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Santería’s Growth Dilemma: The Balance between Theory and Practice

African Traditional Religions face growing pains in the Americas and abroad. Because most practices are centered in small communal and house oriented structures, some groups are seeing through these pains intelligent and systematically. However, there is an alarming trend to simply fall prey to the speed of growth. This tidal growth gives way to inventions and ill prepared practitioners and leaders and has as results the creation of not households but shanties of destabilized groups populated with yet more new initiates lacking fundamental teachings but are all too eager to continue the accelerated and mindless growth.

Obatalá is the father of creation.

Obatalá grants wisdom to those who need to make the right choices

In the face of these changes, it is crucial to exercise reflection and self analysis. Here is a dilemma that could threaten to pull Santería’s core apart and at the heart of it, there is a matter of prudence and self restrain. Ask yourself this question: When are new initiates ready to initiate others?

There are different schools in Santería. To place matters in perspective one could start with two questions. Are we blind servitors where the body controls our head? Or, are we wise servitors, where the head controls the body?

When the body controls the head…

Those who do not value patience tend to walk this path. For them, everything is about collecting godchildren and praising uncontrolled growth. It is about the ‘honor’ of being singled out to become a godparent or an oyugbona. Here the definition of success is not based on quality of initiates; it is based on quantity of initiates. It is about going in front of the orisha and simply throwing out the question “Can I initiate this individual?” I have heard all sorts of arguments to substantiate this ‘fast track’ growth such as “If my orisha has placed this opportunity in my path, then it must mean I am ready for it”, “I will learn by doing”, “It came in my itá that I would be initiating people immediately after my year in white or within my year in white” and the list goes on. Prudence and self analysis by damned, it is all about the initiator and its potential as new godparent and not about the needs of a person who entrusts in the initiator-to-be their spiritual growth and pocketbook.

In many cases the orisha will say yes to the question “Can I initiate this individual?” The response may come in the form of a resounding perfect answer like an eye ife. But are we asking the right questions before going to the orisha? Are we asking of ourselves, am I properly trained for this responsibility? Do I posses the knowledge to assume the task of raising the level of spirituality of this individual? Am I qualified to face crucial life decisions based on the corpus of knowledge that reside in our oddú, dilogún, patakís and ebbós? Do I truly know enough to help another individual flourish?

When the body controls the head, Santería grows almost like the famous pyramid schemes when the person raises the top by creating a huge base of followers, a costly base of followers. This is a recipe for disaster because there are many of you out there who have suffered at the hands of ill prepared oloshas. I am heartsick of hearing stories about abandoned iyawós, about people left to their own devices and even worse, about those raised in houses where little effort is made to teach beyond the rudimentary mechanics necessary to carry on the brute labor of karioshas. Every single new olosha who has gone to the igbodú (initiatory room) in the hands of ill prepared practitioners knows that it is not so much the process of initiation but the lack of teachings after the initiation what sorely hurts their formative years and that brands their life thereon.

The truly sad part is that there are many oloshas with more than their share of years under their belts that support this position, one wonders if it is in their best interest to secure their position in the pyramid structure, to pad their pockets, because of their own personal agendas, or simply, it is in their nature to go with the tidal wave of growth without minding the ill legacy of unprepared people they leave behind. Years in the service, does not always equal to wisdom and certainly is not an indicator of an examined religious life.

When the head controls the body…

The positioning of those houses that value methodical teaching and preparation of initiates is a much simpler one. Steps are taken to make sure that each initiate knows the fundamental building blocks of Santería. Here oloshas learn about their history, oddú, and patakí. It is important to point out that patakís are mnemonic devices to ease communications in an oral based tradition such as Santería. This means, not every single word you hear in a patakí is factual. Initiates in these houses are taught to ferret out the lessons in the patakís and not to fret over the details of the story. This single act of analysis is a good indicator of a house where the head controls the body.

Children of proper houses are exposed to a variety of learning opportunities that slowly and methodically bring them up the ranks in grace and knowledge. They typically are given tasks such as learning their lineage, moyugba and oddú. Concurrently they may serve in supportive roles such as being first oyugbona to elekes, learning to do a proper head feeding, ebbó, a sarayeye and most important learning the corps of music to both the orisha and the Egún.

Godparents in these houses know when to advance the virtuosos and when to pay close attention to those who require more dedication and teaching, because they value the role of both the talented and the average initiate.

Here the questions of why, how, where, and when are not scary. One is required in these houses to know why things are done, how they are best executed, where to go to get help and obtain resources and most important, they learn the value of when to do or not to do.

Oloshas from houses where the head controls the body know that there is a great need for learning about future initiates, to understand their needs and to make sure they are good fits for the sustained growth and elevation of all of those who participate in the community. They know that each action, each pair of hands and each kariosha represent a link in the chain of a living legacy, so before they go to orisha to ask if one of their initiates can take on the role of godparent or oyugbona, many other questions have been formulated and answered.

In summary, any olosha can initiate straight out of the year (once they complete all their ceremonies). It is not a question of physical ability; it is a question of ability in light of knowledge and experience accumulated before jumping to mindlessly reproduce. I will leave you with a final thought. Any teenager can reproduce; we see this on a day to day basis. Children of teens place undue burdens on their parents who are not mentally ready to bear the weight of childrearing because they are children themselves. Who suffers the consequences of lack of judgment in reproduction matters? We all do. Society at large suffers with the deterioration of family structures, the teen parents suffer, and so do the grandparents who must step in to help rear their grandchildren, but especially the young suffer as well.

If we can’t learn from this direct parallel, then is our body controlling the head or is our head controlling the body? You be the judge.

Omimelli Oní Yemayá Achagbá

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