“How do you spell that?” It seems like an innocent question. Practicing Satneria in the United States, however, can be a complicated affair when it comes to language. How you spell a word that comes up in a reading depends largely on whom you ask. Even “orisha” is sometimes spelled “orisa,” or “Yemayá” is sometimes spelled “Yemoja.”
The Yoruba that evolved in Cuba is thought by some to be a different language, called Lukumí, in which the Yoruba alphabet is been replaced by the Spanish one.
Praying in Yoruba is also another matter. African-Americans and Latinos are often initiated by Spanish-speaking immigrants and elders. These teachers often mix Spanish and Yoruba during ceremonies, making it difficult for newcomers to follow what is going on.
So, aside from an English-speaker taking courses in Spanish to help with communication with godparents, what’s an American-born practitioner to do?
The truth is that there are no easy answers, but here are a few tips.
Spelling Lesson. Give up on trying to get the exact spellings of words. Ask your godparents how they spell the word or name of interest and go with that. The prayers are meant to be said aloud, so just try to the pronunciation down from your godparents and don’t worry too much about spelling.
Translation. You can find Yoruba/English dictionaries. I recommend “Beginner’s Yoruba,” by Kayode J. Fakinlede because it comes with two CDs. If you speak Spanish, you may want to get a copy of Lydia Cabrera’s Anagó: Vocabulario Lucumí, a Lucumi/Spanish dictionary. If you do not, you could still get this and also get an English/Spanish dictionary.
Bilingual Books. “The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts,” by Baba Ifa Karade, is one of the few that offers translations for Yoruba proverbs, religious songs and prayers.
Recite & Repeat. It’s like high school English class when you had to memorize Hamlet’s soliloquy by William Shakespeare. It’s also the way you know every word to that annoying summer hit that radio stations play over and over, again. The key is repetition. Write down your prayer on an index card. Translate it if that helps you with the memorization. Then say it every day, several times a day and repeating it more than once each time. It’s the only way.