The Work of Pilgrimage III
I continue to reflect on differing aspects of pilgrimage in the Yoruba and Dahomean worlds. The grounded elder Susanne Wenger in her book A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeland writes about a wandering sort of pilgrimage:
If the god wishes it, a Shoponno priest goes from town to town as a mendicant, the living recipient of ritual gifts (formerly copper coins) which are means of atonement for the giver. He dresses in a short camwood-red smock, his hair finely plaited. On his frock, cowry shells and little bells are sewn as a warning of a dangerous god’s arrival. As he proceeds on his way, reciting the praise songs of Obalúayé and all the cult [sic] subsections, broom--straws are thrown at him together with the coins. In picking them up, he adds prayers on behalf of the donor to his recitations. The blossoming broom-shrub is his alter ego, but can be impersonated by the the broom of palmleaf stalks [known in Cuba as the já]… The mendicant uses the donated coins for a ceremony for the god; the broom-stalks he would bind together to sweep his shrine praising the god on behalf of the donors (pp. 173-175).
While Wenger is describing how people worship Babalú-Ayé in Nigeria in the 1980s, the African-inspired traditions in Cuba certainly still see him as a mendicant. This wandering somehow seems both related to and different from pilgrimage in its usual sense. The priest—and the god he is imitating—is not moving from a home place toward a specific destination thought to be the residence of some special manifestation of the divine, as is usually the case with pilgrimages. Rather he wanders from place to place, receives offerings, makes prayers, and gathers up his ritual broom. His place of departure and his destination are the same: his home shrine, where again he prays for everyone who has donated to his ceremony and his broom. With these prayers he sweeps out negativity of all kinds.
The overwhelming social aspect of this ritual wandering is intriguing. The priest encounters people in different towns, reminding them of the god and providing an easy opportunity to engage with him. While this pattern reminds me of the missionaries of San Lázaro in Cuba, it also recalls the story from Ojuani Meji where Babalú-Ayé, covered with sores, wanders from place to place. The random people he meets greet him only by throwing water on him and saying “Nlo burukú!” (evil be gone). Again, Babalú-Ayé embodies the unwanted reality of sickness and carries away the negativity for everyone he encounters.