Neglected and shunned at home, Yoruba gods are shining stars in Salvador, Brazil

There is an old saying, dating back to those inglorious slave-dealing days on the South American plantations that still makes the rounds today in Salvador, Bahia State, and the first colonial capital of Brazil. Slaves, mostly Yorubas from West Africa, reportedly confronted their slave-masters with this bold prediction; “Your people may have conquered us, but our culture will eventually conquer you.” Hundreds of years later, that audacious prediction doesn’t seem stunning anymore. While not subjugation by any standard, the affirmation of that capability of Yoruba deities to ‘sublimate’ themselves in alien cultures and take them over, so joyfully captured by Prof Wole Soyinka in one of his works is currently on display here.
Salvador, Bahia, is an important cornerstone of the celebrated and vibrant Brazilian national tourism, but that industry in this nation’s fourth largest city by population swims along in a deep current of old Yoruba influence. This is one place beyond old Yorubaland where you wake up to the sweet and exotic aroma of palm oil wafting from all corners. Step out, and Yoruba traditional gods are waiting with their holy embraces on street corners. Step in to the tourist section and you get welcomed in this foreign land by people in distinctly gorgeous Yoruba attires.
Far away from its West Africa home base, it’s certain to proclaim that Yoruba traditional culture is well, alive, and openly dictating the samba moves in this north-eastern corner of Brazil. Yoruba gods, giants of Yorubaland of yore, are enjoying unsurpassed embrace here in a foreign land that has also learned to appreciate and proudly uphold revered Yoruba mores, ranging from dresses, food, music, and religion.
An average day here in Salvador is suffused in open sightings and reverence of Yorubaland, an experience bound to be ignited by the sighting of a certain midafternoon ubiquity unexpected in this clime. These are the Baianas de acarajé, famous stalls and respected merchandizing chambers for fried bean cakes (akara, the popular pan-Yoruba delicacy), dotting most street corners and public squares here midafternoon.
Here, women dressed in flowing white attires, reminiscent of Yemoja worshippers in Yorubaland of old, sit in their stalls, religiously rolling out magnificent akara balls – deeply fried, fresh, hot and steamy, and drenched in good old red palm-oil – for unending lines of patrons. An assortment of mouth-watering offerings garnished with dried shrimps and hot pepper that will freely compete with the world famous “akara’Jẹsha” and possibly out duel the old “Ṣ’ẹkẹpu” offerings on Ibadan streets of old.
Early to late evenings may go to encounters with akassa, a culinary cross between the traditional Yoruba corn meal (ẹkọ yangan), shapala and moin-moin – additional delicious offerings from the now-transformed mid-afternoon akara chambers, all beautifully wrapped in the traditional palm frond leaves. The only thing missing here is a calabash of foamy palm-wine and you will be smack back in any old Ọyọ town. Given the abundance of palm trees and coconut all over town here, it’s a good bet some good palm wine tipple must be here someplace awaiting an adventurous tapper.
For the daring adventurer, the food stalls experience here is a call to further cultural exploration trips that may sure lead to the terreiros – the temple or the grove of gods – to partake in Candomble, a fusion of African religions combining Yoruba, Fon and Bantu cultures but largely dominated by Yoruba Oriṣa worship. Depending on which of the many temples in town that you land, it’s not unexpected that you end the night with a round of ‘amalu.’
Rings familiar? That is the Yoruba amala – dark, rich and supple – which you are invited to demolish sans forks or knives. Just come as you are, and bring those organic natural forks (fingers); a familiar scenario from hearth. Yoruba-infused culinary scene here certainly challenges the ascendancy of noodle-laden meals in modern Yorubaland, and the newly achieved leverage of the stringy Asian noodle meals on the lunch and dinner menu of a people proudly weaned on more solid matters.
