Voodoo alive in South Carolina
Alan Hawes // The Post and Courier
Chief Priestess Obadi Osadele of the Oyotunji African Village community dances during a ceremony honoring the god Shango Thursday afternoon at the village located near Sheldon.
SHELDON -- Down a dirt road through the woods, a series of single-story huts and shrines to a pantheon of deities takes shape -- big, handmade statues painted bright colors.
An old metal trash can that's been sitting in the middle of the community for 40 years still serves as the town crier, sending messages in rhythms to the people who live on the nine-acre site.
A sign used to grace the entrance to this place, Oyotunji, alerting visitors that they were leaving the United States and entering a sacred Yoruba voodoo village. That hand-lettered marker currently is in the shop for refurbishment, but the king here assures visitors that the message still applies.
"I didn't take your passport at the gate, but you're entering another country spiritually, socially," Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II says. Gracious king that he is, he's fine if you just call him Oba.
He wears robes and beads and carries one staff with a cheetah face and a second with a blonde horse tail on the end, a fancy fly whisk. He's young, only 34, though villagers don't acknowledge ages.
"You're going to see things that are different: different customs, different dress," he says.
If you've ever traveled that sleepy stretch of Highway 17 in Beaufort County, halfway between Charleston and Savannah, you've likely seen the signs for Oyotunji, the traditional West African village that gives a nod to American capitalism in its advertisement: "As seen on TV."
On his face, Oba wears tribal marks -- three cuts scarred into each cheek and three more on his forehead to designate his royal lineage. He was born here, son of the first king and one of his six wives.
His father, Oba Oseijeman Adefunmi I, founded this place in 1970 after abandoning his life in Detroit as Walter Eugene King and traveling the world learning the history of his people. Oyo refers to a former West African Empire. Tunji means "rises again."
Young Oba likens it to New Jersey or New Hampshire. This is New Oyo, and it's where African-Americans can come to find their lineage.
"Black people think they came out of the ground in Georgia working the fields and then they were freed," he says. The whole point of this place is to look beyond that abbreviated history.
"It's not because we think it's cute. It's not because we think it's fun," Oba says. "It's because it's needed."
The village grew to 150 residents at its peak, thanks to national press attention, but many of those people departed by the 1980s. Expecting a black utopia where no one worked, they instead found a primitive way of life with no water or electricity and strict rules, including no speaking English before noon.
Today, about eight families, or about 30 people, remain.
The rumors are true: polygamy is accepted here at the village, though Oba says no man currently has more than one wife. Residents do practice voodoo, even drinking chicken blood during rituals. Boys get tribal marks carved into their faces at age 9, girls at age 7.
These days, most of that traditional West African living seems to happen when the villagers anticipate visitors, when there's money to be made or publicity to be had.
Reciting one of the traditional sayings while giving a tour recently, Oba says, "May you wear the crown for a long time. May you wear the royal slippers for a long time." Then, looking down at his own light brown leather slip-ons, he adds, "Of course, these are Steve Maddens."
So just how legitimate is this place?
Beaufort County designated that the residential character of the village, which lies in the tiny town of Sheldon, be protected. The county also began granting it a religious exemption on property taxes in 2005, the same year Oba became king.
As to Oyotunji's sovereign nation claim, the county's attorney deflects, saying only that Beaufort County is a subdivision of the state and doesn't deal in international law.
The village landed a grant with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for $35,000 in 2009, though representatives with the nonprofit have little information on how that money was spent and note that the program officer who authorized the funding is no longer with the foundation.
Residents sell trinkets and clothes in their market; they accept speaking engagements; they take donations; and they charge $10 per person for a tour. When asked directly if anyone works a 9-to-5 job outside of here, a priestess interrupted her fellow leaders to say, "They don't have no jobs!"
One recent Thursday, a faint drum beat echoed through the village and then, at precisely 4 p.m., a procession of priests and priestesses dressed in colorful robes emerged from behind a gated portion of the community, which includes Oba's home. They sang and chanted, stepping ceremoniously to another building, where they opened the doors. Then Oba, wearing a regal purple robe and hat, emerged from the darkness and joined their walk. A shirtless assistant carried a cloth umbrella over his head to shield him from the sun.
They stepped into a courtyard and gathered around the shrine to the god Shango, which represents thunder, drums and dance. Incense hung in the air, and only the priest and priestess dedicated to Shango stepped inside the altar, adorned with paintings and banana offerings.
Three men formed a drum line with two congas and a cowbell. For the next 20 minutes, 10 villagers performed traditional song and dance, speaking only Yoruban, the native West African language.
Oba sat in the middle, beneath the umbrella. He stood to dance periodically. At one point, he and several priestesses lined up and tossed both hands to one side, then the other, in a dance reminiscent of a show tune act.
Twice during the ceremony a cell phone rang from somewhere inside Oba's purple robe. But not until the end did he speak English, when he told everyone to repeat the ritual each Thursday.
The priests and priestesses hung around the courtyard afterward and explained what it all meant.
"If you pay your electric bill, you're really paying tribute to Shango," said priestess Obadi Osadele, who wore an ornate red robe and sported dreadlocks pulled into a high ponytail.
"And the stockholders," added her husband, priest Baba Akinwon, cigarette in hand.
Two priests and two priestesses explained how they arrived here. Chief Akinyele Alagba, who led the songs on cowbell, came here after seeing an article in Ebony in 1978. Like the others who live at Oyotunji, he rejects his birth name, since he has answered to his village name longer.
Baba Akinwon, a Beaufort County native, first spied on Oyotunji as a teenager, peering back into the woods with his buddies at night. He remembers being scared then but wandering back as an adult, "looking for my tradition," as he puts it. "It wasn't Islam, and it sure wasn't Christianity."
Oya Kule also arrived in the primitive days at the village, when residents cooked meals together over a wood stove. A young woman then, she missed watching sports coverage and movies, and explained, "I came from America."
She learned how to run a TV with a car battery and turned evening entertainment into a little side business for herself. With 32 years in the priesthood, Oya Kule's time here includes a decade-long gap she spent on the outside. "Children," she said, shaking her head. "Sometimes there are things we have to leave to go do."
Oba himself remembers how vulnerable he felt leaving the village as a child, his face scarred and his customs so radically different from his peers. He says he enjoyed having six mothers, but he himself has but one wife -- and an estranged one at that.
An adherent when they met in 1995, Oba's wife departed Oyotunji some time ago to pursue a public relations career in Jacksonville, Fla.
Looking up at the sky one rainy Monday, while the rest of the village seemed asleep or away, Oba said, "Many people become disenchanted by these woods."