Off to Africa?

In two days I’m heading out of town for the holidays. When Dad died in 1982, Mom and I couldn’t bear to celebrate that first Christmas without him surrounded by the same old familiar things, having to put on a brave face and either be endlessly consoled or, worse, not consoled. So we decided to leave town. We drove down to Williamsburg, Virginia, and did the whole Colonial America thing. They have quite a lovely holiday celebration, and it was just so odd and so different that we thought it would be just the thing. We could be quiet and mourn in our own way, talk or not talk as we wish, and broaden our horizons just a bit.

So I thought it was an appropriate thing to do for the first Christmas without Mom. No, not Colonial Williamsburg, but a road trip. I’m heading up to Norfolk, Virginia, to spend the holidays with my old, old, old friend Jim (he’s only half a year older than I; it’s just that we’ve been friends since the age of three). He would always come over to our house in Maryland on Christmas eve and spend the night, and then we’d all open prezzies in our robes the next morning. When we moved to Florida, he spent most Christmases down here with us.

Jim bought a house a few years ago, but Mom had been too sick for me to leave her for an out-of-town visit with him. Now that he’s trying to sell it (and with the housing market the way it is, you know that’s going well!), I wanted to see it at least once, and this seemed like the perfect time to do it. We’ll have our quiet little get-together, we’ll lift a glass to Mom, and we’ll find a balance between the old and the new.

On the way up I had already decided to stop at the Waffle House my brother Darryl and I so enjoyed on the funeral trip. But as I was planning, I ran across two new potential adventures.

When I lived and worked in the D.C. area, I came to love Ethiopian food. There are a number of excellent—one might even say renowned—Ethiopian restaurants in the area, though my favorite was a little hole-in-the-wall in Silver Spring, whose customers were almost exclusively Ethiopian, which tells you a little about the authenticity of the food.

I came to find that Ethiopian cuisine is not as well known elsewhere. I recently stumbled upon a database of Ethiopian restaurants, and it turns out there’s one in Jacksonville, on my way north. Guess where I’m eating lunch on Sunday? At the Queen of Sheba! I’ll have the Doro Wat, please, and maybe a little Alitrcha Fit-Fit.

A bit further up the road, in Sheldon, South Carolina, is the Kingdom of Oyotunji African Village. Its founder, King Oba Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi, who died in 2005, is credited as having been as one of the pioneers of cultural nationalism in America and the first African-American to be crowned King of all Yoruba in the Americas and Canada. According to Roadside America:

The Kingdom of Oyotunji African Village covers 27 acres and has, well, we don’t know exactly how many citizens (5 to 9 families in the last ten years, according to one tipster). It seems uncrowded.

It was founded in 1970 by King (Oba) Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, a former used car dealer who, some say, was running from the law. Whatever else he may have been, King Oba was smart enough to see the tax benefits of starting not only his own religion (“New World Yoruba”) but also his own country.

Oyotunji is not part of the United States, at least according to King Oba’s accountants. It moved to its present site near Sheldon because its old neighbors complained about the tourists and the drumming.

Oyotunji literature pictures its happy residents strutting about in colorful, flowing robes, dancing and playing fanciful percussive instruments. In real life the people of Oyotunji dress like any other small-town South Carolinans. Except, of course, that this “town” was built in the middle of a forest, has dirt instead of streets, bizarre, crumbling concrete monuments, and a “royal palace” that looks like a bargain basement V.F.W. hall. In one corner of the palace courtyard lies the mausoleum of Orisamola Awolowo, one of the founding fathers of Oyotunji, who died in 1990.

A sign outside, painted on a piece of 4 x 8 plywood, beckons visitors to venture down the “Safari Road” to visit the Village “as seen on TV.” The King has been on Oprah, defending his right to practice polygamy (at one point he had six wives).

Some consider a visit to Oyotunji a spiritual experience. For the less spiritually inclined, this sandy, marshy, bug-infested conglomeration of tumble-down shacks and crumbling concrete sculptures testifies to the American right to believe in whatever you want (even if you no longer consider yourself an American).

We give the people of Oyotunji credit for still being around, particularly in light of the rise and fall of the Nuwaubian Pyramids—another grand exercise in African-American nation-building—next door in Georgia.

I don’t know if I’ll hit the Kingdom of Oyotunji on my way up, or as I head back, but how in the world can I resist a visit?

Categories: Death, Family, Food and Diet, Holidays, Spirituality | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Off to Africa?

  1. I used to think that Ethiopian food was an oxymoron until I had a magnificent dinner in a DC restaurant a long time ago (can’t remember the name). It’s good to know that Ethiopian restaurants are spreading. Maybe one will come to Vermont.

  2. indigobunting

    Lali: I wonder if you were at the Blue Nile near Dupont Circle. Isn’t that what that one was called, Craig?

    I am really looking forward to hearing about your African adventures. And I do so hope that you and Jim have a great holiday. Give him my best!

  3. indigobunting

    Or it could have been the Red Sea…

  4. It was either Red Sea or Meskerim, both in Adams Morgan. There are now twenty-one Ethiopian restaurants in D.C.—
    —with three more in suburban Maryland and a half dozen in suburban Virginia!

  5. I had just been telling Lee I wanted to try Ethiopian food.

    “They have food?”


    “Isn’t that where everyone has been sending food?”

    Not recently.

    “So what do they have?”

    Raw beef in butter.

    “Really? So who are you going to eat that with?”

    In Gainesville, I worked with a family who lived, part of the year at Oyotunji. It was in a literacy program that taught pride in ones heritage and exploration of one’s roots as opposed with identification with the aggressor.

  6. Alas, the Queen of Sheba was closed for renovations. It’s gone from its previous location, a strip mall, and its website lists a new address that turned out to be a Chevron station owned by the same people. The owner says they expect to reopen “soon,” whatever that means.

    Serves me right for winging it instead of phoning to confirm.

    Two doors down from the Chevron station was a restaurant called—I kid you not—“Ying’s Chineee Takee Outee.” No, I did not eat there instead.

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