Step out in the day, familiar faces of Yoruba women in their ‘abadas’ (a form of skirt, ‘Kaba,’ as those roomy skirts that used to be common in Yorubaland are called), pearly smooth dark skins and proud “pepsodent” smiles greet you on public transportations billboards, heralding tourism in Salvador. These are the “Minha Linda” (My Lovelies) of Salvador. You could of course call them the Ọmọ-Oge(s) of Salvador tourism and you would be right.
If only these women spoke Yoruba, they would be Adukẹ or Anikẹ in any Yoruba town. Or they could just be ’Yetunde, to again affirm another of Prof. Soyinka’s observation of the power of Yoruba culture to integrate ancestors into the present. Whatever your take, these are plain natural black pearls – no bleaching, no ‘yellow-fever skin.’ Simply and without arguments, proud jewels of inherited Yoruba women beauty.
Again, they stand proudly in contrast to women encountered on a recent travel in modern Yorubaland, from mega Lagos to sprawling Ibadan and the historical Abeokuta city, where it seemed women have become nothing but masquerades in motion. Aspiring divas, both young and old, with heads dominated by those wild and scary head-scratching “Brazilian weaves.” Women in this corner of Brazil, the supposed land of these wooly weaves, seem content sporting their natural looks. They are just so happy to keep their natural hair, thank you! They confided though that those so-called Brazilian weaves certainly originated from shores beyond Brazil, possibly South Korea, and wearing them detracts from their cherished black identity!
Welcome to Dique Do Tororo (or, maybe Totoro, Abeokuta)
For a glimpse into and additional appreciation of the glories of Yoruba traditional religious past, welcome to Dique Do Tororo (or maybe, make that Totoro, a popular section in my own Abeokuta, Ogun State) next to the world-class Fonte Nava Arena in the Itaipava section of Salvador. Come here to engage with Yoruba gods in their splendor. On this massive lake in a corner of Salvador, you are confronted with the giant sculptures of selected twelve ‘Orixas’ (Orișas in Yorubaland) proudly alive in public eye (oju aiye) and surrounded by a beautiful park in the city center for all to behold and adore. Here, proud Yoruba gods stand tall, occupying dignified spots next to the revered local space reserved for that special god dearest to the Brazilian heart – the god of soccer.
Prominent Oriṣas on display include Ogum, (Ogun) the god of iron and wars, resplendent in blue; gold is the preserve of Oxum, (Ọṣun) the goddess of fresh water streams and sensual lore; temperamental Xango, (Ṣango) the god of thunder, lighting, fire and justice is in dark red and white; Iansa, the goddess of lightning and Lemonja or Yemanja, (Yemọja) the queen of the seas, stand gorgeously in blue. All the gods and goddesses, representatives of the main Yoruba divinities worshipped in Brazil that also include Obatala or Orishanla, the sky god; Oxala – Edumare, the god of creation; Shapanan (Sopona) the god of small pox and medicine also called Omalu or Obaluaiê; Oshossi or Oxossi –the god of hunters; Eshu or Bara, identified as the obligatory intermediary between the Orishas and mortals. Of course, the supreme deity remains Olorum (Olorun), although no special cult is made for him.
Arriving at this spot, you wonder where else in these times you can find such grand public display of Yoruba gods (Orișas) in their magical splendor. Surely not in modern Yorubaland, where neglect has resulted from years of colonial persecution, full frontal assault from missionaries, both foreign and local, and modern day religionists (false ascetics?) who have combined to forcibly relegate local gods to the realm of the uncouth, and dismissively labelled adherents as mere idol worshippers (“awon aboriṣa”). Never mind that the condemned resources of the rejected local gods, including massive amounts of arts and crafts, were purloined and carted away and those today remain the cornerstone of expensive private art collections of their foreign detractors, while also occupying conspicuous corners of their most cherished museums.
