Oyotunji African Village, South Carolina’s Authentic African Enclave

A vividly blue face-shaped monument at the heart of the village

photography by: Omri Westmark

The South-Carolinian locality of Sheldon off the Interstate 95 highway is remote, sparsely populated and purely rural, and yet, amid its bucolic landscape lies one of the state’s most unusual places, a semi-sovereign African enclave. Modeled after a typical Yoruba hamlet in West Africa, the Oyotunji African Village was established by a group of African-Americans who wanted to reconnect with their ancestral homeland, reviving their traditions and customs in a speck of land at the middle of the new world.

The Story Behind the Village

Similar to almost any other racial or ethnic group in the United States, African-Americans can trace their origins to a faraway ancestral homeland, which in the vast majority of cases is in West Africa, formerly the epicenter of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

 

Born and raised in Detroit, Walter Eugene King was intrigued by his forgotten cultural legacy since childhood, immersing himself for decades in African studies. Following a trip to Cuba, where King was initiated as a Yoruba priest and officially became Efuntola Osejiman Adefunmi, he established a temple in Harlem, NYC, dedicated to his ancestral African religion.

 

After passing his knowledge to a growing number of people, King and dozens of his followers relocated in 1970 to a secluded and forested corner of South Carolina, where they founded the Oyotunji African Village, an authentic African community that bears an uncanny resemblance to the Yoruba villages of South Nigeria. Inspired by the ancient African kingdom of Oyo that once encompassed vast areas in West Africa, the village is named “Oyotunji”, literally meaning “Oyo emerges again” in the Yoruba Language.

The palace’s iconic Yoruba-style gate


Oyotunji national flag

photography by: Omri Westmark


Ornamented round huts modeled after Yoruba houses in Nigeria

photography by: Omri Westmark


A mural of Oyotunji’s key female figures

photography by: Omri Westmark


The monumental wall of the Olokun shrine

photography by: Omri Westmark


Visiting the Village

Nestled along South Carolina’s Route 17, about 5.5 miles away from Interstate 95, Oyotunji is easily accessible by car and offers a free parking space. As you reach the village’s entrance, you’ll come across a sign informing about your “departure” from U.S territory in both English and Yoruba Language. While border control isn’t really enforced here, the village’s iconic gate serves as a portal to a self-proclaimed independent community with its own flag, laws and even a ruler.

 

Opens daily between 11AM to 6PM, the village doesn’t officially have an admission fee. However, visitors who wish to explore its premises are obliged to do so with a 20$ guided tour after a quick registration at the reception, or alternatively book it in advance via their website. Following a clamorous drumming by the traditionally dressed guide to notify the villagers about a brand-new guest, the visitor is then taken to all of the village’s highlights, including the royal palace, the residential parts and the dozens of shrines in between.

 

The village also annually hosts 15 different festivals, where a series of traditional rituals, musical performances, parties, parades and teachings take place, each of which is dedicated to a distinct Yoruba deity, known as Orishas. During festivals, the local marketplace offers visitors a plethora of artisanal souvenirs, whose revenues serve as a great share of the village’s overall budget.

The main sign along Route 17, and the village’s mailbox colored with the national colors of Oyotunji

photography by: Omri Westmark


A sign indicating about the departure from U.S territory

photography by: Omri Westmark


Oyotunji Village’s main gate

photography by: Omri Westmark


An Oyotunji street

photography by: Omri Westmark


A routine drumming informing the village about newly arrived visitors

photography by: Omri Westmark


Yoruba Shrines

Perhaps Oyotunji’s most conspicuous feature, the numerous sanctums across the village are each dedicated to a specific divine entity known as Orisha. According to the Yoruba indigenous religion, Orishas function as a manifestation of the supreme being, Olodumare, and as such, play the same role as saints in other religions. In striking resemblance to many of the world’s ancient mythologies, the Yoruba’s deities are divided by their distinct duties and moral obligations.

