When I selected Honey in the River by Marsha Scarbrough, the book's subtitle: Shadow, Sex and West African Spirituality certainly painted an intriguing picture. I was not disappointed. The author provides a primer of Yoruba worldview as she narrates an intimate story of love and vulnerability.
Marsha Scarbrough, a long-time wisdom seeker, relates that after her failed marriage she finds her way to a Nigerian spiritual leader who is practicing Ifa. She attends meetings where vibrant hand drumming is used to produce trance states for ecstatic dancers. She becomes enthralled with the stories, the language, the stimulation of the senses and the energy of the dance. All the pieces fall into place and she begins a sexual liaison with an Ifa teacher she calls Oba. Anthropologists call this "going native," although Scarbrough is quick to say she is not an anthropologist, but a devotee who found herself transferring feelings of love to her spiritual teacher.
Hand drumming is integral to Ifa experience and was introduced by Babatunde Olatunji to my generation through early collaborations with Carlos Santana and the Grateful Dead. Oba played with Olatunji for over 10 years. I love the sound and visceral feeling that comes from hand drumming. This is the only book I know of that comes with its own sound track of Ifa chants.
I felt pulled into the book, as if I were invited to join as a disciple to wriggle and writhe to the fervent rhythm of her narrative. The author is honest and reflective about how the man she at first accepted as a polygamist because of his culture was nothing more than a manipulative philanderer. She details the deceptions and her struggle with reconciling how her path seeking spiritual wisdom led her into entangled relationships. Here is a capable professional woman mired in drama worthy of a soap opera!
She analyzes how the warped belief system of Oba allowed him to lie and hide his actions from his followers. This admired spiritual leader had multiple sex partners, did not adhere to the cultural norm of polygamy, and still felt he was honoring the tenets of Ifa and leading a spiritual life.
I was interested in this story because of my love of music of the African diaspora and cross-cultural experiences. Ifa is an ancient earth-based religion that has existed for thousands of years. There is a reason that the beliefs resonate at a primeval level. Through Ms. Scarbrough's eyes, I was able to look into a world I knew little about, lived for a while vicariously, and was able to escape unscathed.
Marsha Scarbrough lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico after working in California in the field of film production for many years. She is a published author of books on Native American and West African spirituality. Visit her website.
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