Sometimes we drive a long distance purely out of curiosity. And today, we drove an hour to visit what might be the ONLY “authentic” African village in the United States. Oyotunji Village is a fully-functioning West African town in the middle of the woods in Sheldon, South Carolina. Its culture is based primarily on the lifestyle of the Yoruba people of Nigeria – one of Africa’s largest ethnic groups.
Oyotunji (which means “rises again” in Yoruba) was founded in 1970 by a former used car salesmen named Walter Eugene King who, for many years had sought his spiritual home. He travelled to Haiti in 1954 to study Voodoo, and then followed that trip with visits to Europe and North Africa to study other religions and cultures. In 1959, just before the Cuban revolution, he made a pilgrimage to be initiated into the priesthood of Obatala and returned to the states with his new name – Efuntola Osiejeman Adefunmi.
After a quiet drive down South Carolina17, we turned off the highway onto a dirt road squeezed between a rundown house and a roughly hand-written sign with the note “as seen on TV.” Once we bumped our way down to the village, we were greeted by another hand-painted sign for parking and instructions telling visitors to honk. Before we had a chance to hit the horn, a woman welcomed us and told us our tour guide would be with us soon.
It was pretty early in the morning, so we understood the delay – who gets up at these early hours anyway? So we spent a few minutes feeding goldfish crackers to the village’s little black kitten Lightning.
When our tour guide finally arrived, he was doubled over in apparent distress and motioned us to him. Following a firm handshake and introductions he informed us he was under the weather – a bit late considering the firm handshake and inaccessibility of the hand sanitizer. Even though he’s not the regular tour guide, he was a trooper, explaining he’d been up all night with chronic kidney issues and obligingly gave us the tour.
Though I can’t remember his name, I do remember his unusual outfit – a colorful, authentic-looking African shirt, sweatpants, socks and sandals. I guess he really did just roll out of bed. His tour focused on the many worship centers of the village, skipping most of the important history, and his subdued manner and voice made it difficult to follow along.
But here’s a little background: the crudely constructed village had a peak population of more than 200 individuals in the 1970s, when the Pan-African movement was in its prime. According to our guide, the village is now home to only five families. They grow some of their own food, but most of the remaining adults must seek other employment – our guide was a retired military man and his wife a teacher. They supplement their income and help support the community by selling crafts, holding events and charging tourists, like us, $10 each to enter.
It was interesting to experience the only African Village in the United States, but the $10 fee was high for the minimalist tour we received. Plus, we were a little disappointed that, with so much opportunity to really make this an inviting, authentic cultural destination, it’s really nothing more than a tourist trap. But then again, it is cheaper than a flight to Africa.