By Monica Bodirsky
The small tour bus came to an abrupt halt and our guide Oscar jumped out. No one was concerned. We were on a six hour tour of Trinidad, one of Cuba’s oldest cities. So far, the trip was interesting, easygoing and included impromptu stops throughout the day. Oscar reappeared and asked cheerily, “Would you like to see a place where we practice Santeria? It’s one of Cuba’s oldest religions.” Everyone smiled and nodded. I must mention that our last stop had been an old pirate hangout where we had the pleasure of sampling a rum, lime and sugar cane drink called a “Canchanchara.” Oscar probably could have asked if we would like to step out and have the bus run over us several times and the answer would have the same.
“Santeria” loosely translated means “working with saints.” It is an Afro-Cuban religion widely practiced today, with its roots in West Africa. The original practitioners were Yorubans who occupied the kingdom of Benin. Ousted by an opposing tribe, they resettled in the Niger river region. From there, countless Yorubans were taken forcibly by Spanish and Portuguese slave trader to Cuba and other Caribbean Islands. The slaves continued to practice their religion despite Spanish pressure to assimilate. What occurred over time was a syncretism between the Yoruban religion and Catholicism. Syncretims is a spontaneous, popular combination of two separate and distinct religions. In this syncretism, popular Orishas (gods) are identified with Catholic saints. Cultural anthropologist Migene Gonzalez-Wippler postulates that in the past when a traditional European medicine failed to help someone, the Spaniards turned to Yorubans for help. Once they realized the strength of the religion they started to attend ceremonies regularly, and “Santeria” was born.
“OK, OK let’s go!” Encouraged our guide Oscar, my husband Allan, grabbed his camera and we shuffled off the bus. It was a beautiful hot, sunny tropical day. We have decided to take the economy flight to Cuba in June. The upside? It’s very quiet and beautiful. The downside? It’s 45 C in the shade and the bugs are rodent-sized.
I lagged a bit so I could look up and down the street. After everyone stepped in I followed. The sudden temperature change made me inhale. It was almost chilly in comparison to the other side of the door. We were all standing in a large, empty room with a high ceiling. There were no windows in the white stucco but there was a painting on one wall, a simple depiction of the four phases of the moon in turquoise paint. Oscar smiled and said, “This painting shows the four phases of the moon.” Our heads bobbed in mute approval. He motioned us to wait for one moment and went down three steps into another room. Seconds later, he reappeared and said, “OK, OK come in.” We descended three steps into a cooler, damper room. This time icy fingers tickled the back of my neck and I subconsciously put my hand there. There wasn’t much light in the room and it took a few second for our eyes to adjust. We were standing on a packed dirt floor. There was a simple wooded bench on one side. On the bench were two large Afro-Cuban ladies dressed in white with head wraps. They smiled, sort of.
Although some Africans say that there are over 600 gods in the Yoruban Pantheon, only a handful are prayed to or represented in Santeria. It is a very complex and sophisticated religion with strict codes of conduct, curing rituals, divination practices and several stories and legends of the very human-like “Orishas” in moral plays. Although originally an Afro-Cuban religion, there is an active group of followers in Toronto and throughout the world.
People were milling around the small room grinning and shaking their heads, asking questions. This small space was also devoid of furniture (except for the occupied bench) and windows. I noticed a large rusted and burned iron cauldron in the corner containing what appeared to be a heavy chain, several knives and other things I couldn’t really distinguish. Observant Oscar noticed the focus of my attention and without missing a beat said, “Oh, this is a pot we use in a ceremony … to do things.”
A cauldron containing iron implements is used in Santeria ceremonies pertaining to the Orisha (god) of war and metals, Oggun. He is often invoked to aid in struggles and difficult cures. However, an iron cauldron called a “Nganga” is also used in ceremonies performed by a similar religion called Palo Mayombe. The Bantu or Congolese people, who were also abducted and taken to the Caribbean and South America, practiced this religion. It is known by most Cubans that if you need a nasty magical deed done, you go to a “Mayombero.” The Nganga is used to capture and force the soul of a recently departed person to do the Mayombero’s bidding. Mayomberos will go to a graveyard and dig up the recently interred body of a criminal or insane person whose brain has not yet decomposed fully. The belief is that with a brain, the spirit sent to do a Mayomberos nasty work has more ability to perform. The spirit is conjured through a complex ceremony and kept in a macuto (bag of grisly goodies) or the Nganga. If the Mayombero isn’t skilled enough to control the powerful entity, he might become the inadvertent target of his own creation.
I felt an icy dread in the pit of my stomach. I put it down to too much rum and a sudden 30 C temperature change… but still. Everyone else was still smiling and nodding, so I forced a stiff grin. The two ladies on the bench started to chuckle softly. Oscar continued to speak for a while. I wanted to leave but waited calmly for everyone to go first. Allan snapped a pictured of the cauldron and so did a few other people. Oscar said cheerily, “Sure, go ahead.”
Other forms of transplanted African religions are also practiced throughout the world. One of these include the badly misunderstood “Voodou” or “Vodun.” In Haiti the infamous reappearances of the dead as zombies after they have been buried is no longer the mystery it once was to North American culture. Zombification has been illegal for many centuries in Haiti. Despite its long history, it wasn’t until recent biochemical research was completed that the ingredients of the “zombie” powder used to put a person in this semi-comatose state was discovered. The ingredients of Zombie powder is a well-guarded secret and it can be costly to have a “Bokor” mix it for you. The exact ingredients and quantities are not known, however, it has been reported to contain powder from a flowering plant in the Datura family, poison from a blowfish, a type of poisonous fungus or mushroom and a blend of several unknown herbs.
I offered one last lame grin to the seated ladies as I resisted the urge to rush up the stairs and out of the room. The first step had a heavy iron chain as its base. I stepped across and over it. Immediately I felt the icy fingers slip away from my neck as I ascended the stairs. I shrugged it off as coincidental. Oscar smiled and said one last thing. “Oh, that chain you stepped over keeps the spirits from following you.”
I wanted to include a picture of the iron cauldron mentioned in this article, however, though we remember loading the camera, upon returning to Toronto we discovered our film had vanished.