Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
February 9th, 2009

Blood, honor and the fair weather goat

Inside a "voudou" village in South Carolina

 
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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.

Pages: 1 2

Pages: 1 2

 
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The Author : Anthony Chiorazzi
Anthony Chiorazzi writes from Los Angeles and is currently a graduate student at Oxford University.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Dai

    Smart writing, and very interesting. Thanks,

  • CM Hooker

    This tradition goes back a long time, and it must be respected. I liked the tone of this article. People fear what they don’t understand.

  • Jerome

    … I always wanted to see what this was all about. I heard of this place, and it does seem pretty interesting. Have to go.

  • Mark

    A lot of work and research went into this article. It’s nice to see that someone actually does a lot homework on the topic that they write about. I heard that there are a lot of interesting things in SC. This is one of them.

  • Davidson L

    Very interesting article. There are a lot of fascinating places to visit in America. This is one of them. I heard of this place before, but this was the first article I read about them.

  • Janet

    This article really opened my eyes up to a lot of things. I had no idea about real voodoo, and this article really got into it. I once knew someone who said they were into voodoo, but he would never talk about it. If people don’t talk about it, how can we learn. I’m glad the people in this article are talking.

  • Al Santos

    Awesome article, and I love the powerful ending. Touching. I think Oyotunji Village is a place that I would love to check out. I think it was really interesting to learn that voodoo was not what I thought it would be. Well done.

  • Brittany

    A very cool look into a different religion and way of life! I think it’s really interesting that 1. this sort of village exists in the US and 2. that people who were part of contemporary society made the choice to abandon their way of life to found this spiritual community.

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