mundane responsibilities. In any case, however, these positions and duties are acquired during the mourning ceremony.
Morning is characterized as ritual process involving sensory deprivation and isolation. It may be as short as three days and as long as twenty one days. During this time, the worshipper participates in an orchestrated series of relentless spiritual exercises, that include fasting, prayer, song, chanting and meditation. The proper combination of these elements induces a prolonged dream state, wherein the worshipper travels in what might be called a vision quest.
As a babalawo, I naturally wondered about any correlations between Ifa and the mourning ceremonies. There is a verse, taken from the Holy Odu OyekuBaturupon, wherein Orunmila was on the verge of taking a spiritual journey. They promised Orunmila that he would bring honor back from the other side of his travels. However, before embarking upon his journey, Orunmila should sequester himself and remain indoors for seven consecutive days. After that time, he would be ready for a successful and prosperous journey.
In another verse from that same Odu, Orunmila was visited by a nightmare. In response, he went to consult Ifa, at which time he was told that Death, Sickness, Litigation and every type of adversity were after him. The awo told Orunmila to sacrifice. Not only that however, they advised Orunmila to deliver his sacrifice while wearing filthy, ragged clothing. They told him to dance like a madman when bringing the sacrifice to Esu.
A third verse of he Holy Odu OyekuBaturupon tells of the time when one hundred fifty drums were going to celebrate the ancestral festival at Oyo. All of the drums refused to sacrifice, except Dundun. And so it was that Dundun performed the proper sacrifice and returned from the festival with honor, being hailed as the king of drums!
On the New Moon of July 2019, my student, Fayinde and I went to the St. Philomena Orisa Healing School in Lavantille, Trinidad to participate in the mourning rites with Bishop Preston Williams. During our seven day sojourn, we heard several names for the ritual space where the ceremony took place: "mourning ground", "court", "the grave" and the "throne of grace" are those that I can recall at the present moment. In any case, mourning is - without question - an intensely arduous and challenging ceremony to endure. As implied by the Holy Odu OyekuBaturupon, it requires hours of strenuous dancing to drums. After a few days on the ground, our clothes became filthy and ragged. Still we danced ourselves into a frenzy of exhaustion that approached delirium! That being said, it is common for people to repeat the ritual up to twenty one times!
Mourning is said to have four main parts: the "pointing", the "spiritual travels", the "rising" and the "coming out". During the "coming out" ritual, the nurses will bring the spiritual travellers out, before the full congregation for another round of prayers and songs.
Again, I am reminded of the wisdom of Ifa. This time, the Holy Odu Iretengbe teaches us: Let us pretend to stumble, to see who will catch us. Let us pretend to fall down to find out who will pick us up. Let us pretend to be dead, to know who shall come to MOURN us. When Orunmila suspected that his spiritual community was insincere, he put them to the test. Orunmila pretended to die. He disappeared from sight. While he was gone, his apprentices, colleagues and fellow divinities showed up at his house, one by one. Each of them said a word of condolences to Apetebii Osunleyo. After doing so, they would say how Orunmila owed them something or another. It was only Esu who proved himself to be sincere. And so, Orunmila and Esu become inseparable companions.
When Fayinde and I were presented to the community in Lavantille, we were also fortunate to have the presence of an African American professor and pastor, who happened to be completing a tour of African spiritual centers in the diaspora. It was a very pleasant surprise to have him speak and pray on our behalf.
The highlight of the "coming out" ritual is when the travellers reveal their "tracks". This is the time when we gave abbreviated summaries of our visions and listened to the interpretations given by the elders in the congregation.
Ultimately, however, the single most important information received by the mourner is the revelation of his or her new status and relationship to the divinities. That is, when you successfully embark upon your travels during the mourning rituals, you make direct contact with the divine. When you "see" the deity or an ancestor in this particular way - without pots, accoutrements or any other contrivance, the experience bestows merit on you, from the inside out. Such a manifestation is a gift that signifies that moment in which the divinity is ready to let you see it. This intimate, deep and personal way of getting a sense of the divinities takes time. They do not show themselves to you right away. But when they do, you experience an affirmation and a certainty that restores a profound sense of balance, deep within your consciousness. Live the Medicine!