Transatlantic Echoes

Transatlantic Echoes

In this essay from “The Roads of Yemoja,” Laeïla Adjovi examines how a West African deity survived the Middle Passage from Benin and Nigeria to Cuba and became venerated on both sides of the Atlantic.

The following extracts were collected during my travels in Cuba and Nigeria. The main characters presented here are all worshippers of the Yoruba deity of the ocean, Yemoja, transliterated in the text as “Yemaya” in Cuban Spanish.

Regla, Cuba

A Black Virgin in a white dress and blue cape is about to leave the church facing the bay. Tomorrow, September 7th, she will be at the center of the procession passing through Regla, one of Havana’s most pious suburbs. Songs and ceremonial murmurs have been announcing the march since yesterday, a tradition that goes back at least a century. Since then, passers-by have been stopping to pay homage, offering flowers and prayers. 

The virgin of Regla is considered the patroness of the bay and represents Yemaya. This procession of the cabildo of Yemaya first appears in public records in 1921. It stopped in 1961, two years after the Castroist revolution, only to start again in 2015. Regla, Cuba.

The Black Virgin is a replica of a statue in the Spanish town of Chipiona, but here she is worshipped as a mother goddess with stones, cowrie shells, and other Yemaya attributes hidden under her lace skirt. In Regla, the Catholic effigy is one and the same as Yemaya, orisha (deity) of the sea, holy patroness of motherhood. As a sign that orishas survived the horrors of the Middle Passage, Yemoja-Yemaya rose proudly from the bottom of the hold, to be praised at the top of churches that never managed to whitewash her.

Regla is both the name of this pious neighborhood near the port of Havana and the Cuban term for African religions that crossed over to the Americas. Regla means “rules.” Regla de Ocha, “Rule of the Orishas,” stems from the traditional religion of the Yoruba, while Regla Arara comes from the religious practices of the Ewe-Fon people. Regla Palo Monte or Regla Conga refers to the spiritual heritage of the Kongo-Bantu kingdoms of Central Africa. Those three “rules” constitute the three main branches of Afro-Cuban religions. Yemaya is present in all of them, under different names: Yemaya in Regla de Ocha, Aflekete in Regla Arara, and Madre de Agua (Mother of Water) in Palo Monte.  

Spiritualities of African descent permeate the entire Caribbean region. In Cuba, one often hears, “El que no tiene de Congo, tiene de Carabali” (“The one who has nothing of the Congo has something from Caraballi”). Everyone knows that Negroes have poured just as much culture as blood and sweat into the coffee, sugar, and tobacco plantations.

Nicknamed “el Chino,” Francisco Hung Villanueva is a prominent oba (religious leader) and a descendant of Chinese indentured laborers brought from China in the 19th century. Living conditions for Chinese laborers was so close to that of African and creole slaves that many embraced their religion. Regla, Havana.

In Regla, the house at number 56 on 24 de Febrero street does not have a doorbell. As is often the case in Havana, visitors must shout the owner’s name, hand clutching the patio gate, waiting for an open door and welcoming arms. In this case, it’s not his name, Francisco Hung Villanueva, that is shouted several times a day in front of his house. Just his origin. “El Chinoooooo!” (“The Chinese.”) The septuagenarian comes hobbling in, either alone or with one of his godchildren when his diabetes flares up and causes him to limp too much. This is not his home. Not really. Indeed, it is where he goes to sleep and wakes up, where he cooks and eats, and where he officiates as an oriate of Regla de Ocha. “The oriate is the priest for a divinity (orisha),”he explains.“He works with the dilogun (a divination ceremony in which 16 cowries are“thrown” on a mat and interpreted) and can initiate people.” 

El Chino does not consider this house his own because it belongs to his community, his religious family. He says it himself: “My family is my godchildren.” Nearly sixty of them, whose names have been scribbled in a grid on sheets of paper stuck together with scotch tape, and rolled in a tubular box of crisps. El Chino’s Casa Templo is a house-temple that never empties, and vibrates with faith.

“Yemaya is the mother of the world. She comes right behind Obatala. She is the mother of the whole world, and that’s why her breasts are so big: because she feeds all her numerous children. She is the mother of the world, owner of the sea, earth and sky,” says El Chino. Sometimes the music inside him is too loud. It takes over and he bursts into songs. His memory seems entirely woven by the hymns that shaped his childhood. 

Evelyn de Dios (left) comes from an atheist family in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Yet she was initiated into Yemaya several years ago. The shekere (center) is a ritual object and musical instrument used in Nigeria, Cuba, and Benin. Music played a crucial role in the transmission of African cultural and spiritual heritage in the Americas. Dede Dekpo (right) is a vodun priestess of Mamiwata in the coastal village of Meko, close to the town of Ouidah, in southern Benin. Ouidah is known for having been a very active slave port during the trade.

