Speaker: Iya Affo

Reculturing, Re-Membering, and Relearning for Collective Healing

“You are the cumulative expression of all your ancestors.”

When Iya Affo meets someone, she instinctively looks for the best in that person, a seed in them that can be nurtured. To nurture others is a high calling for Iya, whose deepest identity is as Mother and Healer. Her African name, Wekenon, means Mother of the Universe, and her title, Iya, signifies Holy Mother. Both were bestowed on her in a traditional ceremony on the soil of her ancestral home in the Benin Republic of West Africa.

Iya's passion is to cultivate intergenerational healing by connecting intuitive ancestral practices with modern neurobiology. A culturalist and historical trauma specialist certified in the western tradition, as well as a certified Adverse Childhood Experiences Trainer and an organizational consultant, she is a descendant of a long line of traditional healers from West Africa, a Chief in the Village of Ouidah, and a High Priestess in the Yoruba tradition.

Iya’s search for her individual and cultural identity formed in her childhood while growing up in New York. She was deeply drawn to the rituals observed among her Jewish friends and neighbors – from their ceremonies and traditions, their holidays, to the Yiddish language spoken in their homes. She began to wonder why her Black community had such a different trajectory; why was the history of the Holocaust widely known, but not the stories of enslavement of her ancestors? She sensed that a connection to one’s history and to ancestral land would help communities be resilient and overcome adversity.

Setting off to travel alone in her late teens, Iya visited more than 30 countries to understand other cultures. She has proceeded to live abroad in five countries and to experience different spiritual environments – from China, where she practiced Buddhist meditation in a Shaolin Temple; to Myanmar, India, where she stayed at a Hindu ashram; to the Navajo Nation and the Gila River Indian Community, where she engaged in service; and briefly to France.

Significant immersion in her ancestral village of Ouidah, Benin Republic, has deepened over nearly three decades. Iya has relearned how to live as an indigenous woman and now practices the Yoruba tradition in her day-to-day life among the egalitarian, indigenous people of Arizona. “Relentlessly, I pursued the truth about our enslavement,” she has said. “I received my birthright of ritual, ceremony and initiation. My greatest gift has been relearning how to live as an indigenous woman, in egalitarian society, as a wife and mother.”

Through her cultural and spiritual leadership, Iya has mediated familial disputes and provided guidance for culturally appropriate transformative justice action. Iya has brought an understanding of how culture and neurobiology impact the way in which humans think, feel, emote and relate from a variety of perspectives. She applies these insights to Historical Trauma training; Cultural Competence analysis; Program Evaluation and Restructuring; and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training. She has worked with a variety of public, private, and nonprofit institutions.

Iya’s early travels led to studies of trauma and epigenetics, which inform her current work. Decades-long research shows that trauma persists in the human psyche and body from one generation to the next, up to 14 generations, via physical DNA. Living in Africa helped her understand the neurobiological dysregulation that is prevalent in the United States for BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) communities. She came to realize that Western treatments – such as talk therapy or medication – are counter-productive or damaging for healing trauma in BIPOC individuals. Alternative healing practices – rituals, drumming, martial arts, and guided meditation – provide more sustaining solutions. Iya carefully says, “In communities where people have been traumatized, the best way for us to heal moving forward is to become self-healing communities. We must be healing ourselves.”

Epigenetics also shows that benevolence and positive childhood experiences can be passed through generations. This knowledge gives new motivation for parents, teachers, caregivers, and leaders to practice self-regulating behaviors that foster healing, safety, and consistency, and most importantly, love. She hopes to facilitate re-culturing and the subsequent healing of all people in all parts of the world. “If we, as a people, are to return to grace, we must go back to the soul of the [African] Continent,” she says. “Only in Her soil will we take root in ancestral land, fertilized by ritual, tradition, spirit and identity. Then we will blossom into a harvest of productive, happy, peaceful and evolved African people.”

Through teaching about the importance of culture and neurobiology, Iya advocates for the harmonization of Traditional Medicine and Western Medicine to facilitate holistic healing. She recently stepped down from being an executive board member on the Arizona ACEs Consortium, but continues to serve as the Chair of the Historical Trauma committee. She is an Adjunct Faculty member at the Arizona Trauma Institute/Trauma Institute International, and the founder of Phoenix Rising to Resilience virtual community on the ACEs Connection platform. 

Please join us in conversation with this grounded ‘Mother of the Universe’ as we explore healing intergenerational collective, historical trauma.

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