Philly’s 43rd Odunde Festival celebrates African spirituality and cultural connection

Ask most Philadelphians to name a holy place and the Schuylkill River is unlikely spring to mind.

But at the Odunde festival in South Philly on Sunday, that tributary of the Delaware became a kind of altar as practitioners of Ifa, a belief system related to the Yoruba religion of Nigeria, processed to the South Street Bridge where about a hundred people gathered to celebrate Osun, the river goddess, as a way to welcome the Yoruba new year.

Mostly wearing white and yellow dresses and tunics, their hair covered by colorful wraps, fedoras, and sunhats, the crowd sang and danced down South Street, led by the rhythm of drums and shekeres — West-African shakers made from gourds. After reciting prayers thanking Osun, small children, alongside grandparents and cousins, were encouraged to drop oranges, flowers, and liquor into the river as an offering for the new year.

“Osun is about family, it’s about your heritage and culture as something to maintain,” said Iya Olakunle Sangofemi Oludina, who described herself as one of the festival’s elders. Oludina is also the chief priest of the Ile Igoke Yoruba Temple of Spiritual Growth in Wilmington, Del.

“The river can change the earth, but very slowly, and that’s what we’re celebrating.”

Iya Olakunle Sangofemi Oludina, the chief preist apetebi at the Ile Igoke Yoruba Temple of Spiritual Growth in Wilmington, De., holds her offerings before the procession at at the 2018 Odunde Festival. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY News)

Oludina remembers Odunde in its early days as a three-day block party. Now in its 43rd year, the week-long festival is one the largest African-American festivals in the country, concluding Sunday with the procession, as well as food, crafts, and musical performances at 23rd and South streets.

This year was its first without founder Lois Fernandez, who died in August 2017 at the age of 81. City officials named the 2300 block of South Street after Fernandez on Saturday.

“She left a legacy,” said Oludina with a smile. “She was very consistent and the epitome of what Odunde is all about.”

The festival is now organized by Fernandez’s daughter, Oshunbumi “Bumi” Fernandez West.

Monica Lyons of Cheltenham, Pa., is a practicer of the Ifá religion. She attends the 2018 Odunde Festival in Philadelphia and participates in paying homage to Osun, the Yoruba goddess of the river, on the South Street Bridge. (Natalie Piserchio for WHYY News)

More than a set of rituals, Odunde has been a consistent celebration of the African diaspora.

Monica Lyons, of Cheltenham, Pa., has been attending the festival for more than 20 years, and was there on Sunday where she prayed over offerings of cinnamon, champagne, honey, and fruits to thank Osun and ask for her blessings.

“Osun loves anything sweet,” said Lyons who is a practitioner of Ifa. But, she says, for others who aren’t practicing, the festival gives a place and a name to many cultural traditions trampled by colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.

“Because we come from so many parts of the world and we were stolen from so many different lands, there are rituals that are being done that we don’t understand why we are doing them,” said Lyons, who brought her teenage son to the procession.

“I used to think, ‘Grandma, why do I have to spin around three times when I go through certain doors? Or why do I have to throw salt over my shoulder?’ ” Lyons said with a laugh. “But they have a connection that is usually rooted in some spiritual practice.”

Giving offerings to a river was once “seen as witchcraft,” she said.

“It was seen as voodoo, some scary practice, when in actuality it’s about honoring nature,” she said. “I’d much rather see the fruit and flowers in this river than the trash you usually find.”

Lyons attributes the popularity of the Odunde Festival and its once-hidden Afro-spiritual practices to social media.

“People are beginning to understand that they have a place and that it needs to be accepted,” said Lyons.

“The fact that we’re able to share those things widely and to say that ‘I’m in Pennsylvania, doing something that’s happening in Ghana, Nigeria, Cuba, wherever,’ ” she said. “People are really looking for something to connect to and I think it’s really showing its head now.”

But Oludina says the centerpiece of Odunde is the marketplace, where the smells of West Indian spices mingle with southern fried chicken as vendors selling t-shirts of the TV show “Good Times” stood next to jewelers selling traditional African beaded necklaces.

“In Yoruba culture, it’s where you go to show what you’ve grown and made with pride,” Oludina explained.

“I’m going to Essence (Music) Festival in New Orleans soon and I’m looking for an outfit,” said Karenmay Marshall, a Harrisburg native as she checked out a rack of wax-printed clothing.

“We don’t have anything like this at home, but I’ve already run into so many people I know,” she said of the festival.

“All my friends had to say was, ‘Come to this African-American festival’ and here I am.”

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