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People Top 5
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- October 12, 1981
- Vol. 16
- No. 15
King or Con Man, the Controversial Ruler of Yoruba, S.c. Is Really Just Walter from Detroit
A mud-caked road snakes through a swampy forest to the secluded village, where King Oseijeman Adefunmi sits on his rattan throne presiding over the decapitation of a chicken. Then he drips the fowl's blood into clay pots near the sacrificial altar, where spirits are believed to reside, and announces, "The gods have spoken."
A typical day in a prehistoric culture? No, a typical day in 1981 in Yoruba, South Carolina. Here, 20 miles southwest of Beaufort, reigns the spiritual-political leader of Yoruba's 153 residents, including his seven "wives" and 15 children. Of course, King Adefunmi, 53, came to the purple by his own declaration, having followed a circuitous route from Detroit, where he was born Walter E. King.
His village is connected to civilization by a pay phone and a stream of 4,000 tourists a year (admission is $3) who come to buy African handicrafts and listen to the gods speak. Adefunmi reveals their divine words for a fee; and you can get, say, an animal sacrifice to ward off marital problems or ill health for $30.
Adefunmi came to South Carolina in 1970, leading 18 members of his Harlem Yoruba temple out of New York in search of their roots. "We chose this state because there are more African survivors here than in any state except Mississippi," Adefunmi explains. "Besides, we didn't fare too well in New York sacrificing goats and chickens."
Taking the name of Nigeria's 1,000-year-old Yoruba kingdoms, Adefunmi's followers speak Gullah, an English-African dialect common to coastal South Carolina and Georgia. The residents wear traditional West African garb (men go naked in warm weather) and eat native dishes seasoned with herbs, pepper and palm oil. De facto polygamy is practiced, but, Adefunmi notes, "African women are free to divorce on the slightest provocation. But they cannot have more than one husband at a time because there would be a dispute over paternity." The village includes 75 women to 38 men and 40 communally-raised children.
One of Adefunmi's "wives"—the marriages have no legal standing—is Queen Iya-Orita, 36, a former Philadelphia teacher. She admits, "I wasn't used to competing for someone's attention. But I don't like to cook, and he has wives that love to fix his food. One wife likes to make his clothes; another loves to have babies. I love to travel and keep him in the news."
In Detroit, Adefunmi was raised a Baptist by an upholsterer father and housewife mother. He turned agnostic as his interest in Africa grew. Adefunmi rues, "We didn't know who we were—except for Tarzan movies."
At 21, he moved to New York, and worked as a dancer, model, artist and restaurateur. In 1952 he married model Jan De Vries (daughter of humorist Peter De Vries). After Adefunmi founded his Harlem Yoruba temple in 1959, they divorced. "My followers didn't condone integration and told me at gunpoint to forget her," he says. His son from that marriage is dead; a daughter lives with her mom in New Jersey.
Adefunmi then joined the Republic of New Africa, a radical group that planned to create an independent black nation in the South. He left the movement, he says, when "they decided to take over Brooklyn."
Life in South Carolina hasn't been all peaceful. In December 1971 Adefunmi was arrested by the FBI for allegedly harboring fugitives. "The charges were dropped because we made the necessary sacrifices," says Adefunmi, "though I'm sure they had another rationale." Tax audits plagued the village, too. Unlike other groups, however, the Yorubans don't talk about seceding from the U.S. "They don't want to lose food stamps and welfare," chides State Rep. Harriet Keyserling of Beaufort. Adefunmi calls such support "reparations" for slavery and estimates public funds provide for a third of Yoruba's $40,000 annual income.
So far local authorities have overlooked the village's eccentric laws. "The king's just a natural con man," shrugs one black leader in Beaufort. "We've got other things to concern ourselves with." State tourism director Robert Liming even says, "We promote the village because it represents a unique cultural setting."
Yorubans put on 15 festivals for visitors each year. Adefunmi gets a cut of the tourist earnings, in addition to taxes. The king's favorite festival is at year's end, when he goes 10 days without sexual activity, drinks herbal concoctions and bathes in animal blood. "By December," he complains, "I'm exhausted."
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