I still have questions I long to ask him. Our eyes only tell part of the story. Our ears, on the other hand, habitually deceive us. And so we return to diviners again and again for insights far beyond the reach of our physical senses. Armed with mystic knowledge, disparate things begin to make sense: the sudden silence of a co-worker, requests from acquaintances that seem so sincere, broken promises, bruised feelings, ruptured friendships. Ifa, the great spirit, sees it all, it has been said. And if the words of Ifa do not come to pass in the morning — they'll materialize at night.

Audio

My encounter with Dr. Afolabi Epega was brief – too brief. We often spoke in both Yoruba and English. We laughed a lot as he shared his knowledge of Ifa. Here are a few fleeting excerpts of our conversation. Join us.

Yoruba philosophy

 
Accepting truth  
Sacrifice  
The sacred Odus  
Integrity and training  
Apprenticeship  
The sacred Obi  
Questioning the obi oracle  
Passing over  

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"I can do this in my sleep," Dr. Afolabi Epega, acclaimed Ifa diviner and friend once told me. "I can always tell you what's happening without being there, and you'll find out that invariably it will be so. A lot of it depends on our analytical ability; Ifa is an intellectual challenge, but the beauty is also the ethical teachings and the philosophy that will guide the young ones in the future; it's a body of knowledge that has been handed down by the priest-prophet Orunmila to help people shape their lives. That's why we call it the ancient wisdom — the supreme guidance."

I'm a student Ifa diviner. Some of the questions I have for Dr. Epega are personal. Others are theoretical — quirky facts that might swiftly bore those that are not in our profession or way of life. I want to hear more about his lifelong quest to bridge the gap between science and religion. When he did he start making the link between science and religion? Between mathematics and divination? Between matter and spirit? I'm also hoping he can clarify some questions and doubts I have about Obi divination, one of the divination systems employed by the Yoruba to access the world of spirit and the ancestors.

Of course, I also want to learn more about my own destiny and the orisas, the divine spirits or deities of the Yoruba tradition that guide and protect us during this sojourn on earth. Why do some orishas play a more dominant role in our day-to-day lives than others and why is there hardly a mention of the majority of orishas that are said to exist in the Yoruba pantheon?

Unfortunately, Dr. Afolabi Epega, an accomplished scientist with an honors degree in organic chemistry and a 5th generation Ifa priest, or babalawo, who penned Ifa: The Ancient Wisdom, Obi: The Mystical Oracle and co-authored The Sacred Ifa Oracle, is no longer physically present to answer my questions nor yours. We have been forced to resume our lectures on a higher level.


Statue of Oddudwa, the father of the Yorubas,
in Ile Ife Nigeria. Photo by James Weeks
 

I was on another phone call when Eugene Kwiers, a fellow Ifa priest and close friend of mine, left me a message explaining how Dr. Epega suddenly died on Wednesday, August 30th, 2006. Not feeling well, Epega was rushed to a hospital earlier that day. His blood pressure was high, friends say and within hours, this well-known scholar and mentor and friend, slipped into a coma and died. Like many in the Ifa community, I was shocked and saddened. I thought about him throughout the day and night. Then, after I arose the following morning, I began the task my spirit assigned, I started writing about the brief moments Dr. Epega and I shared together. How much time was it? A total of 8 hours altogether? Maybe 9? 10?

