Last weekend’s New Year’s celebration brought not only joy, but also a time to worship ancestors and seek blessings for the New Year.
Along Pensacola Beach, across from Portofino Island Resort, blacks dressed in white took time to remember those who came before them: those who were transported along the Atlantic Ocean and those who jumped from slave ships.
“The Yoruba have a saying that water brought you into the world and water will bring you home,” Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II told the News Journal. “So they knew if they jumped in the water they would go home. They didn’t kill themselves, they went home.”
Followers of the Yoruba faith celebrated their Olokun Ebo, or blessings for the New Year ceremony, on Saturday. This year’s celebration was particularly notable as the king of the Yoruba people, King Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II visited Pensacola for the first time.
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The Yorubas are a West African ethnic group that spans from Nigeria and other countries like Benin and Togo. Their faith and belief spread to the United States largely through the efforts of Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, the father of Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II.
At Saturday’s ceremony, around 40 people attended to pay respect to their ancestors and thank Olokun, the ocean deity.
Oranges, bananas, grapes, pumpkins, apples and honey decorated the coast, while items such as molasses were offered as offerings to the Olokun as the group prayed for wealth, abundance and an ongoing spiritual connection with her.
In the midst of them all, Monife Balewa, known as “Iya” or mother of the group, sat in a chair overlooking the celebration.
Balewa, who lives in Pensacola and whose family has been here for generations, was crowned the Olori, or queen, of the Yoruba people in the United States last October. She has been part of the Yoruba faith for over 40 years.
“I am the first American-born person to be raised as a queen in the United States,” Balewa said. “I am the queen of all people speaking the Yoruba language in this country.”
In her current role, she oversees other ilé or “spiritual centers” in the country that are home to other people who practice Yoruba.
Many devotees such as Balewa have come to the Yoruba faith while trying to better understand themselves and their heritage.
Balewa was born in New York and raised in the Bronx. She was raised a Christian and still considers herself as such today. She owned a record store with her son in the Bronx. In 1974, her son saw a man nearby doing spiritual readings in a religious goods store and begged her to go check it out. When she went for a reading, she was shocked by the man’s ideas and became curious about the Yoruba faith.
“I was happy with Christianity but I knew something was missing,” Balewa said. “That didn’t answer all my questions about prophecies, divination and things like that.”
Two years later, in 1976, Balewa was initiated as a priest. In the early 1990s, she moved to Pensacola to care for her mother, who was sick. During this time, she took over the temple she now leads called Osun Golden Harvest Temple, which was established in 1978. She had shifted the chiefdom system from chief to Iyanifa, who is the high priestess, but Balewa wanted to show his devotion to the Yoruba.
So when the African village of Oyotunji and Adefunmi II asked her to become queen and come to Nigeria, she accepted the offer on the condition that she could accept her title in the United States.
So, she traveled to South Carolina to the African village of Oyotunji, a Yoruba hub in the United States.
Oba (King) Adejuyibe Adefunmi II got his title from his father, Walter Eugene King. King grew up reading Afro-Haitian and ancient Egyptian traditions in his youth. When he was 20, he left his home in Detroit and went to New York to dance with Katherine Dunham’s Dance Troupe, an African-American modern dance troupe that has been influenced by many cultures within the African Diaspora.
The experience with Dunham had an impact on King and helped him better understand black culture within the diaspora. In 1959 he traveled to Cuba to be initiated into the Orisha priesthood and became known as Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, becoming the first African American to do so.
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In 1960 he formed the Yoruba Temple in Harlem to preserve Yoruba religion and culture and build a community of African Americans to worship the Yoruba faith in the United States.
This temple was down the street from Temple No. 7 of the Mosque of Malcolm X, which is now called Masjid Malcolm Shabazz. Yoruba belief added another dimension to beliefs during the civil rights movement as there were Christian beliefs of Martin Luther King, Malcom X’s Nation of Islam and now Adefunmi I’s Yoruba temple, his son said .
“Some people were pushing civil rights, and some people were pushing the Muslim movement,” Adefunmi II said. “But what ends up happening is you had Dr. Martin Luther King, and we had Walter King. Both were doing the same thing. It’s just that the whole Walter King movement was undercover. It was a clandestine movement.
Adefunmi shared his contemporaries’ vision of helping black people in the United States. During the rise and racial recognition of the civil rights movement and black nationalism in the 1960s, Adefunmi wanted to further spread Yoruba faith and culture.
So, in 1970, he established the African Village of Oyotunji in Sheldon, South Carolina. It is nine miles from the Harriet Tubman Memorial Bridge. At its peak there were around 100 people living in the village and now thousands of people have become priests and with ilé or spiritual centers scattered across the country.
Adefunmi died in 2005 and his son, Adefunmi II, was named the new king of the African village of Oyotunji.
Balewa, looking back on her time within the Yoruba and Christian faith, sees that more people, especially young people, want to know more about Africa, its traditions and their own roots.
When she was growing up, she only heard about the “savagery” of Africa in movies and it scared people like her to go there. Christianity helped many black people like Balewa, but she and others wanted to learn more about the culture and beliefs of their ancestors.
Learning the Yoruba faith will allow people to learn what has always interested them and even learn more about themselves spiritually, Balewa said.
“They noticed something more than exists in terms of their own personal spiritual upliftment, and that’s what’s important,” Balewa said. “Because the spirit of the divine within you is what’s important. And that’s what we have to teach, that’s what we have to nurture.