The Yoruba believe in Atunwa, reincarnation within the family. Yoruba funeral songs such as Slowly the Muddy Pool Becomes a River and Where are You Now? incorporate the symbolism of loved ones returning in other forms. This poem is a grief-stricken Yoruba prayer, inviting a dead child to be born again.

Death catches the hunter with pain.
Eshu catches the herbalist in a sack. (1)
Shonponna is the snake that dies (2)
And carries its children away.
Shonponna uses the invisible calabash (3)
To kill two hundred people.
Eshu hands the invisible calabash to Shonponna.
The black soil of the earth is on the farm.
The red soil of heaven is in the grave.
You my child,
Oludande, you born-to-die, (4)
Return from the red soil of heaven,
Come and eat the black soil of this world.

from Black Orpheus 22 (1967)


Footnotes

  1. Eshu: The Yoruba trickster god. See Eshu, God of Fate.
  2. Shonponna: Eshu’s younger brother, the Yoruba god of smallpox, bearer and protector against the virus. See Alajire, God of Suffering
  3. The smallpox virus is inhaled, so spreads invisibly.
  4. Oludande: The child’s name, meaning ‘Our Deliverer’.