By Jonathan M. Pitts
They gathered in a clearing by a stream in Baltimore County one chilly early-spring day, some in the colorful African head ties known as geles, others wearing bracelets trimmed in shells or carved in wood.
One by one, they stepped forward to toss offerings into the Gwynns Falls – a pineapple, four oranges, a bouquet of tulips.
And when the lead priestess of these African-American women dropped a handful of shells to the ground and scrutinized their pattern, a message came through: Their celebration of the spring equinox was blessed by the divine.
“[The river goddess] Osun has accepted our gifts,” said the priestess, a Mount Washington resident and practitioner of Ifa, an ancient West African faith. She prefers to be called Olori, the name she is known by within the faith. She and other members of the group regard it as disrespectful to discuss their faith using what they call their “government” names.
Ifa is one of an interrelated network of religions with African roots, including Vodou, Santeria and Sango Baptism, that appear to be gaining popularity in the United States, including in Maryland, as some African-Americans seek a spiritual experience firmly grounded in their own cultural heritage.
Olori, a Coppin State graduate and entrepreneur, earned her initiation as a priestess while visiting the Benin Republic two decades ago.
A single mother, she is a founder of Dawtas of the Moon, a group of more than a dozen women who practice Ifa and related African faiths. They gathered along the Gwynns Falls in Villa Nova Park in Pikesville this month in observance of the equinox, a day they say represents a rebirth of nature’s vitality.
Scholars say it’s hard to know exactly how many Americans practice Ifa or the many other African faiths that boast overlapping rituals and traditions. Many keep their involvement private, and numbers are hard to track given that membership in the faiths can be defined in a variety of ways. But anecdotal evidence suggests interest in West African religions is on the rise.
These traditions are indeed growing in the U.S.,” says Albert Wuaku, a professor at Florida International University who specializes in African and Caribbean religions. “They have a strong appeal to groups of African-Americans who have been struggling with questions of identity, who don’t feel they fit so well within the American system. They’re especially appealing to women, who tend to hold more powerful positions within the African traditions than in Western cultures.”
Organized in Baltimore five years ago, the Dawtas have held a national gathering for African-American women interested in such religions each October since 2016. The first drew 150 people; last year’s attracted 300, and organizers are preparing for more this fall.
Olori adds that hundreds of men and women attend some of the more popular Ifa events in the Baltimore-Washington area. Wuaku says “strong bases” of West African religions have emerged in California, Florida, Michigan and other places around the country.
“The African religious traditions provide a symbol around which its followers can integrate,” he said. “That’s one reason they’re such a powerful draw.”
Ifa is a faith and divination system with its roots in Olori’s family’s ancestral homeland, Yorubaland. The region now encompasses the nations of Benin, Togo and Ghana and parts of Nigeria.
Like some other religions, Ifa includes magic, the use of traditional medicines and veneration of the dead.
Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Ifa is monotheistic, but its supreme creative figure, Olodumare, shares power with dozens of subsidiary deities. Each represents particular elements of life or nature – fire, rebirth, agriculture, the arts – and serves as an intercessor between humans and the creator.
It is through ritualistic practice that believers can access the deities’ wisdom and counsel.
Incantations, prayers, and divination (such as Olori’s reading of four mollusk shells) are believed to summon these deities – or the petitioners’ ancestors – who may speak to them in dreams, audible sounds, or even in conversation during what appear to be in-person visits.
The Dawtas say embracing such mystical realities can feel strange at first, but becomes a life-affirming norm.