 

On a first glance, the vividly colorful sculptures around each of the village’s shrines might seem like being a part of an African Disneyland. Nonetheless, every statue and ornament were meticulously created as a mean to appease the supreme beings rather than the occasional tourists. Since Orishas are known for their unfathomable appetite for gifts, the spectacular shrines are accompanied by an altar where they are bestowed with a hodgepodge of food items, alcoholic drinks, knickknacks and incense.

 

Interestingly, the Oyotunji villagers assert that one of their deities, Olokun, the patron orisha of the sea who is also associated with wealth and prosperity, was the source of inspiration behind the Starbucks’ logo, and so, according to them, the giant coffee chain owes its success to the blue divinity.

A Sphinx-like blue sculpture, part of the Olokun shrine

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Olokun shrine at its fullest glory

photography by: Omri Westmark


A shrine dedicated to Yemoja, a water-dwelling deity who is known as the mother of all orishas

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Yemoja Shrine’s altar

photography by: Omri Westmark


A shrine honoring Osun, the goddess of beauty, fertility as well as love

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Osun shrine’s altar

photography by: Omri Westmark


An altar where gifts are being offered to Ogun, who according to the Yoruba tradition is the patron deity of war and metals

photography by: Omri Westmark


A shrine dedicated to Sangoma Oludoye, aka Mamaloja, a local Oyotunji activist, renowned for her cultural and spiritual contribution

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Mamaloja Shrine’s altar

photography by: Omri Westmark


Main Palace

As one might expect from a kingdom, even if a miniscule one, Oyotunji boasts a royal palace where the current ruler, Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi II, and his family members reside. The royal complex includes several public buildings and shrines, designed with the utmost attention to details. In fact, some of the people who took part in the construction works have previously traveled to Africa, where they were educated by locals on how to authentically build a Yoruba Palace.

 

After crossing the main gate of the royal complex, you’ll come across a ceremonial courtyard, flanked by a couple of hovels, one of which is supported by giant sculptures of shirtless women while the other is decorated with portraits of Oyotunji’s key female figures. Another interesting place is a public gathering space known as Obatala, which is nestled alongside an unusual burial compound that serves as the eternal home of late prominent villagers.

The main gate of the royal complex

photography by: Omri Westmark


Traditional sculptures embellishing the main gate

photography by: Omri Westmark


The palace’s ceremonial courtyard

photography by: Omri Westmark


Sculptures of shirtless women utilized as support elements for the building’s roof

photography by: Omri Westmark


The Obatala public club

photography by: Omri Westmark


A grave of a local villager, nestled in the royal burial compound

photography by: Omri Westmark


Daily Life

With so many dazzling visual stimuli around, it easy to forget that people actually live in the village, engaging in their day-to-day activities alongside its myriad of shrines and monuments. After peaking at the 1970’s with roughly 250 inhabitants, the population of Oyotunji proper currently consists of only a few families. The demographic decline is partly to blame on the relocation of some villagers to a close-by settlement, gradually making Oyotunji a far-less residential-oriented place than it used to be shortly after its inauguration.

 

Despite its low population figures, new residents still move in as the recently constructed timber houses at the outer parts testify. Each and every person who wish to become an Oyotunji member must meet several criteria and then undergo a long initiation process. It might come as a surprise, but this African-American community doesn’t officially admit new residents based on their ethnic background, and so, theoretically, also people of other races can become villagers.

 

While the village is considered by its inhabitants as an independent nation, in practice, the vast majority of people who call Oyotunji home work outside where they also spend most of their time. In an attempt to be as self-sufficient as possible, a considerable percentage of the food is grown within the village, including mini-farms and livestock.

The village’s entrance counter

photography by: Omri Westmark


A compost station, whose content is used as a fertilizer at the village’s farms

photography by: Omri Westmark


A newly constructed house at the outskirts of the village

photography by: Omri Westmark