In the Spirit of Oshun: Odunde Returns to Philadelphia

Community members, dressed in white, red, and gold begin the walk from South Street to the South Street Bridge for the River Offering to Yoruba goddess Oshun.

By Leticia Roa Nixon

Every second Sunday in June, the river goddess Oshun is honored with an annual offering, a beloved and critical component of the Philadelphia Odunde Festival. The festival was launched in 1975 by Lois Fernandez after visiting similar celebrations in Africa. For many years, the offering kicked off the festival in the early hours. This year, the River Procession was set at noon. 

As the participants gathered to walk to the South Street Bridge, everyone felt a welcoming spirit enfolding them. Believers of the Yoruba religion consider the deities or Orishas as mediators between humanity and God. Oshun, the deity of love, fertility, and sensuality, rules the fresh waters and is associated with the divine feminine. She hears and answers prayers and teaches self-forgiveness and love. 

Baba Joe greeted old acquaintances, friends, and wise teachers. Community members connected about their childhood, religion, or attending the same university. The cortege embraced believers, followers of African religions, non-practicers of this tradition, multi-ethnic and multicultural families, and representatives of the Nation of Islam.

Orishas; drummers, performers, vendors, and attendees gather to participate in the procession and celebrate Odunde. Photography by Nathan Mutale.

The veiled participants representing the Orishas; the drummers, singers, and sekere players led the procession in her honor. Young men from the Odunde Festival staff helped carry the plentiful offerings of fruits and flowers nestled on wooden palanquins. The sounds of the traditional drumbeats, preserved through centuries and rhythmic chants, were accompanied by the sounds of the Women’s Sekere, an ensemble headed by founder Omomola Iyabunmi, keeper of this African tradition.

An essential part of the procession, the drums played in rituals to communicate between the earthly realm and the intangible worlds. There are rules and people in charge to protect these spiritual instruments: for example, nobody should cut in front of them.  The batá drums, a double-headed hourglass drum with one end more significant than the other, transmitted the essence of specific Orishas. Musicians know the songs that are unique to Oshun.

Musician Marcy Francis has been a member of the Women’s Sekere Ensemble since 1989 and has attended the Odunde Festival for about 29 to 30 years. “It’s a beautiful blessing to see all our people come together and honor the Orisha Oshun, and it’s a blessing at the river, to be in the procession and just bring the love and the harmony into Philadelphia and the world because we are from all over the world, and we just bring peace, love, and harmony.”

Once at the South Street Bridge location, over the Schuylkill River, Odunde’s CEO Oshunbumi Fernandez-West said her prayer and dropped the flowers and fruit into the fresh waters. This signaled that the participants could deliver their offerings and pray to the deity of love. A young woman nearby stated her heartfelt words, asking for protection for the city to be rid of violence and for the good care of the river. Other participants dropped pineapples and oranges and poured honey, knowing that Oshun loves sweet things.  

Offerings of flowers, fruit, and food to Oshun in the Schuylkill River. Photography by Nathan Mutale.

As the offerings started dropping into the Schuylkill River, the procession drummers, singers, and sekere players formed a circle, and a Babalawo danced in the center, irradiating joy and peace. Babalawo means “father of secrets” in the Yoruba language. It is a spiritual title that denotes a high priest of the Ifá oracle. The drumming, chanting, and dancing can continue for hours and days during Yoruba ceremonies. 

Police officers respectfully guarded South Street and gave plenty of time for the parade to present their gifts before returning to the festival to enjoy the marketplace, food, and music with ensembles like the 50-year-old Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble. Its mission states, “Inspired by the voices of our ancestors, Kulu Mele preserves and presents traditional dance and music of Africa and the African diaspora and celebrates contemporary African American culture.” For 55 years, Kulu Mele has embodied excellence in West African, Cuban, and African Diasporan traditions, including contemporary American Hip-hop. Their first dance performed honored Oshun on the main stage.

Honoring Oshun may be a one-day occasion for some, but for others, it’s an everyday action.

Picture of Leticia Noa Nixon

Leticia Noa Nixon

Leticia Roa Nixon was born and raised in Mexico City. She has a B.S. in Communication from Universidad Iberoamericana. After moving to Philadelphia in 1985, Leticia served 28 years as an Official Court Interpreter for the Court of Common Pleas. She has been a news reporter for local Hispanic newspapers and presently for Atrévete, a bilingual TV program produced at PhillyCam. She also participates in Philatinos Radio as a News Director and has hosted a weekly radio program called La Noticia con Leticia since 2013.