Laeila Adjovi

Writer, Radio Reporter, Photographer
The roads of Yemoja
Location: Dakar, Senegal
Nationality: Beninese
Biography: Laeïla Adjovi is a Beninese and French storyteller. She grew up in Gabon and South Africa, studied in France, lived in India and New-Caledonia, before working as a radio reporter for the BBC from Dakar, Senegal. As a reporter and... MORE
Public Story
The roads of Yemoja
Copyright Laeila Adjovi 2023
Updated May 2021
Topics African Spirituality, Afro-Cuban spirituality, Black Atlantic, Documentary, Essays, Fine Art, Fragmented memory, Photography, Portraiture, Religion, Spirituality
The Roads of Yemoja is a multidisciplinary project tracing an African deity (Yemoja) from the shores of Benin and Nigeria across the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba. This artistic journey is also an investigation into Yoruba and Ewe-Fon cultural heritage in Cuba, and a conversation about disseminated collective memory and cultural hybridization.

The name “Yemoja” is derived from the Yoruba words “yeye-omo-eja,” which means “mother whose sons are fish.” In Yorubaland, she is a river deity, while on the other side of the ocean, she has become the deity of the ocean. In West Africa, she goes along with many other water deities : Mamiwata, Agbe, Aflekete… But Yemoja is always associated with maternity, fertility, and abundance. Originating in the lands once called “the slave coast,” rituals in her honor travelled across the Atlantic Ocean along with millions of Africans deported during the slave trade.

Black Gods With White Masks

Africans deported as slaves to the Americas have long exercised a silent cultural sedition. As they were forced into Christianity, one strategy was to use Catholic saints as shields. Yoruba and Ewe-Fon could identify the Christian God with their own creator God: Olodumare, Olofi, or Mawu. But they refused to abandon their deities, which they considered messengers sent to help humankind. To dodge the whip, they had to hide them. Yemoja, 'owner of the river' in Yorubaland, became Yemaya, deity of the ocean, and took the mask of the Virgin of Regla. Shango, deity of lightning, fire, and thunder, hid behind the figure of Santa Barbara. Oshun, deity of sensuality and creativity, was dressed up as the Virgin of Cobre. Ogun, lord of iron, became San Pedro. Obatala, master of knowledge and purity, found himself associated with Las Mercedes. These African deities were so well disguised that within a few generations Orisha and Voduns had become saints (santos) in Cuba. Santeria soon emerged as a syncretic religious system that blended Yoruba religious practices with Spanish catholicism and spiritism. The system is widely known as Regla de Ocha, or the “Rule of Orisha.” On the largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba, and other points of the region formerly known as the New World, the only way for Africans to survive cultural annihilation was to take hostage all the Catholic saints.

Carpe Lucem

I became a better photographer when “seize the day” took on a new meaning: Seizing day-light. Collecting photons like they were flowers. And before that, as with a flower, admiring light. Spying on it. Watching it bloom. Being on the look out for every wave and dance. Marveling at the way it makes and breaks shapes and colors. During my journey on “The Roads of Yemoja,” I wanted to step away from the dichotomy of light-whiteness-purity versus darkness-blackness-sin and let my eyes get used to darkness that brings no gloom. To make the obscurity felted, enveloping, cozy, and as reassuring as life before the world, like the inside of a womb. To find the shadows and coddle them. To bring them to paper, dip in a few words, and invent new forms of photosynthesis.

Laeïla Adjovi

Analog photography. Pictures taken in Nigeria, Benin and Cuba from November 2018 to December 2020  © Laeïla Adjovi
Special thanks to ArtsEverywhere for their support. More on this project on 
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The roads of Yemoja by Laeila Adjovi
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