They gathered in a clearing by a stream in Baltimore County one chilly early-spring day, some in the colorful African head ties known as geles, others wearing bracelets trimmed in shells or carved in wood.
One by one, they stepped forward to toss offerings into the Gwynns Falls – a pineapple, four oranges, a bouquet of tulips.
And when the lead priestess of these African-American women dropped a handful of shells to the ground and scrutinized their pattern, a message came through: Their celebration of the spring equinox was blessed by the divine.
“[The river goddess] Osun has accepted our gifts,” said the priestess, a Mount Washington resident and longtime practitioner of Ifa, an ancient West African faith. She prefers to be called Olori, the name she is known by within the faith. She and other members of the group regard it as disrespectful to discuss their faith using what they call their “government” names.
Ifa is one of an interrelated network of religions with African roots, including Vodou, Santeria and Sango Baptism, that appear to be gaining popularity in the United States, including in Maryland, as some African-Americans seek a spiritual experience firmly grounded in their own cultural heritage.
Olori, a Coppin State graduate and entrepreneur, earned her initiation as a priestess while visiting the Benin Republic two decades ago. She has since earned the status of Iyanifa, or mother of wisdom, the equivalent of a high priestess within the faith.
A single mother, she is an elder of Dawtas of the Moon, a group of more than a dozen women who practice Ifa and related African faiths. They gathered along the Gwynns Falls in Villa Nova Park in Pikesville this month in observance of the equinox, a day they say represents a rebirth of nature’s vitality.
Scholars say it’s hard to know exactly how many Americans practice Ifa or the many other African faiths that boast overlapping rituals and traditions. Many keep their involvement private, and numbers are hard to track given that membership in the faiths can be defined in a variety of ways. But anecdotal evidence suggests interest in West African religions is on the rise.
“These traditions are indeed growing in the U.S.,” says Albert Wuaku, a professor at Florida International University who specializes in African and Caribbean religions. “They have a strong appeal to groups of African-Americans who have been struggling with questions of identity, who don’t feel they fit so well within the American system. They’re especially appealing to women, who tend to hold more powerful positions within the African traditions than in Western cultures.”
Organized in Baltimore five years ago, the Dawtas have held a national gathering for African-American women interested in such religions every October since 2016. The first drew 150 people, some from as far away as Canada and California; last year’s attracted 300, and organizers are preparing for more this fall.
Olori adds that hundreds of men and women attend some of the more popular Ifa events in the Baltimore-Washington area. Wuaku says “strong bases” of West African religions have emerged in California, Florida, Michigan and other places around the country.
“The African religious traditions provide a symbol around which its followers can integrate,” he said. “That’s one reason they’re such a powerful draw.”
Ifa is a faith and divination system with its roots in Olori’s family’s ancestral homeland, Yorubaland. The region now encompasses the nations of Benin, Togo and Ghana and parts of Nigeria.
Like some other religions, Ifa includes magic, the use of traditional medicines and veneration of the dead.
Like Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Ifa is monotheistic, but its supreme creative figure, Olodumare, shares power with dozens of subsidiary deities. Each represents particular elements of life or nature – fire, rebirth, agriculture, the arts – and serves as an intercessor between humans and the creator.
It is through ritualistic practice that believers can access the deities’ wisdom and counsel.
Incantations, prayers, and divination (such as Olori’s reading of four mollusk shells) are believed to summon these deities – or the petitioners’ ancestors – who may speak to them in dreams, audible sounds, or even in conversation during what appear to be in-person visits.
The Dawtas say embracing such mystical realities can feel strange at first, but becomes a life-affirming norm.
Iyawo Orisa Omitola, a doula and midwife-in-training from Gaithersburg, founded Dawtas of the Moon after having a dream suggesting the idea. Recently pledged as an Orisha priestess dedicated to Yemoja, an deity associated with rebirth, water and the moon, the 46-year-old mother of four says she’s often visited by the deity as well as by her own forebears.
She is certain they’re real and have her best interests at heart, whether they’re consoling, directing or rebuking her.
“I consider myself a rational person, and there have been times on this path when I’ve thought, ‘Am I crazy? Did I hear that, feel that, see that?’” she says. “But talking to ancestors has a totally objective reality for me. When it happens enough, you don’t argue with what you see and hear.”
