I clambered through the roots down to the water. The soupy brown river moved swiftly around the bend that hugs the shrine of Osun in the sacred grove of Osogbo. Caught in an eddy and desperately flapping trying to get out of the stream was a white dove.
How did that get there? I wondered, oh -poor bird.
Right then a man in white next to me wound his hand back and lobbed another bird out into the middle of the river.
Oh… right, now I see.
The grove was already busy. Light filtered down through the thick green leaves, it was cool under the branches, but it was humid. Soon my hair was drenched with sweat. Every wall in the grove is moulded to look like it rises naturally out of the ground, as if a tree root has broken the surface of the earth. In the walls the faces of spirits peep out with wild eyes. I walked backwards through the main gate, barefoot, with the others. The cool wet ground was strewn with little pebbles, but I didn’t know if I was allowed to put my shoes back on. The sounds of rattles and bells filled the cleft in the earth, the smell of Indian hemp mixed with the odour of river mud.
Everyone seemed to be asking for money. Women sat on roots with outstretched calabashes. They were the kind of women you’d see at market, tough, strong, no-nonsense. Other women moved down to the statue of Osun dressed in white with cowrie shells woven into their hair. They greeted each other smiling and then turning away from the other in a kind of reverse bow. They made their way down to the waterside and sat down. From time to time they called out with a kind of ululating cry, I suppose to the spirits. They sat by the waterside and anointed worshippers heads with water. They flicked a spray onto the head and the water beaded up in their hair like glass jewels. When the woman in front of me stood up again she bellowed her thanks into the air, as if what she asked for had already been granted. The belly of Osun, swelled with pregnancy had a handprint on it in the colour of yam cooked in palm oil. I saw many women being consoled by the priestesses, who held their hands and blessed them. I saw so many satisfied people that day. Most people I spoke to had asked for cash. “Instant cash!” said one “and I’ll get it, in Jesus’ name”, which was a bit confusing.
Others were collecting water in any container they could, I even saw one guy with an old bleach bottle down by the water. I made a silent prayer he wouldn’t drink from it. There were more people with doves. They whispered into the doves ears, and rubbed the birds over their heads. Then they’d throw them in.
At the shrine itself people clamoured to get in to the small hole under the grass covered roof. I walked around the building, by the sides people sat and talked, a group of women in coloured wraps sang, and a priestess was admonishing two young boys, I couldn’t tell exactly what it was about but they’d transgressed some law of the shrine. I went up to one of the priests and asked if I could take pictures of people being blessed inside the alcove, he refused.
But what about him? I said pointing to a man filming with a TV camera.
“That is different. He is Osun people”, he replied. Oh well. He invited me to step into line and be blessed. At that moment drums struck up from outside and everyone started hollering for people to make way. In to the courtyard burst two young women in white followed by drummers. One of the women held a bowl on her head, the other shook white powder in her path. They danced up to the mouth of the shrine and the woman flicking the powder placed something down in front of the priests inside, and with a yelp, they were gone again.
I moved back into line and waited my turn to be blessed. I was pushed forward and stepped over a wooden bowl filled with mashed yam and bruised banana and crouched down inside the small hollow. One of the priests handed me a plastic lid with water in it. “Drink a bit, the rest goes on your head” someone said. I took a gulp, the water tasted sweet somehow. A woman thrust a chunk of kola nut in my mouth.
“For long life,” she said.