Omitonade Ifawemimo was introduced to Orisha spiritual traditions by her parents, both long-time devotees, at the age of five. Now a young adult, the Yemoja priestess has begun spreading word of her religion, first to her contemporaries in Ibadan, north of Lagos, then to those further away and in the diaspora through social media.
Worship of the Orisha divinities and Ifá divination are elements of the traditional religion of the Yoruba ethnic group spread across Nigeria, Benin and Togo. They are also widely practised in Cuba, Haiti and Brazil – countries with large populations of African descent.
With colonial administrators came a decline in the religion in Africa and a rise in Christianity and Islam. Ifawemimo’s predecessors practised in secret or in small, rural towns.
A return to the roots
The priestess is now doing her best to mentor young folk like her. She regularly discusses the plurality of the African religious space and the need to spread word of the faith. “Ifá/Orisha is not a religion but a spirituality. The Yoruba traditional religion preaches peace and harmony in all forms. Before the introduction of other religions, Yorubas lived comfortably with each other,” she says. “The world is now a global village, the good gospel of the faith must be propagated via publicity, public enlightenment.”
In Johannesburg, Ifawemimo’s peer Nokulinda ‘Gogo’ Mkhize is bringing the ancient practice of bone-throwing to a digital audience. Like Ifawemimo, Mkhize discovered her spiritual gift as a teenager and has nurtured it. The hip, 33-year-old sangoma (Zulu for ‘traditional healer’) is the second daughter of Zweli Mkhize, a senior African National Congress politician. Leopard pendant around her neck, she throws bones to divine the problems of her clients, face to face and via Skype. She also regularly teaches seminars about mental health and intergenerational trauma. Consequently, she has emerged as a celebrity offline and online in a little under a decade of professional practice. On social media, she has amassed 20,000 followers on Twitter and 10,000 more on Instagram who hang on to her every word. Mkhize’s Youtube channel is, in millennial parlance, popping.
Both women represent an increasing number of educated young people advocating a return to the roots. Ifawemimo is a graduate in economics, while Mkhize has a degree in geography and development studies. “People think that because I have a university education I cannot be a sangoma, but they are ignorant,” Mkhize says.
This article first appeared in the May 2018 print edition of The Africa Report magazine