On Training and Community: Realities of Post-Initiation Life

"The Old Plantation," South Carolina, about 1790. This famous painting shows Gullah slaves dancing and playing musical instruments derived from Africa. Scholars unaware of the Sierra Leone slave trade connection have interpreted the two female figures as performing a "scarf" dance. Sierra Leoneans can easily recognize that they are playing the shegureh, a women's instrument (rattle) characteristic of the Mende and neighboring tribes.   http://www.yale.edu/glc/gullah/cont.htm  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

"The Old Plantation," South Carolina, about 1790. This famous painting shows Gullah slaves dancing and playing musical instruments derived from Africa. Scholars unaware of the Sierra Leone slave trade connection have interpreted the two female figures as performing a "scarf" dance. Sierra Leoneans can easily recognize that they are playing the shegureh, a women's instrument (rattle) characteristic of the Mende and neighboring tribes.
http://www.yale.edu/glc/gullah/cont.htm [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In a previous post, I discussed lineage and initiation with a focus on the costs - material and otherwise - one must pay. If one was initiated in any of the traditions referenced in that article, there was a community of individuals that came together to realize that ceremony. Not only is initiation a rebirth, an access pass granting you permission to learn and practice secret, sacred praxis, it is an entry into a community of individuals who [ideally] support you, claim you, train you, verify the validity of the your initiation and subsequent ceremonies, and defend you, all in accordance with the rules and regulations of the tradition in which you are all adepts.

While the initiation ceremony confers license to access information - and depending on your lineage, the right to initiate others - it is training by one’s godparent and elders that confers the knowledge, praxis, and the customs needed to appropriately enforce the rules and regulation of the tradition. Training is conferred in many ways. My elders often use the adage “chop wood and carry water” to describe their experience pre- and post-initiation. Being taught wasn’t a given and while initiation granted access it didn’t always mean your elders were going to make the process easy. Learning was often, and still is, an earned privilege.

Training meant showing up and spending time in the community. Sitting at the foot of the elders, listening to stories and looking for the tidbits of knowledge that may be included. It did, and still means, working: working all the pieces of a ceremony from the preparation, to the ceremony itself, and the post-ceremony resolution. In African and African Diasporic traditions, learning has historically been carried out by doing. Increasingly, priests are offering structured classes to their godchildren that mimic a classroom form. That said, there is still an expectation that you show up and work.

With globalization in full swing, more often than not individuals live far away from their spiritual communities. This begs a question to which I am still seeking an answer and logistical solutions: how does one’s training continue, and how does one advance their knowledge - given the primary mode of learning is by doing - if they live far from their godparent and community?

My story
I was initiated into Palo Mayombe and was fortunate enough to spend two years apprenticing with my godmother. That apprenticeship consisted of classes she taught, one on one conversations, watching and assisting with client work, active participation in ceremony, and reading the vast multidisciplinary archive of scholarly materials and oral records she accumulated over the years. About two years after I initiated, I moved to the opposite coast and my training took on a different form. Since the move, majority of my training has happened through ongoing study of the archive, one on one conversation with my godparents, the application of their advice and counsel in my practice, and as of the past two years flying in to participate in ceremony.

My Observations
Admittedly, I am very curious about how this works when the godparent and spiritual community are in an entirely different country. It has been my observation that people who meet and surmount this challenge are:

  1. those who become proficient in the language of their spiritual community (especially true if you are initiating as a non-native into Brazilian Candomble, Haitian Vodou, Yoruba Isese, or any of the Afro-Cuban spiritual traditions in their countries of origin)

  2. those who have the facility (money and time) and the will to make regular trips to the place where their godparents and spiritual communities reside; and

  3. those who are able to create a network of verified and validated practitioners - either within their same tradition and lineage or across various traditions - in the place where they are or via regular communication as described above.

Item three has proved invaluable to me particularly with regard to broadening my knowledge of the history of Lukumi, it’s lineages, and the diversity of practice within the tradition.

Validity and Verification
Within the aforementioned African Diasporic traditions credibility cannot be overstated. An initiated person should be able to unflappably declare the name of their lineage, their godparents’ names, the officiating priest at their initiation, in some cases their godparents’ godparents, and produce the name of at least one other person present at your ceremony who can confirm that what you say is true. If and when this information is checked, and the result is that the declaration is untrue, you are persona non grata. Even if the declaration is confirmed, if your godparent or the elders associated with the lineage are not held in high esteem, you may also be shunned. Recently, one of my elders shared with me that in his thirty years of priesthood that one’s initiation is only considered valid within one’s own spiritual community. Thus, it would behoove people seeking these traditions to choose their communities wisely.

Proving that you are the initiated person you say you are, with the skill set that you purport to have, is made more difficult - though not impossible - when your initiation was done outside your country of residence. Over the past several years, I have increasingly heard first and second hand heartbreaking stories of individuals who meet one or more of the following conditions (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • they were initiated by a priest who takes a hodge podge approach to initiation and so while they may have been initiated to something, no one can ascertain what that thing is and to which tradition(s) it belongs;

  • the person was initiated by a priest who was ex-communicated by their spiritual community;

  • the person was initiated by a priest who did not have the authority to initiate and thus the validity of this priest’s initiations are questionable (keep in mind, conferring knowledge of the initiation process is different than granting permission to initiate and establish lineage. In some traditions both are conferred simultaneously. In others they are conferred separately); or

  • the person was initiated by a valid and verified priest from a valid and verified lineage but the person no longer - for whatever reason - has ties to that priest and community and thus none of their ceremonies can be validated or verified;

When I first caught wind of these realities, I was, in many ways, nonplussed; however, my desire for healing far outweighed my indignance. The rules of the game are what they are. You can play or not; however, do remember, it is always chess, never checkers.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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