On Being a Pagan

My first awareness of Lord Shiva came from the late Iyalorisha Melvina Rodney. She kept a large framed image of Him in the inner sanctum of her shrine, between Ogun’s cutlass and Yemoja’s wooden boat brought with a Yoruba woman to Trinidad after Emancipation.

Behind the disguises of white saints, she had called on the spirits of her ancestors for strength, for healing and wisdom.

On the days I spent in prayer and meditation in Iya’s shrine, I looked into Shiva’s half-closed eyes, and was drawn to that look, that dream state, the dreadlocks, the crescent shaped moon, the drum.

Iya never explained to me why Lord Shiva was there, and I was too young to ask.

One of the few times I talked at school about African spirituality, there was awkward silence and a similar tone of fear and contempt reserved for when the good and saved were discussing Hindus.   I understood then why so many of my Hindu friends would stay silent when religion was being discussed.

Pagan was a word that got thrown around a lot.

It was just another word for weirdo. The other, the outsider, the misfit. The one who didn’t belong.

As I got older I realised that I was less interested in belonging and more interested in finding a way to define myself on my own terms.

Much of what I saw as a child started to come back to me in visions, in fragments of memory. 

The imperialist imposition of a young white man on a cross continues to dismiss and diminish everyone else’s spiritual consciousness to arbitrary definitions like pagan, heathen, un-saved.

But if to be pagan means to feel connected to nature then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan means to feel a sense of community, a part of a living ecosystem that cycles from unborn to child to elder to ancestor and back to unborn then I’m also okay with that. If to be pagan means looking at the landscape and seeing yourself as part of it, part of shaping it and making it better, then I’m okay with that too.   If to be pagan means to see god in your image and likeness then I’m okay with that. If to be pagan is to understand that your mother is your first notion of what god is, then I am okay with that too.

In 2015, after spending the day playing Black Indian, I went to my first Shivratri and finally understood what Iya saw in those eyes.

I can see now how our ancestors shaped their spiritual reality from dreams, from visions, from fragments of memory.

They danced and sang and prayed themselves into this new existence. It was the only way they knew how to be.

And in the same way that quantum physicists claim they can still hear the echo of that first big bang, it is the same way that Lord Shiva’s drumming of creation and destruction still echoes in our consciousness today.

To be pagan means that you live your spiritual reality daily. It means that every molecule of your being vibrates with a frequency that existed before somebody dreamt up Adam.

To be a pagan is to remember your personal divinity. Remember what it was like before people told us how to believe.

And perhaps more important than what they remembered was what they created with that knowledge.

What only exists in this space and time, in this reality.  To be an example to the world of what civilisation could be. We can only be stronger by understanding each other. The shame and fear that was and still is associated with both African and Indian spiritual beliefs is part of the shared reality of life in a place like this, that can be so freeing in one moment and so imprisoning in the next.

Our ancestors, our Orisas, our Devas would have it no other way.

In these recession times we are suddenly being told go back to our gardens, to go back to our bush medicines, to heal ourselves with yoga, use drumming to heal mental illness.  All the so-called pagan practices have now been repackaged by the west. The neo-pagans are making money from the shame our grandmothers felt for teaching us to make coconut oil.

But there are no accidents in this life. Nothing happens by coincidence or chance and it is not by accident or chance that this place called Trinidad exists. That we are here having this conversation.

That we are learning and remembering our obeah. That we are owning it. Understanding it. Claiming it and ultimately defending it against those who would use our own fears against us.

Presented in April 2016 at Varsha Pratipada Sansad, Chinmaya Ashram, Couva, Trinidad.

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Araba of Osogbo Ifayemi Elebuibon to speak at Trinidad and Tobago Isese Festival

Orisa devotees from around Trinidad and Tobago will gather on September 24, Republic Day to observe the first annual Isese Festival – a celebration of this country’s African spiritual traditions.

The gathering takes place at Centre of Excellence in Macoya and starts at 10.30 a.m.

