Excerpt: Black Earth Wisdom by Leah Penniman
Leah Penniman is the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm, a community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system. Read an excerpted chapter from her new book, Black Earth Wisdom, Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists, below.
Read a Q&A with Leah Penniman about Black Earth Wisdom, Soulful Conversations with Black Environmentalists here.
A Conversation with Awise Agbaye Wande Abimbola, Yeye Luisah Teish, and Awo Enroue Onigbonna Sangofemi Halfkenny
When my mother told me to go and fetch firewood, she would warn me, “Don’t pick any wood out of the fig tree, or even around it.” “Why?” I would ask. “Because that’s a tree of God,” she’d reply. “We don’t use it. We don’t cut it. We don’t burn it.” I later learned that there was a connection between the fig tree’s root system and the underground water reservoirs. The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the water table of rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table. The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and gushed out as a spring. Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to stream. The reverence the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the fig tree and the tadpoles that have so captivated me. The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides. In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity.
—WANGARI MAATHAI, UNBOWED
In the Yoruba sacred literature, the Odu named Ogbe-Odi offers a verse about the consequences of using excessive force in our relationships with other creatures on planet Earth. As the story goes, Mr. By-Force used deception to invite his friends—Grasshopper, Hen, Wolf, Dog, Hyena, Viper, Walking Stick, Fire, Rain, Drought, and Dew Drops—to a collective work gathering on his farm. Each one agreed to attend on the condition that their sworn predatory enemy would not be invited. For example, Hen had a habit of trying to gobble up all of Grasshopper’s children, and so Grasshopper wanted assurance that Hen would not be present. Hen wanted assurance that Wolf, who had attempted to devour all of her chicks, would not be invited, and so on. Not only did Mr. By-Force lie about his guest list, but he arranged his guests so that each would be working adjacent to their sworn enemy. He then withheld food and drink, such that the workers would become famished and desperate to eat. When they could not withstand their hunger any longer, they dropped their tools and pounced on one another, gnashing and biting. Fortunately, Dew Drops, the only one among them without an enemy, fell upon them all and brought coolness. Restored to their senses, they started to assist one another in rising to their feet. They embraced one another peacefully and discussed the need to make a new covenant. They agreed that rather than attempt to consume and eliminate all the children of the other creatures, they would eat only what they absolutely needed. Their new covenant was one of moderation and mutual regard. In this verse, Dew Drops is the manifestation of Orunmila-Ifa, the Orisa (Divine Force of Nature) connected to wisdom. The story ends, “Doing things by force has ruined the world of today. Dew drops come and make repairs. Dew drops come and make amends.”
The millennia-old verse from Ogbe-Odi is powerfully predictive of the way greed, exploitation, and violence are wreaking havoc in the natural world today, a grave breach of the covenant of moderation. We are currently living through the Holocene mass extinction, the most rapid extinction of species in the planet’s history and the only extinction event caused by one species—human beings. Industrial human societies have become Mr. By-Force, responsible for the untempered ravishing of Earth’s creatures.
Of the 8.7 million species of animals and insects on planet Earth, 1 million are threatened with extinction in the coming decades, which is more than ever before in human history. Amphibian species are most vulnerable, with over 40 percent at risk of extinction. Around one-third of marine mammals, reef-forming corals, sharks, and shark relatives face potential disappearance. We have already lost around 900 vertebrate species due to human activity, mostly because of habitat destruction. There are 21,000 monitored populations of mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, encompassing almost 4,400 species around the world. These populations have declined an average of 68 percent between 1970 and 2016. The more vulnerable species in Latin America and the Carib bean are disproportionately impacted, declining, on average, 94 percent during the same time period. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the rate of population decline “signals a fundamentally broken relationship between humans and the natural world, the consequences of which . . . can be catastrophic.”