El Chino came to religion through music, songs, rhythm, and the pulse of the tambores (religious ceremonies featuring percussionists) who saw him grow up in a poor neighbourhood in Havana. “As a child, when I discovered musical instruments, I wanted to play the piano. My grandfather got angry. He told me, ‘Black people don’t play the piano! Black people play the drum!’ From that moment on, he took me to meet all of Regla’s drummers. That’s how music got into my ear.” And that’s where it stayed: Abakua rhythms. Kongo drums. Guido, Batá, Iyesa drums. And those chants he sings at any and every occasion, as if his life depended on it. Regla de Ocha, Regla Palo Monte and Regla Arara, three distinct Afro-Cuban religious branches, rub up against each other in his practice, naturally, because “everything is linked here.” To survive in the hell of plantations, enslaved Africans had to ally, and so did their deities. 

“In Cuba, there are numerous connections between Blacks, Whites, and Chinese.” More than 100,000 indentured Chinese were brought from China to Cuba from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. As the abolitionist movement gained momentum worldwide, they were brought to supplement the labour of enslaved Africans, and lived in very similar conditions.“I was born on the 4th of October, and on the 5th I was already initiated in Palo Monte: [the deity] Lusero, Elegua for the Bantu, predicted that I would die if I was not initiated.” His initiation name, Omiotonogwa, means “water that comes from the sky.” 

“I am a son of Yemaya, he says. “She represents all the ideals of respect: she is the loving mother who forgives her children, always. Here in Cuba, the Yoruba and Arara religions are preserved, respected and loved by White people, Black people, and Chinese people alike. And if we love and respect the Yoruba and Arara or Fon culture so much, then those who are born there must be the first to value them. My message is that everyone on earth should respect the tradition of their ancestors.” 

I want to re-imagine maps without colonial borders, to show the ancient cities remembered by enslaved Africans and celebrated by their descendants, while also paying homage to all the Africans lost at sea in the Middle Passage.

In between swings of his rocking chair, he fiddles with a stack of documents and finally pulls out a photograph of a Black woman with kinky hair. He calls out: “That’s my grandmother!” Then touches my arm, pointing to my skin tone. “She was like you.” On the back of the yellowed photo is a date of birth: June 10, 1898. “Her mother was Kongo and her father was Chinese. Many people ask me why I say “We Blacks”…Well, because I also descend from them.” So much pride in his eyes. “It’s an honour.” The praise tingles down my spine. This island keeps on surprising me, and helping me to unlearn. Here I met a Cuban man who dances like a Dahomean and prays like a Yoruba. A Chinese-Cuban man, who says he is proud to be a Negro. 

Ibadan, Nigeria

Today is laundry day. Omitonade Ifawemimo Egbelade is struggling with a semi-manual washing machine while beans simmer on the cooker. One-year-old baby Omileye, draped over her back, is crying. He is hungry. Omi stops and sits to breastfeed him, before getting up again to stir the pot. Soon the laundry will be ready to be hung in the backyard. 

In her spacious flat in a residential area of Ibadan, the capital of Oyo State, her navy blue sofa faces a large flat screen alternately playing Nollywood films and music videos. To the left is a drawing of an old woman warrior dressed in charcoal blue cloth and holding a machete: Yemoja, Yoruba deity of ocean and maternity. 

Omitonade Ifawemimo Egbelade (left), priestess of Yemoja in the city of Ibadan, Nigeria. The wooden statue of Ogunlekki standing on the altar (center) is sacred and represents “the mother of all orishas” during the Yemoja festival in Ibadan. The Black Virgin of Regla (right) represents Yemaya in Cuba, a result of spiritual syncretism that occurred between African rites and Catholic saints. 

“Yemoja is the essence of motherhood, the mother of all orishas, the mother of the world.” The term Yemoja is derived from the Yoruba words Yeye-Omo-Eja, which means “mother of all fish.” “You know why they call her that?” asks Omitonade. “Because we cannot count the number of fish in the sea. Well, that is the same  for Yemoja’s children.” Yemoja’s avatars span all across West Africa— Mami Wata, Aflekete, Agbe—and across the Atlantic from Cuba to Brazil or Trinidad and Haïti. Omitonade knows that; she has been an iyalorisha (priestess for an orisha) for more than ten years. She is the daughter of Olokunmi Egbelade, the High Priest of Yemoja in Ibadan, and hails from a long line of Yemoja priests and worshippers. 

