African Village Oyotunji. As Seen on TV.
There’s not much to this area, the no-man’s land between Beaufort and Yemassee. Just a few houses and convenience stores. It’s around the corner from the Old Sheldon Church Ruins, the remains of a Revolutionary War-era church. The town is listed as Seabrook, but it’s an unincorporated community that developed in the 1800s around nearby plantations.
Curious people drive through a decorative gate with the name “Oyotunji” written on it. Signs welcoming visitors are in English and Yoruba. Cement sculptures are painted in bright colors. The landscape is made up of pines and sand, a far cry from the group’s homeland.
Named for the Oyo Empire of Yoruba found in modern-day Benin and Nigeria, it became a thriving West African state starting in the 12th century. While the empire crumbled in the early 1900s, the Yoruba continue to be one of the main ethnic groups in Nigeria.
The village in South Carolina was established in 1970 in Sheldon by Ofuntola Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I, set on 27 acres on former plantation lands.
It includes a Yoruba temple that was moved from Harlem, New York and claims to be independent of the United States. The population of the village has fluctuated over the years, ranging from 5 inhabitants to over 200. People moved from big cities to live as their ancestors had.
Ofuntola was born in 1925 in Detroit as Walter Eugene King, later traveling to Haiti as a part of a dance troupe. There he learned about Yoruba culture, became an orisha priest, and established the first Yoruba Temple.
He saw a need for Americans to know about the African gods and wanted them to have a place removed from the racist rhetoric. He even appeared on a 1988 episode of Oprah to discuss his utopia.
Oba Adejuyigbe Adefunmi the second is the current leader, born at Oyotunji. He became King in 2005 when his father died. At age 29, he had to decide the future of the village. He focused his energy on the area’s agriculture, becoming self-sufficient in an area that could be classified as a food desert.
Today there are a few buildings including residences, each with its own ancestor shrine. Community members learn to speak Yoruba and wear traditional African clothing including the koufia, a head covering, danshiki, a tunic, and sokoto, pants.
Some practice polygamy but village duties and childcare are shared among all. Some of the people that visited over the years have since relocated permanently.
There’s also a cafe and marketplace for the estimated two thousand annual visitors and a cemetery. Group members lecture at schools, produce films and books, and even oversee ceremonies including weddings.
The admission cost is $20 dollars and guided tours are available as well as horseback riding excursions. The Yemonja Festival is one of their annual events, offering arts booths, performances, food, and ceremonies.
Oyotunji has ties to the Gullah communities of the South Carolina Lowcountry, who came from Africa as slaves and developed their own language and customs. So why come to this African village in the rural south? Why does it exist? For tourists or for the people?
Maybe both. In light of white supremacist attacks in places as close as Charleston in 2015, somewhere like this feels as important as ever for the African American community.