So that these are not anonymous statistics, it is important to say the names of some of the creatures whose remaining time on Earth may be cut short due to human action. Among them are the African forest elephant, Amur leopard, black rhino, Bornean and Sumatran orangutans, Cross River gorilla, eastern and western lowland gorilla, hawksbill turtle, Javan and Sumatran rhinos, saola, Sumatran elephant, Sunda tiger, vaquita, Yangtze finless porpoise . . . To recite aloud the names of all the earth’s threatened species one by one would take about two sleepless weeks.
It is often argued that we should conserve species for their utilitarian value to humans, as providers of ecosystem services, reservoirs of genetic material, and potential sources of novel medicines. While this is a rational frame, there is an alternative philosophy. In Yoruba religion, nature is regarded as a divinity, and all plants, animals, and landforms have intrinsic value as Sacred Forces of Nature. The story in Ogbe-Odi presents Grasshopper, Hen, the other animals, and natural elements as sentient and conscious beings, worthy and able to be regarded as equals with humans.
All life on earth shares a narrow band of habitability that extends from the deepest root systems of trees and the dark environment of ocean trenches up to the highest mountaintops. This layer, called the biosphere, is only about twelve miles from top to bottom, comprising only 0.3 percent of the planet’s radius. All of the habitat and resources upon which life depends exist in this thin belt of land and water. Perhaps our collective survival depends on a new covenant among the species sharing this life raft.
To talk about the role of Indigenous African spirituality, and specifically the Yoruba religion, in defining that new covenant, we learn from Awise AgbayenWande Abimbola, Yeye Luisah Teish, and Awo Enroue Onigbonna Sangofemi Halfkenny.
PROFESSOR WANDE ABIMBOLA (he/him) is Awise Awo Agbaye (world spokesperson for Ifa) and special advisor to the president of Nigeria on cultural affairs and traditional matters. Professor Abimbola has served as vice chancellor of the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University) and the majority leader of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Professor Abimbola is the author of over ten books and many articles on Ifa and Yoruba religion. He has held professorships at Harvard University, Massachusetts; Boston University, Massachusetts; and Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria.
YEYE LUISAH TEISH (she/her) is a writer, storyteller-activist, and spiritual counselor. She is the author of six books, most notably Jambalaya: The Natural Woman’s Book of Personal Charms and Practical Rituals, a women’s spirituality classic. She has contributed to forty-five anthologies and magazines such as Ms., Essence, and Yoga Journal. Her works have been translated into seven languages. She is the Iyanifa of Ile Orunmila Oshun, a member of the Global Council for Ancestor Veneration and the Mother Earth Delegation of the United Indigenous Nations. Yeye has taught at the University of Creation Spirituality, the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology, and the California Institute of Integral Studies. She has lectured at UCLA, Spelman College, and Harvard. She holds an honorary doctorate from the International Institute of Integral Human Sciences, and the title Yeyeworo from the Fatunmise Compound in Ile-Ife Nigeria. She has performed in Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, and Europe.
AWO ENROUE ONIGBONNA SANGOFEMI HALFKENNY (he/him) has been an Ifa priest within the Yoruba Orisa religion for over twenty years and a licensed clinical social worker for thirteen years. He is a consultant, a writer, an artist, and an activist. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1968, Enroue is a multiracial, Black, cisgender, heterosexual man and a father of two who has been married for over twenty years and has been sober for over thirty years. His practice, Healing and Liberation Counseling, skillfully weaves together spiritual health, mental health, and social justice issues to guide individuals, communities, and organizations to develop practices toward liberation.
LEAH: One of the prominent conservation strategies of Western environmentalists is to set aside wildlife reserves and other protected areas where human activity is restricted. Leading biologists argue that at least 50 percent of the earth needs to be preserved for nonhuman creatures if we are to save even 85 percent of remaining species.6 Yet the idea of forest reserves did not begin with Yellowstone in 1872, which is heralded as “the world’s first national park” and “America’s best idea.” Forest reserves are ancient technologies that have been used by the Yoruba and other African Indigenous communities for millennia. Baba, can you speak to the types of forest reserves among the Yoruba?
