As pandemic crisis grips, young Cubans find solace in sect of African descent

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Matanzas (Cuba) (AFP) – Five blindfolded young men kneel before a priest who pronounces blessings in the West African Yoruba language, as they swear to be courageous, respectful and kind to their community.

But this scene does not take place in West Africa: it is Cuba, and the five young men here convert to Abakua, a typically Cuban spiritual practice.

Faced with economic hardship and the Covid-19 pandemic, many young Cubans have taken refuge in religion, including Abakua, a belief system born nearly 200 years ago as a brotherhood for the protection of enslaved Africans in Havana.

“With this problem of the pandemic, it has increased a lot, we have had a lot” of new faithful, Juan Ruiz Ona, a religious leader, told AFP.

The religion shares attributes with Santeria and Palomonte, other popular sects in Latin America with African origins and influences from various belief systems.

But while the other two are practiced throughout the region, Abakua is exclusive to Cuba.

At the Efi Barondi Cama temple in Matanzas, 100 kilometers (60 miles) east of Havana, Ona is the Yamba – the second highest official.

The private initiation ceremony for young men that takes place here is only open to Abakuas and their guests.

The person taking the role of the Ireme – or the little devil – rubs a chicken over the bodies of the new disciples as part of a purification ritual, before letting them enter the sacred space where the secret ritual takes place. .

Dancing to the rhythm of a drum, the Ireme represents the presence of ancestors.

“Support our brothers”

Becoming an Abakua has always been difficult, and the secret rules imposed on worshipers were notoriously harsh.

There are approximately 130 Abakua fraternities in Cuba, made up entirely of heterosexual men.

Akabua Ireme – little devil – dances during the oath ceremony at Efi Barondi Cama temple in Cuba Yamil LAGE AFP

The fraternities are called “powers”, “games” or “plants”.

Over time, groups have lost their cloak of secrecy, but not their rigid principles, such as supporting brothers in the faith.

“During this pandemic (…) we tried to support our brothers, even though some died, others were sick and others whom we visited and helped,” said Ruiz.

Like many Cubans, some of the faithful have emigrated and send money home to help their fraternity.

“We are a constructive institution, we are contributing with our revolution and our youth,” added Ruiz, a staunch supporter of the island nation’s communist regime.

Cuba's 200-year-old Abakua religion is only open to straight men who must follow a strict code of conduct
Cuba’s 200-year-old Abakua religion is only open to straight men who must follow a strict code of conduct Yamil LAGE AFP

After the 1959 socialist revolution, the government declared itself an atheist, but after the fall of the Soviet Union – the mainstay of the regime – Cuba in 1990 became an officially secular state, albeit predominantly Catholic.

Sociologists estimate that 85 percent of the population of 11.2 million consider themselves believers – but not necessarily observers – of a religion, often in sects that combine Catholicism and African animist beliefs.


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