While the Roman Catholic faith remained the main recognized religion here, Candomble – the religion based on a mixture of traditional African religions – mainly Yoruba beliefs, occupy spheres of huge prominence here, as in much of Brazil and across the Americas with millions of followers. Houses of Candomble (Oriṣa) with their babalorixa (babalorisha) today vastly compete with the numerous Catholic and evangelical churches in town. Famous Orixa (Oriṣa) worship houses feature familiar Yoruba names that include the Ile Axe (Aṣẹ) Opo Afonja, Oba de Xango (Ṣango) and Candomble Ketu. Of course, the familiar Baba Egum (Baba Egungun in Yorubaland) retained the important role of regulating the moral code in the Candomble.
Much like the original Yoruba Oriṣa worship, followers of the Candomble religion believe in an all-powerful God called Olodumare, who is served by the lesser deities – the Orixas (Oriṣas). Today, popular beliefs and practices here of professing Roman Catholics reflect deep influences of African religions. The resulting syncretism is apparent in the identification of African gods with Roman Catholic saints and their worship as such. Thus, for example, Xangó, Șango the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning, became St. Jeronymo; Oxossi, the god of hunting, is St. George; Yemanjá (Yemoja), the goddess of the sea, is Our Lady of Mercy and of Rosary.
The Candomble (Oriṣa) worship here developed during the period when slaves, who were expected to be Catholics, were unable to freely worship their ancestral African gods – a move designed to disengage slaves from their shared past. Although the authorities and the church succeeded in many cases, not all the slaves converted to Catholicism. While many outwardly practiced Christianity, many others secretly prayed to their own god, gods or ancestors. Some slaves gave their African gods Roman Catholic saint-names and worshiped them as such.
In the worship of the god-saints, the African and Roman Catholic elements became thoroughly mixed, both in the cult houses and the churches. Slave leaders such as Bambucher (Bamgbose?), whose graveyard lies today in the famous Our Lady of the Rosary of Black People – a church built by slaves in the Pelourinho district – worked hard to ensure the preservation of African history, culture and religion.
Historians tie the deep cultivation of Yoruba culture and religious tradition beyond the slave plantations to the rise of Igreja da (The Cult of) Barroquinha, built between 1722 and 1726. Almost destroyed by a fire in 1984, it reopened in September 26th, 2008 as a cultural performance space. It traces its history to members of the Arô royal family, who were captured in the city of Iwoyê (possibly modern-day Ago Iwoye in Ijebuland) in 1789 by the army of the kingdom of Daomé (old Dahomey, now Benin Republic), the native city of the mother of the king, identified as Aláketu Akibiorru
Today, the Soteropolitano (people born in Salvador) freely confide that Catholicism followership is visibly sliding, while Candomble (Oriṣa) is on the rise. Evidence abound in town that Catholicism leans deeply on a Candomble (Oriṣa worship) crutch to attract followers to its religious mass, a practice manifested in the popular weekly Blessed Tuesday mass celebration in the Pelourinho district.
Back in time to Old Yorubaland
A recent 7-day trip here was a travel back in time to the tradition-rich Yorubaland of yore, an exhibition of inspiring comparative Yoruba culture that is obviously fading or forgotten across Yorubaland at home. Nodding off to soothing African-rhythm influenced percussion that was echoing across the land here at night, it’s hard to forget the cacophony of worshippers that made sleep impossible on a recent visit to modern Yorubaland. The dueling calls to foreign gods that seem to understand only Arabic, Latin and other undecipherable languages forcibly echoing across modern Yorubaland, and denying rest to tired bodies. Firmaments beyond the windows teeming with ghosts-in-motion. Unending pilgrims to night vigils at all hours.
Landing here in Salvador on a recent hot and muggy Tuesday afternoon, inclement weather was not enough deterrence to quench the curiosity that prompted the thousands-mile adventure in the first place from Los Angeles – a dare from children who were bent on sending their parents on adventure to “anywhere you want in the world, except your Nigeria.” The choice fell on a secret bucket list, years left on the back burners. No map of the world was therefore needed for the ultimate choice to explore “where my people (the Yorubas in Brazil and the Americas) at.” On to Salvador, Bahia State, Brazil – acclaimed land of magic and sacred leaves – with the promise of celebrations and vibrant rhythm in every corner. It did not disappoint.