AWISE AGBAYE WANDE ABIMBOLA: In ancient times, every town would demarcate an area of forest that nobody was allowed to touch. They knew that over time, the population would increase, and the area would become a city, so from the onset they created the forest reserve. The Yoruba word for forest is igbo, and the name for the special area is etile, so together the reserve is igbo etile. Inside of the igbo etile no animals can be hunted. They are safe there.
There is another type of huge forest reserve called eluju gbogbofo. This large area is farther from town, and people are not allowed to enter there—not to hunt or do anything at all. The only uses of the eluju gbog bofo are magical. Human beings can go there to turn into animals, and animals can turn into human beings. In these untouched places, metamorphosis and evolution are possible. In the natural state of the earth, the boundaries between humans and the rest of nature are malleable. There, the boundaries between the human world and the spirit world are not fixed. Long ago, there were certain people living in the tops of the trees in the forest, and the missionaries tried to make them come down. They wanted the boundaries between humans and nature to be fixed. But once boundaries are fixed, there becomes division.
It is hard for Western humans to relinquish the idea that they are in charge of everything. They want to go where they please and do what they want. They want to subdue all the Indigenous people and shift them from one place to another. The broken world we are living in is sustained by brute force. They want to control everything. How can you control everything, when there is so much you can’t see with your naked eye or even a microscope? Are you in control of the sunrise and the sunset? The consequences for this behavior are coming. It may not be for ten generations, but it’s coming.
LEAH: Yeye, in Jambalaya you dedicate a chapter to the worship of divine forces of nature in Indigenous African religion, namely to Abosom of the Akan people, the Orisa of the Yoruba, and the Vodun of the Fon Dahomey people. You describe a “regulated kinship among human, animal, mineral, and vegetable life,” and warn against the imbalance that arises when too much is taken from the natural world, or when resources are taken and not reciprocated with the appropriate offerings and rituals.
Can you further elucidate how Orisa tradition provides guidance on the relationship between humans and other aspects of Nature?
YEYE LUISAH TEISH: In these African Indigenous traditions, especially Ifa, Orisa, Vodun, and Condumble as they are practiced in the Diaspora, there is a core idea that each worshipper is a child of a particular Natural Force. So, as a child of Osun, I am the child of the River. My friend who is a priestess of Olokun is a child of the Deep Ocean. The initiate of Osa yin is the child of the Medicine Forest. All of the Orisas are associated with certain places in nature, and this gives worshippers a responsibility to that aspect of nature. I must go to the river respectfully, make offerings, clean up the trash on the riverbank, and pay homage through ritual, because that is the body of my mother Osun. For each Orisa there are also associated sacred animals. My road of Osun is connected to the African vulture, and so I keep my eye on the health of that bird population and on threats of extinction to birds in general. Our mandate to honor the Orisa is not abstract or amorphous; it is embodied and exacting. It imbues our everyday lives with a relationship to the natural world.
LEAH: Enroue, my dear friend, you also have a close relationship with the river divinities and specifically with the river closest to your home. Can you speak to the lessons you have learned by listening to the river?
AWO ENROUE ONIGBONNA SANGOFEMI HALFKENNY: Before being initiated into Ifa, I was first a worshipper of Sango, whose wives are river divinities— Oba, Oya, and Osun. I used to wonder what that was about, as Sango is a divinity of thunder and lightning. I was once sitting by a river on the West Coast near Seattle listening to the tumbling, roaring torrent and realized that it sounded like thunder. There was a shared energy and language between these forces. Even now as a priest of Ifa, the Odu of my initiation speaks to a connection with the river divinities and the importance of receiving their icons and worshipping them.
