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.
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.
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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."
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?
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?
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).
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. "
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
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,"
After casting the opele,
or divining chain, a babalawo
interprets the message of Ifa. It is said that Ifa speaks
yesterday, today and tomorrow. Photo by James Weeks.
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,
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
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
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
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.
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
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?...
Weeks is an award-winning photographer based in Oakland,
Ca. He is the author of an upcoming book on African shamanism.