Lowcountry village holds funeral for a founder

BEAUFORT - Adorned in white robes and head scarves, members of the Oyotunji African Village in Sheldon celebrated the life and mourned the death of one of their community's founding members Saturday.

Inside a one-room, tin-roofed building just inside the gates of the 30-year-old enclave, about 30 people beat drums, danced and sang around the coffin of Chief Adenibi S. Edubi Ifamuyiwa Ajamu. Ajamu died Dec. 10 and was buried Sunday following a funeral service at the Allen Funeral Complex in Coosawhatchie.

Born in Chicago in October 1941, Ajamu was just the second male to arrive at the 10-acre compound tucked away in the woods off U.S. 21 in Sheldon. The village was founded in 1970 by Oba Oseijeman Adelabu Adefunmi I to serve as an authentic environment for African-Americans fashioned in the West African Yoruba culture, which originates in Nigeria. Adefunmi died in February 2005 at 76. His son now serves as the village's Oba or king.

Ajamu spent 15 years in the village, served as a chief and elder priest, and will be sorely missed, said Chief Alagba Olaitan.

"We've lost a giant," Olaitan said. "Like Oba I, he sought to address some of the problems with Africans in America and thought that we were suffering from a sort of cultural amnesia. He believed that we must restore our indigenous cultures. He was a firm believer in this cultural restoration movement."

Olaitan said Ajamu will be remembered in the village as a teacher.

"He always had a good and funny story to tell, and he always had a lesson to teach," he said. "Sometimes you didn't know it was a lesson until he was done. We were fortunate to have had many opportunities to sit at his knee."

The settlement Ajamu leaves behind has long been a place of curiosities - animal sacrifices, ritual facial scarring and the polygamy of Oba Adefunmi I once drew national attention, including a crew from "60 Minutes" in 1986.

At one point, Oyotunji was home to about 200 people. Nine or 10 families, a total of fewer than 50 people, are all that remain.

Though Olaitan said they don't believe they will ever be able to fill Ajamu's shoes, the man's unwavering commitment to the Yoruba culture will live on.

"(Oyotunji's) primary purpose is as a monument to our ancestors," Ajamu told The (Hilton Head) Island Packet in 2003. "How could this many people be on this side of the water and not have a monument to the past?"