For many people, Nigeria is a country only known through stories and news reports. Most recently, the country has taken center stage as Boko Haram, an Islamic militant group, continues its violent campaign in the North Eastern portion of the country. In 2014, Nigeria faced a health crisis during one of the worst Ebola outbreaks ever recorded. The country is also home to the famous Pentecostal preacher Lady Apostle Helen Ukpabio, and others like her, who regular speak out against Witchcraft.
But there is another side to the West African nation – a vibrant, indigenous spirituality and history that calls out to many Americans. Next month, Lou Florez, an American witch, rootworker, priest and Olorisha, is headed to Nigeria to experience that side firsthand.
As a student of IFA, the religion of the Yoruba culture, Florez told The Wild Hunt that he’s looking forward to “to encountering the Orisha in their homeland.” He said:
“Earth-centered traditions engage and conceptualize the divine in unique ways, for us divinity is not exterior to our environment but emerges from and is encountered as the physical landscape itself. In Orisha traditions there is divinity named Oshun who is known as the mother of the sweet waters, and specifically of the Oshun River in Osogbo, Nigeria. … To go to her river is to meet her face to face and be changed by the encounter. Imagine the ability to meet and engage several of these Orisha and teachings all in one journey.”
Florez was chosen to take this trip by the communities of practitioners involved. He described the experience as a “whirlwind.” Through friend and fellow student Shantell Herndon (Iyanifa OyaDara), Florez met a community of people with whom he now studies. Both the U.S.- based group and its sister group in Nigeria had been discussing sponsoring a pilgrimage for some of their American students. The planning itself took three years, and names were finally selected in the fall 2014.
Florez said, “During the last round of divinations my name came up and I was extended the invitation. I think that part of why this is so important for me at this time is that these types of opportunities aren’t give often or repeatedly.”
Like his friend and fellow traveler Herndon, Florez has launched a fundraising campaign to cover the costs of the trip. The majority of the money paid goes directly back to the Nigerian host community. He sees this as an integral part of the journey. He said, “It is about honoring, supporting, and giving back through my labor, service, and capital to communities who have continued this liberation work despite the oppressions and genocides that continue to happen. The money I am raising goes directly to these communities and makes a difference in their lives.” Most of the funds will be given to the host temple, which will then be distributed to the local people.
After leaving the U.S., Florez will arrive in Lagos where he will remain in the hotel for one night. The following morning he will be taken to the initiation site and, as he said, “be in Igbodu (initiation grove) for 10 to 14 days depending on divination.” He added, “The ritual part of this journey is to solidify the connection between the feminine divine and myself through specific ceremonies and initiations which are meant to seed this wisdom within me. I will also undergo the initiation rites of the high priesthood and study with priestesses in medicinal and magical herbalism.”Making such a journey to Nigeria is not entirely unusual. In Florez’ case, the emphais is on religious learning. However, religious instruction is not the only reason Americans, in particular, have made the pilgrimage to Nigeria. In an article for Grio.com, Nigerian journalist Chika Oduah describes a journey in which African-Americans find solace in reconnecting to their ancestral heritage. In such cases, she writes that the travelers “underwent a ritual cleansing from what they call the stigma of slavery.”
This process, which Oduah describes as spiritual as well as cultural, is something Florez, himself, also touched upon. He said, “I was called to these [religious] paths for my own spiritual healing and upliftment and to bring light to all the transgenerational trauma and oppression held within my body. The vestiges and scars of colonialism, racism, and oppression are not only experienced individually but transmitted in our DNA to the next generation. Part of indigenous practice has been to identify and release those narratives in order to move toward liberation.”
While Nigeria may hold the key to spiritual tradition and transformation, travelers must also remain mindful that it is still a modern land with modern problems and a modern culture – one that might not fully embrace their spiritual undertaking. For example, Christianity and Islam are the dominant religions in the region. While many Americans may be turning to the African Tradition Religions, Nigerians are holding tight to these monotheistic worldviews. Only a small percentage of the population practices IFA, or similar traditions. In many cases, those that do are considered “backward” by modern Nigerian standards.
Additionally, there is the very public and strong national anti-gay sentiment in the country. In 2013, President Goodluck Jonathan signed an anti-same-sex marriage bill into law. The bill was backed unanimously by the legislature and by popular sentiment. In a March 2014 article, Oduah explained that, on this subject, Nigerians are “united under a banner of patriotism and what many perceive as a fight against Western imperialism.”Florez isn’t worried, saying that he “implicitly trusts the teachers and communities that I will be staying with.” He added that he has “been very clear, transparent, genuine, and honest that I am a gay man.”
However, in preparation, he has been taking the necessary medical precautions. He said, “I’m in the process of getting all my immunizations in order such as Typhoid, Hep A & B, Yellow Fever, Rabies, to name a few. In terms of Ebola, Nigeria was deemed free of new cases … I will also be staying in pocketed communities and not in general public in terms of transmission. Other than these precautions and usual travel items such as a water purifier, I have no idea what I am walking into.”
Despite any obstacles, Florez is determined to make this trip, one that he knows will benefit his own spiritual journey as well as his community of practitioners and students. He said, “the biggest thing that I’m expecting is having to surrender control both physically and spiritual to the process and to these communities.”
Outside of the initiations and education, Florez hopes to have a bit of leisure time for “personal projects such as reading, writing, listening to music, or watching fuzzy Nigerian soap operas.” He plans to visit the local market, meet artisans and others in the community. He hopes to bring back some “Orisha statues, herbs and sacred tools.” He said, “My curiosity is peaked and I’m hoping to catch a glimpse of things that we don’t have access to here in the states.”
When he returns, he is planning to share what he has learned and his experiences through readings, workshops, conversations, teachings and lectures. He said, “This trip enables me to help open the door a little bit further for future generations to touch into the history, magic, and birth place of the Orishas.”