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Lukumí Liturgical Language: A Tool of Exclusion and Inclusion

Aborisha praying to the Warriors
Aborisha seeking blessings from the Orisha.

I am blessed with being a polyglot. I can hold my own in Spanish, English, French, have a working knowledge of Portuguese, Yoruba, and Kikongo. Languages are fascinating and come easy to me. Having an ear for languages also makes me more aware of their power to include and exclude people.

Unfortunately, in the Orisha and Lukumí communities in the New World, language presents a barrier for newcomers. People wishing to learn and practice afro-descendant religions oftentimes need to adapt culturally and linguistically to Hispanics and Afro-descendants if they do not belong to either group. The process of learning includes navigating religious and cultural rules of ilés (Orisha houses) and learning Spanish which allows for better integration into households that are Spanish-dominant or bilingual. Once a newcomer manages to be welcomed in the heart of an ilé and starts to learn about the Orishas, a second realization settles in. There is an additional layer of complexity, the Yoruba language.

This tonal language is the liturgical backbone of Orisha rituals. It would be easier if Yoruba was actually spoken correctly. However, the matter is more complex because what has survived as the liturgical language for the Lukumí is a broken version of Yoruba.

Our liturgical language could very well be the mythical Holy Grail. Access to it is carefully guarded and, in most cases, reserved for the Oloshas (the priests and priestesses) who have pledged their life to the Orishas. Thus, a clear example of language as a tool of exclusion is seen with access to the mojuba (devotional personal prayer). The sole mention of allowing an aborisha (a person who has to receive elekes and or the Warriors) to learn and utter the mojuba can create bitter arguments. This is due to the belief that some Oloshas and Babalawos (Ifá priests) consider this prayer sacrosanct and only allowed to be known and used by those initiated at their level.

Language as a tool of exclusion

Let us analyze why some elders in our religious communities continue to fiercely embrace and perpetuate language as an exclusionary practice.

Enslaved and freed Oloshas in Cuba did not speak Yoruba exclusively because there were many languages spoken in Nigeria. Chief among them Igbo and Hausa. There are vestiges of those languages which survived and are intermingled with the Yoruba that we nowadays use in Orisha ceremonies. However, Yoruba permeated the rituals and practices which were embraced by Criollos.

For Criollos to integrate into the mysterious world of the Orishas, they had to learn the language spoken by their elders. As Criollos learned more about the Orisha, they realized that language protected and veiled the practices they were trying to learn and perpetuate. Knowledge is power. Therefore, mastering or at least retaining some understanding of a complex language tightened the dominance of a religious codex. At the same time, safeguarding this liturgical language fosters an air of mystery and perpetuates a vital element: Control.

Here is my point, in Nigeria, speaking Yoruba immediately demystifies the exclusive use of the mojuba. The prayer can be uttered by anyone who speaks the language. In essence, anyone can give thanks to the creator, to ancestors, ask for protection from calamities, and seek blessings.

What logical reason can someone provide to refute the right that any human being has to ask for blessings from the Almighty in Yoruba or any other language?

Many Oloshas and Babalawos try to hold their exclusionary stance by arguing that aborishas have no right to pray to Olosha ancestors. For the Lukumí, Olosha ancestors can be seen as a parallel of what canonized saints are for Catholics, people that are extraordinary for their deeds and prowess.

What is the logical reason that justifies forbidding a person to honor and ask for blessings of those who carry us all on their shoulders, initiates, or not?

The mojuba is a basic prayer that should be learned sooner rather than later by any aborisha, particularly if they have received the Warriors. What better way to establish a relationship with fundamental Orishas than by uttering with respect a long and complex prayer in Yoruba that takes a long time to master? It is simply illogical to have a person come to knock at the door of an igboosha (the room where orisha priesthood initiation is conducted) to start their life in the priesthood when they can’t even utter a fundamental daily prayer.

How in good conscience can an Olosha or a Babalawo justify excluding aborishas from learning the mojuba, particularly if they already have initiated by receiving the Warriors and/or elekes (sacred Orisha necklaces)?

The mojuba reinforces those initiations as it allows aborishas to strengthen their daily devotion by praising Olofi, Olodumare, the ancestors, recognizing elders (alive and in the afterlife), asking for deliverance from bad luck, and humbly requesting good fortune to manifest. What harm could a person do in seeking elevation through prayers?

Perhaps, what keeps Oloshas and Babalawos from teaching the mojuba, and in general, liturgical language and music is fear. When an aborisha can pray in Yoruba they have a direct connection with the Orisha, their ancestors, and a stronger sense of spiritual purpose and direction. What an intimidating sight to behold for godparents who love to be in control; an aborisha with some liturgical knowledge!

Language as a powerful tool of inclusion

The role of Oloshas and Babalawos is to be spiritual advisors to people and above all, servants to the Orishas. The priesthood must be supportive and guide newcomers preparing them to succeed as future priests and priestess. There is no need to desperately grasp to hegemonic outdated structures stifling those who have a genuine love for the Orishas and thirst for knowledge.

I do realize my words may be controversial for some of my brethren. It is not my aim to pit you against your godchildren. I act with care and with an understanding that we all have the right to analyze why we should or should not continue to embrace illogical control structures.

Look around, our mojuba is printed in various versions of complexity, translated to many languages, and readily available in books and the Internet. Our songs are available for anyone to learn. Even if we did not have the Internet and so many printed books, there is no reason to use language as a tool of elitism and exclusion. Our communities do not need those kinds of gatekeepers. Our priesthood requires that we are ready to be of service, alert to identify people with aptitude and skills. What better way to serve the Orisha than to help humbly develop outstanding future initiatives?

The richness of a culture is expressed in many ways, in food, in celebrations, in coming together to raise our voices in orin orisha (songs to the orisha), and adura orisha (prayers to the orisha). There is nothing that compares to the energy raised by those praying from the heart, in this case, in Yoruba.

Words carry immense power: Ashé semilenú, the ashé of the word. May my words reach out to your hearts and minds allowing you to see the power of inclusion through liturgical language and to continue carrying on our collective duty to elevate aborishas.


Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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