CHIANG MAI, Thailand — From the early 1600s to the mid-1800s, living African slaves would sometimes be thrown overboard from slave ships sailing the Middle Passage, as the transatlantic voyage of the slave trade was called. If the slave ships faced water shortages or any kidnapped Africans came down with a disease, slaves could be tossed overboard, sometimes chained together en masse. “So many bodies of dead or dying Africans were jettisoned into the ocean that sharks regularly followed the slave ships on their westward journey,” according to that encyclopedia entry. In the new film The Water Will Carry Us Home by multidisciplinary artist Gabrielle Tesfaye, those ships are followed by a very different entity: Yemaya, the Yoruba orisha of the sea and the mother of all life. “There are many stories within African spirituality of water spirits following the slave ships, Mami Wata, the presence of Yemaya,” Tesfaye said in an email interview from her home in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Tony Kail is an ethnographer and writer. He holds a degree in cultural anthropology and has researched magico-religious cultures for more than twenty-five years. His work has taken him from Voodoo ceremonies in New Orleans to Haitian Botanicas in Harlem and Spiritual Churches in East Africa. He has lectured at more than one hundred universities, hospitals and public safety agencies. Kail has been featured on CNN Online, the History Channel and numerous radio, television and print outlets.
This year the Pan-African Festival celebrated it’s 7th year of festivities September 3 in Oakland, California at historic Mosswood Park. The event was filled with people of all types enjoying the fresh air, shopping, and eating food from the many vendors. This was my first year at the Pan-African festival, and I decided to go since I am always looking for ways to immerse my children in celebration of their African heritage. With camp chairs and drinks in hand, we met our other family members under the shaded trees where we set up camp. According to the website, the Pan-African Festival is described as a day full of activities and family fun:
“Oakland’s 7th annual Pan-African Festival is a free family event carefully curated to cultivate pride, joy, self-determination and sovereignty for diasporic Africans.
Odùduwà is the power of the womb, the well of existence in the Yoruba religion. He is the progenitor of the Yoruba people, brother of Orisha Obatalá (the justice bringer) and, in some stories, the first ancestor. When the world was covered in water, it was Odùduwà who first descended from heaven and laid the spell that pulled up the land up from the sea, finishing the work of his brother, Obatalá, who had become inebriated partly through the work of Orisha Eshu. The first bit of land that rose from the waters would become the city of Ile-Ife, Nigeria, the spiritual center of the Yoruba religion and the gateway to heaven. When human forms were later molded by Obatalá, Odùduwà became their first emperor, the Oba, of Ile-Ife.
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.