With my hesitant co-adventurer and wife in tow, we hit the ground running just hours after arrival, headed out to town for the celebration of Blessed Tuesday. Destination was the cobblestone alleys of the Pelourinho District, classified by UNESCO as a Cultural World Heritage Center and rightly so as we discovered. With its colorful buildings, large open squares and baroque churches, it reflected the convergence of European, African and American-Indian cultures that informed the beginnings of this particular area.
The night kicked off with the celebration of mass at Sao Francisco Church with its amazing gold-lined interior and gilt woodworks. The cavernous church is home to many Catholic saints including local black saints who gaze down on congregants from their perches high on the rafters of the church’s golden walls. Mass was followed by the Blessing of the Bread at which donated loaves of bread, among other foodstuff, were sanctified and distributed to the less fortunate. A much-packed scene was taking place simultaneously down the street at the equally massive Our Lady of the Rosary of Black People, a church built by slaves in their spare times over a 100-year period.
Catholic mass gave way to music and an all-night celebration amid tight security as people poured out of the churches near midnight to celebrate and dance the night away to the heavy percussion of various local music groups. The assuredly biggest name on the scene was the world-famous Olodum ‘bloco’ or band, made famous by their musical collaborations over the years with the likes of late Michael Jackson and Paul Simon.
Final destination for the night was Odoya, a restaurant named after Odo Ọya (the River Niger that runs across and divides Nigeria), evoking memories of the popular Yoruba school anthem of old “L’eti bebe Odo Oya” – (by the banks of Niger River) familiar to any school kid in the old Nigeria Western Region of the 1960s and 70s. Memories of those old rhymes and rhythm came flooding back amid dinner offerings that featured mouth-watering collection of local and exotic foods that included fried plantain, rice, red beans and fish stew on a warm, steamy night.
While black lives here is not immune from the challenges imposed on global black lives, the overarching scene in Salvador, Bahia today is best described as the culmination of a cultural evolutionary story. It’s clearly an overwhelming depiction of how a set of subdued people overcame the agonizing trauma of enslavement and traded that demeaning ideology, which divided mankind into humans and disposable sub-humans, for a unifying Eudaimonia and the attendant flourishing of mutually contagious happiness with their foreign conquerors.
A week luxuriating in this foreign land with proud descendants of Yoruba people in the deep history left behind by their ancestors, and which may have been forgotten in their land of origin prompted a nagging question: How and why did the Yorubas at home ever let their Oriṣas go?
In his landmark book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli author Yuval Noah Hariri noted that the world today is caught up in a sea of extremism occasioned by globalization and technology that have combined to open up religions beyond their enclaves and made our planet too small to peacefully accommodate large religions seemingly at odds. He then warned, “If the Abrahamic god – the God of Jews and the God of Christians and the God of Muslims doesn’t foster tolerance we (peoples of the world) are in trouble!”
The famed author’s solution for achieving a less troubled world argued the need for “a god (or gods) whose sympathies correspond to the scale of (current) social organization – the global scale.” Curiously, it parallels what Yoruba gods have preached and practiced, and are peacefully achieving in the Americas, far away from their home base. The strength of minority Yoruba Oriṣa in these far-flung places is its level of tolerance, accommodation, and finally resiliency, which has eased the path to syncretism with the majority Catholic worship in places like Salvador and other parts in the Americas. As Prof. Soyinka observed, “these are gods that stand self-assuredly giving guidance on daily pursuits, leading the way, and bringing people and lives together thousands of miles from their home base and never seek to change or coerce worldviews.”
Could this enduring Yoruba cultural/religious practice then be the way out for our current global fanaticism and extremism-wracked world? A spirit that recognized that however diverse the forces that shaped religion in all places on earth, its antecedents were rooted largely in peoples and communities in all corners of the world who, like the Yoruba ancestors, were merely trying to make sense of their world in the face of daily uncertainties, horrors, and doubts. An ethos rooted in the deep advantages of interfaith harmony as opposed to the religious absolutism that has gripped our world in a suffocating chokehold.