Their counsel, she says, has helped her learn everything from better prayer and meditation habits to improved personal accountability, all the while bolstering her health, helping her make career choices and rounding out her spiritual life.
“Ifa has taught me that God is not just something that lives in the sky; God is in all of us,” she says.
The faith, like others with African roots, has defied the odds by surviving at all, let alone making it to the United States. Historians say that when Western European nations such as Belgium and France began colonizing Africa, they viewed indigenous religions as pagan at best, demonic at worst, and responded by spreading a triumphalist form of Christianity that powerfully eroded traditional practices.
Africans who had venerated male and female deities who looked like them were now introduced to white, male religious figures, and they were told only one intercessor – Jesus – mattered.
That legacy, Olori says, is why many in the African diaspora still consider Christianity more an agent of oppression than of liberation.
Even when she visited West Africa in 1999 and 2000, she says, it was hard to find followers of indigenous religions outside the small Beninese village where she took part in the Ifa initiation rites that made her a priestess.
“In many places, you have to hunt far and wide for traditionalists,” she says. “You have people in Nigeria who tell you you’re going straight to hell.”
The uncounted numbers of Yorubans and other West Africans who were captured and sold during the transatlantic slave trade had to practice their faith in secret, often at night.
But the traditions survived in altered forms – as Santeria in Cuba, Vodou in Haiti, Sango Baptism in Trinidad — as followers adopted elements of the Catholic, Baptist and other faith traditions already established in those places.
Practitioners of these faiths began arriving in the New York area in the 1950s and spread in the eastern U.S., but Olori says it wasn’t until decades later that many African-Americans could afford to fly to West Africa and meet elders of the Ifa tradition face-to-face.
A U.S.-born African Vodou priest, Baba Oserjeman Adefunmi, established a traditional Yoruban village in Beaufort County, S.C., in the 1970s, creating the first significant beachhead for Ifa and other West African religious traditions in the U.S..
Olori was in her 20s when curiosity led her to the village, a place where priests carry out rites that predate Christianity by thousands of years.
During one stay, she and a friend visited a nearby plantation, and Olori says she was alarmed to realize she had a power many priestesses possess: She could “see dead people.”
Near the servants’ quarters behind the mansion, she says, she spotted “a man leaning against a tree, an elder, an old slave. I started talking to him as if I could see him clear as day.”
Olori’s friend, who had been working on a history of the place, later told her those and other details synced up with what she had learned in her research.
Raised in a devout Christian home in northwest Baltimore, Olori says the faith simply never “resonated” with her and failed to reward her curiosity.
“I’d ask my grandmother questions: Did Adam and Eve come before the dinosaurs? Where do women come into play? Why doesn’t anyone of the people in the Bible look like us? If Jesus is real, why do we never see him?
“Nobody had answers. I’m not knocking Christianity – it works for many people – but to me, it felt very empty. I thought, ‘There has to be more than this.’”
Iyawo Orisa Efunyale Ogunsina, a 32-year-old Navy veteran from Odenton, grew up attending a Baptist church three times a week. But she says Christianity offered no explanation for the odd sensations she often experienced – smelling cigarette smoke when no one was around, for example, or hearing music others couldn’t hear.
Recently initiated as an Orisha priestess — one who has been called to serve in the faith but remains at an earlier stage of development — she now believes they were ancestors trying to connect with her. She says a deceased uncle on her mother’s side — known to have been a chain smoker — frequently visits her in dreams.
“He has a reassuring presence,” she says.
Olori says Ifa helped her make sense of the world, made the spiritual real, and “brought me back to myself” as a spiritual being, an African-American and a woman.
As a priestess, she established a small house of worship in her home about seven years ago. The group now numbers about 15 regulars, who range in age from their 20s to their 70s. “I’m doing what I was brought into this world to be,” she says.
For the equinox celebration, that meant helping oversee things streamside.
Olori said a prayer in Yoruba, then in English, and asked whether the deity was pleased with the offerings they’d made.
On the first three tosses of shells, she said the answer came back “no.” She made adjustments, moving people and objects around.
Finally, the women dumped honey in the Gwynns Falls for sweetness, a sensation the deities are said to enjoy.
The reply came back affirmative.