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Funlayo Says: How do I explain the gele (head wrap?)

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Seeking to Explain says…

Within the Yoruba-Ifa Orisha community, I have no problem discussing the purpose(s) behind wearing head ties, or covering the head. I am one to cover all the time as I grow older in the tradition. However, I often feel that I do not adequately explain the importance/purpose(s) to those outside of the tradition. I try to engage individuals on their level and at their understanding of things, but don’t always feel that I am effective. In this country, particularly where I am in the south, often times the only knowledge of head coverings concerns Islam, and even that is often not understood or respected. I am always likely the only aborisha folks have ever known and Yoruba Philosophy/Spirituality is brand new to them. Do you ever encounter this type of situation? How do you discuss with individuals outside of the tradition, parts of the tradition, particularly as it relates to the head – ori – and clothing?

Funlayo Says…

Thank you for your wonderful question! An issue that arises with attempting to explain one’s practices to those outside one’s tradition – whatever the tradition might be – is that rather than seeing it as a privilege to receive your explanation, those others often behave as though they have a right to know what you are doing. Many also behave as though if you cannot explain it in a way that makes sense to them, your actions are illegitimate or nonsensical. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth! The validity of our practices is not found in our ability to explain them to others. Nonetheless, we do have a natural desire for those around us to understand and respect who we are and what we do.

I encounter these types of situations frequently, as I have dressed predominantly African-style clothing for the past 11 years, almost always including a head covering. While those who approach me to ask about the reasons behind my attire are overwhelmingly respectful, the fact that they feel the need to ask at all can sometimes feel intrusive. Still, I strive to present our tradition in a positive light particularly because, as you stated, I may be the only olorisa (orisa priest/priestess) the person has had contact with and I would rather the person not come away with a negative impression, so I generally answer questions as simply and fully as I am able. I tend not to worry about whether the person completely understands, however, because, the truth is that most people will not fully understand something with which they are not involved, and that’s ok! A part of life is being comfortable with being uncomfortable, knowing that we will never fully understand everything that takes place around us.

One reality that may be contributing to your feelings of inefficacy when you attempt to explain Ifa-Orisa practices is that, unfortunately, there are many people who don’t actually want to understand – sometimes people are just nosy! laugh You’ll spend a whole lot of time trying to craft the perfect response to their question only to realize that they’ve stopped listening after the first 30 seconds and will come away from you saying, “so, basically, it’s a part of your religion” without any regard for the nuance and detail that you’ve tried to present to them. This can definitely be frustrating, but as they say, you can only lead horses to water – the drinking is all on them.

To address your specific question about explaining head covering, the short and simple answer that I generally give is that in Yoruba religion as well as Yoruba traditional culture at large, the head – which, as you noted is the seat of our ori, sometimes referred to as our personal orisa – is considered sacred. As such, we seek to protect our heads (both physically and spiritually) and to adorn our heads, which often equates to wearing a head tie or hat. In addition to covering the head, it is generally considered taboo for anyone to touch the head of another without expressly being invited to do so (and such invites are usually reserved for spouses, parents, hair braiders and spiritual elders in the course of ritual).

In Islamic cultures, head covering most often has to do with modesty as well as religious identification. Although head covering isn’t expressly about modesty in Yoruba culture, the Yoruba do believe in modest dress and, even in contemporary Yoruba society, you will often find women (and men) with much of their bodies – including their heads – covered. The modesty issue can be difficult to explain, particularly to women who have, in some way, come to view dressing scantily as a means through which they are able to express power and agency (see the book Female Chauvinist Pigs for an interesting treatment of this idea ) and who see any suggestion of modest dress as “oppression.” Again, we can’t worry too much about making folks understand what we do and why. As long as we share our experiences as honestly and sincerely as we are able – when we feel comfortable doing so, because we are in no way obligated – those who really want to gain an understanding will.

It sounds to me like you’re already doing a great job of connecting with people and proudly representing our tradition. Keep up the good work. It isn’t always easy but, to me, it’s always worth it. Continued blessings to you on your journey!

  • fmyanxiety
    Posted at 16:17h, 12 May Reply

    Explained absolutely beautifully and I learned so much from that one response. So happy to have found you on my journey. Excited to see where I am lead, hopefully to meet with you one day. Much love! -Amber Brionna

    • Iya Funlayo, PhD
      Posted at 10:25h, 24 May Reply

      You are so very welcome! Thank you for reading and for your feedback. Blessings!

  • Guenevere Reed
    Posted at 15:03h, 25 December Reply

    Adupe Giving thx for all your offerings of knowledge wisdom and love for our Orisa African spirituality ASE ASE ASE OOOooo…!!!

  • Ambi
    Posted at 05:53h, 05 June Reply

    Thank you for sharing this information. I also have heard that some in the tradition prefer to refrain from using human hair for braiding hair or adding as extensions in the hair. What are your thoughts? Also, does the head covering mainly apply to women or do men adhere to this practice also?

    • Iya Funlayo, PhD
      Posted at 11:34h, 05 June Reply

      You’re so welcome! Yes, using another person’s hair in one’s head is definitely a no-no from a Yoruba perspective — ideally we don’t even share hats or headwraps. The idea of covering the head extends to men as well, traditional hats are called fila and typically a hat accompanies a man’s outfit to protect and extend the ori.

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