• Says there’s nothing about science Ifa does not have
Joyce Adewumi is a fully initiated ifa priestess and diviner based in Harlem, New York, United States of America where she is at the forefront of promoting African traditional religion. In this interview with GBENGA ADERANTI, the iyanifa (female ifa diviner), who is the founder and president of New York African Chorus Ensemble, the organisers of the annual NYC Multicultural Festival, which was founded in partnership with the New York Police Department to help reduce hate crimes and foster a better relationship between the New York Police Department (NYPD) and civilians, speaks on her journey to initiation, why she is promoting African religion and life as an ifa priestess.
I understand that your interest is in Ifa…
(Cuts in) Absolutely! It is what you have that you cherish. When you study abroad, you get to ask the question, who am I? Because you are there with so many people from different parts of the world, you have to find yourself, otherwise you become nobody. Like they say, be yourself, other people have been taken.
I met the Asiwaju Awo Agbaye (the globally acclaimed priest), Chief Ifagbenusola Atanda, and I realised that this is who I am. Ifa, from the beginning of the world, is God’s word. It is the language of God and the reasoning of God from the beginning, and I said what I’m I doing with a religion that is about 2,000 years old and has no relevance with my culture?
So I said okay, let me learn more about this one that talks more about who I am, where I come from, about my God, and gives me information about everything I can relate to. The way of praying is so efficacious. So I started doing divinations, finding out who I really am. And it synced with knowledge about myself as a little girl up to the age I was.
When I was a Christian, I was looking for so much information and answers to things about myself. I was such a devout Christian. I wanted to know. But ifa gave me that joy I was looking for and it made sense to me. Since that time, I have been practising ifa. I am an iyanifa and I have also been initiated into Osun worship. My Osun name is Osuntawede while my ifa name is Ifatoyin.
So I am there and I am not going anywhere, I have found what I have been looking for and ifa has been working so much miracle.
I’m just wondering what a woman would be doing with ifa because I have not seen a female diviner before…
Well, that is because you don’t know much about ifa. There is babalawo and there is iyanifa. Babalawo (herbalist) is the male and iyanifa is the female. Usually, you might see most babalawo divining An iyanifa can also have opele and divine with it if she chooses because Orunmila is the deity behind the opele. Ifa is a man, so she might still need to work with a man.
But there is another system of divination involving the use of cowry shell. It is my mother Osun’s own way of divining as well. There are female diviners.
I believe that to be versed in ifa, you must have a good grasp of the Yoruba language. How versed are you in the language?
Even a little child that starts learning ifa, his Yoruba language vocabulary may be limited but as he is learning the verses of ifa, his language and vocabularies will improve. So you are learning the language, you are learning the chants; you are learning the meaning of the chants. The vocabulary must improve. So it is for me and so it is for foreigners that come into the tradition.
You said earlier that you were a devout Christian…
Yes. It is like when you say you are an SU, you do everything they tell you to do. You don’t wear makeup, you pray 17 times a day because you are looking for the face of God. You may not see it, but you keep going because they tell you to keep going.
In view of your religious background, how did your family members react when you chose the path of ifa?
My parents are also Christians, but they are traditionalists. It means that although they are Christians, they know that this is part of our culture. Because I’m in art, I have always been in culture. It was like a logical development and transition, because as a musician, we study Nigerian cultures.
I have come in contact with orisa music and dances. I like traditional Nigerian things more than I do European things. My family was not averse to my new faith. They were just watching me. But they are very proud because they can see the transformation in my life. In their own way, they are doing their own thing.
Outside your family, how did your friends take it?
I thank God that ifa teaches about good character. If you exhibit good character in public, people know you by it. They know that you can be trusted. They know that what you say is what you are going to do. They don’t see you in the company of rough people; they see you progressing. They will come to you and say what do you do that things are going well for you? Why are you always wearing white?
There could be a period that I always wear white. Whatever they see, they will come and ask me. Some of them tell me there is such a good thing about you. Why is that so? I tell them it is my mother Osun that is making me to glow from within.
What were the initial challenges you faced in this new faith?
There were no challenges. When you decide that you want to do something, you make up your mind and you embrace it. I could listen to Baba teaching. It is good. There is nothing evil; it is about how to improve yourself, how you worship God. It is about understanding the world, understanding that there are orisas (divinities), understanding the entities God created, understanding how the world is supposed to be and then you look at how it is.
We have moved away from how God wants us to live our life, but it gives me gratitude because I have found a path in a way God wants me to behave.
It is interesting that it is the foreigners and those of you of African descent overseas that are promoting traditional religion while those in Africa are running away from it. How does that make you feel?
Africans are running away from the traditional religion because they were bamboozled by foreigners. They needed to dominate us. They saw everything about Africa – our weather, our people, our land, the talent of our people and strength of our people and they researched us. They are very good at studying human minds. They enslaved us and took us to another land. They found that they could buy some of us. Human nature always feels like the grass is green on the other side. What you don’t have, you would want.