I still have his neat handwriting in one of my notebooks; it's a mathematical analysis of how the Chinese I-Ching differs from Obi and Ifa divination. The Obi oracle is based on the mathematics of 2 raised to the 4th power, whereas Ifa is based on 2 to the 8th power. The I-Ching, on the other hand, is based on 2 raised to the 6th power. In other section of my notes, with his guidance, I drew a sketch of the how the Ifa religion is organized. He said it was important to know this, in the event I am called to lecture on Ifa one day. On the very top of the chart is Olodumare, God in Yoruba belief. Then, below, to the right, is Orunmila, the priest-prophet of Ifa, the orisa that presides over divination. "Everybody, the orisas, the egungun (ancestors) goes to Orunmila for divination. He's the spokesman of the system, like Jesus Christ to Christianity." Orunmila is followed by Akoda and Asheda, the first two disciples of Orunmila who taught Ifa to the world. Then, in descending order, comes the ancestors, Ifa priests and priestesses and Ifa devotees. The left-hand portion of the chart begins with Obatala, the orisa credited with shaping the first human beings out of clay. Obatala, Orunmila and Olodumare form a sacred trinity. Then, under Obatala comes the other orisas, the 400-plus divine forces that are said to be greater than humankind but less then God. Next in rank, said Epega, are the ancestors, priests and priestesses of the various orisas and finally, the devotees. Finally, I was instructed to draw a line down the middle of the chart to represent Esu, the divine messenger who interacts with all of the orisas and dutifully delivers our sacrifices to odo orun (the heavens).

Predating Christianity by some 10, 000 years, Ifa is an African philosophy that germinated and flowered among the Yoruba peoples of Southwest Nigeria. This vibrant mélange of spirituality, art, literature, history, ethics, dance, metaphysics, divination, poetry, medicine, sacrifice and ancestor worship is the most studied African religion in the world. Dr. Epega was also of the opinion that Ifa, because of its antiquity, was the "first system" and that Christianity, Islam and Buddhism borrowed heavily from it. The concept of yin and yang, for example, often attributed to the Chinese, also exists in Ifa. "

Study the movement of forces," Epega often said as we discussed the intricacies of Ifa divination. And we spoke of principles of light, principles of darkness and the sacred odus, the divine forces which "represent all the activities in the universe and are applicable to every event in the past as well as in the future." Ifa is a nature religion, he added, and when we "break the rules of nature, nature breaks us."

"Marketplace" Ile Ife, Nigeria. Photo by James Weeks.
 

The concept of absolute good doesn't exist in Ifa, Epega said. Nothing is absolutely good nor absolutely evil. There is good in evil and evil in good. Illness, for example, is hardly desirable, yet it might force us to re-examine our life and reshape our values. A well deserved promotion on the job is great, but it may cause envy among peers and the extra hours that comes along with the extra pay, might also cause tension at home.

My sessions with Dr. Epega were fascinating (and entertaining). For the longest while, I kept his notes of the very first (and last) divination that he performed for me. It was around the time when my oldest son was acting like a thug. Although, I have that session recorded on tape, I can no longer find the notes. Perhaps I misplaced them or maybe I finally tossed them away. After the shock of a loved one's departure, we grasp for tangible (and intangible) traces of their presence. Still hearing his laughter and feeling his warmth I know our bond is intact, but it's hard to believe that the sacred odu, the divine energy that animates all things, has left his body. Dr. Epega's untimely passing was another reminder of the Yoruba proverb that "earth is the marketplace and heaven is our home." In the meantime, we must maximize our potential and savor the remaining moments that we have together.

Dr. Epega, or Baba (Father) Epega and I met approximately five times during the 3-year period that I knew him, and every now and then, we spoke by phone. His acclaim as an Ifa diviner made him somewhat of a nomad. Sometimes, when the spirit prompted me to call, I would reach him by cell phone in Florida. On other occasions, I might find him in Texas or New York. And in some instances, when I dialed 832-512-9742, and he wouldn't answer for weeks at a time, I knew he was back home in his native Nigeria, visiting family, conducting research, performing Ifa initiations or perhaps just relaxing. We always spoke in both Yoruba, my adopted language, and English. "Yoruba dun so." (Yoruba is sweet to speak). I loved his deep voice and hearty laugh. It was contagious. I too, at times, would burst out laughing at some of our interplay during many of our one-on-one sessions that I taped-recorded whenever he breezed through Oakland, California.


