An Oral History of the West African Village That Has Been in South Carolina for Four Decades
Oyotunji is an unlikely outpost of the Yoruba religion, a place where people can live lives devoted to worshipping their ancestors and honoring their culture.
The king on his throne. All photos of an ancestor worship ceremony at Oyotunji by the author
At the tail end of the 1960s, elements within the Civil Rights Movement were having a debate about how the African-American community at large should confront the hostile and ignorant society in which it resided. Some advocated peaceful assimilation; others raised the idea of a violent, apocalyptic insurrection. And a few suggested moving to rural South Carolina, establishing a polygamous religious commune, and creating an outpost of West African culture through regular acts of ancestor worship, animal sacrifice, and other rituals.
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This outpost is the Oyotunji African Village, founded by a man known as His Royal Highness Oba Oseijeman Adefunmi I, who in the late 60s was inspired to leave New York, purchase land in the Deep South, and establish a community born from the idea that black empowerment needed to focus on culture, not just economic independence.
More than four decades later, Oyotunji persists, providing a pleasant setting for converts to the Yoruba religion to live out their spiritual lives. According to a 1995 Essence article, the village had about 120 inhabitants during its mid-70s peak. Today there are around 25, and leadership has passed on to one of its founder's 22 children, Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II.
Tourists are welcome to stop by the village, which sits about 50 miles outside of Charleston, near Sheldon, South Carolina. Its atmosphere of inclusiveness and cultural education stands in stark contrast to the recent church shooting and the intense fallout that resulted nearby. By all accounts, Oyotunji is not just a place to live, but a way of life: Its inhabitants construct temples to the pantheon of spirits called Orishas and pray to them every day. Curious about the life and perspectives of these traditionalist back-to-the-landers, I traveled to Sheldon, South Carolina, to learn a bit about Yoruba culture and gain some insight into Southern life in 2015. This is what they said:
COMING TO OYOTUNJI
Olayatan: I came for a two-week visit on August 6, 1978. So I guess that's coming up on 37 years.
Olapeju, wife of the king: It's been about a year [since I moved here]. My aunt was married to the first kabiyesi ("king"—literally, "the one who no one opposes"), so my family's been familiar with the culture for a while. I started coming down with her a couple years back, and I fell in love with the culture, my daughter fell in love with the culture. So we decided last year to go ahead and make the plunge. I don't know if I'll be here forever, but I definitely am enjoying the time that I'm here right now.
Akintobe: I heard about it in Germany. I saw a little article in the military newspaper about a voodoo village in Beaufort [County], South Carolina, and it showed the king sitting on a throne that perhaps he made himself. I cut that picture out and placed it above my bed, and that's where it stayed until I left, 30 months later. I don't know why I did it. I was compelled by a spiritual force that I couldn't resist. And I came here in December of '74.
Ofalaya: I met the Oba in 2003 in Key West, Florida, when he was a prince. He came to Key West to declare one of the beaches there an African burial ground. And I met him there. And I did some volunteering at the African museum in Key West that he helped start. My sister's a Shango priest, so I wasn't unfamiliar with the culture.
Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II : I was born in Oyotunji in 1976, right here on the property during a storm. And the house blew over. I remember my dad telling me the story. And he came over there to rush and see if my mother was OK, and he said she came crawling out holding me from under some boards.
Olapeju: It's not so much a religion as it is a culture or a lifestyle. We're here to honor our ancestors. That means I honor yours. That means you honor mine. It's a different dynamic than just going to church on Sunday and praying.
Akintobe: This is not part-time. Full-time. Twenty-five hours, daily. Sleeping, wake up, it's part of you. Go to bed saying certain things, wake up saying certain things. God, God. To the Orishas, to the ancestors, daily. All day long. Praising. Giving thanks.
Ofalaya: After you go through your initiation, you spend three weeks with your Iyalosa. She would be your godparent who helps you go through the transition of becoming initiated, becoming a priest or a priestess. You have your physical parent or your biological parent, and then you have your spiritual parents. One of the Orisha will be your father and one of them will be your mother.
I have done things that I never thought I would ever do. Like chopping wood, and not using a cell phone.
You get up at 5 AM and spend your time with yourself, really. Because after that, until the time you go to bed, your time belongs to everyone, and whatever needs to be done in the nation. The farming is a big thing that we work together on. Someone weeds, someone waters, someone plants.
