Cutting-Edge Technology for an Ancient Religion

Boston, USA - The scene is replete with traditional African images, from the loose-fitting robes of the priests—Onaje Woodbine (GRS’13) in gold-tinged white and his wife, Folasade, in blue striped with black—to the wooden figures of deities fringing the floor on which the Woodbines sit.

The couple is explaining how to use a divination chain, strung with eight large seeds the size of walnuts. In the ancient African Yoruba religion, a priest tosses the chain on the ground; depending on the arrangement of the seeds when it lands (there are 256 possible configurations), the priest recites different verses containing the wisdom of the orishas, or divinities.

But this is the 21st century, and now a priest-in-training can reach the orishas on her cellphone.

Onaje Woodbine (above right), a PhD candidate in religious studies, has developed an app for iPhones, iPods, and iPads that mimicks the throwing of the chain. Intended as an education tool, not a sacred one replacing the chain, the app shows one of the 256 signatures when a student shakes the handheld device. The app also stores the verses or stories associated with each signature; there are at least four verses per signature, meaning priests must memorize at least 1,000 verses in this oral-tradition religion. There are also drawings by Folasade Woodbine (above left), Yoruba singing, and information about the Woodbines’ teacher, Bishop Ezekiel Soniran Adekunle Lijadu, to whom they dedicate the app.

It is up to the client seeking guidance to choose which verse or story recited by the priest applies to his problem. At the outset of a divination, the client doesn’t even share his question with the priest, who merely mediates between human and deity.

The app is available on iTunes. A full version sells for $5.99; a limited one, minus some verses and divination techniques, is free. (The Woodbines are devotees of Ifa, the major divining technique.)

The potential customer base—American? African? Both?—remains a question.

“It is not clear how many Yoruba religious practitioners will have access” to the necessary technology for viewing the app, concedes Woodbine, who also has a website devoted to Yoruba religion. But the app can only broaden access to the religion’s sacred verses, he says, because some practitioners do indeed have the latest technology, and because until now, they have had “to rely upon itinerant Yoruba priests from Nigeria to learn more Yoruba sacred texts and the art of divination. Or they had to search for verses in several rare or expensive books.”

The app, he says, will help preserve sacred verses that, in an oral tradition, might be eroded by fallible human memory. But some Yoruba traditionalists have decried the app for placing verses and divination techniques in the hands of nonpriests and charlatans. “Anything to make a buck nowadays,” groused one on Woodbine’s website. He counters with comments from supporters, who describe the app as a bridge allowing an ancient tradition to be shared and preserved in the contemporary world.

Onaje Woodbine, Folasade Woodbine using Ifa Divination app. Ifa Divination app for iPhone, Ifa Divination app for iPad.

Yoruba religion originated with the Nigerian ethnic group of the same name, who also live in Benin, Togo, and Sierra Leone. The slave trade transplanted the Yoruba and their religion globally; while estimates place the faithful at 1 million, Stephen Prothero, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion, suggests a number in the eight figures is more likely. Prothero consulted Onaje Woodbine when writing the Yoruba chapter in his book, God Is Not One. (Wande Abimbola, the world’s leading Yoruba scholar, once taught at BU, but there are no courses in Yoruba language or religion at the University currently, Woodbine says.)

Yoruba religion’s animating premise is that humans forget the destiny they choose for themselves before birth, requiring that we consult the orishas with our questions about career, relationships, unhappiness, or anything else. Prothero writes that “more than a rigid belief system, Yoruba religion is a pragmatic way of life. Practitioners care far more about telling good stories and performing effective rituals than about thinking right thoughts. They greet religion’s doctrinal dimension with indifference and demonstrate almost no interest in patrolling orthodoxy, or even in defining its borders. This is a tradition of stories, their interpretation, and their application in rituals and in everyday life—a ‘religion of the hand’ rather than the head.”

It is also a religion that faces hostility from Christians and Muslims in Africa, says Woodbine, while Prothero writes that it has been neglected by scholars or else lumped with other, very different and supposedly “primal” faiths also based on oral tradition. He counters that Yoruba belief “is its own thing, as distinct from the religion of the Sioux as Buddhism is from Islam. And it, too, is one of the great religions.”

Asked about the traditionalists’ beef with his friend’s app, Prothero says the controversy is a small price to pay for Woodbine’s invention. “All religious traditions adapt to changing circumstances, and among the circumstances of the here and now are the iPad and the iPhone.”