The river is always moving and changing, so it is an embodiment of the spiritual teaching that everything is Change. Our bodies are constantly shifting and renewing. Each moment is different from the one before. The river is an obvious teacher in that way, challenging our assumptions that we can concretize any person or situation. Western scientific and mathematical thinking is very reductive; you look at the parts to understand the whole. The object of study is concretized, frozen, dissected, and taken to the lab out of its context to be labeled and analyzed. Just as we can’t understand the human brain by looking at slices of tissue, we can’t understand the living, multidimensional being of the river by freezing and slicing it up. Then, it would no longer be a river. In the same way, one interaction with a person does not define the entirety of that person, or of the relationship. A single data point is unreliable. By immersing myself in direct experience in nature, sitting with the river at different seasons, I am taught these lessons.
Rivers are also healing forces. In Nigeria, the Oogun River literally means “Medicine River” and is the Orisa Yemoja. I had a chance to visit the sacred Osun River in Osogbo, whose waters are healing and used to tend to babies. I have been doing a lot of healing and spiritual work at the West River in New Haven, Connecticut, for both myself and my clients. The process need not be elaborate. We introduce ourselves to the river, make offerings, pray for what we need, sit, and listen. We open ourselves up to what these waters have to say to us, how we can heal, how we can be whole, and how we can be free. Learning from the river has been powerful and important.
LEAH: Baba, in a recent lecture you shared that there are sixty-five trees who are worshipped as Orisa in the Yoruba tradition. Can you explain this practice and offer some examples?
AWISE AGBAYE WANDE ABIMBOLA: There are many trees that are worshiped as Orisa, maybe even more than seventy-three. The important idea is that we humans relate to these trees as if they were human. Everything in nature is alive and anthropomorphized without hierarchy. We believe that they have spirits within them that have human capacities—to go to market, to maintain friendships, to get angry, marry, have children, and so on. In the sacred literature of Ifa, creatures in nature move about as human beings. A bird can cast divination for a king, and often does.
Our son Iroko is named after a tree divinity. My father also had the name Iroko. The iroko tree is the tallest hardwood tree in West Africa. When my father’s parents wanted to have children and went for divination, they were told that Orisa Iroko would help them to have a child. So they made ebo (sacrifice) to the iroko tree and took that name as a family name. When the iroko tree is being worshipped, they dress the tree with a white cloth and offer food. The food offering is consumed by the small creatures and birds who inhabit the tree as their home, and they share the food with the spiritual beings.
Another example would be the tree of Ogun. There is a tree in Oyo town, and on the seventh day of initiation, the iyawo (new initiate) dances around the town and ends up at the foot of the tree of Ogun. All of the Ogun community will be present and pray for the newly initiated person. They perform ebo right at the tree and hang medicines from the branches. Every Ogun community will have such a tree. A female priest sits at the foot of the tree as the master of ceremonies. Her title is Iya Idi Ogun, which translates to “mother who sits at the foot of the Ogun tree,” and is the title that my wife, Iyanifa Michelle Ajisebo McElwaine Abimbola, Iya Idi Ogun Alaafin Oyo, was given by the Ogun community of the Alaafin’s kingdom and currently holds. The human feeds the tree, and the tree feeds the human. It is a symbiotic and ecological relationship.
Until humans can accept that trees, mountains, and insects are human, and start to relate and talk with them on human terms, we will not succeed at protecting them. If we simply make legislation that says, for example, don’t kill blue whales anymore, we have not changed the underlying attitude. You see humans fishing, and in the course of one day, they harvest two hundred fish and throw them all back dead into the ocean. You see humans mowing down the forests. It is barbaric. It is not true what the Christian Bible says about nature being there just for humans to use and dominate. The way of European so-called civilization is the way of destruction. If we continue to kill and destroy members of our extended family, how can we survive? We cannot live apart from nature. The air we breathe is made by the trees and by the ocean.
This is what the religion of Yoruba is all about. In the final analysis, Yoruba religion is the worship of nature.
LEAH: In Yoruba cosmology there are countless sacred birds, among them the igun (vulture), akala (ground hornbill), agbe (blue turaco), and odi dere (parrot). The Odu Irosun Ogbe discusses the vulture’s ascendence to the throne, while the Odu Osa Meji makes clear that without the vulture, the offerings and sacrifices of human beings would not reach the spirit world. There are taboos against harming many species of birds, including the Areregosun, who was gifted his beautiful maroon tail feathers from the ocean deity herself. Enroue, you have opened yourself to being a student of birds. What are some of the lessons they share with you?
