Lois Fernandez, the iconic creator and visionary behind one of this city’s most beloved events — the annual Odunde Festival — died peacefully in her sleep over the weekend.
Fernandez’s daughter, Bumi Fernandez, discovered her Sunday morning. Fernandez’s death, at age 81, came as a surprise, but Bumi told me she is at peace about the loss of her beloved “Precious,” as she called her. “I’m at peace,” Bumi declared, “because my mother is at peace.”
So many events have come and gone over the years, but the Odunde Festival — with its ornately attired African dancers, stilt walkers, and vendors selling African jewelry along South Street every June — has endured and become a fixture. It’s as much a part of this city as water ice and cheesesteaks and is something people look forward to every year and plan vacations around. I don’t care how hot it is outside, it’s not summer in Philly until Odunde.
Lois Fernandez, a former social worker, started the event back in 1975 with a measly $100 grant. She was inspired after a 1972 trip to Africa, during which she had witnessed a pilgrimage to a river by followers of the Yoruba faith honoring the goddess Osun. Fernandez returned home eager to start something similar here. Each festival begins with a similar procession. That first one attracted maybe 50 participants. But over the years, Odunde grew into what’s believed to be the nation’s largest African-oriented street festival.
“She brought African culture to the community,” pointed out Robert Dickerson of Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble, a staple at Odunde since 1998.
“People from all over the world come to this,” he continued. “That’s what made it so beautiful and so powerful.”
Not only did she pull it off, Fernandez kept it going for more than four decades. She did so despite numerous challenges obtaining permits and funding and also dealing with hostile neighbors who weren’t keen on the festival — much less people traipsing from 23rd and South streets to the Schuylkill waterfront to make an offering of flowers and fruit to Osun, the goddess of the river.
“And they said, ‘Ain’t gonna let nobody go across that bridge, shut off that bridge and let y’all walk to the river,'” Fernandez says in Recollections, a 2016 book about her life that she wrote with the help of folklorist Debora Kodish. “And you think you gonna throw something in that river? You are out of your mind. …”
She was truly a force, someone who didn’t give up, even when people — black people, included — laughed at her for wanting to create something to celebrate African culture. Fernandez was an icon. She made Philly a better place because she lived here and cared about the rest of us. Her commitment and dedication won’t be forgotten any time soon, if ever. Hers is a legacy that will live on as long as there’s summer in the city, water ice, African dancers and drummers, vendors selling jewelry during the festival, and, of course, the festival itself.
“It’s been a long 40 years,” Fernandez told an Inquirer reporter earlier this year. “You can imagine what we had to put up with. That’s why I say, ‘Thank you, God, that you gave me the vision, the understanding.’ Above all, my father told me we were African. He said we weren’t Negroes, we weren’t colored, we were African.”
I wish I’d been there at this past Odunde. I’m not sure why I didn’t go. I wish I had so I could have shaken her hand one last time — and also thanked her.
Fernandez had suffered for years with painful rheumatoid arthritis, which had left her debilitated and in a wheelchair — not that it stopped her from attending the festival. Who knew that this past June would be her last Odunde?
Funeral arrangements are pending. In lieu of flowers, people are being asked to contribute to Odunde 365, a year-round effort to keep the principles of Odunde alive for the city’s school children. The mailing address is Box 21748, Philadelphia 19146.
“We lost, as a city, a treasure,” said Bilal Qayyum, chair of the Philadelphia Anti-Violence Coalition. “She’s one of our last heroes.”
Her daughter, Bumi, told me on Sunday she feels as if “God said, ‘Come on, Lois.’ He said, ‘We need Odunde up in heaven. Come on.’ ”
One can only imagine the kind of celebration that will be.