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RELIGION-CUBA: Afro-Cuban Brotherhood Vindicated

Orlando Matos

HAVANA, Jan 12 2007 (IPS) - A recent episode of a Cuban television detective serial portrayed the Abakuá secret society in an unusually favourable light, after more than a century of discrimination and calumnies in Cuba against this sect of African origin.

In an intentionally didactic manner, the programme made a clear distinction between this mutual-aid religious brotherhood and criminals, with whom it was formerly identified here, and stressed the ethical and moral values demanded of those who wish to join it.

“To be a man, a good son, father, brother, friend, to be honest, to have no vices,” were some of the virtues listed on the application form to join the Abakuá secret society, read out by one of the television characters, who added that fulfilling these requirements was only the beginning of a long process before he could be accepted.

In an interview with IPS, Cuban anthropologist and expert on religious affairs Jesús Robaina said that at present, Cuba “has shifted from merely tolerating, to accepting and living with” this particular sect.

The Abakuá secret society was brought to Cuba by slaves from the West African region of Calabar, between the eastern bank of the Niger River and what today is Cameroon, and it became known to the public here in the 1830s.

The original centres of the sect were established in the port areas of Havana, Matanzas and Cárdenas (100 and 140 kilometres from the capital, respectively), where the lodges, or “potencias”, still survive.

Unlike other Afro-Cuban religions, Abakuá or Ñañiga, as it is also known, is selective and only for men, and it maintains rigorous silence about the mystery of its beliefs.

This secrecy lent itself to the sect’s name being blackened with legends about bloody rites during its liturgies, and the code of conduct of its members was stigmatised as “male supremacist and violent.”

The discrimination and prejudice against the Akabuá brotherhood had its origins in the colonial era, when slave traders reviled its members as “ignorant criminals,” in the attempt to dehumanise what they considered to be their “merchandise.”

When the island became a republic at the start of the 20th century, the dominant racial prejudices ensured that Abakuá continued to be seen as an accursed cult with abominable practices. Although white men began to be admitted in 1855, the image that has remained is that of a black men’s society.

Cuban researcher Enrique Sosa won the Cuban “Casa de las Américas” literary prize in 1982 for his essay “The Ñañigos”, which drew attention to this kind of discrimination.

“From the second half of the 19th century until well into the 20th century, Ñañigos were accused of being criminals – which in certain cases was true – and of witchcraft; they were feared, reviled, and surrounded with sensationalism which made a profit from the fear they aroused. This fear was the result of ignorance about their beliefs and rituals, and of alarmist, opportunist, shamelessly false and unscientific class interests,” Sosa wrote.

According to Robaina, who is the director of the Cuban Institute of Anthropology, since the 1959 triumph of the revolution led by Fidel Castro, all things Abakuá have been seen “as folklore which ought to be preserved, rather than valuing its essence as a religion.”

Many experts say that Abakuá dance and music are definitely among the most spectacular folklore arising from the Afro-Cuban religions.

The music and dance, together with Abakuá ideographic writing and their own Carabalí language, have become recurring motifs in national theatre, painting and cinema.

One consequence of that culturally oriented approach is the emergence of groups like the Cuban National Theatre’s Efi Yaguaremo company, which is dedicated to popularising the Carabalí-Abakuá tradition.

Several institutions, such as the Department of Ethnology and Folklore of the Cuban Academy of Sciences, and lately the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, are studying the Abakuá brotherhood as part of wider research on the African legacy in this Caribbean island nation.

In Robaina’s view, the members of the Abakuá religion “became essential and fundamental components of Cuban nationality, because of the cultural resistance that was the basis of their action.”

That is why “there is now political understanding of the need for this religion as part of our national values, and a participative process with Abakuá practitioners is being developed, to contribute to demolishing the negative legends that surround them,” he added.

Apart from the folklorisation of their culture, a process that selected and developed elements of the religion for their artistic and literary value alone, the Abakuá religious society itself is experiencing a renewal.

There were 120 recognised lodges in 2005, and in 2006 there were 147, with a membership of more than 20,000. This number may already have increased because after Jan. 6, Abakuá Day on the island, new initiations always occur

Robaina said a study of eight lodges in 2004-2005 found “an increase in membership, including graduates and university students.”

“Even elderly Abakuá say they had to study to be admitted to their lodges, which indicates that they are not out of step with current events in the country,” he said.

An indicator of the social re-evaluation of this religious mutual aid society is that it has earned great respect and “social recognition within the communities surrounding the lodges,” he emphasised.

The expert acknowledged that it would be over-idealistic to think that the members form a perfect human community. “There are negative elements among them, but they are not the majority, as was formerly exaggerated,” he added.

“They carry out in-depth investigations to test potential members, and anyone who shows bad attitudes or behaviours in his life won’t be accepted, because they are highly selective,” he said.

“I don’t think it will become a mass religion in the future, but I do believe the time has come to welcome and accept this faith within our society,” he concluded.

The television programme broadcast on the first Sunday in January appeared just over a year after the Abakuá religion was entered into the national register of associations at the Ministry of Justice, awarding it complete official recognition.

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