The Smell of My City: Interview with a Babalao Priest

By Amrit

HAVANA TIMES, June 21 – “Brujería” (witchcraft); that was the word we whispered among ourselves.  While en route to school we had discovered, next to the ceiba tree, some eggs and bananas tied up in a red piece of ribbon… neither my sisters nor any other kid I remember knew what it meant.  With a mixture of repulsion and curiosity, we tried only to steer clear of those bundles.

But…was there a smell? I really don’t remember.  But if there was, I’m sure it was not the same one that makes my son and I hold our breaths when we walk along the beach in Cojimar.  He helps me collect shells and snails that I use in my artisanal work, however we have to dig these out from underneath rancid bones and feathers that are found along the shore.

“It’s because this is where the river and the sea converge…you see?” explained a fisherman, very seriously.  Emphatically, he added, “Those are Oshun and Yemaya, the orishas (saints)!”  He was sure that this answer was enough.

A friend who works as a lifeguard also told me, “In Bacuranao they even kill goats…”  In the middle of the day I asked, thinking of the swimmers.

“At any time!” my friend responded. “There’s a man who goes around every day to pick up the carcasses.  I don’t know if he sells them or eats them, but he seems he lives off that.”

Just after that conversation, while at the end of the bridge that connects the Alamar community with Cojimar, I saw two bloody sacks with horns sticking out.  A cloud of flies hung over the bags.

If I ever emigrated, I wonder if the memory of that stench would ever be erased, like some people say happens to recollections of the heat here, and of the jam-packed buses and blackouts.

In Fraternity Park, in Centro Havana, at the base of the towering tree planted in soils imported from the countries of the Americas, I look at the remains of animals in plastic bags dispersed among the roots. mThat makes me think of the painstaking efforts by teams inspectors battling Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes in furious fumigation campaigns, in addition to all the television spots that pummel us with HYGIENE, HYGIENE, HYGIENE…

When crossing the park at H and 21st streets, in the Vedado neighborhood, I had to turn my head when I spotted a pig’s head at the foot of another ceiba tree, and (once again) I had to hold my breath.

I asked my mother, “How did Havana smell in the 70s?”

“It smelled clean,” she replied.

Knowing that memory is selective, I decided to investigate this with a babalao priest who consented to be interviewed, though on the conditions that I not show his face (I recorded the interview with a camera) and that he could use a pseudonym, “Eyiobe Meyi.”

HT: How long have you practiced the Yoruba religion?

Eyiobe Meyi: Well, I’m going to turn 71, and I went through the santo ritual when I was nine…

Was it your parents who introduced you to this?

My parents didn’t have anything to do with it.  It happened that I got sick and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.  My grandmother, who was from the Canary Islands, took me to see some Africans.  I can tell you that everything they told me regarding my life, my travels and so on has turned out to be true…

But this was something that’s not the same these days.

Do you mean that there are now babalao priests who are fake, or fraudsters?

Those have always existed.  What I’m saying is that now religion has become commercialized.  Look, there was a babalao who they called “ticket and passport” because he worked so that people could leave the country.  (We laughed.)  I’m going to charge you a percentage for that, you know? (We laughed again.)  No, no, seriously, because my sign says that I should charge everybody.  I have to charge you, even if it’s only a dime.

I don’t have a problem with that

Also, it used to be that the babalao priests and santeros were very united; now there are certain differences between them in how to perform rituals.  In some places it’s the Oriate who kills the animals, but this should be done by the babalao priest.  There are other cases in which people are going through the Egbo ritual —which everybody knows is done in a river— where the babalaos don’t go to the river, even though it’s their role to perform that ritual.  These are things that get all twisted up.

So does this have consequences for the babalao and the person who receives the ritual?

Of course.  It could be that the santo, aware of your ignorance, doesn’t punish you; but if you do it consciously… watch out!

Plus, the person who receives the ritual has a guardian angel, so that this comes around against anyone who fouls up.  Each babalao is a judge of Olofi on earth.  They must begin by judging themselves and being impartial.  There are babalaos who will even go to bed with their goddaughters.  This is a violation.  You can’t consecrate or hallow a person and then go to bed with them.

(Eyiobe Meyi remained pensive for a moment.) I know that what I’m saying is going to hurt a lot of people.

Why do you believe that ethics has gotten lost?

Very simple.  This is like a school: You learn from A to Z, if you want to learn.  But there are those who learn from A to J because with that they have some level from which to practice.  It used to be that santeros, babalaos… everybody worked.  They might have been butchers, grocers, carpenters…

Nowadays there are people who live off being santos, and those who are Ifa who live off being Ifas.  In the past, there existed grand babalaos who were highly respected.  With their power they could punish any person.  If a godchild didn’t fulfill those precepts, they could even be expelled from their brotherhood or their circle.

So then you would say that one of the causes for these changes is that the “grand ones,” as you call them, have disappeared?

They’ve disappeared, yes.  And also, for that reason, there used to exist a certain civility and a great deal of respect.  Before, people were thoroughly scrutinized.  Like me, when they gave me my necklaces, I was just a boy, but they enquired into my family just the same.  Now it doesn’t matter who’s taken in.  This doesn’t mean the santo cannot help a bad person, but the priest should tell the person that they need to change, they should indicate the correct way of behaving.

What are the ethical precepts that you defend and promote in your religion?

There are many. In the first place, we believe in not deceiving anyone, in telling the truth… Well, as far as individuals can, because not everybody assimilates it the same.  It’s necessary to manage things wisely.  When you speak face to face with the interested party, you have to keep in mind that they’re practically putting their fate in your hands.

