Palo: a liberatory, healing technology (Part I)

Nganga ngombo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pende, 19th century AD, wood, rafia, bast fibers - Ethnological Museum, Berlin

Nganga ngombo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pende, 19th century AD, wood, rafia, bast fibers - Ethnological Museum, Berlin

Nganga, Museo de Guanabacoa, Cuba.

Nganga, Museo de Guanabacoa, Cuba.

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of being featured on A Little Juju Podcast interviewed by Samantha bka Juju Bae titled “Palo, A Liberatory Technology”. This article is the first of a series intended to be a accompaniment to that interview and as you can see from the title, I am going to hone in on the connections between healing and liberation as I understand them through my Palo Mayombe lens.

As a formally trained social scientist, and a Capricorn with HELLA Virgo in her chart, I am going to start with historical context because clarity is important and I do not condone ahistoricity. I am an active proponent of citationality and so I will foreground this text and this series by mentioning the scholars and scholar-practitioners whose research and lived experience inform my thoughts: Teisha Shaw, Ernesto Mercer, Kimbwandènde Kia Bunseki Fu-Kiau, Robert Farris Thomas, Stephan Palmie, Quentin Nolet de Brauwere, and Linda Heywood.

For the sake of this discussion, the following terms will be used in the following way.

  • Las Reglas Bantu: Bantu Rites. A term used synonymously with Palo to refer to all branches of the initiatory rites

  • Palo: an umbrella term used to refer generally to all the branches of the initiatory rites also called Las Reglas Bantu, also sometimes referred to as Palo Monte

All other terms will be defined in the text.

Socio-historical Context
Palo or Las Reglas Bantu is spiritual tradition conceived and born on Cuban soil comprised of an amalgam of beliefs contributed by Bantu peoples of various ethnic groups who were enslaved in their African homelands and brought to Cuba. These individuals came from the Kingdom of Ndongo and Matamba (Queen Nzinga’s territories), the Bakongo empire with it’s seat at Sao Salvador in present day northern Angola, the Kingdom of Loango, and various other territories of West and West Central Africa.

These individuals were members of highly organized and cosmopolitan civilizations who were no strangers to war. Queen Nzinga is an excellent example of this. She is notable among all historical leaders of the African continent, particular for the prowess she exhibited at outsmarting the Portuguese where diplomacy and war games were concerned. She employed the Imbangala, who were known for their thoroughly vicious warfare tactics namely cannibalism, against the Portuguese. Due to slavery, the Imbangala were dispersed throughout the Americas to the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Where you find quilombos, you have traces literal and figurative of the Imbangala. I say all this to say, Bantu people knew warfare and militancy before being enslaved and sent across the Atlantic.

Palo’s antecedent cultural contributors were acutely aware of the realities of suffering (mpasi) meaning, they took mpasi as par for the course and understood it as a function of being in the world. They also understood it as a state of being that was aberrant and needed to be resolved. They did so through their spiritual practices, most notably a society called Kimpasi, which consisted of healer specialists that came together for the sole purpose of resolving mpasi.

Palo, as we know it, in its more or less contemporary form, developed in Cuba during the latter part of the 19th century around the time of the Ten Years War, 1868-1878; Cuban abolition of slavery, 1886; the Cuban War for Independence, 1895-1898; and the early part of the 20th century during the time of the Negro Rebellion of 1912. A notable group of Black soldiers referred to as the Mambises fought valiantly and aggressively in these wars and are purported, though this information does not seem to be readily accessible, to have been practitioners of Las Reglas Bantu , but also Bantu spiritualist practices such as Bembe de Sao.

Palo was conceived and birthed in a wholly violent social environment that considered and treated African people as non-human and continued to do so even after slavery ended and Cuba won its independence from Spain. Palo is about liberation through and through. In colonial Cuba it was a tool that Afro-Cubans used to free themselves from physical slavery. In post-colonial Cuba it was used by its adherents to survive in a society that, as exemplified by the Negro Rebellion of 1912, had no regard for Black Cuban life.