When they found that some of us could not be subjugated, they started researching on why Africans are so difficult to be subjugated, and they realised that it was our religion, our belief in God. They then set out to destroy our minds, make us feel we are inferior to them. Everything we have is inferior to theirs – our religion, our way of life, our language, everything they set out to do.
That was why they came. They called Esu Satan, but Esu is not Satan. They described the orisas as gods and goddesses. Why? So that they can use the Bible to justify that you shall have no other before me; to justify that we are worshipping many gods whereas we are worshipping one God, which is Eledumare. We have orisas who are messengers. They twist our minds so that we can value what they have.
Unfortunately, we too don’t value what is ours.
Everybody wants to travel abroad; nobody wants to stay in Nigeria. Nobody wants to practice traditional religion because they have been told Islam and Christianity are better. They have used a lot of tools, a lot of imagery. We have a black person on the floor and a white angel stepping on it. In other words, white is superior to black people.
But look at today, Nigerians who are abroad are doing better than white people. We have more educated Nigerians than Americans. We have more Nigerian doctors than any other race in America. God has given us so much but they have brainwashed us to not appreciate what we have.
Passing the bulk will not even help matters in Africa. How do you think the trend can be reversed?
In order for you to know where you are going, you have to know where you are coming from. So I talked about white people being masters of mind control, understanding human behaviour and understanding how to utilise it to their own end. They understood the fact that some people feel the grass is green on the other side; that what they don’t have, they want to have, and there is greed about human nature.
I understand all that, and I understand that our people were coerced into being their agent. Fast forward, what did we do about that? Personally, I can tell you what I have been doing. Part of what I have been doing is to produce a documentary. I’m trying to give my people back what they have lost. Part of what I have been doing is to make our people appreciate what we have.
I live abroad, but I wear traditional attire. They know me for that. If I’m not wearing it, they will ask me what is going on? Why are you not dressed today? And because I wear that, it encourages my friends in New York to start wearing African attire.
Empirically, Africans in Africa have distanced themselves from African religion. Do you see the religion being in existence in the next 30 years?
You still have to know that even if they go to church, they still visit the babalawo (herbalist) Our people that go to the mosque, they still go to the babalawo. I don’t see ifa disappearing. Do you know why? God cannot disappear.
that the religion is not regulated like Christianity and Islam. The two other faiths are well packaged to make it universally appealing to a lot of people…
Because it is business.
Let’s leave the commercial aspect of it…
But that is what it is: it is commercial. It is not a matter of making a show to appeal to somebody. Christianity and Islam came many years after. They are man-made. It is like saying God needs to show himself before people can believe. Traditional religion is not a commercial thing; it is a way of life. If you learn ifa, you learn it for yourself.
Most of the time, people would look at you and say, ‘I like the way you behave, you are so different from other people, what is it about you?’ You can go into conversation. If they are interested, they come in. But for us to carry a bell and be saying come to ifa, ifa will rescue you, we don’t do that. It is not our practice.
How has ifa shaped your life?
Oh my God! I am who I am today because of ifa. Because of ifa, I have been able to follow God’s laws; what to do and what not to do. Situations come and you refer back to your training. You examine it from the lesson you had from ifa and you examine it from the lenses of ifa and you are going to know which decision to take. What is it that you want in life? Do you want to have long life? Do you want to be successful? Do you want to be healthy? Do you want to have a beautiful home? All those good things in life are rewards for our character. Promotion comes from God. If you do good, you get good. If you do bad, it is going to come back to you. Ifa has helped me a great deal to refine my character, and for that, I praise him for the blessings I have got and the blessings that are yet to come. So, ifa is everything.
What is the relationship between ifa and science? Can we use this to develop Africa?
Science is an offshoot of ifa. There is nothing in science that is not in ifa because ifa is the wisdom of God. It is the wisdom of everything. Science is in ifa too. The binary code in which computer is made is in ifa. The babalawo can stand and tell you about science and you ask, where did you learn this from?
I was speaking with a babalawo sometime ago, not a babalawo that has gone to the university. He said sleeping on your left side will make you have easy digest. I know this from science and I asked him, where did you learn this? He said it was from his experience from ifa. I said this is from science. He laughed and said science comes from ifa. So don’t look down at the babalawo because he did not go to the university. The amount of knowledge he carries is even more than what a PHD holder has.
Your multicultural festival in New York, what is it all about?
I won’t give out my secret. The main thing is for people to learn about other cultures and to know that other cultures exist. For some people, where they grow up, where they die, they don’t see outside, they don’t see other things are different. For me as an individual, summer time is my best time, because I will go to other places to see other people and how they live. I know New York is filled with diverse people from all over the world. I will learn about other people, I will see other people, then I will invite them to the festival to come and display their cultures.