By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
HAVANA · To the beat of African drums and chants to Babalu Aye, Oggun and Chango, 700 worshipers of Yoruba deities called Orishas gathered Tuesday for a world congress of a religion brought to the Americas by slaves.
High priests from Nigeria and followers from the Caribbean, Brazil and the United States, wearing flowing cloth robes and lots of beads, said their faith was growing faster than ever.
“Our religion today is a world religion embraced by over 100 million people in 28 nations,” said Nigerian babalao [priest] Wande Abimbola, president of the World Yoruba Congress, holding its eighth meeting since 1981.
Abimbola saluted Cuba’s Yoruba ancestors who managed to preserve their religion despite being brought across the Atlantic from Nigeria in chains.
Cuba’s government sponsored the meeting in Havana’s conference hall to acknowledge the importance of the worship of the Orishas, the most widely practiced religion on the island despite its clandestine origins.
In Cuba, slaves camouflaged their faith by pretending to worship Catholic saints, creating a parallel pantheon in a religion now called santeria. A similar fusion took place in Brazil, where the religion is known as candomble and umbanda.
The Yoruba religion invokes ancestral spirits and involves divination with sea shells and animal sacrifice for major rituals. It has no temples and no one proselytizes to gain converts.
“In different places the religion changes a little, but it all amounts to the same thing. We come together every so often to pool our resources as one big family,” said Joan Lorna Cyrus, of Trinidad, the Yoruba congress vice-president for the Caribbean.
The Trinidadian priestess said the faith was growing among people who are not of African descent.
“It gives them something to hold onto and they find solace in this religion that allows them to talk to their ancestors,” she said. “It is really powerful.”
Abimbola said the Yoruba religion had no hierarchy or institutional structure and the congress was not intended to give a stamp of approval to any of the diverse forms of worship.
“There is no pope figure or cardinals in this religion,” he said.
“We are not looking for any new world to conquer or any new people to dominate.”
Iya Osunyemi Ifanike, a teacher from New York in Cuba for the congress, said she turned to the faith three years ago when she was ill and having trouble at work.
“I went to seven Christian churches and the pastors laid their hands on me and prayed but nothing happened, until I was introduced to a babalao who pinpointed my problem right away,” she said.
He told her that three jealous colleagues were using witchcraft against her and the remedy was an animal sacrifice.
“I gave a goat to Oggun,” said the Antigua native who moved to New York 35 years ago and has three Masters degrees in education.
Cuba’s Yoruba Cultural Association says 65 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people practice African religious traditions.
A revered patron of the religion, Yoruba King Sijuwade Olobuse II, a member of the Ooni Yleifa clan, one of three royal families in Nigeria, visited Cuba in 1987 and met with President Fidel Castro.
Santeria grew after Castro’s 1959 revolution, whose atheism displaced Catholicism as the island’s official religion.