Isese is a Yoruba word meaning Tradition. In recent years there has been a global push to reconnect with non-Western ideas of spirituality, and Trinidad and Tobago has been a leading part of that conversation through scholarly works and cultural exchange between Nigeria, Ghana, Cuba, the United States of America, Brazil and parts of Europe – all of which have seen increased interest and participation in African Spiritual traditions, specifically Ifa/Orisa.

Currently the local Orisa community is in a state of evolution. As the popularity of Ifa spreads, there are concerns about how this will affect our own traditions that have existed for over a century and have informed many social and cultural forms in Trinidad and Tobago.

This is a unique opportunity to interact with practitioners from around country, with a view to strengthening cultural and spiritual ties.

The morning session will include workshops in dance and drumming and a special panel to address questions that people have about Ifa/Orisa beliefs.

The afternoon session includes performances from Wasafoli, The Trinidad and Tobago Orisa Performing Arts Company and pannist Noel La Pierre.

The feature address will be delivered by Ifayemi Elebuibon, Araba of Osogbo, Osun State, Nigeria.

Special tribute will also be paid to Elders of the Orisa community both living and passed on.

The event is hosted by the Council of Orisha Elders in collaboration with the Afrikan Heritage Village Committee and Afrika House.

Entry is free of charge.

Obeah and other Political Tools

A couple of weeks ago I saw a tasteless attack on Hinduism expressing some vaguely articulated fundamentalist Christian desire to return Trinidad and Tobago to ‘God fearing ways’.

Forgetting of course that it was the church that Patrick Manning was building with his ‘Prophetess’ that was part of what hastened his being voted out.

This week they, whoever ‘they’ are took a turn behind African spirituality, aping the same divisive colonialist madness that was used to keep Indians and Africans afraid of each other since the first ship landed here in 1845.

The only reason anybody would put the Gods out of their thoughts, waste time and resources to make an ‘Obeah’ ad is because they/we remain mired by this Christian colonisation of our spiritual choices. We remain complicit in the contempt the society has for African spirituality and any other belief system that doesn’t subscribe to a Judaeo-Christian idea of who or what God is.

‘Obeah’ was used as a general term that lumped together all African spiritual practice and anything else that could be vaguely construed as a threat against colonial authorities.

The fact that many of the spiritual practices of Orisa and Hindu and Indigenous devotees have clear and evident similarities will never be highlighted in any political advertisement.

Go back and ask Iyalorisa Melvina Rodney why she had a big picture of Lord Shiva in her inner sanctum. Go back and ask Babalorisa Sam Phils how he knew so much Sanskrit. Go Enterprise and ask my Uncle Raviji why he invites Babalawos to his Mandir.

Hinduism and Orisa and Indigenous beliefs have and will continue to coexist here. Regardless of the racist and misinformed backwardness that gets peddled as political rhetoric.

Most PNM people also don’t know that the balisier has a wider meaning in the world of Orisa practice of the Caribbean.
Last year when I went to Cuba I found out that they call the balisier ‘Sword of Shango’. I saw the balisier flower all over the shrines of Santeria practitioners.

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Shango was and continues to be a popular Orisa in Trinidad for a very specific reason.
Many of the Yoruba people who were brought here after Emancipation were from Oyo, where Shango was a 13th century King of that large and ancient Empire. It was because of that longstanding connection to Oyo that they used to call all Orisa devotees ‘Shango people’. Go up to the hundred year old Orisa shrine on Upper St. Francois Valley Road and you will hear songs about Ibadan to this day.
Y’all think Eric Williams didn’t know these things?

Read more about Shango from eminent Trinidad born scholar Maureen Warner-Lewis’ Trinidad Yoruba : From Mother Tongue to Memory.
If you need more information on Caribbean anti-obeah laws read this paper from Jerome Handler:

Anti-Obeah Laws of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1760s to 2010

CLR James said in Black Jacobins ‘voodoo was the medium of conspiracy’. It was the Vodun ceremony held at Bwa Kayiman on August 14, 1791 that was the catalyst of the Haitian Revolution.
If it wasn’t for obeah, Vodun, secret societies, ancestral rituals, masking traditions, Ogun manifesting in the steel pan we would not have survived the Middle Passage or enslavement or colonialism or the continued attempts to deny us the fullness of who we are.

