Finding Mami Osun: How I reconnected to African Spirituality


Fulham Palace partner Michelle Yaa Asantewa shares her experience reconnecting to the African spirituality of her ancestors.

Fulham Palace’s exhibition ‘The Bishops of London, colonialism and transatlantic slavery: resistance’ examines several forms of spiritual and physical resistance that ultimately led to the end of the transatlantic traffic in enslaved people, and slavery itself, in the British Empire.  Obeah was one such form of resistance.

In this blog, Fulham Palace project partner Michelle Yaa Asantewa recounts her reconnection to the African spirituality of her ancestors after seeing an Obeah practitioner in Guyana.

From as early as I can remember I have been intuitively resistant to mainstream religions. I grew up in Guyana, South America, in a Seven-Day Adventist household. My aunt, all my cousins and my siblings unquestioningly accepted this Christian faith. I shunned it but was not conscious that this was a stance, nor the reasons for it, until much later in my life.

Arriving in the UK at the age of 10, I was expected to continue practising Christianity, in whatever form this took. My mother was a Christian but didn’t discriminate over the denomination. She had adopted the variant form of Unity, a metaphysical branch, set up by US-based husband and wife Charles and Myrtle Filmore. Yet my siblings and I were still attempting to keep up with the Seven-Day Adventist inculcation. I attended an Anglican middle school and was sent each Sunday, often on my own, to the nearby All Saints Anglican church. I resented those Sundays – not because I was alone, but because there was a coldness there that made me feel inwardly lonely. I didn’t enjoy ducking my head for it to be blessed by the priest; this was done while I was kneeling before him – back then I never encountered any female priests. I hadn’t been ‘confirmed,’ a term I didn’t understand then, so I couldn’t receive communion. Unlike my brother and sister, being the youngest I had left Guyana without being baptised, a term I understood better because I’d witnessed the ritual a few times, and as a child I found it terrifying.

One day, when I was about 16 years old, I told my mother I would no longer go back to that church and have since never formally returned. I give this background, not because it’s in any way unique, but precisely because of its familiarity and normalisation for most spiritual practitioners. More than any other groups that make up the human family, Africans/Black people, en masse, practice religions that are not explicitly part of our indigenous cultural heritage. I say ‘explicitly’ to mitigate arguments about the African origins of all the major Western religions as outlined by Dr Yosef Ben-Jochannan and other Black scholars and historians. What I’m referring to are expressions of cosmology, cosmogony, spiritual belief and ways of life that are not included in the mainstream, but rather demonised by it precisely because of their African indigeneity.

While many acknowledge that this predilection toward these mainstream religions is the result of slavery and colonisation, some believe our dislocation from African Indigenous Spiritual Systems is an inherited blessing of colonisation and enslavement. Admittedly I have seen changes in the past 30 years, with some reluctant acknowledgment of, if not any meaningful reverence for, our ancestors; but any association and interaction with such systems continue to be denounced as demonic and riddled with scorn. Of course, at one time, I also had no knowledge of these systems, but through what I have come to accept as some type of psycho-spiritual initiation I stumbled on this path and have never looked back to the religious dogma of Western religions.

In 1996, two semesters short of completing my undergraduate degree, I experienced dissociation. I have written and spoken about this elsewhere and continue to do so to give context to my assertion that Black people are disproportionally sectioned and placed in mental health or psychiatric hospitals when they should be accorded the consideration that their conditions may also point to a spiritual experience and cultural referent.

By ‘dissociation’ I mean that I was hearing voices or having a sensation that something/beings are communicating with me, some of them malevolent, some benevolent: pulling my locks out by hand, suicidal attempts and thoughts, vivid, sometimes prophetic dreams, delusional ideas about being ‘Christ-like’ – in so far as I believed I could heal others – not walk on water and having no interest to engage with the realities of the material world. I could go on, but again, none of the foregoing symptoms are unique or mystical.

The intensity of this experience meant I could not complete my degree, at that time, and was considered ‘ill.’ Family members avoided me and treated me as though I was an escaped monster. After all, I was now speaking in an assumed voice – my original Guyanese accent had returned with vigor; it was judgemental, admonishing and foreboding. Some of my symptoms, through a Western interpretive lens, would point to mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. In many indigenous cultures, including Europeans, notably prior to their Enlightenment, these would be considered a sign/calling for initiation or to raise awareness about some ancestral spiritual experiences that need attention. Take a look at the TED Talk: ‘Psychosis or Spiritual Awakening,’ by Phil Borges, or the recent interview on the Ancestral Voices platform: ‘Mental Health or Spiritual Gift’ with medicine healer Gogo Ekhaya Esima, for examples of what I mean. Further, the Burkinabe Shaman, Malidoma Patrice Somé, in his book Of Water and the Spirit, details his initiatory calling, which was at once psychic and spiritual, but never dehumanised or discredited in his tradition simply as a mental health crisis.

Eventually, I found a way to return to Guyana. I stayed away for a year; being away from the realities of living in London, to rest my tired ‘head’ on ‘home’ soil, to feel rooted, gave me time to try to understand and interpret what the dissociative experiences were all about. I consider this recuperative period invaluable to my spiritual development. Of course, moons later, I would learn about ‘patient explanatory models’ but back then I was alone in trying to assess my condition.

I saw an Obeah practitioner who directed me to honouring my ancestors, connecting with the sacredness of water – in Guyana we have many. I did offerings and was immersed in the sweet, black waters of our rivers, the muddy, salty Atlantic and the clear spring waters that embody varying energies I have since found in African spirituality. Watermamma, as we in Guyana, would refer to Mami Wata, is also linked to the duality of Yemaya/Olukun of the sea and Mami Osun of the rivers and lakes (found in Yoruba culture), Ava, Idemmili, Obguide/Uhmammiri (Igbo), Simbi (Bakongo), Jengu (Duala, Bakweri – Cameroon) and many other African water spirits.

The spiritualist/Obeah practitioner assured me that I could revere my ancestors and go to the river/seas wherever I lived. That was over two decades ago. I now openly celebrate my ancestors, do rituals at my local river in honour of Mami Osun, and seven years ago invited others to (re)connect with her healing waters as a collective, communal practice linked to the two-week annual Osun Osogbo festival that takes place in Southeastern Nigeria every August.

I have learnt to live with the marginalisation and misrepresentation of African Spirituality, as well as the ostracization that is inherent when you embrace what so many have disregarded. Even as I write this post, I was refused the development of a website for the Annual River Ritual to Mami Osun because the developer is a Christian and said it clashed with his faith; he’s from South Africa. Earlier this week, an article surfaced on social media about Muslims warning an Osun priestess not to proceed with her plans for a 3-day long Isese (traditional) festival in honour of the deity in the local region of Nigeria, Ilorin, that they share.

While some celebrate the Church’s belated apology for its role in slavery and the so-called ‘Transatlantic Slave Trade,’ this apology does not acknowledge that the Church’s role remains a divide-and-conquer strategy that separates many from their cultural heritage, including that of their indigenous spirituality. Shame, denigration, fear and familial fragmentation contribute to this ongoing struggle. While others have dedicated spaces to worship – mosques, churches, temples – and recognised religious days to honour their religions, in the UK Africans have none.

I will never accept the derogation of my ancestors, for whom veneration is fundamental to the practice of any form of African Indigenous Spirituality. And I will continue to celebrate and invite others to honour Mami Osun; for after the loss of so much of my cultural heritage, this keeps me aligned with and connected to my purpose.


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