It is a tradition of a specific time (the colonial period and slavery era) and place (Cuba) that continues to adapt to the time and place in which it finds it self. Palo emerged as a technology for Black life to persist. It exists still, for that reason: persisting, particularly going beyond simple survival, into thrive mode. In order to thrive, we’ve got to heal and healing can only happen once suffering is unrooted. Palo’s specialty par excellence, in my estimation, is healing. It is a toolkit, a technology, and a multitude of methodologies for healing. It is through healing that liberation becomes visible and thus possible.

I think I shall leave it here for now. The next post is on October 31 and is an art one. I am going to look at some Palo aesthetics but also share with you a few modern and contemporary artists who pushed Palo to the fore through their works.

Negarra A. Kudumu

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What Is Divination (Part IV Of IV)


The fourth and final part of this series focuses on the divination systems of the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe spiritual traditions. I have, for the sake of length, eschewed historical surveys of these two traditions. I have also excluded the Yoruba Isese tradition. For consistency's sake, I have used words and phraseology loyal to these two traditions' Afro-Cuban origins. While I speak simultaneously about these two traditions, they are nowhere near as culturally similar as many erroneously believe despite their co-existence in Cuba since at least the 19th century.

A brief introduction
In contrast to the methodologies assessed in the previous posts in this series, the divination systems pertaining to the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe spiritual traditions are accompanied by a very rigid set of rules about who can use them, for what purpose, and how. These divination systems are used, primarily, by initiated, trained priests to communicate with the divinities of these two traditions: called oricha in Lukumi and mpungo in Palo Mayombe. While oricha and mpungo are not the only entities that speak in divination sessions, these entities speak solely through the divination systems of their respective traditions. To be blunt, if you are not receiving a divination from a competent priest in one of these traditions who is using the implements and knowledge system specific to that tradition, you are not in conversation with the oricha or the mpungoOricha and mpungo do not speak through the tarot. Mpungo do not speak in odu Ifa and oricha do not speak via chamalongo or nkobo

Divination in Lukumi and Palo Mayombe
There is one Lukumi divination method employed by the initiated and the uninitiated alike: obi (4 pieces of coconut) Let me say, however, that the use of this system by the uninitiated is still debatable depending on the lineage and Iyalosha/Babalosha (initiated female and male priests, also Godmother/Godfather) of the ile (spiritual house) of which one is a member. In lineages and iles where the uninitiated are allowed to use obi, they may do so with the permission of and under the tutelage of the their godparent.

The three other divination modalities in the Lukumi system are the dillogún, the manipulation of 16 cowry shells - primarily the cowry shells belonging to the oricha Elleguá (Elegba) - used by experienced Iyaloshas and Babaloshas some of whom hold the title of Oba Oriaté (Master of Ceremonies); the opele, comprised of 8 half nuts of the opele tree fastened to a metal chain; and 16 ikin (palm fronds). The latter two systems and their aforementioned implements are used exclusively by the all male priesthood of the oricha Orula (Orunmila) also referred to as Babalawos (Fathers of the secrets). 

In Palo Mayombe, there are at least three, perhaps even four or more, depending on your rama (branch; Mayombe, Brillumba, or Kimbisa) divination methods: one employs the use of 4 or 7 chamalongos (disks made from coconut husk)another employs up to 21 nkobos (tiger cowry shells)yet another uses the mpaka (a scrying device), and yet another is possession of the Tata Nkisi Malongo or Yaya Nkisi Malongo by his or her mpungo or ndundun. In Palo Mayombe, all diviners must be, at least, initiated and trained by their Tata or Yaya in order to divine. Other rules may also apply depending on the ngao (lineage) and munanso (spiritual house).

I will not go into detail about ritual implement consecration per tradition. However, all of the aforementioned implements used to divine in Lukumi and Palo Mayombe must be ritually consecrated by competent priests in accordance with the relevant rules of each tradition. I assert that if the tools used in a divination have not been ritually consecrated, that divination is not accessing the source of information that pertains to the spiritual tradition.

