Eriwo Ya! had the privilege of interviewing Chief Iya Aina Olomo, priestess of Sango and author of The Core of Fire: A Path to Yoruba Spiritual Activism for this edition’s Our Esteemed Elders column. We thank Iya for her time and her insightful words.
Eriwo Ya!: Iya Aina, as a Yorùbá chief and priestess, you have an impressive background that includes both spiritual and academic training and education. But before we discuss that, can you tell us a bit about your background? Where were you born and where did you grow up? At what point were you introduced to the Yorùbá tradition and what were your first impressions?
Iya Aina: You will see we are learning to refer to ourselves as a collective being, I am as We. We were born on the east coast, in the New Ark [Newark] of New Jersey. We first came in contact with the tradition in school at a Chuck Davis Dance company class. We are now, once again sharing a community with the greatness of Chuck Davis. We like to say, “We found our path at his feet…”
Eriwo Ya!: Describe for us your journey from that initial introduction to the tradition to your first initiation.
Iya Aina: There was a period of more than ten years, maybe fifteen that we practiced and participated in the activities of our spiritual roots prior to our initiation. There are much too many people, days and years for me to begin to share in such a small space. People did not initiate quickly in those beginning days. My initial contact, like most people of my generation, was Lukumi. It is always an honor, and a pleasure to recognize my elders who were the pioneers who introduced and spread African religious and cultural practices in the United States. Our lineage is of Asunta Serano Ascension-Osa Unko and our mentors are Yomi Yomi and Carol Robinson of Bronx, New York.
Eriwo Ya!: I know that you are initiated to Sango, you are an Iyagan, and you are also an Iyalawo. When and where did you receive these initiations?
Iya Aina: You will have to forgive the lack of precision, in terms of dates and the order, the road march has been long and we are just now beginning to realize the volume of work we participated in over the years.
So much is starting to blend together. If we could count from the first day-to-this- day it is getting close to forty years. Much of our path forms the zigzag pattern of Sango’s lightning bolt. Our first chief’s title was Oloriya Leja. The title was authorized by the odu Osa guneja (Osa Ogunda). This made me the head mother or warrior of my community or “Ile” of the time.
We were given the title of HRG (her royal grace) Oloye Iyagan of Trinidad and Tobago by the late crown prince, Oloye Chief Adelekan of Ile-Ife. The “agan” is the cloth that contains the spiritual essence of a collective ancestor. There are many Iyagan(s). Each society or “egbe” of Egungun usually has an Iyagan or an “Iyamode.” Translated it simply means, “Mother of the ancestral cloth” and Iyamode can mean the “Outside Mother of the ancestors.” She is very prevalent when the Egungun dance in parade or appear in ritual among the people. Among our peers or sisters Iyagan(s) or Iyamode(s) we are an Oloye or chief. Most of those duties are not public. Our love of ancestral work was introduced to us by Chief Adenibi Ajamu working with his temple in Miami, Florida.
We first received Iyami from Awo Falokun Fatunmbi.
The title of Oloye Ajidakin of Ile-ife was bestowed upon us by the Ooni of Ile-Ife, Nigeria and the council of Merindilogun Babalawos. This chieftaincy translates loosely to us being “One who wakes Ifa.” We were told we are the first woman to ever have this title and the first person to receive it after it being vacant for 250 years.
Our Ifa initiations were done in Texas, Ile-Ife and Republic of Benin.
In August 2012 His Royal Majesty Alayeluwa Oba Adebolu Adejuigbe Alladahonu Oyewole-Adefunmi II confirmed and notified H.R. M Kpojito Alade Igbo Iyalase Aina Olomo has been appointed and given authority of representation, under the Throne of His Royal Majesty as “Kpojito” of the throne and the Yoruba Diaspora of the Americas via Oyotunji African Village, Sheldon, South Carolina, USA. thus responsible for all future addresses of the crown and throne worldwide.
This historic act of bringing the female forward by our Oba is a tribute to the growing maturity of the diaspora. It demonstrates the seriousness of our intention to reclaim and re-instate the ways of our ancestors. Women must have a role in establishing policy and governing our traditional societies that are not based solely on marriage or motherhood but rather on merit, expertise and commitment to the people.
Naye, loosely translated is understood as being, “Na” having a link to the Mother and “ye” of earth. The Naye Kpojito, in pre-colonial Dahomey, was the female reign-mate of the kings. Naye was a prefix of the Kpojito that she could use. The Kpojito is not a Queen. Queens are traditionally wives and therefore in most African cultures are obedient to their husbands. The Naye Kpojito is not a wife to the king nor is she subservient; her interests like those of the king are the well-being of the society and the throne. In this case, because of our connection to the Great Mother, the Kpojito is spiritually charged with the establishment of a matriarchal system that will return women to their rightful place as co-governing regents of our Yoruba-Fon based religious and cultural communities.
We are a monarchist. Many practitioners in the various strains of Yoruba-based spiritualties are not. This is fine. It is not necessary for everyone. We believe that some people have to be charged with “keeping” the African “royal’ context intact for perusal and retention by the collective memory; our thrones and their lineages supply us with significant historical circumstances, even during so-called-modern times.