AWO ENROUE ONIGBONNA SANGOFEMI HALFKENNY: While I was a student at Middlebury College, the forest was a haven away from the people, chaos, and dynamics of that small, liberal, white college environment. The forest was a place where I could inhabit a mystical relationship with Earth beyond what was taught in the biology department, and beyond even my own notions. Outside of the gaze of humans, and beyond the judgment of others, I walked through the back of the graveyard that bordered the campus, along the trail, across some old farmland, and up onto a berm with a lot of evergreens growing on it. I would creep through the grass and sit under the lowest branches of the evergreen trees where I could be hidden from sight and observe.
There was one poignant day when I was watching the songbirds flit about from tree to tree across the meadow, when suddenly everything fell quiet. There was no birdsong, no movement, no rustling, no chirping. I was struck by the absolute quiet and stillness. I sat quietly as well, waiting. Soon, I could see the shadow of a hawk gliding over the tall grass. I watched it pass, and some minutes after its departure, the wave of sounds and movement slowly returned. I realized the hawk was living in a bubble of silence. The small creatures were warned of the hawk’s approach and fell silent in advance of its arrival, and the sounds only returned after the hawk was gone. Its existence was in silence, and yet inpatient skill, it found a way to catch and eat things and to live. I could draw parallels to my own life—how I was seen or not seen by others. But more importantly, this moment solidified the personal importance of experiences of wonder and mystery in nature. They are what pulled me out of—and have kept me out of—despair, hopelessness, and isolation. I could see that beyond social dramas and interactions with people, there was life. There was life that I was actually connected to, and something here worthwhile to explore.
I continue to be connected to birds as teachers. I live near a wetland and migration corridor for birds, and I get to witness the movement of the starlings, grackles, and others. We also keep a bird feeder to welcome the songbirds and nourish these little beings who flit about ceaselessly. I love learning their names, paying attention to the sounds of their wings, noticing what their body does when they sing and whether the trill is sharp or long. I pay attention to how they respond to each other and slow down enough to notice differences between the pigmentation on individual birds. It’s a practice of patience and silence. It is also a practice of simple joy and beauty.
One of the many lessons that birds share with us is this: Even in the face of predation, habitat loss, and other stressors, birds continue to be birds. They sing, mate, eat, fly, raise their young, and follow the rhythms of the season. They honor the life that is within them.
LEAH: The Yoruba calendar offers us a cycle of the year anchored in reverence for particular nature divinities in their respective seasons. Olokun, ocean deity, is honored in Erele (February). Osanyin, plant medicine deity, and Yemoja, river deity, have their festivals alongside Orunmila, deity of wisdom, during the Yoruba New Year in Okudu (June). Orisa Oko, farm deity, is celebrated with the first yam harvest in Agemo (July.) Oya, Orisa of the storm and winds, has her celebration in Owara (October), to name a few. In the Diaspora, the festival calendar may vary, but the underlying principles are consistent. Yeye, how does your spiritual community honor the cycle of the seasons in connection with Orisa worship?
YEYE LUISAH TEISH: At the darkest time and turning over of each year, we have rituals to cleanse away the residual influences of the outgoing year. During our three- to four-day New Year rituals, we go to the ocean to wash ourselves and give gratitude for life on earth. We then do a full bembe drum ceremony where we honor Elegba and ask him to open the door to a new year. We do a divination to get guidance for our community for the year to come.
In the spring, we hold our festivals for Orunmila and Osun, deities of destiny and love, respectively. This ceremony involves bathing in the river. We often have men playing drums around a fire up on the mountain, and the women in the river bathing with a sweet coconut soap that we make together. Our songs are in call and response to the drum, honoring the relationship between the fire and the water. We make beautiful altars, and the people come to celebrate the fertility and promise of spring. The world is renewing itself.