Keyinde and one of his laying hens.
Photo by James Weeks
 

"Se o gbadun ategun?" (Are you enjoying the breeze?), he inquired as I showed up for class at the house of a friend of his one evening. "Bee ni," (Yes), I responded, "Mo gbadun ategun gidi gaan" (I'm enjoying the breeze very much). We spoke of many things over the years: his childhood, his wife, Olujumoke and his late grandfather, Rev. D. Onadele Epega, the famous author of Ifa books, who in 1994, founded the Imole Oluwa Institute in Nigeria, in an effort to keep Ifa — the ancient wisdom of the Yorubas -- alive. We also spoke of death. In Yoruba culture, he pointed out, "we don't fear death as they do in the West. Death is seen as an obligation of life. The spirit never dies. We believe in the immortality of the soul."

I remember looking him in the eye as he spoke of the immortality of the soul. There was no hesitation in his voice. It was obvious that he did, but I wasn't there yet. Yes, the Yoruba concept of the egungun (ancestors) sounded plausible, I supposed, but could it really be true? My doubts withered and faith blossomed the following spring when I met the famous medium Robert Brown, author of We Are Eternal, at a class on psychic development, sponsored by the Learning Annex in San Francisco. On that unforgettable day, my departed grandmother Alma Eugenie Balfour Doward made a "guest appearance" via Robert Brown and spoke to my eldest son, Malcolm. Since then, I think about my grandmother every day. I invoke her and ask her to walk with me.

Sometimes I get angry and question whether I'm being led in the right direction as I continue my studies. In a world that reveres only that which can be seen, following the dictates of the unseen can often feel foolish and unwise. And that's how I feel at times, like a damned fool. But deep down inside, I know that the real fool is one who chooses to ignore the whispers from the unseen.

Baba Epega was hardly surprised when I told him about my experience at Robert Brown's seminar. "Your grandmother is the one working with you," he said. "She's the one responsible for all of the positive changes. She's the one that sent you into Ifa so that you can be in a position to help many people." He urged me to meditate with her and to invoke her presence when I divine. In time, he said, my connection with her might grow so strong that I might actually hear her voice when I walk the streets. "Just call her name three times. Pray for her to rest in peace and at the same time, to give you her spiritual power to do whatever you want to do."

And he always stressed the importance of patience. "Ki lo kanju fun?" (What are you rushing for?), Baba Epega sometimes asked rhetorically as he fretted and vented about how Ifa is often practiced in the U.S. It's a house that's being rapidly built — without a sturdy foundation. Epega wasn't the only one disturbed by this trend. "I am concerned that people have distorted the meaning and message of our culture for their own ends," says Dr. Wande Abimbola, renowned Ifa scholar in the book, Ifa Will Mend Our Broken World. "People are not serious about the religion, and they are commercializing it. I know that if we are not careful, it may lead to the extinction of this religion, or the creation of a new type of spirituality that is no longer regarded as Yoruba," says Abimbola.

After casting the opele, or divining chain, a babalawo
interprets the message of Ifa. It is said that Ifa speaks of
yesterday, today and tomorrow. Photo by James Weeks.
 

I understand where Epega and Abimbola are coming from. Rushing is undoubtedly the American way — it permeates our thinking and behavior in ways we're not always aware of, and the advertising industry fuels the madness by hawking products and services that guarantee results in 30 days or less: rapid weight loss, a firm butt, torso, waistline, inner peace, fluency in another language, a passionate relationship, mega wealth, and of course, happiness.

But spiritual growth and understanding cannot be sped along. It has been said that "one who cannot follow ants cannot follow Ifa." In Nigeria, Ifa diviners must study and apprentice for years before they practice their craft. In the U.S., fumed Epega, it is difficult to find committed students. "Won ko fe ko eko" (they don't want to study), he said, "Won fe oruko" (they want power and fame).

Clients, on the other hand, Epega said, seek "readings" from diviners but don't want to listen. "People want to hear what they want to hear. They can't handle the truth. They want you to confirm their thinking. They are looking for magic, but you're not a magician, you're a priest. Divination is to make you think in many ways, other than one — to see things from different perspectives — to give you alternatives. If you want a reading, then we have to do the reading and tell you what the reading says. But are you in a position to deal with it? Many people are not."