Eriwo Ya!: Thank you, Iya, for your willingness to break all of this down for us. Some of our readers may not know what an Iyalawo is. Can you give us some information on that initiation and that role?
Iya Aina: There are many women who have achieved levels of proficiency in our religious traditions. We took the prerogative of self-determination and use the term Iyalawo because we think it best describes us, our journey and now, our seniority. The use of the name came about when we realized men in Ifa went from being an Awo to a Babalawo, when they received Odu, and became babalodu. A woman initiated into Ifa becomes an Iyanifa. However, there was not a nomenclature that distinguished senior Iyanifas from our sisters who are just starting their training. We feel as an Iyalase we can use “Iyalawo or mother of mystery” because we carry multiple titles and have produced bodies of work in the ancestral realm, Orisa level, Ifa’s work, Gelede, Ise Awon Iyami and we bear responsibilities to the thrones of our kings, the Obas. We publish under Iyalawo in Africa and the United States. We are a mother of Yoruba-based spiritualty and culture in the diaspora. It is an easier catch-all reference; Iyalawo is a practical definition.
Eriwo Ya!: Your book The Core of Fire: A Path to Yoruba Spiritual Activism was widely acclaimed and received. What inspired you to write this book? What would you say is the central message or teaching of this book?
Iya Aina: The motivation….We are a spiritual activist. An activist is a healer of society’s illness. They point out its dysfunctions. We love our culture and spirituality but there are many aspects that should be re-visited, re-structured and “healed.” The central message is many of the ways we practice our religious rituals must change. The inspiration for my work is Sango, my deity and my life’s partner on this incredible journey
We have also made contributions to other publications and books: African Spirituality, Social Capital and Self Reliance; “Accepting Destiny” in IFA: The Yoruba God of Divination in Nigeria and the United States; “Sango; Beyond Male and Female” in Sango in Africa and the African Diaspora. We wrote the Invocation in, Toyin Falola The Man, The Mask, The Muse and “Iyami Osoronga: Primordial Mothers in Yoruba Spirituality” in Goddesses in World Cultures. We also have an essay in the soon-to-be published book on Esu.
Eriwo Ya!: In an interview you did in 2010 you spoke much about the Iyaami. In that interview you said that the energy of the Iyaami was largely misunderstood in the West, which has created an imbalance within our communities. Now, three years later, do you still consider this to be the case? How would you explain the energy of the Iyaami to those who may know little, or nothing, about this energy?
Iya Aina: We understand that cosmology of Iyami is misunderstood, in fact that is clearer now than it was when we did that interview. Iyaami is too complex a theology for me to go into in-depth in this interview. Suffice it to say, Awon Iyaami Osoronga, Our Mother the Sorceress, Eleiye-bird owners, Iya Aye’re, Mino, and the advisors to Olodumare are just some of the various aspects of the primordial mother as the feminine functions of the universe.
The “Ultimate She” is not only the long nose “witch” or the wise and psychic women wearing pointed hats and sprouting prophecies. Our Mother is a complex primal force of the creation and the universe.
Eriwo Ya!: I am sure that through your experiences and travels you have learned many lessons over the years. What are some of the most important lessons you have learned? What advice would give to those just starting out on this journey in the Yorùbá tradition?
Iya Aina: Beeni, my advice is simple, you cannot and should not practice this tradition unless you love it…To those starting out we ask them, “Please don’t waste the time; do not to be a distraction to those who are destined to be priests.” These ancestral ways are not a psychic hotline nor are they new age experiments. We also want to say that everyone who is initiated is not a priest. Many people are initiates, the very important support team needed for major rituals. The person we all “initiate” for is our self if we can assist others it is nice but guiding others it is not an automatic conclusion of initiation. An African traditional priest is no different than any other religious cleric, imam, rabbi, nun, minister or monk, in order to do this work a person must have a calling to serve, training and a destiny that equips them with the virtue of endurance. A neophyte may be cheated, deceived, betrayed and socially isolated but if this spiritual tradition and culture is your destiny-keep going. Distractions are only the tests that fortify us. It is the revelations, the mysteries and the affirmations that you in- perience not ex-perience that will make your endurance worthwhile. Priesthood is a hard and bumpy road with very few earthly rewards; it’s traveled in the midst of critics, detractors and ingrates.
What don’t kill or cure, you’ll learn to endure. Most of what we go through is either a lesson or a blessing; and the lessons are the blessings. We would not trade the intimacy we have cultivated with the divine for any other path.
Eriwo Ya!: Thank you Iya! Are there any upcoming events you will be involved in that you would like to share with our readers?
Iya Aina:Beeni, On April 19-21, at the Hilton Garden Inn in Raleigh, North Carolina the “Daughters of Odu Ifa” will host its first in a series of “Gatherings” designed to stimulate spiritual growth and strengthen basic hands-on techniques of Ifa devotees.
Men and women are invited to bring their hand-of-Ifa, their mats and notebooks. Attendance does not incur or infer any spiritual affiliation the program’s intent is purely educational. Oloye Fayomi Falade Obafemi-Aworeni, Awo Falokun and our self are three of the elders and priests of Ifa who are the first instructors. For additional information contact any of us on Facebook.