Autumn is the time of the ancestors. In the fall, the veil gets thinner, and it becomes easier to walk into the ancestral village and back again. In 2019, we had a council for ancestral souls rising where we brought together priests from Nigeria, Tanzania, France, Brazil, Cuba, and all over the United States. We gathered on October 31 and went from one place to the next with people saluting their ancestor shrines and sharing their practices. Over a period of nine days, we illuminated the various layers of the soul. The Ancestral Souls Rising Global Prayers have continued online during the pandemic. The importance of ancestor reverence rites cannot be overstated. Whether the Voodoo ceremonies in New Orleans or the Festival of the Bones in Oakland, it is important to make time to participate in communal ancestral reverence.
I also think that it’s important to pay attention to what is happening in related, earth-based traditions. I participate in Día de los Muertos, Di wali, the equinox and solstice rituals, and the gong ceremonies of the Buddhists. Each tradition has its own variations based on the land where it was born and the people of that land mass. But the truth is that as human beings we make cultural notions based on universal principles. It’s the universal principles that we need to study.
LEAH: When we are still enough, we can hear the voice and lessons of the earth. Enroue, you have a beautiful practice of spending hours on end in nature’s wild places listening and learning. I have seen you make offerings of honey and prayers at the entrance to the forest and then proceed into its sanctuary. What have your wilderness teachers—the trees, cat tails, phragmites, and other creatures—shared with you recently?
AWO ENROUE ONIGBONNA SANGOFEMI HALFKENNY: The earth is not saying only one thing. Like any relationship, it is multiplicitous and based on the current moment. You and I were together in the forest shortly after my aunt passed away, and we heard the trees crying. As they rubbed their branches together, moaning, the song was a reminder to be here with this wound. The message was to feel and not to fix.
In the wetlands near my home, there are a lot of phragmites growing, which are a perennial reed grass invasive to the area. Prior to the arrival of phragmites, there were mostly native cattails growing in that wetland. Over time, the phragmites have advanced, making it difficult for the cattails to reproduce. Some of the cattails are on the front lines, watching the phragmites right across the water as they advance and take over. Other cattails are far from the juncture, and maybe they do not even know that they are losing out. Yet in all cases, how does the cattail respond? They continue to fully be a cattail. Even though in ten years they may all be gone, they continue in their expression of the fullness that is life. They do not ignore the challenge or engage in futile fighting or turn into something else. The lesson for me is that regardless of the hope or despair of the given moment, my directive is to be fully human. I hope to be able to live and die as the cattail does, to be a person of peace, love, and nurturing, and not of violence or fighting.
Even the phragmite is just doing what it needs to do to live. It did not decide to be an invasive species; it was brought here against its own will, not unlike some of my own ancestors. When we zoom out, we see that all species are just here on Earth trying to live. When a system is stable and something comes in to meddle and destabilize, that is also part of the natural reality of life on earth. We need to think about how to simultaneously minimize harm and to be present with what is.
Being in the rightness of relationship with the earth is also about recognizing that I cause harm, as we all do. I need to eat, which necessitates the taking of life. I am also part of capitalism, which is actively doing harm. Considering Earth as mother or father is in the right direction, but also incomplete, because there is so much more we can offer and receive in relationship to the earth. As a father, I get accidentally hurt by my children in their bumbling. Sometimes there may even be intentional hurt. This does not shut me off from loving them. We are dear to our father mother Earth, and our harming does not shut us off from that love and that relationship. We are not separate. For me, the answers and meaning are not so much in studying the harm and the oppression. Meaning is revealed in the mystery and magic of the direct connection with the divine in nature, and in being open to the existence of something beyond what I initially think is present.
LEAH: Yeye, what do you think Mama Earth is saying to us right now? What do you hear when you listen in?
YEYE LUISAH TEISH: I think the best way I can answer that question is to summarize an eco-myth that I wrote in response to COVID-19 and in praise to Oya, the Queen of Change. It is called “Eartha’s Children.” It’s about how humans invented war games to subjugate one another based on racial and religious differences and then expanded that war to the assault on their own Mother.
