The ritual drummers preceded her as she strode down the broad steps toward the Osun shrine, carefully balancing on her head a calabash filled with kola nuts, palm oil and other offerings to the Yoruba gods. She was not used to walking barefoot, so the sticks and stones on the forest floor sometimes hurt her feet, yet she continued on her course with a trancelike resolve. It was all part of an initiation ceremony of the traditional Ifa religion of the Yoruba, the largest ethnic group in southwest Nigeria, and the main reason she had traveled to the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in Nigeria. At home in Brooklyn people know her as AnnMarie Sealey. Here in Osogbo they call her Ifaseye Orisabunmi Adeegbe.
Ms. Sealey is one of many visitors from abroad with an ancestral connection to Africa who come to the Sacred Grove, the high priestess Adedoyin Talabi Faniyi said, standing next to her and a few other devotees on the bank of the Osun River. There, a statue of the goddess Osun was spreading her arms as if to welcome visitors to the 185 acres of dense forest dedicated to her. Osun, one of many Ifa deities, is the Yoruba goddess of fertility.
“People come here looking for their roots,” Ms. Faniyi said. As a high priestess of Osun, she guided Ms. Sealey through her initiation process.
In the past, most Yoruba settlements had sanctuaries like the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove in the forests nearby, but now there is no other place like it left in the cultural region of Yorubaland. This is why in 2005 Unesco declared it one of the two World Heritage sites in Nigeria. Today it is the only one that can be visited safely, since the other is in the northeast, in an area still under threat from the extremist group Boko Haram.
The grove, in the primary high forest just outside the city of Osogbo in southwest Nigeria, contains over 40 shrines and is visited by Osun worshipers, traditional healers who gather the medicinal plants that grow there, and tourists from all over the world. Hunting, fishing and farming are prohibited in the area, and on a walk through the woods visitors might glimpse a sitatunga antelope or encounter troops of white-throated monkeys (categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), playing in the trees or begging for the bananas they are accustomed to getting from passers-by.
The thatch roof of the temple of Osun is held up by carved pillars resembling totem poles, and the walls are painted with geometric patterns. This is where it all started, the high priestess explained as she removed her slippers to enter the shrine. Archaeological excavations show that people first moved to the grove about 400 years ago, and according to local oral history settled at this site near the river.
Little did they know that they were treading on sacred ground. One day, the story goes, one of the early settlers was cutting down a tree when a voice came from the river, instructing him to move away. “It was the voice of Osun, who turned out to live in this river,” Ms. Faniyi said, pointing to the calmly flowing water. The settlers left the site for higher ground, establishing what would become the city of Osogbo, and dedicated the forest to the goddess. Every August, thousands come to the city for the Osun Festival and to celebrate the special pact between the Osogbo people and the Yoruba goddess.
But Osun is not the only deity worshiped in the Sacred Grove. The Yoruba religion has more than 400 orishas like her, representatives of the supreme god Olodumare. Strolling through the forest, visitors come across a big-eyed statue of Obatala, the orisha of creation, and a two-story figure of Iya Mapo, the orisha of women’s crafts like pottery and dyeing, extending six arms toward heaven.
The magic starts on the asphalt leading into the forest. The sculpted faces and figurines poking out of the roadside fences seem to be announcing the enchanted world that lies behind them. One of the walls even has a keyhole-shaped entrance, which might make some feel like Alice in Wonderland.
The scene is watched over by ancient kapok, abachi and black afara trees. Footpaths covered with crackling leaves lead past silent houses dedicated to the gods, their interiors molded like a large animal’s intestines. In a small glade a sculpted two-headed snake sticks out of the ground, and elsewhere statuettes of round-bellied men gather at giant tree roots.
These are the works of artists of the New Sacred Art movement, who started embellishing the grove in the mid 1950s. They built the stylized houses for the gods, erected the statues and sculpted the temple doors. The 81-year-old sculptor Adebisi Akanji, an Ifa worshiper, is one of the last who is still alive. Born and raised in Osogbo, Mr. Akanji used to be a bricklayer. The many termite mounds in the region inspired him to become an artist, and he began using the wet mud the termites built with to erect statues of Osun. Sculpting with concrete would later become his specialty, a technique he used with Susanne Wenger, an Austrian artist who moved to Nigeria in 1950, got deeply involved in Yoruba culture and religion and lived and worked in Osogbo until her death in 2009.
