Blood, honor and the fair weather goat

oyotunji-inside
Oyotunji Orisha Voudou priest

He should have honored their ways.

When a county health inspector threatened to press charges against the members of Oyotunji African Village in South Carolina for scarring themselves in a tribal ritual, members of the village performed an ebo, or animal sacrifice, to one of their deities, asking for help. “The following week,” says Bale Oyewole, 63, one of the founders of the village, “the health inspector died of a heart attack; since then we’ve been left alone.”

It’s Voudou

Oyewole says they don’t call it voodoo in Oyotunji; they call it orisha voudou. The word voudou comes from the West African word for religion and the word orisha means deities or spirits. The word voodoo — associated with evil, malice and other negative connotations — is a media perversion of voudou, he explains while proudly smoothing out his agbada, a colorful, flowing African robe. Oyewole adds that the health inspector’s death was never asked for, and that today the village gets along well with local authorities.

The power of orisha voudou is real, says the former Pentecostal, but it’s not how Hollywood portrays it. Orisha voudou, says Oyewole, champions doing good, honoring one’s ancestors, venerating the orishas, making offerings, and celebrating the vibrant and festive Yoruba — Western African — culture. Oyewole says switching from charismatic Christianity to orisha voudou was not a big leap. “They both like to make noise,” he chuckles.

But educating people about the truth of voudou is fundamental to Oyotunji villagers. “We don’t stick needles in dolls,” says Oyakunle Olugbemi, 58, a voudou priestess for 30 years. “You can’t come to the village and say, ‘This person has bothered me — can you kill him?'” she explains as she tosses timber on a bonfire in preparation for that evening’s Hwedo Festival, honoring the unknown dead of the African people. In fact, she says, orisha voudou priests and priestesses take an oath in the village to do no harm.

The Village

On a secluded road leading up to the village, a sign reads: “You are leaving the U.S. You are entering the Yoruba Kingdom … built by the priests of the voudou cults.”

Nestled snugly in a wooded patch of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Oyotunji Village sprawls over a 10-acre kingdom, complete with an oba or king, a royal palace, open air shrines, courtyards and a bazaar with stores selling African artwork, jewelry, herbs and clothing. More than 20 people live in the village, and dozens more participate in the many religious festivals held during the year. Tourists seeking divination and other forms of spiritual advice bring in revenue for the village.

Oda Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I founded the village in the 1970s. An artist living in New York, he grew fascinated with African spirituality after a visit to Egypt in the 1950s. Upon returning home, he continued his study, and traveled to Matanzas, Cuba in 1959 where he became the first African American initiated into the Yoruba faith. During the 1960s, he traveled back and forth to West Africa and learned more about his heritage and voudou.

Adefunmi soon realized that the voudou practiced in North America — in the form of Santería, Candomblé or Obeah — was a corrupted version of African voudou, tainted by Christianity. Adefunmi longed for an authentic African voudou in America. In 1970, he established Oyotunji Village in a remote, swampy area near Sheldon, South Carolina with that aim in mind. The first few years were rough for the Oyotunji pioneers — mostly New Yorkers cleared and filled in the land — but by the late 1970s, population peaked at 200. Many villagers attribute the population decline since the 1970s to better employment opportunities in the cities.

Today, Oyotunji is also a training Mecca for voudou initiates who have opened bookstores, boutiques and temples from San Diego to Washington, D.C.