I have an infectious disease. I have been sick for three weeks with what started as a nasty cold. Little Natalya started daycare in September, and by week two she had a runny nose. A week later I had a runny nose and a sore throat. Then a week after that I had a sinus infection, complete with a headache, a fever, pain in my teeth, and lots of discharge from my nose. After two visits to the doctor, lots of home remedies, a seven-day course of antibiotics and more decongestants than you can imagine, the mucus has turned from dark green to bright yellow. My colleagues will tell you it is isn’t pretty, and my very honest wife will tell you it’s just gross. It certainly has humbled me, as I try to maintain both my workload and my decorum through sneezing, coughing, sweating, and revolting nasal discharge. Ay, Babalú-Ayé, fiyedenu. Babalú, have mercy on me.
We all struggle to stay healthy from time to time, but we are not always successful. We slide from health—iré aicú, the blessings of health and long life—to sickness, osobo arun. It is this basic opposition between sickness and health that underscores Babalú-Ayé’s special role as the silent oricha within everything.
This is not just hyperbole. Every time a Lucumí elder prays—and I mean every time—she prays for health. The old timers say, “Oricha, give me health so I can go out and seek the other blessings.” Similarly every odu speaks of probable illnesses and potential blessings to be enjoyed in health. I learned this basic insight into Babalú-Ayé from my godfather, Ernesto Pichardo—Obá Irawó: Babalú-Ayé governs the fundamental polarity between sickness and health.