The Roads of Yemoja: Archiving the Light 
The Roads of Yemoja (6/6)

The Roads of Yemoja: Archiving the Light 

Analog triptychs from Cuba, Nigeria, and Benin depicting scenes of cultural transmission through a mixture of intimate portraits, religious ceremonies, and ritual objects from the three countries.


(Left) “Orisha spirituality is everywhere.” Omitonade Ifawemimo Egbelade, 30, is a priestess of Yemoja in the city of Ibadan. Her faith travelled far and wide. It has been transmitted from generation to generation among descendants of slaves all across the Atlantic. “I am grateful. Thanks to them, people here in Nigeria are also able to return to their roots today.” Ibadan, Nigeria. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) The wooden statue standing on the altar is named Ogunlekki. It is sacred and represents Yemoja, “the mother of all orishas.” In Yoruba religion, Yemoja is the deity of the sea. She symbolises maternity and abundance. Ibadan, Nigéria. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) Transculturation is a concept developed by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz to describe the process of cultures merging together. That is how the Black Virgin of Regla can be the centerpiece of a procession in honor of Yemaya. French anthropologist Roger Bastide called this process of hiding African deities behind Catholic saints “Black Gods With White Masks”. Santeria emerged as the syncretic religious system that blended Yoruba religious practices with Spanish catholicism and spiritism. In Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, the only way for Africans to survive cultural annihilation was to take hostage all the Catholic saints. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Omi Soore Funmi 

(Left) This photographic archive of Remigio Herrera belongs to Juan Lozano Gomes, the curator of the museum of Regla. Herrera, a former slave of Yoruba origin, was a pioneer in Ifa religion in Cuba. When they were disembarked, deported Africans had to take the name of their “owner” and embrace Catholicism. Maintaining and transmitting their African faith was a form of cultural resistance. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) Omi, ṣoore fun mi.” (“Oh water do good for me.”) is a prayer that Sidikat utters before every important event. The shop owner and mother of six was initiated into Yemoja many years ago. In the city Abeokuta, the Ogun river is said to be the cradle of the deity. Called Yemaya or Aflekete in Cuba, and Lemanja in Brazil, she is also worshipped under many names in West and Central Africa. Abeokuta, Nigéria. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) In one of Havana’s largest parks, a Yemoja worshipper prays to the river. In Cuba, the belief system that stems from Yoruba faith is called Regla de Ocha (“the Rule of Orisha”) while Regla Arara originates mainly from the Ewe-Fon tradition. These spiritualities are based on the belief in one single God (called Olodumare by the Yoruba and Mawu-Lisa by the Ewe-Fon)–creator of mankind–and his messengers called orisha (vodun in the Ewe-Fon tradition). Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Procession to the Sea

(Left) The virgin of Regla is considered the patroness of the bay. She also represents Yemaya, orisha of the oceans. This procession of the cabildo of Yemaya first appears in public records in 1921. It stopped in 1961, a few years into the Castroist revolution, only to start again in 2015. Regla, Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) The virgin of Regla is a Black virgin inspired by a statue in Chipiona, Spain. The night before the procession, the statue is accessible for prayers and offerings at the house of the curator of the Museum of Regla. Regla, Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) The white clothing, ritual beads, red parrot feather on the hat, and the procession and rites to the water are all religious codes shared by vodun-orisha practitioners on both sides of the Atlantic. White and blue are the colors of Yemoja in Nigeria, Mamiwata and Aflekete in Benin, Iemandja in Brazil, and, of course, Yemaya in Cuba. Regla, Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Aflekete, Mamiwata, Yemaya 

(Left) Yannay de las Mercedes Rodriguez Gutierrez is initiated into the Afro-Cuban religion borne out of animist Vodun beliefs, Catholicism, and spiritism. She is a daughter of Yemaya-Aflekete. “She is my guardian angel. Without her I am nothing.” Religious syncretism in Cuba is so vivid that deities are equally called vodun, orisha, or saints. Matanzas, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) This painted representation of Mamiwata lays on a ritual house in a beach in Ouidah, near the Door of No-Return, a monument erected in memory of Africans deported during the slave trade. Ouidah was overtaken in the 18th century by the kingdom of Danxomè, famous for its military expansion and active participation in the Transatlantic slave trade. Authorities of Danxomè provided captives to the Europeans, exchanging them for fire arms and other supplies. Ouidah, Benin. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) “I am a son of Yemaya. She represents the ideal of respect. She is the loving mother that always forgives her children. Here in Cuba, Yoruba and Arara faiths are safeguarded, respected, and loved by Whites, Blacks and Chinese people,” says Francisco Ung Villanueva. Nicknamed el Chino, this prominent oba (religious leader) is a descendant of Chinese indentured laborers brought from China in the 19th century. Back then, living conditions for Chinese peons was so close to that of African and creole slaves that many Chinese embraced religions of African origin. Regla, Havana. ©Laeïla Adjovi

El que no tiene de Congo

(Left)El que no tiene de Congo, tiene de Carabali.” (“The one that has nothing of the Congo has something of Carabali.”) This popular Cuban adage means that “everyone in Cuba has an African ancestor or has practices of African descent, or something to do with that African heritage,” says Evelyn de Dios. “And that is true even if you are as white as milk.” Evelyn is from an atheist family from the city of Cienfuegos and was initiated into Yemaya years ago. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) The shekere is a ritual and musical instrument used in Nigeria, Cuba and Benin. Music played a crucial role in transmission. Africans deported from the continent were not allowed an access to education in Cuba. Music and dance remained ways to encapsulate collective memory. Ibadan, Nigeria. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) Dede Dekpo is a Vodun priestess in the coastal village of Meko, near Ouidah, Benin. Ouidah is famous for its history as a slave port during the transatlantic slave trade. In Meko, most villagers worship a deity called Mami Apouke, an avatar of Mamiwata, a name for the West African deity of the sea. The ways to worship and honor this vodun, as well as the offerings to please her, are in many ways similar to the rites for Yemoja and Yemaya. Meko, Benin. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Transatlantic Fervor 