All of the born again Africans and Afro-Saxons waving their Swords of Shango, I ask you what the PNM is doing to protect you at the core of your spiritual beliefs?

Beauty of the Battle

The learning is not just in the training, the hours spent memorising the lavways and the steps and the pain that comes when you lose concentration and you get hit with a stick on your little finger. The journeys to the gayelles are full of songs and anecdotes of past battles. Acid sings into the night, to dark roads that disappear suddenly off crumbling precipices: “Ah living alone, ah living alone in the jungle.”

Bois season is a time of fasting, from alcohol and meat and conjugal relations. From anything that distracts from the battle. The battle is waged in the mind long before the stickfighter enters the ring.

From a piece I wrote for the January 2015 issue of Caribbean Beat Magazine.
Read the original article here: http://caribbean-beat.com/issue-131/word-of-mouth#ixzz3OKgtUeuD

The NCC Regional Carnival Committee’s 2015 Stickfight Competition dates are as follows:

23rd Jan – Biche
30th Jan – Cedros
11th Feb – Skinner Park
To book workshops and demos for schools and clubs with the Bois Academy of Trinidad and Tobago call Rondel Benjamin at 498-2609
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This time next week, I’ll be in the midst of the bacchanal that is Jouvay. Jouvay is truth in a way that nothing else can be.
So as I get my heart and mind ready for this week, I’m reflecting on my Jouvay truths. My love for Trinidad and Carnival and art.

Obeah and other Black Powers

So a man comes up to me after a talk hosted by the Windrush Foundation on Obeah Laws in the Caribbean to ask me how come I know so much about ‘dis ting’.  I told him to go home and do a search on Ifa/Orisa.  He had heard the word Orisa before but never Ifa. 

But it’s much deeper than that. Any self-respecting woman, regardless of ethnicity or culture needs to have a sense of her own personal power, her own obeah.  It is crucial to survival and self-preservation in a world that is quick to convince you that you are powerless. 

What was missing from the conversation today is what we know as obeah is really the practices of people trying to make sense of a world that was against them.  For example there was no suggestion of the possible connection between the word ‘obi’ aka bizzy or cola nut which is a central part of healing and divination in Ifa/Orisa belief – in the etymology of the word obeah. 

Just like in Trinidad, people laughed when one man talked about pouring rum at the four corners of a new house, or the experiences of Caribbean people who came to live in England and had to use their knowledge from home to confront the white ghosts they met in the houses here.

I fail to see what is so funny. No Catholic laughs at the suggestion that when you take the eucharist that it does not actually become the body and blood of Christ.
I can’t ever be afraid of the science of my ancestors, that’s part of why I am here today.  As CLR James pointed out in Black Jacobins voodoo was the medium of conspiracy. The idea of a black God still makes a lot of people very frightened. Especially, unfortunately, it terrifies black people.

I might not practice it in the same way but I understand that that body of knowledge is part of a wider corpus of ancient healing knowledge that is far more modern than the simi dimi that sometimes parades as Western medical and scientific knowledge. 

In the Dungeon

When you enter the final dungeon in Elmina Castle the stench is unbearable, as is the noise of millions of ancestors who died in agony or made their final journey out of Africa there. I felt like my head would explode so Eintou gave me guinea pepper and white rum to stabilize my Ori. The doorways are so very narrow, the final insult for those who survive the horrendous conditions to make the crossing is that you have to bend, practically crawl into the last dungeon. Even me with my less than fat self, had to hunch my shoulders in and turn a little sideways to get through the Door of No Return. The sea roared. Yemoja wailing across centuries. Through my tears I notice how much Elmina looks like Manzanilla.