Those ethical precepts don’t include compassion for animals?

Uh… hmm… well…  Compassion is, sure, what the santos need is blood.  Why?  Because that’s what gives life.  Those who have investigated this in depth know that blood emits radiation.  What individual human being doesn’t need blood?  If you think about it, when you kill a rooster and you eat it…

Well, not me. I’m a vegetarian.

Young lady…that’s just an example.

Yeah, yeah, I understand.

But anyway, you should eat meat, even if it’s only once a week.

Nooo, noo… (I laughed) I never eat meat, not even eggs or fish.

Oh well. I explained to you that blood decomposes and that radiation is what gives power to those elements, plus the thoughts.  You know that thought is transmitted through space, they’ve now even photographed it and it’s an energy that can move – not just a block, but thousands of miles.

I want to ask you this question because I am really very ignorant on this issue.  Are the santos in favor of people who have good intentions but also help those with bad intentions?

No way.  Here there is a thing called justice.  What makes the difference is the individual themself, because you’re nourishing them with your thought, with your characteristics, with things that are done for the sake of good, not for bad.  This doesn’t mean that if an individual tries to harm you don’t defend yourself – as is logical, self-defense is permitted; but not to the point of killing. Nowadays, if a santo determines from a person’s behavior that they should disappear off the face of the earth, that’s what they make happen.

All religions have certain basic principles, like the Ten Commandments, or what in yoga is called “Yama Niyama”… essential principles that seek to foment love and tolerance between human beings.  Don’t you believe that, instead of this, distrust is generated in your religion? It seems to focus on one’s neighbor not as a person one should love and tolerate but like somebody it’s necessary to protect yourself from?

No, because the precepts are to do good – not bad.  Even the yerberos, who have a great deal of knowledge about medicinal plants, have the power to cure illnesses.  It’s clear that ethics have gotten lost; like I said, that’s due to the same forces of commercialization.

Doesn’t it seem to you that practitioners of this religion, acting out of their own economic interests, have exploited or taken advantage of fear so that people feel that their health, well-being or prosperity depend on them?

Well, there are instances of this; it’s not good to generalize.  What happens is that each service has its price.  If it turns out, and this is very clear, that the person doesn’t have the money to pay, ethically you shouldn’t demand them to go and bring you back a rooster, a dove or whatever… no.

You know that this person is needy and it’s your duty, as a religious worker, to help as much as you can, to go to the limits of your capacity.  There are those who practice like they’re selling pieces of furniture or whatever, because it’s only a business to them.

After the 1959 Cuban Revolution, there was no tolerance for religions in general.  Was it similar for these types of practices?

Yes. For example, I can say that back then, when housing developments were created, people were prohibited from having santo figurines or images, or glasses of holy water in their house… They would even be kicked them out of those places and send them back to their places of origin.

So does this tolerance that exists now, does it indicate a sincere understanding of this religion or is it that there is only an interest in this culture to the degree that it serves as a tourist attraction?

There’s a bit of everything.  Yes, there are people who are taking advantage of this situation.

And what can you tell me about the offerings?  Personally, I think that many of the sacrifices that can be seen in public spaces are repulsive spectacles, and even cruel for children.

The truth is that everything is wrapped up and deposited in a specific place, but people should make sure that this is not an area where children pass by.

These can be wrapped up?

Yes, in paper that’s not written on, that doesn’t have any printing on it. People should wrap up their offerings because if these remain open, all of it is emitting radiation, with the same aim with which the ritual was done.  If you made a cleaning because someone had died, that’s the energy that’s there, living.  Do you understand?  There’s no need for that, it should simply be wrapped up.  Then the trash collectors will come and pick it up.

And won’t that affect the trash collectors who pick up the sacrifices?

No, it won’t affect them.

Also, nowadays everybody wears necklaces.  It’s a whole show, but it’s unnecessary. Do you see me wearing any necklace?

No, none.

What advice do you have for the sincere practitioners of this religion?

That they follow the established precepts.  If you put an offering in a park where children are playing, it could be that it’s not your child, but what if it is?  There are children who know what these are because it’s practiced in their homes, but there are children who don’t; and if they see money, for example, they simply take it.  

For a person sincerely interested in your religion, do they have access to sources with true information, is that guaranteed?

I would say that this religion has grown in size, but that it has lost in depth.  It’s not total; I don’t want to be unfair.  There are people who study it seriously.  Now there even exists the advantage that these issues are written about, previously that was not the case.  If you need a book on Ifá, you go and buy it there, in front of La Sortija (a Centro Havana clothing store), of course it will cost you 200 or 300 pesos, but at least they’re there.

And the information in those books…is it reliable?  They haven’t altered or distorted the original teachings?

Some of them have remained faithful.

A last question, if you’ll permit me.  You know that each religion has its “goal,” it could be said.  In Christianity they speak of a paradise that Christians will go to after they’re dead; in Buddhism “nirvana” is mentioned, always as a place of enjoyment, a kind of reward.  In your religion…does that same reward exist?

Yes, there are even benefits here in this life, here on earth…like not lacking food, not going to prison… It protects you from illnesses, and it allows you to develop… up to where you belong, because not all of us belong at the same level of development.  And when you die, you go to a higher level, that’s to say, your spirit isn’t caught in limbo out in space.

I turned off the tape recorder. I thanked “Eyiobe Meyi” and headed out onto the street.  Surrounded by grass, I found several plastic bags lying on the ground.  The air carried an odor that I recognized and then I wondered: “If I’m far away one day, is this the smell that I’m going to recall of my city?