(Left) Offerings to the sea or to the river are common denominators in the worship of Yemoja, Yemaya, Mamiwata and Aflekete, deities of the sea in Cuba, Nigeria, and Benin. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) In the town of Ouidah, these two sisters, the grand-daughters of the religious leader Dada Daagbo Hounon Houna II, were initiated into Aflekete and Agbe, deities of the sea. Facing each other in front of a temple as if a mirror was between them, this scene illustrates the bond between practitioners from both sides of the Atlantic. Ouidah, Bénin. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) Despite some memory gaps in her religious heritage, Regla Maria Fernandez Madan, daughter of Yemaya, transmits what she can to her two sons, both initiated to the water deity. In her family house, a water source sprung from the ground several generations ago. The family took it as a blessing from Yemaya. Every year, devotees from the region gather to pay respect and make offerings here. Agramonte, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Of Stones and Cowries

(Left) Avlessi Zoundin Hounon Houna was seven years old when she went for a retreat to be initiated into Aflekete. In Benin, Aflekete is one of the wives of Agbe, another sea deity. “When there is anger on the sea, and a high tide, Aflekete comes to appease Agbe and brings the low tide,” reveals Avlessi. Aflekete is also the name given to Yemaya in the Regla Arara, in Cuba. Avlessi is thus an initiate’s name that crossed over to the Caribbean. Ouidah, Benin. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) In Cuba, clandestine African deities, represented by stones and cowries, were hidden in tureens. In this room decorated for the anniversary of the initiation of Yamilka de la Caridad Cejas Molinet, Yemaya and Obatala are thus present in these dishes. Agramonte, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) Yamilka de la Caridad Cejas Molinet is a daughter of Yemaya. Her syncretic spirituality blends Catholicism, Regla de Ocha, and Regla Palo Monte. Agramonte, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Nature and Ancestors

(Left) African and Afro-Cuban spiritualities are based on a web of animist beliefs. Located in the slave barracks of a former sugar factory, this tree, called Palo de Ogun, has been used for rituals to Ogun, the deity of iron, machines and technology. According to a local resident, despite the obligation to practice Catholicism, the owner and plantation supervisors turned a blind eye on the rituals: “In years when the tree was not fed, there were serious accidents.” Matanzas, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) Enrique Armando Barroso is a religious leader in Regla Arara. Enrique is a son of Hebioso, deity of thunder––named Shango in Yoruba mythology. Enrique dreams of learning more about Vodun religion by one day traveling to Benin, said to be the ancestral source of the Arara religion. Matanzas, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) The room of assin in the family house of my clan in Ouidah. An assin is a portable altar dedicated to an ancestor. My grandfather’s assin is in this room. Although ancestor-worship is a common trait in African and Afro Cuban rites, this specific Beninese practice of assin does not seem to have crossed over. Ouidah, Benin. ©Laeïla Adjovi

Iwa Pele

(Left) This doll of Yemaya has sat on Tomasa Hernandez Hernandez’s bed for years. It has been a companion in times of despair, symbolising the bond between the santera (female Santeria practitioner) and her guardian orisha. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) Tomasa’s mother was initiated into Yemaya after the Cuban revolution, at a time when all religions were banned by the socialist regime. Tomasa says her own faith helped her through the hardest times of her life, including the loss of a son to cancer. She claims that keeping alive their deities is what helped Africans survive the hell of slavery and safeguard their humanity. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) In Yoruba spirituality, one believes in an invisible world of deities and ancestors here to help and guide us. In the dark, lies a dense web of forces that have nothing to do with the devil or witchcraft, albeit what Christian missionaries portrayed. According to Omitonade Ifawemimo Egbelade, Yoruba priestess of Yemoja, “In Yoruba spirituality, doing good and having a gentle character is crucial. Iwa Pele is very important. Iwa means “character” while Pele means “gentle”). Otherwise you cannot work with the orisha.” Ibadan, Nigeria. ©Laeïla Adjovi

The Great Return

(Left) Djedatin Hounon Metohon Houna was initiated into Agbe, the deity of the sea for the Houeda and Xwla communities in Ouidah. “We all already know that our ancestors were taken during the trade. But a man standing always holds a spirit. Our culture lives on with our brothers and sisters on the other side. It can never be erased.” Ouidah, Benin. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Center) This archive found in the home of Teresa Mederos Gomes is an old newspaper promoting Ouidah 1992, a festival in which African diasporas from the Caribbeans were invited to Benin to reconnect. That is how a Cuban family from the small town of Jovellanos managed to live their dream and set foot on the land of their ancestors. This letter written by the forefather of the Baro family, Esteban Baro Tosu, traces their Beninese lineage. Havana, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

(Right) Suilen Mercedes Torres Mederos is the great-great-granddaughter of Esteban Baro Tosu. She follows the Arara religious tradition and is the last generation of a long lineage. The role of women in transmission of African spiritualities has been immense. Initiated by her great-grandmother, Suilen knows her responsibility: “Religion is the root of our family. It is what keeps us united.” Jovellanos, Cuba. ©Laeïla Adjovi

*All images are copyrighted by Laeïla Adjovi and may not be copied, reproduced, republished, redistributed, or modified without her written consent.

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Laeïla Adjovi is a Beninese-French reporter, photographer and visual artist based in Dakar, Senegal. In 2020, she became the first recipient of the ArtsEverywhere Fay Chiang Fellowship for Artistic Journalism.

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