Oyotunji African Village welcomes all who want to experience the ancestorial traditions of West Africa Essence, Dec, 1995 by Cheo Tyehimba
A peacock’s piercing whine echoes faintly behind pounding drumbeats as a dozen African villagers dance in a circle and call forth their Yoruban ancestors. Colorful masked dancers representing the ancestors, or egunguns, emerge and spirit-walk to the call of chants. The music of cowbells and drums swells as the egunguns wave to their living family members and symbolically depart to the Kingdom of the Dead. The annual Egungun Festival at the Oyotunji African Village is in full swing.
Nestled deep among the live oaks and palmetto trees of eastern South Carolina, just 65 miles south of Charleston’s airport, lies the Oyotunji African Village. As the only traditional African village in America, Oyotunji comes complete with a king (high priest and ruler), a council of chiefs and village people. The sign on the tall wooden entrance gate reads: Welcome to Oyotunji. You Are Entering Into Another Realm. In the Name of Our Ancestors, We Welcome You.
Goats and roosters scamper across sandy streets as children freely roam the village. Low-slung multicolored thatched-roof houses of plywood and brick hold the carvings of Yoruba gods and goddesses. The 40 African-Americans residing in this ten-acre village live the Yoruban culture and tradition, a way of life dating further back than 500 B.C.
25 YEARS IN THE MAKING Oyotunji, which means “rises again” in Yoruba, is a product of the sixties struggle for Black liberation. “We developed Oyotunji as a place of rehabilitation for African-Americans in search of their spiritual and cultural identity,” says His Royal Highness Oba Oseijeman Adefunmi I, the village’s founder. After establishing several temples in Harlem in the mid-sixties, Oba moved south in 1969. “I realized the Yoruba religious movement in New York needed a rural setting if we were to continue its cultural development,” he says. Oba eventually settled on the land where the village rests today.
Purchased for only $500 in 1972, Oyotunji grew quickly into a well-populated village. During a high period in the mid-seventies, as many as 120 people lived in the village and countless more have since passed through its gates. The Gullah people (descendants of slaves who maintained African culture and language on the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia) had occupied the region exclusively but welcomed the swelling number of villagers with neighborly affection and watched as they turned their lands into a prosperous home. Some of the Gullah even began practicing Yoruban traditions.
Today the eight families who call Oyotunji home salute their deities each day, paying homage to African gods and goddesses and the universal elements. Yorubas believe in one Supreme Being but also acknowledge a number of forces like orisas, which are spirits or energy that balance the universe. Yoruba, a belief system that is practiced throughout the diaspora, is recognized by several different names, including Macumba, Condomble, Santeria and Voodun (or Voodoo). “For most African Americans, ancestor worship is a practice that was lost during the Middle Passage. More than half of the enslaved Africans in the United States came from western Africa, and many of those from Nigeria, which used to be called Yorubaland,” says Iyanla Vanzant, author and Yoruba priestess. “So, many people who are attracted to the Yoruban tradition are responding to the ancestral memory in their souls.”
SPIRITUAL DEJA VU “Just hearing [Oba] call out to an African god makes me feel the rhythm and know this is right,” says Her Royal Grace Iya Shanla Adaramola, a chief priestess of the shrine dedicated to Obatala, an orisa of purity, justice and clear thinking. She moved to the village in October 1975 and was initiated into its traditions the next year. “I was raised a southern Baptist,” she says. “But for me, there was always something missing in Christianity.”
Her Royal Grace Osungbemi Abimbola, 37, says her new life at the village is the fulfillment of a lifelong spiritual journey. “My name means `born of high stature,’ and I discovered through a spiritual reading that people in my family were high priests and priestesses, including my great-grandmother who was a Cherokee medicine woman. So it was destiny that I came here and became a priestess.”
Women have a voice in all areas of the village society, says Adaramola, who notes that the village’s legislative council has five women and six men. Both males and females are expected to participate actively in their separate egbes, or societies, as soon as they reach adulthood.
All of Oyotunji’s 18 children attend the Royal Academy, the village’s privately funded school, where they learn the Yoruba language, culture and history as well as meet the mandatory South Carolina educational requirements. Outsiders are welcome to attend, and many do. The boarding students are housed with village residents or in the men’s barracks. Day students living nearby travel back and forth to school with their families.
IN THE TRADITION An entire generation of Black folks have grown up at the village. Although some leave, they continue to practice Yoruban traditions. “I try to do something every day that reflects my culture, such as helping someone spiritually or teaching my children their culture,” says Osunguaide Olafemi, 32, a Yoruba priestess who lived at Oyotunji between the ages of 7 and 18 and now resides in Tampa. She and her family regularly meet with other former Oyotunji residents to honor the ancestors with offerings, singing and rituals to reinforce their spirituality. Each year many return to Oyotunji during one of its festivals. Held every month except November and often several times a month, the festivals always showcase the egunguns, elaborate costumes, body painting, dancing, blood sacrifices, fireworks, drinking and royal dances by the king and queens.
Villagers who have remained at Oyotunji earn their living by training those people who seek the Yoruba priesthood, offering spiritual counseling and selling African art and jewelry at Oyotunji’s popular Trader’s Bazaar. Some villagers work outside, as well, and take construction jobs, lecture, perform or do other short-term gigs in the area. And some professionals continue the work for which they’ve been trained. One villager in fact is a professor at South Carolina State College in a neighboring city.
Last year many national and international visitors discovered Oyotunji, often while attending the nearby Gullah festivals. “We welcome busloads of people all the time,” says Adaramola. “We want African-Americans to discover their spiritual and cultural past.”
GETTING THERE The peak tourist season for Oyotunji Village runs from April through October. Among its most popular tours are The King’s Palace, Temple Row and the Village Museum. Festivals, parades, psychic readings, lectures with the king and chiefs, and dance and drum performances are ongoing. Admission is $5 for adults, $3.50 for children and $4.50 per person for groups of ten adults or more. Oyotunji is in Sheldon, South Carolina, just 14 miles north of Beaufort off U.S. Highway 17. Look for two signs: at the turnoff a wooden one that says African Village, and just outside the village another that reads: You Are Now Leaving the United States and Entering the Kingdom.