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Updated: Jun 30, 2020

It is nearly the end of June, and our family has been in strict isolation for the last 15-weeks as COVID-19 continues to create havoc in every corner of the world. My little family is as sick of social distancing as I am sure many of you are.

Our practices as oloshas and paleros are sustained by the tight relation with godchildren and fellow initiates. We thrive in the closeness of our rituals, enjoy the contact as we embrace and salute each other’s orisha and dobalé atop an estera. We are energized by the ritual salute hueso con hueso in front of a Nganga.

We are creatures of habit, we need the energy of the batá, the loud voices of the okpwón and the singers calling down the orisha, we are uplifted by the batá drum’s reverberation running through our bodies. We miss the colorful igbodús draped and decked in the finest fabrics and fragrant with myriad fruits and offerings for kariosha anniversaries. However, what I miss the most is sitting around a large table with my godparents and fellow elders sharing a hearty dinner after a long hard day of initiatory rituals.

We are gregarious creatures to the core of our beings. However, we are unwilling hostages to a microorganism that does not discriminate and that is opportunistic, and I will be damn if I give this stupid virus the slightest opportunity to hurt those who I love, to hurt my community and to hurt our image as oloshas and paleros.

It is in our hands as individuals to allow reason to guide our acts. To allow mercy to step forward and be the shining light through these dark days we are facing together.

The Right to Practice our Religion

The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, through its Free Exercise Clause, gives its citizens the right to practice their religion. However, there is precedence for the State to interfere in the said right. The Supreme Court is the arbiter of disputes when it comes to the exercise of our freedoms.

The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens' right to practice their religion as they please, so long as the practice does not run afoul of a "public morals" or a "compelling" governmental interest. For instance, in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944), the Supreme Court held that a state could force the inoculation of children whose parents would not allow such action for religious reasons. The Court held that the state had an overriding interest in protecting public health and safety.

Here is where Oloshas, Paleros, Voodooists and any other afro descending religion, and any religious group or institution, can run amok with the law as we have seen recently. There are cases where Christian churches insist on offering services in times were social distancing is mandated. I will not argue the case of Christian churches, however, it is important to consider their trials and tribulations as well as their judicious application and adherence to rules. What benefits or hurts one religious group could impact the rights and freedoms of any other religion.

I will not presume to speak for any olosha in Georgia, just for my own family. However, I know that many in my local community have opted for practicing privately and avoiding gatherings. Some minor ceremonies have happened in small groups where practitioners are adhering to social distancing and wearing face coverings as part of their day-to-day routines. I applaud those who are responsible for keeping unavoidable and timely commitments guided by common sense and hygienic practices to avoid giving COVID-19 a chance to find hosts to create more havoc.

Our community has become more resilient and adopted Teams, Google Hangouts, Facebook lives, and Zoom to meet, exchange ideas, study together, stay connected, and even to support activism against social injustice.

What troubles me greatly are those who continue carrying on batás, anniversaries, initiations, and other community events as though COVID-19 did not exist. If COVID-19 is a test of our collective character, some oloshas and paleros are miserably failing.

I believe in the power of the Orishas and the Nkisis and in the power of ebbó as prophylactic for many conditions. However, I do not believe that there is an ebbó powerful enough to shield us from stupidity and lack of common sense. There is a reason why Osogbo is the elder of Iré, and that is simple: Osogbo is diligent and prolific. COVID-19 is the behemoth osogbo.

The Power of One

It only takes one case of a communal Olosha or Palo event where social distancing and wearing face masks are not observed, to have people fall sick. What follows? Contact tracing until some enterprising reporter puts two and two together and figures out that a group of Santeria or Palo practitioners carried on rituals that risked people and made them sick with COVID-19. Picture for a moment the headlines:

“Santeria drumming becomes the focus of infection in Houston; 25 participants in ICU”

“Animal Sacrifice Ritual in Miami leads to 7 children and 39 adults COVID-19 Positive”

“L.A. shocked by COVID-19 infections after Palo ritual where Human skulls are found”

No, these headlines are not extreme. Do you think for a moment that media will take the side of the oloshas and defend our right to practice? No. They will titillate, color, and brand our practices as savagery, careless, blood thirty, and barbaric.

We all know that Santeros are immediately identified with animal sacrifice. After all, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. the City of Hialeah took our community all the way to the Supreme Court to defend our rights. The Supreme Court affirmed the principle that laws targeting specific religions violate the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

We also know that Nfumbis are part of Palo practices. Need I say more? Picture a Munansó being raided. How to walk out of that one? It is the stuff that eager reporters dream about to carve their way to fame.

The reality is that in the times of COVID-19, media is going to go for the throat. If the practices of one group are questions and their image is tarnished, we all suffer. The perception of our practices will be subject to public scrutiny by masses that are not necessarily sympathetic to our religions, particularly as they are afro descendent.

What is our reality as a religious group?

Please bear in mind that perception is reality, particularly in times of massive and instant communications.

With great humility, I ask, urge, and implore my fellow oloshas to be judicious. Allow your acts to be guided by logic, care, and out of concern for your brothers and sisters. Follow the advice of health officials. Adhere to local government rules that seek to protect health and wellbeing such as the use of facial coverings. If your local government does not support the use of facial coverings or social distancing, you can implement those in your congregation as the responsible religious people you should be. Forget about party lines. Let me say it again, this virus is the behemoth osogbo of our times and does not care about politics or religious freedom. It cares to stay alive and replicate at a great cost to us all.

Be merciful and err on the side of caution. Do you need to hold a bembé now? Can an initiation ceremony be set for a later time? I assure you if the ritual is for the dead and with the dead, they will certainly understand if you move it. They are in no hurry; they are after all free from their mortal coil.

Do you really want to be responsible for the lives of elders who may be fragile? They may not necessarily be at the event, but people who were at the event may bring the virus home to them.

Think carefully of inviting osogbo to your life, of opening the doors of your ilés and your munansós to COVID-19. Think of the privilege you are afforded to have freedom of religion even in the face of great social intolerance against afro descendants, and by extend to their religions. Consider carefully that with freedom comes responsibly. We owe to those who came before us and fought for freedom to defend our communities, to be judicious and responsible, and to close our doors to COVID-19.


Oní Yemayá Achagba

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