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Don't Call It Voodoo

The 5th World Congress of Orisa tradition and culture is here, magic and all

By Jesse Douglas Allen-Taylor

A FEW YEARS AGO, a major American presidential candidate went on national television and ridiculed one of the world's oldest existing religions. Not only did George Bush receive no public condemnation for the slur, his phrase "voodoo economics" has gone on to be widely used in American politics as a code word for crackpot theories. In the minds of most Americans, in fact, the term "voodoo" is on a par with such terms as "witchcraft" and "primitive," and therefore not worthy of the respect and protection given to other religions.

One can only imagine the outcry if Bush had, instead, called Reagonomics "Southern Baptist economics" or "Jewish economics."

This week, hundreds of international representatives to the 5th World Congress of Orisa Tradition and Culture being held at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium gave a far different picture of a religion that predates Christianity by many thousands of years and is currently being practiced in one form or another by millions of people throughout Africa, North America, South and Central America and the Caribbean.

In a huge main hall, surrounded by carved, solemn-faced African masks and statues, delegates in brightly colored dress listened to scholarly presentations, broke out in often-spontaneous chants and song, and participated in a long and serious discussion on to how to "elevate Orisa to its rightful place in the world." In the auditorium's vast hallways or on the sidewalk outside, the sound of occasional drumming or the rhythmic rattle of a shakaree gourd gave the meeting the feel of an African marketplace.

Orisa is described as a religious system with a belief in a Supreme Being combined with the acknowledgment of some 400 minor deities with distinct personalities and capable of intervention in different aspects of life.

"Orisa's origin is in the Yoruba culture of West Africa," explained Nontsizi Adunni Cayou, a professor in the College of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University and host chair for the congress. "Primarily through the slave trade, it was spread throughout many parts of the western world, where it was adapted into different forms under different names." It's called Santería in the Spanish-speaking West (particularly Cuba), Canbomble in Brazil, Voudun in Haiti. "We prefer the term 'vodoun' to 'voodoo,' " Cayou said. "The term 'voodoo' has been taken over by Hollywood."

Like many of the older Orisa practitioners present at the congress, Cayou combines an intelligent, dedicated seriousness with an infectious sense of humor, breaking out into almost girlish giggles from time to time as something funny strikes her.

Cayou said the San Francisco congress is the first to be held outside of Nigeria (where the religion's roots lie) and Brazil (where there is an estimated following in excess of 10 million). The purpose of the congress, according to the professor, is to "work toward the elevation of the status of the religious tradition wherever it is practiced." The congress maintains a permanent elected secretariat in Ile Ife, Nigeria, which it considers the cradle of civilization.

Typical of new adherents to Orisa is Nyeema Brown, a Michigan native who has lived in the South Bay and currently lives in Richmond. Of African American and Native American heritage, Brown was providing free massages for congress participants. She has been an Orisa practitioner for six years.

"I was raised a Catholic," she said, "but it just wasn't meeting my needs." She said that she'd always had a strong belief that ancestral spirits had a presence and influence on earth, especially after the death of her father, when she was 15.

Brown said a book by practitioner Luisa Teish introduced her to Orisa, and she became a follower after she was given a spiritual reading by a local Orisa elder. She points out that many Orisa practices are similar to Native American religion, particularly in the veneration of ancestors, the respect for the wisdom of elders, and the belief in religion as a system that encompasses and rules every aspect of life.

One widely held impression of voodoo may be true: It contains large elements of what Westerners called "magic," or supernatural events and activities. "Stick around, especially when you see the babalaos, the venerated elders from Nigeria," Cayou said with a smile. "You may see some magical things happen. You may see some things happen you never thought could occur."

The 5th World Congress of Orisa continues at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium through Sunday, Aug. 10.

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From the August 7-13, 1997 issue of Metro.

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