Funlayo Easter Wood

Funlayo Easter WoodGrad Wins Fulbright-Hays Grant

As an undergraduate at Bronx Community College (A.A. in psychology, valedictorian, 2006) and City College (CUNY B.A. 2008), Funlayo Easter Wood explored the African diaspora. As her studies progressed with a magna cum laude master’s in history (City College, 2010) and a graduate fellowship at the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at City College, so did her search for spiritual expression.

“I was brought up religious and spiritual,” she says. “My family is Christian, mainly. My mother [Ellen Hoist, director of the licensed practical nursing program at Bronx Community College, who was just promoted to full professor] is co-pastor of a Baptist church along with my dad.”

Now she has received a prestigious Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program grant to further her doctoral research at Harvard University. Administered by the U.S. Department of Education, the Fulbright-Hays Program is designed to meet the nation’s needs for expertise and competence in foreign languages and area or international studies.

Academic and personal exposure to African religion led her to Babalawo Oluwole Ifakunle Adetutu, a Harlem man who attended Hunter College and who became her guru. “They say that when the student is ready, the teacher arrives,” she says. In 2008 she traveled to Nigeria to be initiated as a priestess in the Yoruba Ifá-Òrìsà religion and took a new Yoruba first name, Efunfunlayo, meaning “Obàtálá [the divinity to which she is initiated] has given me joy.” Funlayo is her nickname.

“I’ve explored many spiritual traditions to find something that meshed with the way I conceived of the world, not something that I’d have to make myself believe,” she says. “When I encountered the Yoruba tradition, I realized that many of the concepts were things that I already felt and did not have words for.”

The Ifá-Òrìsà religion, brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, is the root of several New World religions, including Santería, centered in the Caribbean, and Candomblé, centered in Brazil.

She is now completing her first year of a doctoral program in African studies and religion at Harvard University, studying with professor Jacob Olupona, a noted scholar of African religions. She has a five-year fellowship valued at over $200,000.

Wood recently received a Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad Program grant from the U.S. Education Department for advanced language study in Yoruba. From June to August, she will study at Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria, live with a Nigerian family, speak only Yoruba and keep a journal in the language. At the program’s conclusion, she is expected to present a paper in Yoruba.

She intends to remain in Nigeria for three additional weeks to attend the Osun festival at the Osun river and grove, a UNESCO World Heritage site, conduct research in the Nigerian National Archives at the University of Ibadan and conduct interviews as a part of her preliminary dissertation research.

Wood’s research focuses on Yoruba and other African religions which, she says, “have often been misrepresented, oversimplified and even demonized within academia and within the broader world, so I really would like to contribute to providing positive scholarly engagement with them.”