As I wrote, “They felled the trees in the Ancient Forests and hunted Her beautiful animals almost to extinction. Soon their playthings pro duced a gray cloud of poison that filled the sky. The creatures in the Ocean, trapped in nets and plastic, cried out in pain. She too cried out as they pierced Her body and drained the black blood from her veins.
“Mother Earth doubled over in pain, stomping her feet and sending tsunamis of warning. She demanded they put down their weapons of war, but only a few complied. She then dawned a Crown of Power on her head and commanded in a booming voice, ‘Now hear this: I am Your Mother, Your Queen, and Your Salvation. GO TO YOUR ROOM.’ She bellowed, ‘Get in there and clean up the mess you’ve made. Put away those weapons of mass destruction. Take out the trash of fear, hatred, and greed . . . Go into the silence, the stillness within. There you will find your birthright, your humanity, and my Love. Practice humility and respect. Don’t make me repeat myself.’ The children of Earth complied at last.”
You see, we humans have been miseducated to think that if we have money, we can trek into anyone’s country, exploit the people, destroy the land, hunt the animals to extinction, and disregard the sacred. All of our societal and personal decisions are impacted by this thinking in the back of our minds that it’s alright to exploit natural resources. This simply does not work. There are truths about human life and nature that existed before we were called into this industrial-technological complex. The Indigenous knowledge of our most ancient land-rooted ancestors has been pressed out of most of us.
Our present behavior is species suicide. Mother Earth is forcing our hand now, and we have a choice to change our ways or go into extinction. The pandemic brought us the anthro-pause where we had a glimpse into how nature could flourish without humans trampling all over the earth. Without the cruise ships, the dolphins were having a grand time swimming. Lions were lying about on the freeway in South Africa. We can imagine how nature would flourish if we repositioned our human selves in that flow as another relative in the overall plan of nature, and not as master, dominator, or conquistador. If we do not awaken that relationality, then we humans become the virus.
LEAH: Baba, in Ifa Will Mend our Broken World, you describe several phases of human existence. The serene and all-inclusive age of the world when humans and the rest of creation regarded themselves as brothers and sisters is known as Oba Jomi Jomi (the age of the king who ate water). This was the regime of Obatala, characterized by a peaceful and tranquil period, like water. As society became more settled and populous, there came the age of Oba Jegi Jegi (the age of the king who ate wood). This is the age of iron, belonging to Ogun and associated with war, metal, manufacture, urbanism, and creativity. It was Ogun who fabricated the iron implements with which violence was done to the rest of creation. We are now in the age of Oba Jeun Jeun (the age of the king who consumes), which is connected to industry, processed food, greed, and exploitation. As we think toward the next age of humanity in which a new covenant can be made, what are its principles? How can we move beyond force and exploitation, and toward reverence and interdependence?
AWISE AGBAYE WANDE ABIMBOLA: There is a verse in Osa Meji where Earth herself goes for divination. She is told that she should not be making ebo to be wealthy and prosperous, but instead to perform sacrifice on account of her many enemies. Western industrialism and European colonization are the number one enemies of Mother Earth. We should not be the people Earth is doing ebo to protect herself from. The verse ends, “We are certainly alive; And we are pleading; That as long as we remain on the earth; The earth may never be destroyed.”
Earth herself is a great divinity. All of Earth’s creatures and elements are also sacred. There is no functional difference between animals, trees, rivers, mountains, and dewdrops. The only hope for our future is to revive the ancient knowledge that the earth and all creatures of the world deserve respect. The ones who remember this best are the peasant farmers, who are perhaps that last hope for mankind. I think we are in a moment of truth, where people are seeing farming and working close to the land in a new light. Perhaps if we are to survive to our next age it will be Oba Ero Ero, the age of the antidote. Don’t be discouraged. Ifa is the medicine that will heal our broken world.