The temperature had risen to an unconscionable 97 degrees, enough to make you vacate the streets of midtown Manhattan. But doing so was never really an option. You see, an important message had to be delivered."It was absolutely necessary," according to Ifa priest, Mahaba Olufemi.In a swanky eatery, Mahaba and wife Jacqueline Ahyee, both draped in eye-popping Africa raiment sat, ate, and opined on what they viewed as "detrimental practices" within the Orisha and Shango Baptist faiths.Mahaba, who claimed Shango Baptist roots from his mother's lineage, mourned when he was a teenager. His spiritual travels are extensive and impressive. This, he shares with his wife, also an Ifa priest.For a moment he explained the fundamentals of the faith-the mercy seat, fasting,mourning, and annual feasts.He identified some Spiritual Baptists as inimical to the Orisha practice, of having internalised the misguided European beliefs of the African religion-as nefarious and uncivilised.
"Then there are others who are friendly, will attend Thanksgiving and pilgrimages, but never get initiated as Orisha devotees," he said.The Shango Baptists he called "the third group that wears two hats-who mix Baptist and Orisha practices." But he identified another faction, which he pejoratively called, "the Elite priesthood" in the Yoruba tradition."This is where the trouble begins," he said.He railed against the growing efforts of this emerging group to "Yorubise everything by breaking with Caribbean traditions, and in effect, "trivialise the work that so many in the Shango faith have built and preserved for centuries."These new comers are isolationists," he said, accusing them of being driven by class, and intellectual arrogance.He warned against such practices that are destructive to the unity of all Yoruba peoples, although he conceded that removing the Christian element in the Orisha worship will eventually occur."Yes, we should, overtime eliminate infant baptism and replace it with Esentaye, and change the burial and marriage rites, but in time. Yes, I recognise the syncretisation came out of oppression and today there is no need for it, but change cannot come overnight," he argued.And invoking history, he advised that the faithful seek a common ground.
"The Shouter Baptist Prohibition Ordinance was an attack against all of us," he said."Yet," he said, "people are engaging in highly suspicious practices, even the one who claim to be on the strictly Yoruba path."Mahaba questioned the proliferation of titles in the Orisha faith and challenged the authenticity and depth of learning by "so called Yoruba priests.""To become a priest, you have to immerse yourself in the language, go to Nigeria and study, not for two weeks or a month but for a few years. That's the foundation of any meaningful qualification," he said.He went on to characterise Ifa or the Yoruba System of Divination and Knowledge as complex, and for the most part, orally transmitted, although he mentioned some authoritative books by Wande Abimbola, spokesperson for the Orisha Tradition worldwide, "as helpful.""But, how else can you really access the knowledge, unless you live with the people?" he asked rhetorically. Mahaba and his wife, who travelled to Nigeria after resigning from their jobs and selling their possessions, are livid over the counterproductive, even implosive trends within the Orisha and Shango Baptist movements."People are buying titles," Mahaba said.
"The term 'chief' was used loosely by Europeans to identify one in a high position which could be secular. Yet, we see all these chieftain titles given to people with no experience in anything. What we are seeing today is showcase spirituality."He cautioned the Orisha faithful that they risked experiencing a problem besetting the Spiritual Baptist faith in New York, which sometiHe attributed this problem to arrogance and ego, and the informal structure of the church, with no meaningful overseeing associations."Every Baptist leader is a law unto himself, so there is no accountability and transparency that you find in other religions.And in closing, he issued a call to the faithful to refrain from a "destructive practice" within both movements."To deceive innocent people and somehow tell them that the Shango Baptist and Orisha faiths are connected to the Kabbalah, is wrong."This demonic practice did not originate from the Egyptian mysteries either, and only stains the image of both traditions."He challenged the followers of the two faiths to resist corruption and duplicity, urging them to embark on a journey of self discovery, empowerment and communal development. "No one will do it for us, and if we fail, we only have ourselves to blame."
• Dr Glenville Ashby is a foreign correspondent for the Guardian Media Group