There is no avoiding the fact that learning and research are a key part to growing in wisdom in any tradition; Palo Mayombe is no exception. As a primarily oral tradition, the key way to obtain necessary lore about our religion has always been connecting with our elders and learning through observation and experience. That will remain a wonderful and excellent method for learning, but making it the only way to learn about our religion is foolishness.
Nowadays, Palo isn’t a religion in which a munanso is made of individuals who all live in the same physical community. Most of us aren’t in Cuba, many of us relate to our godparents through talking on the phone more than we see them. It seems that having far-flung Godchildren is a rule these days, and not the exception. For these folks, who may only work ceremony at the nso 4-5 times a year (if lucky!), having written resources is essential. Palo isn’t a primarily oral tradition because that is the best way, it is primarily oral because many of our elders where not literate. This is no assault on them, as literacy and wisdom are not synonymous; that being said, how much wisdom has died in the heads of great elders, lost to the tradition because they didn’t write it down? We also now have a big language divide, in that many Paleros do not speak fluent Spanish (although we all hopefully are working on it!) There is a huge amount of room for errors to seep into practice in a purely oral tradition; Palo is too large and communities to diverse and far flung for that to be the only way. How much has the “telephone” effect distorted understanding of key ritual practices?
If we are to respect the tradition we’ve been given, and we have the resources to record the correct mambos and ritual methods and the like, then we must do so. That doesn’t mean we share them with non-initiates, of course, only that we preserve the great wisdom which we’ve received from our Godfathers and Godmothers so that it survives. I know some of you Tatas and Yayis learned so many mambos from your Godparent that some of them have fallen through the cracks and been forgotten. The same will happen with your own godchildren, if no record is kept.
We are in a situation now where many Tatas and Yayis, having been cut by an unscrupulous priest, are left holding an Nganga and Lucero, with no knowledge of how to work them. They end up building their practices using the dubious mish-mash of materials that are currently publicly available, of which remarkably few are worth reading (with Tata Nkisi Nicholaj de Mattos Frisvold’s Palo Mayombe being one of the few excellent books, and Society of the Dead being a good read; there are perhaps more useful tomes like Cabrera’s El Monte in Spanish, but in English pickings are very slim). People tell them to find another nso and house, but they’ve already been cut into a Rama, and there is no guarantee that a new nso will accept them, or be anywhere near them. How greatly would their spiritual life have benefited if they were given a simple handbook, written by their godfather, that covered the basics of practice? An empty bag gets filled…the more we’ve learned from their godfathesr, the less room there is for our bags to fill with bullshit. This isn’t just a matter of convenience, as people can ruin their lives by failing to work the nganga correctly and respectfully.
What of the many of our brethren who’ve been left alone when a godparent ended up in prison, or died unexpectedly? There are so many things that go into an nso’s tradition; how precisely an nkisi of any sort is built, the correct mambos to sing, how to build the patimpemba, how to wash and cleanse, creating chamba…let alone the drumming and initiatory rites. Ours is not a simple religion, it’s fraught with beautiful and careful practices. The development and spiritual safety of godchildren should not be left to chance. You live in New York, but took on a godson who lives in Germany? Write the basic practices down for him. At the very least, call him and talk to him about how you work, and tell him to write it down so he doesn’t forget. It isn’t enough to wait for the godchild to ask questions; as an engueyo/new Tata just starting out, you probably won’t know enough to know which questions to ask. This is why it’s so important for the godparent to communicate the nso’s ritual methodology. Little things make a huge difference, and the power is in the details. I’ve been lucky with a Tata Nkisi who communicates regularly, and teaches with real depth; not all are so lucky. We have a responsibility to train folk correctly, and we’ve allowed our religion to grow by leaps and bounds without allowing our teaching model to keep up with it. If there is something that a godchild needs to work his nkisi, and you haven’t taught it to him, he’s not simply ignoring the nkisi. No, he’s working it…..with shit he learned on the internet. Not good, ya’ll. We’ve all seen most of what’s available on the internet…..confusion.
Historical Awareness and Syncretism
In addition to educating godchildren about the nso’s direct practice–and hopefully writing some of this down for posterity and accuracy in practice–we have to learn about the roots or our religion. There is nothing wrong, for example, for those of us who practice Palo Kimbisa to use syncretism in their creation of nganga’s and work with spiritual forces; Kimbisa itself is a syncretic religion birthed by Andres Petit. This syncretism was not of the sort that appropriated one religion for another, or subsumed one beneath another, but was done to unify a diverse and complicated society so that it could act in unison on issues important at the time–namely the fight against slavery. So, when a Kimbisero refers to his nganga as a “Zarabanda” or somesuch, or works with the imagery and energies of Catholic saints, he is being perfectly true to the tenants and understandings of his Rama. For a Mayombero to do the same would be a display of ignorance, as our understanding of the mpungo is that of natural forces and not as nkisi. Palo Mayombe and Palo Kimbisa are fundamentally different in this way. If we were unaware of the approach our Congo ancestors took, and of the history of Kimbisa and the birth of a syncretic Rama, we may be led into thinking of the mpungo in a way that is incorrect for our Rama’s understanding. That is not to say that one way is better than the other, only that the approach and understanding of the Mayombero and the Kimbisero are naturally distinct, and only education and research makes that clear. Because many don’t differentiate between Ramas when discussing Palo, peoples’ understanding of different practices becomes jumbled. For instance, while it would be insanity for a Mayembero to have a crucifix in his Prenda, it would be completely appropriate for the Kimbisero because of the roots of that tradition.
That being said, the roots of the tradition lie in Mayombe, and understanding the Mayombe approach to building nkisi and understanding mpungo has cultural relevance for all of the Ramas. Sure, Kimbisa is syncretic–if you understand why it is, and how it came to be, you can see that it came from the way it was birthed, as an honorable amalgamation of the practices of a diverse and complex spiritual community in a troubling time. You cannot say you fully understand the practices of your rama in the broader context of the Palo traditions if you can’t say how and why it differentiates from the others.
Research into African-American slave tradition and history, old Congo lore, and the religious rites of the slave populations of the Americas broadens the mind of the Palero and gives us a correct sense of historical place. There are many books and courses one can take to become aware of history that directly impact our lore as practitioners of Palo Mayombe. There are Tatas and Yayis who are unaware that there were no prendas in the Congo, who don’t understand the social position an nkisi held within a community, or how these items were worked in practice. Why were nails hammered into nkisi? Why were some kept outside of the community, and others inside? What was the role of the nganga (Priest) in Congo community and history? How were nkisi built? All of these things are important to know, and questions readily answered by some time spent researching Congo religious tradition academically. You might get some of this orally, and you might not. Why limit our wisdom to one avenue? We are blessed in ways our enslaved ancestors could not have dreamed, with most of us literate and having access to endless fountains of wisdom in books and the like. To ignore that blessing is an insult to those who came before and had to fight for every kernel of knowledge.
To say that learning our own history and researching the roots of our religion is unnecessary because we are an oral tradition is plainly incorrect, and encourages ignorance in our community.
Here are some useful resources for those interested in broadening their understanding of the history of our Religion; even experienced Tatas may find something new to learn within:
El Monte (Spanish only, unfortunately)
These are just a start of course, and are certainly not a replacement for the oral and experiential knowledge we all acquire through work with our Godparents.