If nothing else, current global tension over religion surely hints at what Yoruba religions seemed to have recognized for eons. That despite phenomenal human advancements, the jury is still out on the truths of the origin of our world and the lives within it. That living with this uncertainty and the many doubts inherent in daily human existence, human beings must necessarily open themselves to the acceptance of new and unfolding truths in knowledge and faith as they emerge. A challenging conclusion that our world is not static and thus needs religions or gods that grow, (Aiye nlọ, a ntọ – our world progresses, we follow). A belief broadly outlined, for instance, in the doctrines of Ifa in Yoruba traditional religion.
As Prof Soyinka noted, Ifa “celebrates and encourages the perpetual elasticity of knowledge.” “Its tenets are governed by a frank acknowledgment of the fact that the definition of truth is a goal that is constantly being sought by humanity. It holds that existence itself is a passage to ultimate truth, and that claimants to possession of the definitiveness of knowledge, are in fact the greatest obstacles to the attainment of truth.”
Situated in contemporary times, this Yoruba traditional religious doctrine coupled with its deeply-held concept of many gods may hold answers for unlocking the unending enigma of human existence; certainly, a more ambitious undertaking beyond the Greco-Roman paganism dismissively ascribed to it on first contact by Europeans and their missionaries. In fact, it may have been anticipating the nascent connection of humans, the evolving interconnection of things and humans in our current broadband-infused world, and humanity’s continuous and seemingly unending search for answers to conscious existence and the question of who we (humanity) are and, “who really is in charge (of our world)?”
Whatever the individual assumptions or beliefs on these all-important questions, it is at least dawning daily that in humanity’s desperate global search for THE ANSWER, we certainly can’t go overwhelming the Supreme Being (Allah, Edumare, God, Yahweh, the Ultimate Being, or whoever is in charge) with supplications from the nearly 8 billion earthlings at the same time, rigidly focused on “my way, or the highway.” Surely, the ensuing jostle and elbow-throwing at the final destination in such a system would lead to the notorious Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) inherent in our current technological age, leaving supplicants (humanity) with no definitive answer. Clearly, success of pan-global entreaties at this supreme station or altar may indeed need to be routed through various channels (e.g. Oriṣas) – intermediaries and facilitators of daily human pursuits – as recognized in Yoruba religious traditions.
Sadly, those who should lead the rediscovery quest of Yoruba ancient knowledge and wisdom for the good of our troubled modern world are missing in action especially on the traditional/religious fronts, their eyes solely searching for salvation thousands of miles away in Mecca, Jerusalem or anywhere but Yorubaland. These supposed custodians of the comparatively rich local cultural values are occupied by a misconceived “busyness”, which compels daily competition to importune and unquestionably bow to imported gods, thoughts and philosophies, infusing salt into the open sores of the collective Yoruba neglected past.
In some cases many in present Yorubaland should be left wondering, as any resident of traditional Yorubaland would: “Have this supposed custodians of traditional Yoruba culture gone mad in their quest for religion?” Or, as the Yorubas of yore would clearly lament: “abi wonti gba were m’ẹsin?”
Clearly, the shrines of Yoruba gods may have been foreclosed and put up for sale at home, but the proud Yoruba princes and princesses of yore are busy spreading their comforting messages of common humanity and human unity overseas, outlining the most necessary essentials of life and living, and living large wherever they are welcomed on the seven continents. They keep waxing strong with messages of universal accommodation, patience, tolerance, and the love and acceptance of neighbors as the debts that every man and woman owes the other for mutual peace and progress in our increasingly inter-connected but troubled world. May they continue to answer our prayers wherever we encounter them in the global village. Aṣẹ, Edumare.

By ‘Boye Oseni
Public Affairs Analyst
Los Angeles, California. USA

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