Empowerment in the hands of fools will only lead to the corruption of traditions. I have spoken before about the double edge sword that the Internet represents. It can be a glorious instrument for education, networking and sharing of ideas, but it can also lead us on a slippery road to the destruction of core aspects of African Traditional Religions (ATRs).
There are some houses that want to show off their self-perceived might by plastering on the Internet photographs of rituals that are held sacred to the Santeria, Ifá, Voodoo and Palo communities amongst other ATRs. I find myself thorn on the issue of how much is too much to show. On one hand, some images can open minds and hearts to a better understanding of our religious cultures, but on the other, some images simply go beyond what should be seen by the eyes of those who have not pledged their life to the service of the Orisha, Lwá, Ifá or Nkisis.
Let us deal with some concrete examples to illustrate when it is necessary to open the doors of a temple to illustrate that there indeed is nothing dirty or shameful to hide in our religious practices.
“A child has no wisdom, only potential. It is up to their fathers to give them wisdom so they may grow.”
– A northern Bantu proverb.
The relationship between godchild and godparent is a very important affair. The survival of our respective traditions depends upon the effective teaching and training of godchildren – of which everyone, regardless of what title or rank we hold, are. There is a frightening trend that seems to only be getting worse as time goes by, and that is the trend of not properly educating those who wind up at your door step. All that this does is waste the time and potential of the respective parties, and only serves to degrade our traditions.
Something that I have been hearing for quite a while is that the parents won’t properly raise their children for fear that the child will outshine the parent. This is ridiculous. We could all only hope that someone we raised grew to be a spectacular priest, filled with a great depth of knowledge, understanding, and good character. If a godparent is not striving to make someone at least their equal – then the time of both parties is wasted. If they are not trying to have their child outshine them, then we are wasting our future. The true genius of all godchildren may very well not be being a priest or an educator. Some godchildren may not grasp some concepts as quickly. Some people may very obviously be in it for selfish purposes. However, it is up to the godparent to assist them through these problems and evolve. There is always a reason, whether obvious or not, that the person wound up in your house.
The roots of Palo are not in cities, and are definitely not rooted in urban North America. We are removed from the ability to gather many of the sacred plants and woods that grow freely in Palo’s homeland – rural Cuba. This can provide some interesting challenges. Yes, there are botánicas – online and brick and mortar, but for some things the visceral experience of going into Nfinda to gather medicines for nsalas is much more gratifying. In the first part of this series, I want to give some pointers and tricks I have learned from being a Palero in a city. This applies to more than just Palo too.
1. Know what you are looking at!
While we can’t go and find everything in the natural areas within and around our cities, we can always find some of them. For example, lets take the Laurel (for those of you who get the reference, this is where i buried my secret 😉 ). There are many varieties of Laurel in North America, and many of them have something in common. However, if you are used to buying palos in small dried up bits, you may not recognize it. You new best friend is Google Images. Bookstores will often have field guides based on regions as well, and these are pretty cheap.
Gathering raw materials can’t be done solely with hands. I have a number of useful and inconspicuous things in the trunk of my car just in case i see something. Plastic bags, empty water bottles, an exacto knife (with a pull saw attachment), a very small gardening shovel, tissue paper (for wrapping fresh plants in), and a Swiss army knife, complete with scissors. Having a collection of useful tools can make cutting, digging, loosening much easier…especially when you need to be quick and sneaky.
3. Be mindful of your neighbors – especially…
Being as how Palo is a religion that practices animal sacrifice, it is important to keep this out of the eyes and ears of our neighbors – especially when no one else around us understands what we are doing. Noise complaints, police, evictions, ostracism, scared looks – nobody needs that. Just be quiet, clean, and courteous. Also, the first track of Midnight Marauders by a Tribe Called Quest has some great parts for hiding certain kinds of sounds. This works very well if you live in an apartment.
We are supposed to be living in a time where there is freedom of expression and religion. However, the reality is that as a parent raising children in an African Traditional Religion (ATR) I know that my children will be treated differently if I openly would have said during the enrollment interview in their non secular school, “Oh yes, by the way, one of my children is an Olosha and the other one is preparing to become a Palero.”
I can see the polite smiles and the colors dancing on their faces as they try disguise surprise, contempt and a way to reject a perfectly good check of a few thousand dollars for their tuition. The first reaction for most teachers and school directors is to jump to their own religious roots and to snap quick judgments based on their religious programming, it is a natural reaction. What is not natural is to let that religious programming obscure the fact that all families have the right to religious self-determination and that not always parents are Christians, Jewish or Muslims to name three mainstream religions.
This issue however, goes beyond tolerance. The existence and persistence of African Traditional Religions spits on the face of those who have been programmed to see us as evil heathens who worship the devil. We are not evil, we are not heathens and certainly we do not worship the devil. Nonetheless, our existence challenges their narrow understanding of good and evil because quite frankly, we do not fit the mold of with God and against the devil.
Most private schools, even if they are non-secular, will have some form of ‘values’ included in their curriculum and those as I have seen unequivocally are modeled after Christian values. There is nothing wrong with Christian values, if your child is a Christian. Mine happen not to be, they are Lukumí and they have the right to not be exposed to values contrary to their own, at least during the formative years when they are more impressionable and prone to confusion.
I promise you a quickie here. I was reading a post done by Amigos del Palo Mayombe y Conocedores de la Briyumba Congo (Friends of Palo Mayombe and people who know about Briymba Congo) where the question of cult vs. religion was raised. The post asked, what are Paleros, a cult or a religion?. However, I think the question has been applied at one time or another to many other African Traditional Religions.
The answers did not surprise me. They show at large several things:
1. Some have never stop to ponder what a religion is, yes, as in pull out your dictionary.
2. Others have never wondered why they should be defined by those who want to denigrate us.
Outsiders who see us as secretive, occultist and therefore, a ‘cult.’ I think they should likewise examine the meaning of the word ‘cult’ its context and how it should or not apply to African Traditional Religions.
It is important not to just have a passion for our religious practices but to also take the time to reflect, analyze and then express informed opinions in public forums. After all, the way in which we express our inner core beliefs helps to shape the way in which we are perceived and understood by outsiders and by our very own brethren, no matter what ATR you follow, or not.
A friendly and enlightening research is in order. Look up the words “religion”, “cult”, “occult”, then write what you understand of each as they relate to your practices and come to your own conclusions which you are kindly welcome to share below, this is after all an open forum. Have fun!