“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.
The vibrance of culture ignites my spirit; it is the balm to heal the soul. Today, we have many systems in place to fix the planet, the water, the earth, the soil, but the corrosion of Mother Earth is only a symptom of a dis-ease of Western culture. The issues with our planet are an extension of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and Native American Genocide. Human trafficking and the exploitation of natural resources are symptoms of the same disease. To use fossil fuels for expansion, it requires othering because we know that there is no clean way to use this form of energy. In doing so, we must divorce ourselves from relationships with the group that will suffer the sickening effects. If we want to restore the earth and mend the human condition, we must explore a cultural shift and address the malady of greed, expansion, growth and capitalism. When we are truly ready to heal, we will prioritize love and relationships.
Standing on top of Ogun Mountain, in the Sacred City of 41 Mountains, West Africa, I knew my life would forever change. The women from the royal house danced for me. The men drummed me into a trance. They called me by my African name as they welcomed me home. On the soil of my ancestors, the healing began.
After a thirty-six hour journey, my seven year old son and I arrived at Amma's ashram in Kerala, India where we would live for the next year. We stood in line for many hours to receive darshan (blessing) from the "Hugging Saint". When we finally approached Amma she held my sad and wary body close to her bosom for several moments. Alas, she looked into my eyes and then whispered into my ear, "welcome, daughter." Amma then reached for my son, sat him on her lap and fed him chocolate cake as if he were a baby. It was the most beautiful expression of love that I ever experienced.
Enough time and emotional bandwidth to focus my entire heart on being a wife, mother and grandmother.
Trauma is healed in life's day to day moments and expressions of love.