In mid-July, as part of London Rivers Week, we were lucky enough to partner up again with Dr. Michelle Yaa Asantewa – organiser of the annual Osun ritual. Together, we did a River Thames clean up near Battersea Bridge and paid a special tribute to the Yoruba river goddess Mama Ọsun.
For some of us, the experience of a ‘river clean-up’ conjures up images of high-vis vests, socialising with other volunteers, muddied jeans, litter picks and an opportunity to experience the flow and sensations of the water. However, our relationships with rivers are often varied and personal.
Have you ever considered the feeling of being in or by a river as sacred or spiritual?
We got this feeling when we teamed up with volunteers to honour Mama Osun (pronounced o-shun) – a river deity and force of nature, who originates from the Yoruba Ifa tradition. She represents the life of the river, is known as the mother of ‘sweet waters’ and is acknowledged for her importance to the environment and human life. Outside of Yoruba it is generally become known that Mama Osun depicts beauty, fertility, love and prosperity, much like her Greek and Roman equivalents, Aphrodite and Venus. However, it is less commonly known that as a force of nature, this river goddess is also a symbol of environmentalism.
Volunteers were under Battersea Bridge sometimes and by it on the Thames foreshore on 17 July for our River Thames and offering in honour of Mama Osun link up. The symbolism wasn’t lost on us when we joined the bridge between spirituality and environmentalism that day.
Dr. Michelle Yaa Asantewa explains: “It reminds us that spirituality and environmentalism have always been connected; at least as far as Africans and indigenous communities are concerned. For us it is a sacred responsibility, connecting us to the past and enabling us to do something practical that expresses respect for the future of our planet.
“I’m especially pleased by this approach to raising awareness about the critical need to protect our rivers. But of equal importance is that the event gave us the opportunity to introduce an aspect of traditional African spiritual systems, which continues to be misrepresented and misunderstood.”
Even though there were amber weather warnings, the breeze from the Thames and the shade from under Battersea Bridge kept more than 30 volunteers cool as they took part in the clean up and ritual on that Sunday. Nothing could put them off their stride!
As requested, we dressed in yellow and white to honour Mama Osun and brought offerings of fruit, which were sweet and yellow-based to reflect the qualities of this goddess for the ceremony. Dressing differently (not in our traditional navy/white colours) for a river clean up re-aligned the meaning of our actions as we filled bin liners with discarded litter from the foreshore. It was beautiful to watch.
As the environmental and sacred responsibilities merged, so did the end of the river clean up and the preparations for the ceremony. Yaa Asantewa and our volunteers began positioning fruit onto a large round bowl. We circled and watched and then joined in, placing an array of colourful, sweet fruit, other foods and items into the bowl. This included bananas, grapes, a pineapple, plums, lemons, oranges, sweet potato, apples, sunflower seeds, honey, demerara sugar and sunflowers.
During this time, two specialist drummers, Ras Prince and Chauncey, appeared and beat their drums to the rhythm of a poetic prayer that volunteer Nicole-Rachelle Moore read and together we sang along as she repeated the words “O bi ni sala ma a wo e” (please see an extract of the whole prayer below pics). There was a joyous buzz as we listened to Yaa Asantewa and watched the river wash away the biodegradable offerings.
“Hear me Goddess Osun
I speak to you from the energies of the Egungun
Iya mi ile odo
O bi ni sala ma a wo e
Your River ripples resonate love that can travel
It speaks in its vibration with a sound so natural
The sound of your flow is the equivalent of how love tastes
You’re life and the energy behind love’s gates
I seek to feed you, but not just because I need you
But as I study life, I am aware I still need to read you
You swim in my spirit
Communal love is what I exhibit
So hear this lyric vivid!…”
[This prayer was composed by Amosu Awoyemi]
Commenting further on the ritual and the clean-up, Yaa Asantewa concluded: “This is an extension of the Annual River Ritual in honour of Mama Osun that takes place in August, which is linked to the two-week long festival in Osogbo, Yorubaland. Osun-Osogbo has been declared a sacred grove since 1965 but was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.” We hope to collaboratively continue this event for years to come, as it brings opportunity for those who participate to learn and connect with another culture whilst progressively protecting the planet for future generations.”