What is the source of information accessed in these divination sessions?
The perspectives on this question number as many as the practitioners of these traditions. Where Palo is concerned, my responses are based on my lived experience as a Yayi Nkisi Malongo and the teachings of my Tikan Tikan (the priestess who initiated me) and my ngao Brama con Brama. In a Palo Mayombe divination session, the priest is in conversation with the myriad ngolo (forces) present in the universe and their interactions with the querent and his/her ngolo. These forces reveal themselves with each cast of the priest's consecrated implements and allow the priest to diagnose and recognize a diversity of conditions past, present, and future.

Within the Lukumi tradition, I am an aborisa, which means I am a member of an ile, under the guidance and tutelage of an Iyalosha. My response is based on my lived experience as an aborisa who divines with obi; an individual who has been on the receiving end of many dillogún divinations and divinations with Babalawos performed, fortunately, by skilled diviners; and as someone who has been consistently engaged in an academic study of this tradition for 15 years. All of the Lukumi divination systems point to the odu Ifacorpus, which is the body of knowledge that describes the totality of the Lukumi worldview and offers succinct advice to practitioners that, when followed, places individuals in alignment with their destiny.

I say “point to” as there are divergent opinions on whether obi, and even dillogún, access odu Ifa. I am of the opinion that dillogún accesses odu Ifá through the lens of the oricha Elleguá; however, I am far from an authority on Lukumi divination. The one thing all agree on is that divination conducted by a Babalawo directly accesses odu Ifa.

Why divine and how to prepare?
One chooses to divine for any number of reasons. One may be a practitioner and is looking for advice and insight on a specific issue. One may be looking to connect to an African spiritual system and wants to learn if one of these systems is right for them. One may be a priest/priestess and divines for clients and/or their godchildren. When I was first starting out with Lukumi, I came to it in a time of great distress looking for succor and support. I found it, it made sense, and I moved on to eventually become a member of an ile. Similarly, with Palo, I was experiencing uncertainty and distress, that, it turned out, Palo was uniquely capable of identifying and handling.

While every divination is an experience unto itself, there are some basics worth knowing. Check out these nine guidelines.

  1. Why are you seeking divination? Be honest with yourself. Even if you won't be honest, the diviner, if he or she is worth his/her salt, will reveal the truth. Your life will be laid bare before you.

  2. If the divination says you have work to do, are you ready to do it? Ideally, any work to be done should be done shortly after the reading, without delay. If you aren't ready to do the work, do you really need to have the info?

  3. Get clear on price ahead of time. Divining is work. You need to be prepared to pay a fair rate.

  4. Write out your questions beforehand so you can bring them up during the session. If something the diviner says is unclear ask him/her to explain in detail.

  5. Take notes! Readings are often chock full of information much of which can be overwhelming. In the moment you may be so jolted that you don't remember all that was told. A summary that you can refer back to is very useful.

  6. The diviner is not your crutch, even if he/she is your godparent! The diviner is the vessel through which the forces of the universe communicate to you. He/she is not at your beck and call now that you're interested in fixing your raggedy mess of a life after being read for filth. He/she is a mentor and an advocate. The onus for doing the personal and spiritual work is on you.

  7. Be careful running around from diviner to diviner. The cadre of reputable diviners in the Lukumi and Palo Mayombe communities in the United States is, dare I say it, minuscule, and we are two degrees of separation from each other. Running around from diviner to diviner asking the same questions because you didn't like what the first diviner said is a sure way to earn yourself the brand of persona non grata.

  8. You have agency in the divination process. No matter what is told to you, you can choose how to handle it. It is always advisable, however, to do so respectfully.

  9. If after a reading you decide, or are told, you want/need to pursue a path in this spiritual tradition, find out the protocol for doing so. Minimally, consider the potential impact this will have on your life and the adjustments and commitments you will need to make. Some of this info can be gleaned from a priest/priestess. Other of it is only learned along the way.

Thank you for joining me on this journey through divination. Let’s keep the conversation going! 

Negarra A. Kudumu

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