Niambi “Nikki” Hayes is a Yoruba (West African) priestess, mother of four and respiratory therapist at Pennsylvania Hospital. She earned her master’s degree in public health administration and education from St. Joseph’s University.

by Constance Garcia-Barrio

Niambi Hayes, 39, of Mt. Airy, a respiratory therapist and priestess in the Yoruba tradition, a West African religion that reached the Americas with the slave trade, looks up from making a spiritual necklace to give me a warning. “Be careful of whose voice you heed,” says Nikki, as family and friends call her. Then she strings on a blue bead beside a white one in a necklace representing Yemaya, a Yoruba deity of maternity and the sea.

Nikki learned early about the danger of poor advice.  A high school guidance counselor told her she would fail in college. “The woman left me feeling shocked and defeated,” says Nikki, who has since earned an advanced college degree. “I began to cut classes and skip school.”

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, home to a robust Yoruba community, Nikki and her mother sought direction from friends, including educators. Nikki eventually entered college, but felt frustrated because she couldn’t pin down a major. Her mother suggested a consultation through divination with Oyá, a deity, or Orisha, associated with the wind and life’s first and last breaths. “When I was seven years old, Oyá was marked as my guardian angel,” Nikki said. “During the consultation about college, Oyá said there was a field of study where I would excel but that I’d overlooked. My mom and I went through the course catalogue, and when my mom saw respiratory therapy she said, ‘How about this field? It’s very Oyá-like.’”

By May of 1997, Nikki finished her associate’s degree in applied respiratory therapy from New York University and a concurrent bachelor’s degree in that field at Pace University. Then she made another crucial choice. Afraid that her oldest son, now 19 but four at the time, would get lost in the New York City School System, she moved to Philly in 1998 on the advice of Elegua, the Orisha of the crossroads and one’s destiny. “He’s consulted about key life decisions,” Nikki says.

Nikki soon joined the staff of St. Christopher’s Hospital as a respiratory care practitioner specializing in neonatal intensive care and pediatrics. “Sick infants often have trouble breathing,” says Nikki, whose second child was born in 2001. “The parents need the truth, but also gentleness.”

Around the time Nikki arrived in Philadelphia, the city inched toward recognition of traditional West African religions. The controversy about celebrating Odunde, the festival held each June in Grays Ferry to honor Oshun, a Yoruba deity of beauty and harmony, had cooled. In 1998, Gro Mambo Angela Novanyan Idizol, high priestess of Vodun, founded the National African Religion Congress. “I attended the celebration in honor of religions like Yoruba, Akan, Vodun and Santeria,” Nikki said.

Nikki became active in the local Yoruba community. In 2002, after months of spiritual preparation and buying the all-white clothes she would need for a year, she became a priestess. “When I was at a gathering of mediums, one of the mediums told me, ‘One day you’ll be a channeling medium,’” said Nikki, now much-sought after for her connection to Oyá.

Nikki’s skill, empathy and intuition as a therapist seemed to grow in tandem with her spiritual development. “I had lots of patients with cystic fibrosis (CF),” she said. “In that illness, the movement of the cilia, tiny hairs that line the lungs, doesn’t work well. Mucous can thicken in the lungs and make it hard to breathe. You’re with a CF patient four times a day, a half-hour each time. You explain the importance of taking medication and the value of certain activities. You form relationships. The other day I spoke with a kid I met when he was seven or eight. Now he’s 20. I attribute my patience in my professional and spiritual life to my years at St. Chris, although I now work at Pennsylvania Hospital.”

Nikki relied on that patience and experience in neonatal intensive care when she gave birth to premature twins herself six years ago. (Nikki has never been married.) “My twins were born at 28 weeks,” she said. “I didn’t ride the emotional roller coaster of asking myself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ I knew it was their journey. I don’t think it was a mistake. I don’t beat myself up, but I have to be vigilant. They both have special needs.   As an African American, I have to fight harder. I’m not throwing a pity party; that’s just the way it is. I don’t have a chance to rest emotionally. My spiritual life, clinical experience and the support of elders and parents allow me to remain strong.”

The spiritual necklaces also help. “I usually pray as I do beadwork,” said Nikki, who sometimes makes fashion necklaces. “It’s calming once you get into a rhythm.”

In 2008, Nikki returned to school “on the advice of Orisha,” and in June, Nikki received a master’s degree in public health administration and education from St. Joseph’s University.

Nikki holds a necklace, and maybe her life, up to the light, to see their pattern and sparkle. “I’ve met every challenge as a clinician, and my empathy for disadvantaged children has deepened because of my twins,” she said. “Maybe in the future I could bring those two aspects together as an advocate for children fighting for services from insurers, almost like case management. I’m not a licensed social worker, but I can review charts, read diagnosis codes and use the knowledge gained in earning my master’s degree.”

Whatever path she chooses, the voice of Orisha will guide her. “It’s unfortunate that many people are judgmental about spirituality,” said Nikki, who’s traveled to Cuba and northern Brazil, strongholds of Yoruba culture. “If we could just accept one another, we would have more peace.”

You can reach Nikki at niambih@verizon.net. Constance Garcia-Barrio, of Mt. Airy, has taught Spanish language courses at all levels at West Chester University, and she recently became initiated as a Yoruba priestess. “That blessing means recovering West African dance, language and spirituality suppressed during slavery and later worn thin by urban life,” she explained. “I realize that certain things my late mother, a Virginia-bred farm gal, did hark back to West Africa. For example, if mom didn’t want a visitor to return, she would sweep from where that person had last stood all the way out to the street to remove the visitor’s energy.  Becoming a priestess lets me gather up pieces of a West African heritage and walk through life in them like a sheltering quilt. I’m wearing white clothing during my year as an initiated because that color represents cleanliness, purity and calm.” Garcia-Barrio has just completed a novel based on black history in Philadelphia, which includes Yoruba rituals. She can be reached at Cgarcia-barrio@wcupa.edu.