Our task as student diviners, he once told me, is to study. "Knowledge is important and it must be embraced." We must also "divine without fear or favor" and tell the truth because "the truth is the word that never spoils." And once we divine and perform the necessary rituals and sacrifices on behalf of our clients, our next task is to "leave it in the hands of the orisas." How soon will clients see the results? I once asked. "It could be immediately; it could take a few days; it could take a month — 10 months. It all has to be worked out between them, the ancestors and the orisas. All you can do as a priest is to pray and to work with the forces to bring it to fruition." He once shared an anecdote about one prediction that took 10 years to become reality.


Be prepared to offer something of value(money, a gift, a service)
when you go for spiritual consultation. Photo by James Weeks
 

And Epega said that we should "allow room for failure, so that we can learn from our mistakes." I didn't agree with all of his views. I didn't share his views on gay people, for example. He believed in the "traditional family," he said. I believe in tolerance and in being open minded; the sexual preference of others isn't our business. I also believe the spiritual community needs to take a hard look at sexism in Yoruba culture and all cultures. I was planning to diplomatically air some of these views with Dr. Epega at some point in the future, but looking back, I realize that I gambled; I assumed I had more time with him than I really had. Most of us are gamblers, squandering the present, we borrow from a future that holds no promise.

But at least my spirit was racing far ahead of my conscious mind. After our last session, I asked for permission to take a few photos of him, something I had never done before. He donned his traditional agbada, and we walked outdoors. The session wasn't as spontaneous as I would have liked as a professional photographer, but we were both pressed for time. He had a lunch date with another student and I had to get back to my office.

When I heard of his death I wondered if he had been taking care of himself. Did he see his own end coming? Was he doing the necessary sacrifices and rituals to avert danger? Maybe other diviners were not "watching his back." After all, has it not been said that "ofari ko le fa ori are re" (a barber can't cut his own hair). I don't have answers for these questions. These too, must be tabled until we meet again.

Epega once said "once a diviner, always a diviner." He will return again to perform the work he loved. Who knows, perhaps he already has, and we're too grief-stricken to hear his mischievous laughter. When I amass enough knowledge and confidence, to begin my career as a diviner, I know Dr. Epega will be whispering over my shoulder, guiding me from the heavens as he once did on earth:


Study the movement of forces...
Principles of light...
And principles of darkness...
Spiritual energy flows from heaven to earth...
Air and earth and fire and water...
Ifa is a nature religion...
And when we break the laws of nature...
Nature breaks us...
You must understand the identity of opposites...
Winter and spring, active and inactive, positive and negative...
There is no beginning without end...
And no end without beginning...
There's no going without returning...
The answer, you see, is not in the book...
The answer is on the divination table...
It's not about what you remember...
But about what you see...
The right side of the opele represents male energy...
And the left side of the opele = female energy...
Not too positive — not too negative — Ifa is about balance...
If it's too cool, heat things up — and if it's too hot...
Cool things down...
The right side of the opele represents the beginning...
And the left side of the opele = the end...
Nothing is absolutely good, nor absolutely evil...
There's good in evil and evil in good...
Don't bring your emotions into it...
The Obi will give you a graphic picture...
Of what's happening to the client...
Be open-minded, free and mentally clear...
The right side of the opele represents the future...
And the left side of the opele = the past...
Study the movement of forces religiously...
The right side represents heaven...
And the left side = that which is leaving earth...
Put your mind to it; this is not a joke...
You must be in a position to explain this...
To the next generation...
Once you get the basic framework, interpretation is easy...
It's just a question of hard work and dedication...
With orisa all things are possible...
And with 16 elders in the house of wisdom...
How can we lose our way?...


James Weeks is an award-winning photographer based in Oakland, Ca. He is the author of an upcoming book on African shamanism.

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