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Cuba: African roots

Head to the mysterious Callejón de Hamel in northern Havana to discover a colourful local faith steeped in West African tradition

Cuba: African roots
Callejón de Hamel. Image: Getty

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Havana’s Callejón de Hamel isn’t a typical alleyway. Its walls are canvasses for swirling murals of vibrant colours and reclaimed bathtubs, and its path is littered with giant butterflies sculpted from old piano parts. In its backstreet garden, a small bar is kitted out with old diving helmets and tables made from tyres and microwave plates. The entire alley is an art project — and for its delightful weirdness we can thank Salvador Gonzaléz Escalona.

The surrealist painter and sculptor set about transforming the Callejón de Hamel in 1990. This was no mean feat, given that the Cuban authorities were, at the time, firmly against street art of any kind. What started with a few murals has transformed into an all-encompassing panorama, studded with individual works of glorious absurdity. But throughout this mystical, psychedelic space runs a distinct theme — virtually everything in the Callejón de Hamel links back to Santería, a Cuban religion with African roots. That, at least, is how my guide, Elias, describes it. Elias is quite the character, with his unruly hair crowned by a cloud of cigar smoke as he sits inside Salvador’s studio explaining the basics of his people’s faith.

Santería has its origins among the Yoruba people of West Africa, brought to Cuba by the Spanish and largely put to work as slaves on sugar plantations. The Yoruba believed in orichás — spirit manifestations of God, and sometimes referred to as deities in their own right — which makes the religion both monotheistic and polytheistic, depending on perspective. “The orichás invoke a natural force with a natural element,” says Elias. “So if you’ve a problem with your husband, you would use honey — which an element linked to Ochún, the orichá (goddess) of love.”

There are 401 orichás, synonymous with a whole host of forces and elements. Yemayá, for example, is motherly and linked to water, while Changó, the orichá of masculinity and power, has links to fire.

The Yoruba people, at the time not allowed to practise their religion in Cuba, came up with an ingenious plan: matching their venerated orichás to Catholic saints. Saint Barbara, for instance, became the substitute for Changó and Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Our Lady of Charity), was welded to Ochún. The custom became so ingrained that nowadays, wandering past the many icons of saints dotted along Havana’s streets, it’s hard to be sure which manifestation of said saint is being celebrated. Matters are complicated even further by the fact that many Cubans now call themselves adherents of both Catholicism and Santería, without seeing this as contradictory.

As Elias continues his explanations of the region’s complicated religious past, a man dressed head-to-toe in white appears behind us. “For one year, my name is Javo,” he tells us. It transpires that this is the period of initiation to become a babalao — a priest, effectively. For the entirety of his initiation, he must wear white clothes and avoid any physical contact with non-initiates, which means there’s no handshake upon greeting me.

Taking us under his wing, Javo leads us to a house where already-ordained babalaos are reading oracles. There’s a cheaply furnished living room, surrounded by small side rooms and curtained-off alcoves in which people are having their fortunes read. Shelves stacked high with religious artefacts and orichá objects act as shrines in every corner, and wooden heads representing different races are lined up next to a mirror. It’s a marvellously odd place. Compared to this, the vibrant frescoes of Callejón de Hamel suddenly don’t seem so out of the ordinary.