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A spotlight on Yoruba culture

Long ago having embraced the culture and native faith of the ancient Yoruba people, Chief Nathaniel Styles has traveled to West Africa dozens of times over the decades.

His latest trip will feature a national audience.

Styles, of Pompano Beach, is a focal point 9 p.m. Tuesday on the finale of PBS’s Sacred Journeys, a six-part documentary that follows religious pilgrims from the United States to world holy sites, including Mecca and Jerusalem.

Author Bruce Feiler followed Styles and several priestesses in training to Nigeria for the annual Osun Festival, which draws thousands from around the world to celebrate the river goddess of the ancient faith.

“PBS has such a respected audience, and the program will let people know this is much bigger than any cult or any type of religious sect,” Styles said of the program. “This is a comprehensive spiritual culture.”

For Styles, who was raised in South Florida, the documentary is the product of decades of promoting the Yoruba culture in the United States.

He runs the Miami non-profit group Osun Village — also the name of the Nigerian state in which the festival is held — which sponsors cultural exchange and hosts artists from Africa.

In 2006, Florida lawmakers named a portion of Northwest Seventh Avenue in Miami after the organization, which hopes to establish a permanent Yoruba cultural center here.

Elements of the culture are familiar to many in Miami, particularly to Cubans — hundreds of years ago, the island became home to Yoruba slaves brought from West Africa. They practiced their faith in secret, incorporating Catholic traditions into a faith that today is popularly known as Santeria or Lukumi.

In Nigeria today, the Yoruba religion is generally known as Ifá, who is the messenger of a supreme being known as Oludumare, or Olòrún. Followers seeking predictions or help with problems in their lives can turn to dozens of deities known as orishas. To do so, they consult with a priest known as a babalawo, who uses a chain and palm nuts in a process known as divination.

Today in Nigeria, where Muslim and booming Christian Evangelical faiths often clash, the native faith is often derided as pagan idolatry, something practitioners have fought hard to dispel. In the heart of Yorubaland, forests used by ancient practitioners have all but disappeared, but in 2005, the United Nations designated the venerated “Sacred Grove” a world heritage site.

Styles, 52, has long traced his family lineage to the region. He made his first visit to Nigeria in 1984 and has since been initiated as a chief in several communities in West Africa.

“I really felt an overwhelming connection,” Styles said of his first trip. “The love, the bonding I experienced there was something I’d never experienced before from complete strangers.”

Feiler, a New York Times columnist and bestselling author, accompanied Styles in August 2013 to the Osun Festival in the town of Osogbo for 16 days of colorful festivities and rituals that drew followers from around the world. Feiler called it “electrifying and intense.”

“Chief Styles is like this celebrity there. He’s big, he’s charismatic. He knows all the artisans,” Feiler said. “He’s such a great spokesman for the community.”

David Ovalle

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