Olapeju: I have a job outside, so I also have to take into account my work schedule. But I assist with the raking.
Olayatan: Tours come. They invite us out for lectures and presentations. We do cultural events. We have priests who do consultations for people. They read them and give them counseling.
Akintobe: I'm a priest. I've been initiated into the secret mysteries of Obatala, who is my father. That was 1978. And then I went to the high priest of Ifa in West Africa in 1992. And I went back again in 2000 to finish it up. So I'm Babaaláwo, "father of secrets."
Olayatan: Technology came in. We got electricity. We got running water. But somewhere between Nixon and Reagan, somewhere in there was a kind of turnaround. The economy started getting tougher. Folks were struggling for money. Then the oracle says, OK, things are going to get really tough. And we didn't know what it meant at that time, but [he was predicting] the onslaught of drugs and crime in the city.
So he says, "OK, the priests have to go out and form other communities like this." So [since the 80s,] they have [established] shrines and temples in various parts of the country and priests that administer to the community. To try and let them know you can reconnect with your ancestors and your ancestors' culture.
THE NEW KING
Oba: [In 2005], I was traveling across Seven Mile Bridge [in Florida] one day and I got a call from one of the elders. He said, "I've got to tell you something. Where are you?" I said, "I'm over the water, the best time. Going over a long bridge." He said, "Oh, perfect." And then he told me: "Your father passed away this morning."
I couldn't even hear what he was saying before my mind was racing. And I came back to Oyotunji, and I went through three months of traditional preparation for coronation. It was the second time that we had done it on North American soil. For three months, we had to wear black and be secluded in the room. And we had to serve all of the chiefs.
They would ask the spirits, How are we doing? Each day, they would check in with the divinities, with the oracle, to find out exactly what's needed. How's my spirit? How's my character? And so I had to feed them and cook for them every time. Basically, they had to demean my character all the way down from whatever I had picked up in my life.
I remember the day after coronation, people were saying, "That didn't even look like you out there!" It had really changed me.
And so I remember what I always said to myself was, I want to be able to build Oyotunji. I want to be able to build it standard, nice.
So we've remodeled this temple here. We did the Oshun temple down the road. We built the bathroom, the shower house, the media center. All of these buildings here, we remodeled them. Redid the palace. We redo the road twice a year. We've been able to just continue to just build and build and build. The only thing we didn't redo is my house.
RACE IN THE SOUTH
Akintobe: That young man [Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter] just turned 21. To have such hate. And why? Not once did he say that he was discriminated against. Nothing of that sort. [It was] something that he just felt. That he could do it, get away with it.
Can the stroke of a pen change the heart of our enemy? That's the question I always ask. Passing a law? Taking down the Confederate flag? How do you change the heart of our enemy?
Oba: America never went into repair mode. It's always been, put a new tablecloth on the dirty table because we've got guests. And over time, you're going to smell it coming through the cloth.
After the Civil War was won, the Klan would still carry the Confederate flag. So our ancestors got used to seeing the Confederate flag not as a symbol of culture and heritage. Fuck no. They rode in and burned your house down. That was your visual. If they came in and grew gardens to help poor black people, it'd be a different thing. But they didn't. It was always segregation.
If you steal a person's culture, then you stole the most precious thing that they have. –Olayatan
WHY CULTURE MATTERS
Olayatan: It's important for us as Africans in America to know who we are, so we can know what we have brought to the world, and what we can bring to the world in the future.
If you steal a person's culture, then you stole the most precious thing that they have. Because that culture talks about history, contribution, and all of those things that we as a species stick our chests out about. What my people have done. What my ancestors have done. And basically, Africans in America have been told, You ain't done nothing. You ain't nothing, you ain't done nothing, you're not gonna do nothing. Because you never did anything. And so many of our people have bought into that. And that's a tragedy and it's a sickness.
Oba: Europeans have to know this culture, especially in America. You're talking about healing. Taking the flag down and all these superficial things are not healing. Understanding each other's culture is healing.
Akintobe: Oyotunji is the solution. Something was missing, but I found it here. When you know thyself, nobody can say anything to you. Once you know thyself, if you know your historical past, your ancestral past, what your people were, what they did before captivity... You walk with your shoulders and your head high. You've got nothing to be ashamed about and everything to be proud of. Everything.
Christopher Kilbourn is a freelancer in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter.