Dr. Noel Amherd will soon be moving out of the Bay Area after eight years of being the spiritual leader for members of the Ifá (pronounced e-fa) religion at San Quentin State Prison.
“I will miss all these beautiful souls I have come to know so well,” said Amherd. “These are some of the best people I’ve come to know inside or out of prison. They push me to be better.”
The Ifá faith’s presence at SQ was an outgrowth of the restorative justice program. Amherd is a restorative justice practitioner, trained to bring victims and offenders together to promote healing.
“One day while I was inside for restorative justice the brothers asked me to say a prayer in Yorúbá. I have been a part of the community ever since,” said Amherd.
The 8,000-year-old religion is one of the oldest indigenous practices in the world. It was started by the Yorúbá people in the West African region of Nigeria.
Through ritualistic practices devotees access their deities’ wisdom and counsel. Incantations, prayers, and divination are believed to summon these deities — or the ancestors of the petitioners.
Devotees may speak to ancestors in dreams, by audible sounds, or even have conversations during what appears to be in-person visits with the spirits.
Ifá does not rely on a person having miraculous power but rather on a system of signs that are interpreted by the Babaláwo.
The term Babaláwo, interpreted as the father of secrets, is Amherd’s official title. His spiritual name is Eni Orisan ni joba.
“The people of Ifá do not discuss their faith using their government names,” he said.
On the day of our interview, Amherd was preparing the devotees for “Ógún Wiwè.” which means the washing of ógún, — the Órisha of Iron.
The sound of Djembe drums and chanting could be heard in the background. The drums invite a celebratory atmosphere.
The ceremonial practice is called “Egúngún,” which means the annual festival for the ancestors. It is a time when the dead come back to visit the living. “Egúngún” literally translated is “the ancestors,” according to Amherd.
Many of the words in the Yorúbá language are sung rather than spoken. Music, song and dance are means of communication for the Yorúbá people.
“There is a tone and melody to the language that must be captured in order for words to be translated correctly,” according to Amherd.
“The function of the Ógún Wiwè ceremony is to recognize that our souls become entwined when we harm each other, causing both souls pain until we can make amends.
“This is done in order to heal and create a medicine that will spread between the living and the dead.”
Amherd said that this is a time when the forefathers and foremothers return temporarily to see the descendants to remind them to make the world better.
Ifá is not a proselytizing religion. Its core practice is “Iwá” which means “character.”
“There is both a moral and spiritual dimension. Every devotee is tasked with developing ‘Iwa Rere’ which translates as ‘good character,’” said Amherd.
“These are people working on the spiritual practice of building good character,” he said.
Jesse Blue has been part of the religion for the past four years. He participated in the celebration and referred to it as a cleansing ceremony.
“It keeps me in a balance between the spiritual and physical realm,” he said.
Christopher “Tre” Huggins has been part of the religion for almost four years. “When I step on the grounds and sit with Babaláwo, I feel a spiritual connection,” said Huggins.
“I grew up Christian and I never got to choose my religious belief. When I became a man, I made a choice. I feel a connection to the ancestors that goes back for generations and generations.”
The devotees are granted a space on the prison grounds that they use to hold their sacred ceremonies. “Everything is sacred; the environment, ecology, plants, birds, the air we breathe, all of creation,” said Amherd.
Ifá is a polytheistic religion. Its supreme creative figure, Olodumare, shares power with an uncountable number of subsidiary deities. Each represents elements of life or nature, fire, rebirth, agriculture, or the arts, and each serves as an intercessor between humans and the creator.
The word itself refers to the mystical figure “Ifá” or “Orúnmilá,” regarded by the Yorúbá as the deity of wisdom and intellectual development.
Amherd began practicing this religion in 1991. He traveled to Nigeria in 1995 and went through an initiation and was instructed by Ifá and his elders how to be a Babaláwo.
Amherd did his PhD research on the indigenous Yorúbá culture.
He also wrote a book titled “Reciting Ifá,” which was published in 2010 by Africa World Press. He maintains an ongoing relationship with the teachers and elders in Nigeria.
When asked what his religious devotees would do without him, Amherd said the devotees will have to find another Babaláwo.
“The important thing is about passing on self-sufficiency,” he concluded.