Omitonade is a single mother. She married an American Babalawo (Ifá priest, which literally means “father of secrets”), but he does not return often. Her face turns grim when she talks about it, but her eyes remain dry. Omitonade has already recovered from all this. Her religion helped her. She doesn’t call it religion, but rather spirituality. An age-old form of it, revolving around one God, Olodumare, and one sacred word, Ifá. “Ifá is the esoteric word of Olodumare, just like the Bible for the Christian or the Koran for the Muslims,” she says.This sacred word was transmitted by a deity called Orunmila, “the intermediary between Ifá and Olodumare, just like Jesus is the intermediary between Bible and the Christian God.” 

Often caricatured as paganism, polytheism, or sorcery, Ifá is a monotheist religion based on the belief of one creator.But “Olodumare does not have to assist humans. He or She—for we do not know if it is a He or She—proves Its existence through nature and through its messengers, the orishas.” To illustrate her statement, she compares the orishas, deities subservient to Olodumare, as messengers or angels. 

Baale Olukunmi Egbelade, high priest of Yemoja in Ibadan, Nigeria, making rituals at the river during the Yemoja festival created by his father over 20 years ago. Baale Olukunmi Egbelade is critical of Nigerian authorities for not recognizing traditional religions. “They only use us for drums and entertainment,” he laments. “Do you know how many Muslim holidays there are every year? How many Christian holidays? But how many days for the traditional religion?” 

From time to time, one of the smartphones resting on the sofa bellows, or the other makes a bird-like squeak. While her baby is asleep and her older daughter is still at school, the young mother reviews her missed calls. With an Instagram following of over 5,000, requests for spiritual advice are pouring in. “In my opinion, social media is one of the only ways to correct some of the misconceptions about African spirituality. It is the best tool to change this negative image.”

Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp are her daily masses. “If I post something, sometimes I see up to 200 shares, likes, or comments. People also come and talk to me in private messages to ask: Could you enlighten us on this or that.” Omintonade’s smartphone has become a working tool; she offers consultations and performs some ceremonies by phone. “When some devotees are unable to make the necessary offerings or sacrifices in person, I call them and they stay online during the ceremony.” 

For Omitonade, practicing Orisha spirituality means focusing on the acquisition of knowledge and building mental strength. The purpose of her faith can be distilled into one Yoruba concept: Iwa pele (gentle character). “In Yoruba spirituality, character is important. Iwa pele is very important because if you don’t have a good character, you won’t be able to work with the orishas.” She shrugs, as if stating the obvious. “[Orishas]have their own character too, so you always have to be humble. We can’t hold grudges. We have to work hard, keep an open mind.” 

In the same way that Omitonade Ifawemimo uses her smartphone to offer consultations in Nigeria and social media to communicate on Yoruba religion, technology has become a part of rituals in Cuba, too (left). On both sides of the Atlantic, Yemoja/Yemaya is often represented as a mermaid, evidenced by the depiction painted on the wall of a temple in the city of Ile Ife (right), a sacred city in Yoruba mythology. 

A modern woman with a college degree in economics, Omitonade still describes herself as a traditionalist. She doesn’t see tradition as a fixed set of rules that reject or challenge technology or contemporary lifestyles. She sees tradition as a set of anchoring practices and values that allow her to master herself and her environment. Often described in Western mainstream media as a space “caught between tradition and modernity,” the African continent and its cultural expressions go far beyond this simplistic dichotomy. 

Havana, Cuba

How do people age so well? 

Is it a matter of genetics? Without a doubt. A healthy and balanced diet? Of course it is. Regular exercise? Obviously. Tomasa’s answer is far less prosaic: “Talk to your ancestors.” Tomasa Hernandez Hernandez seems in the prime of her life. Beautiful, witty, solar. To get there, she talked to her ancestors and followed the paths opened by the orishas. “Aqui es la verdadera NASA,” she laughs. In Cuba, it is customary to say that deities live in space. So many of them crossed over from Africa to Cuba that this popular joke compares the island to the American space center.

As a mathematics teacher, Tomasa was assigned to work in London and Madrid in the name of the socialist revolution. Between words, her long slender fingers push back the lock of hair slanting across her forehead. Between sentences, her haughty cheekbones rise even higher. She laughs and continues to string together names and places in the thread of our conversation. Her memory seems to be miles long, even on a road full of sorrows: the discrimination and racism that hindered her progress, and her painful return home.

This small doll of Yemaya (left) has been with Tomasa Hernandez Hernandez for years. A Cuban descendant of slaves, Tomasa (center) says that during slavery, maintaining their spirituality allowed Africans to “safeguard their humanity.” Meanwhile, in Nigeria (right) traditional religion is still often reduced to sorcery and witchcraft.

“My mother died in 1981. She was the root of the family. When she died, heaven and earth touched.” Then things went sour. “That’s when my son lost his footing.” He had a hard time dealing with grief and ended up gaining a reputation as a thug. He once told Tomasa that in her absence, at least he had his grandmother’s mystical baths to protect and soothe him. 

“I wasn’t initiated earlier because my mother, despite being initiated herself, said it wasn’t for us. She said that my brother Antonio and I had to follow Fidel Castro.” During the first few years of the socialist revolution, religion was banned. In fact, when Tomasa’s mother was initiated in 1968, she did so secretly. Mystical baths and herbal remedies by night, socialism and revolution by day. “What she said was that Santeria was a thing for old Africans, and that we should study and get a degree. Imagine, she was saying all that, and meanwhile, I was still seeing her giving me rituals and prayers…”

Daughter of Yemaya since 1995, Tomasa’s initiation name is Omilade, meaning “water is a crown.” “She is the greatest, I talk to her every day.” She puts down her cup of coffee on the table by the bed to free her hands for gestures. “Do you realise there is more sea than land on the planet? More oceans than continents?” She pauses but does not wait for an answer. “Yemaya is the universal mother. She is the mother of almost all the orishas, and I thank her.”

Cultural experiment: Have Omitonade listen to a song by Tomasa about Yemaya. Observe. Wait. Record her reaction. Then bring this recording back to Tomasa. Their respective voices and their shared faith is all they know of each other. Until it becomes easier for a Cuban and an African to travel around the world and discuss their common history, this is the only interaction I can offer these two. For now.

Ibadan, Nigeria

I play the song “Yemaya Asesu” on my laptop. The recording crackles a bit. Tomasa speaks in Spanish. Omi doesn’t understand. And then Tomasa starts to sing. I see her cheeks rise and swell with pride. I wait, and then watch Omi smile and sing in unison. And I listen to her praise the Afro-descendants, guardians of a tradition eroded in her own country. “I appreciate them so much. Without them, people here would not have been able to open their minds and return to their roots,” says Omitonade. 

Offerings to the river of to the sea, like the image on the left taken during the procession of the Cabildo de Regla in Cuba, are a common denominator in the worship of water deities in Cuba, Nigeria, and Benin. In the town of Ouidah, Benin, (center) these two sisters were initiated to Aflekete (Yemoja in the Ewe-Fon tradition). Facing each other in front of a temple as if a mirror was between them, this image illustrates the bond between practitioners on the two shores of the Atlantic. In Agramonte, Cuba, Regla Maria Fernandez Madan (right) practices the Arara religious tradition stemming from the Ewe-Fon people.

On the African continent, colonisation meant acculturation, whitewashing. But in recent years, as if by ripple effect, some Nigerians who travelled to the United States or Brazil are returning to Ifá. “Because they see people practising the Yoruba religion in the diaspora, because when they see them worshipping the orishas, singing for Ifá, they are impressed. They think, Oh, this is what we don’t like anymore, this is what we thought was outdated.”

Omitonade is touched, transported by the song, but does not seem surprised. She knows that, even without proselytism, without missionaries or crusades, her religion spread throughout the world. She even mentions distinctions between the rites of  Yoruba origin practised in the United States and Cuban Regla de Ocha, also called Santeria. And so, there is no such thing as an African diaspora, but really scores of diasporas—a network of people and places all converging to one source via the umbilical cord of culture.

Havana, Cuba

It’s the same song. Word for word. Same tune. Same vibration. When Tomasa heard Omitonade’s voice chorusing with her own, when Yemaya joined Yemoja, she was stunned, eyes wide, mouth agape, hands pressed against cheeks. The whole room filled up with the chanting in unison, astonishment and awe. Those oriki (prayer songs) from her mother (madrina), those hymns kept silent during Fidel’s years of forced atheism, the clandestine humming of this indefatigable faith resonated from shore to shore, from the satellite to the source. 

After her cry of surprise, Tomasa was holding her breath. She sat on the bed, bewildered by this capsule recorded on the other side of the Atlantic, tiny minutes of sound that stretched so far. When she came to, she whispered, as if she had ever doubted it: “Las raïses de nosotros estan ahi.” (“Our roots are over there.”). 


Author’s Note: Extracts from Regla, Havana, Cuba were documented between April and September 2019. Extracts from Ibadan, Nigeria were gathered in November 2018 and July 2019. The text has been translated from French and edited for clarity and length for ArtsEverywhere’s digital platform.

“The Roads of Yemoja” will be published as a book of photographs, travel notes, historical content, poetry and elements of fiction in late 2021 or early 2022.

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