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.
The Case of Merced v. City of Euless
In Texas, the case of Merced v. City of Euless elicited great controversy because Obá Oriaté Merced was forbidden by the City of Euless, Texas to perform animal sacrifices for Santería initiations. Merced, who lost his initial challenge to the law, was backed in his appeal by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The federal appeals court decided that Euless, Texas law enforcement officials violated the religious rights of Jose Merced, when they prevented him from sacrificing a goat.
This case received a great deal of media attention and Merced, a very respectable elder and my godfather, took a calculated decision to open the doors of the igbodu and allow media to take certain photographs of a Dia del Medio or the Throne Day, the day when the community is allowed to visit the new initiate or Iyawó. The point was to illustrate our traditions not as the Hollywood lurid image of Santería that newspapers are so fond to perpetuate, but as a bona fide and respectable religion followed by hundreds of thousands of people in the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, Central and South America and even in Asia. What was illustrated in photos was no different than what any guest to this communal feast would have been able to see with their own eyes. No secrets were photographed or revealed.
Traditionally an iyawó will not appear on a photograph, however there is no other way to set the record straight about what is seen that day for the thousands of people who would never be able to walk into our world but are only too happy to pass judgment upon our practices sitting from the comfort of their homes and speaking from an unenlightened point of view. In this case, allowing an iyawó to be photographed is not offensive to me in light of the understanding and support that it can shed for the Santería community in Texas and in the United States fighting to reaffirm its right to practice our religion without government prosecution and intervention as it should be thanks to the protection of the United States Constitution.
Gratuitous Displays of Power
There are however many practitioners of ATRs that have a penchant for gratuitous displays of power. For them, showing steps on the initiation process is but a way to demonstrate the might of their houses. Here is where my misgivings truly start to boil under the surface of my skin and make me feel the inner Aganjú that rules half of my life (Anganjú is the orisha of Volcanoes and my father in Osha, yes it makes me a touch volatile and unpredictable at times).
Since I am all for concrete examples let me cite one that I find rather puzzling. While perusing on Facebook I found photos from an ilé in El Paso, Texas that illustrate particular steps in the process of crowning an iyawó.
One of said photos which I will not reproduce in the article shows a person kneeling on the mat and receiving the sacred paints used as part of the ordination ceremony of a new iyawó, the other photo shows people lined up ready for the lavatorio ceremony and a third photo shows the person in charge of the herbs kneeling on the mat herbs in hand.
Now at first, these descriptions may sound like no big deal. However, they are to me a rather big deal because those are steps that are meant to be kept away from the eyes of those who are not initiated. There is no rhyme or reason on posting those photos; there are no cases to be defended, no freedoms to fight for. They simply are there to show a house in the throes of practice. My issue is two folded:
1. Those steps illustrate a mystery that should be part of a process for an iyawó as he or she gets presented to Igbodú. Why is it important to keep this secret you may wonder? Well those who are familiar with pedagogy understand the value of exposing students to concepts only as they are ready to assimilate them. When someone walks into a room with a mind clear of perceptions and images, the mind is open to be imprinted with gnosis and to appreciate the process that was done upon them with a fresh pair of eyes. However, when photos are plastered on-line it is akin to robbing iyawós of the innocence of a process that should be kept pure. Explain to me where is the benefit here in showing off? Do the photos serve the greater good of the Santeria community? I think not.
2. The second part of my issue is what the hell are they doing in the middle of a ceremony camera in hand taking photos? What I learned from my elders is pretty basic, cell phones off, cameras out of the room, complete and total concentration in the work at hand with the orishas. No mouths need to be opened and gums flapping on idle chit chat, time to work is time to work and every act thus performed in the igbodu must be meaningful and purposeful. Otherwise, leave the room.
What do I seem a tad uptight about the seriousness of initiations? Well a kariosha is no picnic in the park, it is a life changing process not free from risks and every one without exception must be in sync working towards the spiritual transformation of the iyawo. Certainly this is no light matter to me.
The Good the Bad and the Ugly
When it comes to Palo, if you think I am uptight you are about to see me in another whole new light. There is absolutely no way you will ever see photos of my Nkisis anywhere. Chances are you will never see the inside of my Munansó if you do not belong to it. This is how sacred that space is to me and to my elders. Need I say more?
However, the state of affairs for the Palo community is pretty sad and the preponderance of mindless Bozos willing to photograph all their Ngangas is simply revolting to me. I have seen photos on Facebook that give me belly ache, they are filled with altars that are not properly built, firmas (sacred drawings) that are book concoctions and have no pictographic or communicative rhyme or reason and mixtures of Santisima Muerte, Curanderismo and even Ceremonial Magic and Devil Worship to spice up a disgusting goulash being passed on as ‘legitimate Palo’. Go figure.
Empowerment in the hands of fools will only lead to the corruption of traditions. Next time you see a photo of a ritual or a mysterious object set aside the desire to satisfy your curiosity and ponder for a moment the motives behind the person posting the photo. What are they trying to convey? What is the purpose of pushing the limits? Does it serve a purpose? Does it serve the greater good of ATRs?
The Internet has empowered many by providing them with an instant forum to voice opinions, illustrate their lives and share whatever comes to mind, there is no way to close the floodgates. I just hope logic, intelligence and decorum guide the steps of those who have the power to make or break the beauty of our African Traditional Religions.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá
For those who are interested in more information on the case of Merced v. City of Euless, visit the following link: