A Nigerian Easter in the Midwest
From the front door she calls, “He has risen!” Her children respond, “He has risen indeed. Let’s eat!”
I dodged church Easter Sunday this year. My mother Gbeme, however, worshipped at the Baptist church she’s been attending twice weekly for the past 20 years.
Raised Catholic in Nigeria, my mother’s Easter begins the seasonal swap from heavy wools to floral prints and pastels. She wears a beautifully vibrant gele — an intricately fashioned tie around the head worn by Yoruba women — and iro and buba — the matching outfit traditionally worn by Yoruba women — to church. She exchanges compliments with the other congregants about their upbeat clothes and steady health. For two hours the pews fill, the choir sings, and for the larger Easter crowd, the young new pastor delivers an especially rousing sermon. Soon thereafter, church dismisses. Time to eat.
For many Americans, Easter is synonymous with the egg. But in my bicultural household, creamy frejon is the signature Easter week delicacy. The bean soup is made of smoothly blended brown beans called ewa ibeji and steeped coconut, then sweetened with cane sugar to taste.
In the mid-1980s, my mother left metropolitan Lagos to attend college in rural Wisconsin — and made necessary modifications to the original frejon recipe. Back then international foods weren’t as integrated. In lieu of traditional Nigerian dishes, my mother observed her first few Easters amid sweet friends, sweet rolls, egg salad, and hearty Midwestern casseroles. After she graduated, she moved from Wisconsin to Minnesota, reuniting her with city dwelling, a dense Nigerian immigrant community, specialty grocers, and Easter frejon.
Cubans Honor Babalú-Ayé, The Father of the World
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Each year on December 16–17, thousands of Cubans of different religious persuasions make their way to Saint Lazarus’ shrine on the the outskirts of Havana to pray for health and blessings. Some go to honor the orisha Babalú-Ayé. His name translates as “Father of the World” and he’s syncretized with his Catholic alter ego, Saint Lazarus. In the Afro-Cuban orisha pantheon, Babalú-Ayé rules over infectious diseases including small pox and AIDS. Practitioners of Afro-Cuban Santeria (also known as La Regla Ocha and La Regla Lucumi) seek his help with healing and protection from illness.
Icons of Babalú-Ayé depict him as an old pauper wearing a burlap loin cloth. He walks on crutches, his body pocked with lesions. He travels with a pack of dogs who relieve his pain by licking his wounds. Purple is one of his signature colors. He likes to eat grains, including rice and popcorn.
The road to Saint Lazarus’ shrine is filled with pilgrims making the journey on hands and knees. One of Babalú-Ayé’s ritual tools is a broom, used for purification. In the annual procession, some use a broom to clear the path for other supplicants.
A pilgrim dressed as Babalú-Ayé supplicates himself. (photo: Priscilla Mora/Flickr, cc by-nc-2.0)
The documentary Flowers for San Lazaro (only 25 minutes) takes the viewer inside one Cuban’s family’s participation in the procession. Fast forward to 16:39 to see how this tradition comes alive for everyday Cubans — both devout and agnostic.
Guided by Orisas
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
While in New York over Thanksgiving, I saw Fela!, directed and choreographed by Bill T. Jones — a new musical on Broadway that celebrates the life and legacy of Fela Kuti, a Nigerian-born musician who pioneered a new form of music called Afrobeat in the 1970s. Fela frequently used his music to condemn the corrupt military regime that held power in his country.
One of the musical’s most stirring scenes happens in the second act in “Dance of the Orisas” when Fela seeks guidance from his deceased mother (a political firebrand in her own right) who was murdered by the government when she was thrown from window at Fela’s home. Fela prepares himself for this journey by dressing all in white, and he’s guided to his mother by two orisas, or spirits, in the Yoruba-based spiritual tradition.
(photo: Monique Carboni)
Today, I listened to our program “Living Vodou” with Patrick Bellegarde-Smith to learn more about Yoruba-derived religious systems that migrated from West Africa to the Caribbean and South America with the slave trade including Vodou, Santeria, and Candomble. Patrick Bellegarde-Smith explains how some slaves continued their traditional spirituality in disguise by matching orisas to Christian saints so that slaves could “cover up what it is that you did, literally cover it up when a slave owner was approaching.”
What’s interesting to me about Fela’s example is that he did not disguise his reproach of corrupt, powerful institutions; rather, he sang out his protests with direct and galvanizing musicality. His actions didn’t go unpunished, though. According to my playbill, he was arrested over 200 times and suffered devastating beatings at the hands of the government.