Basking in Obscurity… A Nigerian Village in South Carolina

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Both Yoruba and English are featured on Oyotunji’s bilingual welcome sign. Photo/Molly McArdle

By Molly McArdle

The road to Oyotunji turns off State Highway 17, less than 10 minutes away from Interstate 95 and under an hour from Charleston and Hilton Head. Highway 17 un-spools along the coastline from Savannah to Myrtle Beach and further up into North Carolina, but this stretch—a tall corridor of green even in winter—is unhurried. There is a convenience store with no ATM and, a bit down the road, a gas station with a broken one. (The next closest option is in Yemassee, a half hour drive away.) The drive through the woods is a short one, but it’s enough to feel transformative. The signage helps too, one side in Yoruba and the other in English:

NOTICE

You are leaving the U.S.

You are entering the Yoruba Kingdom

A sign welcoming visitors says Kabo sile wa, decorated in flags and a crown. Welcome to our land.

At its founding in 1970, Oyotunji African Village never promised its residents a perfect way of life. But it did offer them an idea equally radical: a world without Europe, a space outside white supremacy. A tiny village in South Carolina whose population has waxed and waned from as many as 200 to as few as 25 residents, it has since transformed from a bustling separatist community to a smaller and more-focused religious one.

Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II was born in Oyotunji. At 39, he’s been the leader of this small community for over 10 years. He is a handsome, charismatic man. Ritual marks, three lines, run parallel across each cheekbone and perpendicular down his forehead. The garment he wears, white and embroidered, is beautiful and billowing. One woman, Oyotunji resident Ofun Laiye Adesoji, brings him a glass of water covered by a napkin. Another woman, visitor Ase Jones, moves in and out of the courtyard where he sits, periodically stopping to listen to the Oba, or leader.

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Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II wearing a traditional crown. Photo/Courtesy of Oyotunji

“Oyotunji, this was built on old plantation land,” he says. “The Tomotley plantation is right through the woods over there. You can go straight through the woods, less than 200, 300 feet away,” he says. “Africans worked all of this.”

Visitors enter Oyotunji through an imposing gate, painted red and khaki, with a crenelated top. It’s decorative rather than practical; no walls surround the 25-acre village.

The village is residential compounds, a café and marketplace, public spaces, and religious ones. There are small garden plots, ancestral altars, above-ground tombs, and at least eight temples dedicated to separate orishas—deities in the Yoruba pantheon that can be described as aspects of a single god, a conceptual framework not unfamiliar to Hinduism or Catholicism.

The physical reality of this place is explicitly African. Its commanding entryway looks Hausa. Its flag takes its design partly from Ethiopia (the colors red, gold, green) and partly from Egypt (the ankh). Its afin, or palace, is modeled after Ile Ife’s, in Nigeria. The village’s name, referencing the Yoruba empire that dominated southwestern Nigeria between the 15th and the 19th centuries, means “Oyo rises again.”

The foreignness of the place has made for heated local gossip. “There are many rumors about what we do here,” says Adesoji, who gives me a tour of the grounds. “We cook people. We eat dogs. If you go in, you never come out.”

Coverage from predominantly white media outlets, too, has ranged from skeptical to lurid to mocking. In 2015, Oyotunji was included on a list called “Here Are the 13 Weirdest Places You Can Possibly Go in South Carolina.” It’s similarly been included in books, 2008’s Weird U.S. and 2007’s Weird Carolinas. An Orlando Sentinel article from 1987, titled “S. Carolina ‘Voudou’ Colony Unsettles Local Whites,” vividly describes the ritual slaughter of a chicken. “King or Con Man, the Controversial Ruler of Yoruba, SC, Is Really Just Walter from Detroit,” from a 1981 issue of People speaks of sacrificial altars and bathing in blood.

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King Adefunmi I sitting in state during festival. Photo/Courtesy of Oyotunji

Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, the current Oba’s father, founded Oyotunji in 1970. Adefunmi I’s parents, followers of Marcus Garvey, gave him the name Walter Eugene King in Detroit in 1928. He was raised a Baptist, but from a young age he questioned why the religious figures his family worshiped did not look like them. Adesoji repeats the story during the tour. “He asked, ‘Why is it that we don’t have any African gods?’ The pastor told him that’s because we have none. That kind of infuriated him.”

The young King went on to become a commercial artist and modern dancer. As a member of Katherine Dunham’s groundbreaking modern dance troupe (one that would help launch the careers of Alvin Ailey and Eartha Kitt), he traveled all over the world. “When he got to Haiti he saw Yoruba culture in its full glory,” Adesoji says. “He ate the food, he saw the clothes, he also saw the community come together for the orisha, something he never saw people do in America.”

His son, the current Oba, acts and speaks with a mixture of formality and informality, sometimes even performing two different versions of the same action. When we first meet, he says something in Yoruba—a greeting—and waves his irukere, a handle with white horse’s tail hair and a traditional symbol of royalty, over me. Then he smiles and says in English, hello, and shakes my hand. He moves between goofy jokes, anecdotes animated by dramatic voices, stories of his father that mix criticism and respect, and rhetoric about Oyotunji’s national, global, historical importance. These aren’t necessarily contradictions.

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Oyotunji’s Temple of Olokun, the orisha of the deepest water. “If it were not Olokun our ancestors would be at the bottom of the ocean with all those treasure ships,” explains Adesoji. “He is where all life comes from.” Photo/Molly McArdle

Adefunmi II got the call his father had died while driving over the Seven Mile Bridge in Key West in 2005. He was not yet 30. “When I came home, a lot of things needed to be rebuilt,” he says. “We had to jack stuff up and dig stuff down, it was like a historical preservation board.”

Now more than a decade after the death of its charismatic founder, Oyotunji has evolved but not slowed down.

Gender plays an enormous role in life at Oyotunji. It determines the rites of passage you undergo, it grants you membership in a gendered group, it governs whom you marry and the nature of that relationship. Still the community’s understanding of gender (and to a certain extent sexuality) is something that has been and will continue to be negotiated. Even as Adesoji described the different tasks assigned to young men and women as they come of age, she rails against the idea that it’s fundamentally sexist. “There’s no such thing as a man’s job or a women’s job. Everyone’s out trying to make a living for the house, that’s how it’s always been,” she says.

Academics have backed up that idea. Hucks, author of Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism, describes “a core group of capable and compelling women” she encountered when she first started her research in Oyotunji in the 1990s. “They served as chiefs, sat on governing boards, and participated in major decisions that shaped the direction of the village.”

The power they held was power they had fought for. Thanks to a concerted effort, in 1974, women got expanded rights (including the right to own property within the village) and compulsory polygyny was banned. In 1992, the village opened the Ifa priesthood to women, which gave them access to divinatory tools used in personal, communal, and transactional readings.

The new king has reframed Oyotunji’s rural existence as an eco-friendly alternative, seeking out grants for sustainable farming and building. “This is a nature religion,” he explains. “If you want to understand this culture, you got to understand the trees, the woods, and that right there, the dirt.”

As Adesoji and I ate the village’s miracle crop of spicy kale, she reflected on her own increased independence. “Why not learn how to grow your own food?” Adesoji asks. “Growing up in Miami, if a hurricane came—good god almighty—the grocery stores are empty, there is no electricity, so what do you do what do you eat? You pretty much got to drive maybe 100 miles before you can get to a grocery store that has food.”

Oyotunji also continues to welcome religious devotees, or aborisha, who come to stay or study every year. There is no official tally but the king estimates that 2,000-3,000 visit annually.

Oyotunji is not a victim of bad press because it’s not a victim—the approval of white people is something Oyotunji was designed not to need. Oyotunji speaks for itself.

Molly McArdle is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor from DC proper. She is Brooklyn Magazine’s books editor and a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure.