Why you should care
Because ancient practices should be understood, not left in the shadows.
Omitonade Ifawemimo presents as a modern-day sage, with gleaming eyes, a petite frame — and wisdom to spare. She is in fact a 20-something Orisha priestess, with an easy smile and tightly knotted hair. And she has made it her mission to teach and preserve the Orisha and Ifa spiritual practices, which are indigenous to the Yoruba people of Nigeria and adjoining parts of Togo and Benin.
“When you see her in person, she is this tiny presence,” says journalist and culture historian Molara Wood. “She is not this image of an intimidating traditional-religion adherent that a lot of Nigerians have.”
Ifawemimo’s journey started at the age of 5 when she was initiated into the Orisha traditions by her parents, and by 15 she found herself dining with elders and mastering the art and science of divination, chanting and rituals. At 20, through a combination of study, practice and heeding the spiritual call, she earned her place as a priestess.
For Ifawemimo to step forward on Twitter and Instagram … reflects both her bravery and ingenuity in a religiously polarized space.
Concerned that the Orisha culture and its practices were being scorned and forgotten, Ifawemimo took to social media six years ago in an effort to educate a broader audience about indigenous Yoruba spirituality. Her inspiration? Nollywood, or Nigeria’s film industry, which she blames for depicting Yoruba spirituality as a practice based on sorcery, love potions and get-rich-quick charms, distorting its history and contributing to negative stereotypes. “Though our people have been brainwashed already, [Nollywood] has made our people lack knowledge and enlightenment about their roots,” she says.
Wood believes Ifawemimo’s work is crucial for countering the “stigma, hypocrisy, misunderstanding and demonization of the traditional culture,” with most viewing it as evil, and traditional worshippers forced into practicing in secret. And she is helped in these efforts by her age: “The fact that she is so young — she is a millennial, basically; she is meeting a lot of these people at their level.” What’s more, through social media she has found acceptance for being approachable and willing to demystify and interpret the tenets of traditional Yoruba religion. By using everyday language to explain the culture and encourage people to embrace it, Wood adds, Ifawemimo is trying to show that it’s a living tradition. “It’s not ossified. It’s not some ancient unapproachable thing.”
But along with acceptance has come pushback. Trolled by Christian fanatics, Ifawemimo has been accused of idol worship and witchcraft and condemned to hell. When asked about these online attacks, she begins, “I don’t like debates because when I get in the mood I might not stop.” But she insists that her teachings are all rooted in authority and based on Ifa verses. Wood sees the assault on Orisha traditions and other indigenous spiritual practices coming from a “new strain of Christianity” that is uncompromising and unreceptive to traditionalists — and says Ifawemimo’s efforts are an important bulwark against cultural erosion.
Culture and religion in Nigeria form a tightly woven fabric, whether it’s the Islamic call to prayers at dawn, the songs of congregants reverberating through neighborhoods or preachers sermonizing at bus stops. Still, traditional spiritual practices are often shamed for being outdated and get shunted into the shadows. Consequently, for Ifawemimo to step forward on Twitter and Instagram to reach out to followers as an Orisha priestess and educator reflects both her bravery and ingenuity in a religiously polarized space.
She is helped in her mission to revitalize Yoruba spirituality, she says, by a current thirst to understand it in its original form before it made its way to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade, reaching countries like Cuba, Brazil and Haiti, where the Santeria and Candomble communities adopted and adapted it. She believes that its growing visibility in the diaspora has been a driving force for many on the continent to both learn and reclaim the practice.
It’s a renaissance that has even found its way into pop-culture iconography — from Beyoncé invoking the Yoruba tradition in Lemonade (she appears as Oshun, a Yoruba water goddess, in the album’s second single) to the French-Cuban duo Ibeyi’s chants to the Orisha spirits Oya and Eleggua on their debut album.
But is there a risk that references like these could go too far, turning a sacred, age-old culture into something trendy and commercial?
“A lot of us in the diaspora were these lost children,” says Awo Dosounmu, a mentee of Ifawemimo and devotee of the Orisha spirit Obatala. “We have had a struggle with our identity for a long time … So I think that it’s a good thing, whether it’s a trend or not.”
For diasporans who make pilgrimages back to African countries in a bid to connect with their religious and cultural roots, Ifawemimo warns that they may be vulnerable to unethical peddlers of spiritual practice. She has known many who come as students, eager to learn about their spiritual heritage from a priest or priestess who takes their money and leaves them with very little in return. “They will not teach them anything about how to feed your Orisha or connect with your higher self. They will just initiate them, collect their money and go. They are extorting them,” she says.
Wood believes Ifawemimo has much work ahead to educate and connect those who have been separated from their culture. She says, “For a lot of people that will come to her, it will be the greatest illumination and epiphany they will ever have in life. We forget that in Nigeria, we are just souls seeking to make meaning of something, and for some people that is the path.”
For Ifawemimo, helping people to openly claim their practice of Yoruba spirituality is as meaningful and inevitable as going back home. “You cannot run away from your roots,” says the young sage. “When you have a problem, you will go to your pastor: no solution. Your imam: no solution. So the last solution — you will come home.”