By the time Ms. Wenger came to Osogbo the Sacred Grove was quickly disappearing. Termites had eroded the shrines, the roof of the Osun temple had caved in, more and more of the woodland was being cultivated as farmland and the city of Osogbo was expanding toward the grove. When Ms. Wenger moved into town, an Ifa priest asked her to help restore some of the shrines, which she did with the help of local craftsmen and artists she had befriended, like Mr. Akanji. It would become their life’s work.
“What the goddess made me create here is much,” Mr. Akanji said on a recent morning, sitting in the shade next to the Ogboni shrine in the Sacred Grove. His heavily beringed hands fluttered in the direction of the shrine’s salmon-pink walls, which he and his son had recently restored. A lot more work was needed in the grove, where many statues and structures were deteriorating: Obatala’s hand had broken off, the surface of the Osun statue was crumbling and moss had eaten cracks into the walls of the shrines, as if nature were reclaiming the art.
Money is needed to save the works, but the budget provided by the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the custodian of the Unesco site on behalf of the Nigerian government, is at times not enough to even pay the staff their full salaries, let alone embark on a large-scale restoration project. Mr. Akanji’s partial restoration was funded by the Adunni Olorisha Trust, an N.G.O. dedicated to preserving the grove and the work of Susanne Wenger.
“Every time there is a little money, we come to the grove to restore,” said Mr. Akanji, who added that the Sacred Grove had seen bigger threats in the past. He recalled how the townspeople in Osogbo, who had largely abandoned the traditional religion for Islam and Christianity, initially viewed the Ifa worshipers with suspicion. They accused the keepers of the grove of robbing them of their livelihoods because they could no longer farm, fish or hunt in the neighboring forest. Once some local residents even set fire to the forest shrines, Mr. Akanji said.
These days, however, the government, seeing the cultural and touristic value of the grove, protects the area. Since Unesco declared the grove a heritage site, it has been largely left in peace, Mr. Akanji said. “In town some might still talk against us, but they don’t attack us anymore.”
Some of the grove’s most devoted visitors come from abroad, he added, mostly from the United States, Brazil and Cuba — many of whom are people of the African diaspora. “They believe they are from here and have come back to their source,” Mr. Akanji said.
Ms. Sealey, the initiate from Brooklyn, has never traced her forefathers, but she said she imagined they might have come from Nigeria. Born in Trinidad, Ms. Sealey grew up in a Spiritual Baptist family, but had been searching outside her religion for guidance. When her sister-in-law introduced her to an orisha ceremony, she felt a strong connection and learned more about Ifa online. In 2009 she decided to travel to Yorubaland to be introduced to the religion. Since then she has returned regularly.
“Here I have found my life’s path,” Ms. Sealey said when she returned from the river, where she had completed her initiation by making an offering to Osun — the content of which only the devotee and the priestesses knew. The sound of the brass bells the priestesses rang to invoke the goddess’s spiritual energy had faded away. Clad in a simple piece of white cloth and without her usual makeup, Ms. Sealey fit right in with the other believers under the ako tree next to the Osun temple.
Her initiation over, the 51-year-old would return in three days to her job at a New York investment firm, a world away from the Sacred Grove. But the spirit of the grove would remain with her, Ms. Sealey said. “It is the only place in the world I feel really at peace.”
If You Go
Since Osogbo is a four-hour drive away from Lagos, an overnight stay is your safest bet. The Osogbo Guesthouse, run by the artist and curator Nike Davies Okundaye, is an artistic place to spend the night, at a rate of 7,000 naira per night (about 22 dollars) for a standard double room. (Email [email protected] for inquiries.)
The guesthouse also organizes tours to the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove. If you go on your own, know that there are hardly any road signs showing the way to the grove, but everyone in Osogbo will be able to point you in the right direction.
Entry to the Sacred Grove costs 500 naira for non-Nigerians and 200 naira for Nigerians. You pay an additional fee for taking a camera along: 1,000 naira for a phone camera and 3,000 naira for a photo camera. A video camera for noncommercial use sets you back 15,000 naira. You will be accompanied by a guide. Expect a two-hour walk through the forest to see all the sights.
If Nigeria is not on your travel schedule, you can also see the work of the New Sacred Art movement in New York. In the 1990s Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, the founder of the National Black Theater in Harlem and a regular visitor to Osogbo, invited the artists of the grove to beautify both the inside and outside of the theater, at 2031 Fifth Avenue.
In Sacred Grove in Nigeria, Worship and Connection
By FEMKE VAN ZEIJL
This article first appeared here