Exploring Ifa: An Interview With Ifawale Abiola Agboola

In a new series of interfaith articles for Sacred Well Ministries we will be exploring spiritual traditions around the world and interviewing the people who are part of them today.  Our first article in this series is with Ifawale Abiola Agboola, a practising Ifa priest who lives in Nigeria.

The Yorùbá people, who inhabit a significant part of Western Africa have been practicing their unique set of religious customs for centuries. Although it is most commonly found in countries like Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, for the past several decades Yoruba religion has also been making its way to the United States.

There’s a religious paradox in the African Diaspora. While evangelical Catholicism and Protestantism are the fastest growing faiths in the Motherland, African indigenous faiths are growing among African descendants in the Americas.

Under colonial rule and religious pressures, traditional beliefs and practices were discriminated against. The Ifa priests have only modest means to maintain the tradition, transmit their complex knowledge and train future practitioners.  With the population of Nigeria being roughly 50% Christian and 50% Muslim, there had to be some sort of integration for the Yoruba culture to survive.  About 20% of the population in Nigeria identify as Yoruba.

Although many Yoruba people have become Christian and Muslim since colonization, those who practice the traditional religious beliefs of their ancestors have managed to coexist peacefully with their non-traditional neighbors.  While traditional Yoruba are celebrating their Orishas,for instance, their Christian friends and family members are offering thanks to their own God. People come together for this dual-faith celebration to honor two very different types of deities, all for the good of the entire community.  

Ifawale Abiola Agboola

Ifawale, please tell us a bit about the story of Ifa:

 To be a Babalawo, priest of Orunmila, is a great honor and with its great responsibility comes great respect. But why is Orunmila so important? Who is Orunmila? 

​Orunmila, also known as Orula or Orunla (sometimes mistaken as IFA) is a very important Orisha, or divinity, to the Yoruba people and those that follow the Yoruba diaspora traditions of Santeria, Lukumi, and others. His priesthood is separate and set aside from the other priestly initiations of any other Orisha.

Divination tray

​Orunmila was a great healer in the lands of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. He traveled great distances with his Akose, or medicine, healing people that would come to him. Even though he was a great healer, out of 10 people that came to see him, only 8 would be completely cured of their illnesses and bad circumstances. Two, however, would either not be cured or see their conditions returned. So Orunmila saw it fit to travel to the Temple of Olodumare, creator of all things, in heaven since it was Olodumare that sent him and gave him all his abilities. 

​After several trips to the temple, Olodumare gave Orunmila 16 sacred palm nuts, ikin, and said to him, “So you do not have to keep coming to my temple to hear my voice, I give you these 16 sacred palm nuts, this is Ifa. They will be my words to you and I will speak to you when you need me at any point in time.” Orunmila took these 16 ikin and returned to the earth. From that day forward all his patients were cured of their problems because he can now see it all and he was able to continuously speak with Olodumare by means of the ikin and interpretation of Ifa. He would later initiate 16 men to become the first ever Babalawos. The first of which were Akoda and Asheda. 

Olodumare

​Therefore, Orunmila is very important. He was given Ifa, the words of Olodumare, to help all of creation. He would not only divine for humans and help humanity. Among the many verses of Ifa are stories where Orunmila divines Ifa for snails, the winds, trees, etc. as well as for other Orishas. 

Ifá teaches that there’s a consciousness to everything, and the tangible part of Ebó has a vibration or quality that resonates with Òrìṣà and spirit to help us influence an outcome.

In the daily life of the Yoruba and those that follow the Yoruba tradition in the diaspora, Orunmila is an orisha that is praised every day and his assistance is sought at any time of day and any day of the week. Those wishing to do anything major in life or go on a long journey will first go to Orunmila to ask Ifa if everything will come out well for them. In conclusion, Ifá has answers for all questions. 

Orunmila

What is a Babalawo?  And how does one learn to become one?

The training to become a babalawo is an intense process. There are in principle 256 chapters in the divination process, called Odu, each one contains elaborative narratives of mythic stories related to history, events, ritual practices, etc… Importantly, the Odu is an oral tradition, and thus the babalawo-in-training must memorize all or most of the 256 Odu in order to be qualified to be a babalawo.

