As a Yaya Nkisi Malongo, an initiated priestess of the Palo Mayombe spiritual tradition an intimate relationship with the natural environment is non-negotiable. This is also the case for many African and African-rooted spiritual traditions. The ancestors and divinities we venerate and work with live amongst and derive their sustenance from the natural environment. For us, it is the holiest of places.
With the transition of African rooted traditions first, from their territories of origin on the African continent to the new world - in the case of Palo Mayombe, to Cuba - then from rural Cuba to its populated urban centers, primarily Havana, and then eventually to the metropolises of the US specifically Miami, New York, Newark, Los Angeles, as a result of the Cuban Revolution, the relationship between Palo priests and nature has undergone some changes. Living on it near the monte (mountain) is not an option for many of us. Having direct, regular access to the forest is also less realistic. For this and other reasons, major metropolitan areas in the US witnessed the rise of religious stores called botanicas, which sold a variety of spiritual supplies including herbs and palos (sticks) that pertained to specific African rooted traditions, including Palo Mayombe. These stores exist until this day and serve an important function for practitioners.
However, I must be clear: a botanica is no replacement for establishing a substantive, intimate relationship with nature.
We look to anabutu (nature) for just about everything. Be it trees, rocks, soils, or roots with which to make medicines; be it a specific locale (river, ocean, waterfall, mountain, etc) to perform ceremonial works; or animals whose energy we leverage to make our works more efficacious. Within nature all solutions can be found and in it lives a multitude of entities with their own intelligence and consciousness, ways of being and working, that when combined with a priest's/priestess' ngolo (force), are a powerful tool for profound transformation.
In addition to the trees, plants, and sticks traditionally used within Palo Mayombe, my godmother, and mentor, has always advised her godchildren to become proficient in the plants and herbs of the places in which we live. She also advises, where possible, to grow your own plants not only for ease of access, but to begin to learn intimately how this particular plant functions, and how it can be useful to your practice. Palo Mayombe has always been an adaptable tradition and technology that consistently matches the time and place in which its practitioners are.
I often jokingly say to friends, "Humans forget that not so long ago they used to be monkeys." and what I mean by that, is that we forget that we are still connected to the earth in a way that surpasses just a very surface disconnection to the food we eat. The plants and trees provide oxygen we need to breathe. The carbon dioxide we expel is absorbed by the plants and trees. All living things require water.
Core to Palo Mayombe is reestablishing humans as one of many living beings within the society of the natural environment. Without this environment we can not exist, and without our care and harmonious exchange the environment will, as we are seeing today, begin to decay.
Negarra A. Kudumu
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