A divination session between the babalawo and the inquirer involves paying homage to Orunmila and the other ancestral babalawos who had performed successful divinations in the past, saluting the principal powers of the cosmos, invoking the mystical mothers, without whose help the rituals will not be efficacious. Then the diviner engages the inquirer, who takes a coin or paper, touches his forehead, whispers his/her prayers and requests, and asks for the secret behind his problem to be revealed, along with an appropriate solution.

Next, the diviner takes palm nuts from a divination bowl, tries to grab from his other hand most of the palm nuts, and then — with the remaining one or two palm nuts — marks the results of his activity in the powder in the divination tray. This process is then repeated until the diviner can make four sides on the divination tray.

Ifa divination

The result of this randomizing process is the Odu divination sign that the babalawo then recites. The client listens and interprets, and then the babalawo gives a solution. Sometimes a consensus is reached in which the babalawo and client agree to do another session in order to determine if they got the exactly correct answer. The process clearly relies plenty on human interaction, as well as the randomized patterns seen in the palm nuts in the Ifa bowl.

Who are the Orisas?

For the more than 50 million Yoruba people who live in Nigeria and around the globe, the world (aye) is governed and controlled by the numerous orisa who inhabit the world, but have access to the habits and occurrences in the upper world (orun [heaven]) and the underworld (Ile).

 We lovingly acknowledge the Òrìṣà or spirit who help us manifest good fortune and thank them.

Orunmila, the god of divination, is regarded as one of the numerous deities and Ifa is his divination process. The occurrences, events, and activities are revealed to humans through the elaborate divination process of Ifa.

Orishas

​What is highly emphasized by Orunmila is the completion of Ebo, or sacrifice, which is prescribed by Ifa for certain situations. As it was once told to me, “There isn’t a problem on earth that does not have its solution.” And this is at the heart of Ifa. Even death has its solution in Ifa. Poverty, sickness, war, loss, they all have their solutions through Ebo prescribed by Ifa. In this, Orunmila is also the spirit of Ela, or salvation. 

What is Ebo?

Ebó translates to “sacrifice,” and to many of us who grew up in Western cultures, the word “sacrifice” stirs up deep emotions and conjures up negative imagery. Perhaps the apprehension comes from years of conditioning by Hollywood horror movies and religious influences. But to the Yorùbá who follow Ifá, it is the normal “give and take” of life; necessary to restore order and maintain harmony and balance with the natural world.

Ebo

Ebó is central to Ifá; it reinforces the notion that everything in the natural world is connected; like the cells of an organism working in unison for a common purpose; life. Nothing thrives in a vacuum and sacrifice is for the sake of the whole.

Most offerings consist of “adimu” (food offerings). In some cases, if it involves an animal for celebrations and initiations; it is first prayed upon by priests so that the animal spirit is elevated, then lovingly thanked for the sacrifice. Under these situations, life-force offerings are always consumed and enjoyed by the community to receive the Às̩e̩ (life-force blessing).  When making offerings, always offer a taste to Èṣù/Ẹlégbá first, who is the divine messenger and takes your prayers and offerings to its destination.

Elegba At The Crossroads by Karmella Haynes

The word “sacrifice” implies that we’re giving up something of value or hold dear, including our time and effort. Much of our focus when making Ebó is in the tangible offerings. But, when divination comes Ibi (off-path), it is crucial that we heed the call for corrective action; a change of behavior; a change of heart.

Yoruba heart necklace

Ifawale, we are so grateful to you for sharing your knowledge with us. There is so much more to learn about your tradition. If our readers have questions, seek more information, or even perhaps a reading, here is his contact information.

Email: Agboolafaruq01@gmail.com

You can also visit his Facebook profile: https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100027111030896

References:

​Wigington, Patti. “Yoruba Religion: History and Beliefs.” Learn Religions, Feb. 8, 2021, learnreligions.com/yoruba-religion-4777660.

Arlene Edmonds Tribune Correspondent, Mar 4, 2016:   Lecture discusses the growth of Yoruba faith with African Americans

UNESCO:  https://ich.unesco.org/en/RL/ifa-divination-system-00146

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