During the slave trade, the Caribbean nourished itself on creeds hailing from different ethnic groups that washed ashore. In many cases, influences served as two-way streets among the different groups, so telling one religious trend from another is sometimes harder than anticipated.
The set of Abakua or Ñañigo associations makes up secret societies penciled in as brotherhoods for mutual help. Over a hundred of these associations have outlived time in the harbor cities of Havana, Matanzas and Cardenas all of them in Cuba- as the only ones of their kinds in the Americas.
Abakua associations hark back from the secret societies that once existed in the Nigerian region of Calabar and in the nation's town halls. Their ultimate purpose was to provide support and assistance to those of their own members who were in need, plus an effort to perpetuate their traditions through Sunday celebrations marked by rituals.
It's assumed that Cuba's very first association was put together in the early 19th century with the same goal in mind that the Nation's Town Hall. Thus, the Carabali Negro Town Hall Apapá Efik started its secret cults with a handful of black islanders. These men-only associations were born out of a mutual spirit that brought about the fast growth of Ñañigo groups. By 1840, there were more than sixty such organizations in the nation's capital. On December 24, 1862, the Brikamo Carabali Town Hall Jesus Child was opened in Matanzas, grouping black islanders in the Abakua cult that bore the name of Blabanga.
In 1863, Havana's resident Andres Facundo de los Dolores Petit persuaded the Bakoko Efor association to allow white men in. Thus, Ñañiguismo became the island nation's first-ever organization to gather men despite their race. Both in Havana and Matanzas, the associations purposes evolved into solid brotherhoods joined by dock workers, cigar rollers and men from other trades and walks of life.
Since the mid 19th century, these associations were banned by the Spanish rulers. Their ceremonies were ever since conducted in secrecy. The Abakua cult consists of celebrations dubbed plantes in Cuba- of two different kinds: private celebrations in which only the initiated people can take place. In the other celebrations, attended even by association non-members, people dance and sing in an act of cultural expression.
The myth those Abakua initiation rituals are based on stem from an African legend that tells the story of the finding of the Sacred Fish by Princess Sikan, daughter of King Iyamba from the nation of Efo. The Myth of Sikan also determined that only men could be initiated in a religion they are supposed to be honored with. They're also supposed to be brotherly, industrious, law-abiding of the cultural ethic code, be good fathers, good children, good siblings and good friends.
The main attributes among Nañigos the ritual drums, only used to execute the so-called orders and kept inside the sacred shrine dubbed famba, a place where only the higher-ups have access to. The highest ranking member is the ekue or drum of the fundament and the secret. This one is thumped by friction and blares out the sacred voice of Abasí Tanze. The drums are followed in order by the canes or attributes of the top chiefs. For its part, Ñañiga music is played using another set of drums, called bonkó-enchemiyé, obí-apá, cuchíyeremá and benkomo. The orchestra is completed with the itones or sticks, the bells or ekón and the erikundis or rattles.
Ñañiguismo cannot be separated from African beliefs on the influence exerted by the ancestors. In all religious ceremonies, they are evoked to guarantee the development of the rituals in keeping with strict liturgical guidelines that lead the veneration of the ekue engulfing the creed essence of the Abakua Secret Society.
On the other hand, the plantes are specially marked by the iremes or dancing masked devils that today highlights Cuban folklore. They are considered to be symbolic elements within the ritual of nature. The Abakua little imps are anthropomorphous figures whose heads are capped with cocked shrouds and a pair of eyes embroidered on them. They usually dress in motley colors and heavy patterns. The collar, knees, sleeve cuffs and hems are festooned with threaded pleats. Dangling from the waist, several metal bells sound off as the figures dance and saunter around. They usually hold sugar canes and a twig of thistle in their hands.
The little devils do a variety of private and public functions, rituals and amusing activities. They all stand for the spirit of the ancestors. They can see and hear, but they can't talk, so they express their feelings and moods through mimicking and dancing. During the course of the rituals, the iremes remain inside the shrine where the secret ceremonies are held.
Cult activities are all conducted inside the shrines located in the provinces of Havana and Matanzas. In all rituals, graphemes and drawings are widely used. They are called ekeniyo and stand for their graphic system of symbols to both depict and represent global events. Those symbols are drawn in yellow or white chalk, and they encompass three categories: the Gandos, the Signatures or Anaforuanas and the Seals. The Gandos stand for complex situations in the ceremony. They are usually drawn on the floor and different ceremonial objects are placed over them. The association higher-ups rest atop these drawn symbols. The Signatures represent each and every of the hierarchies making up the Abakua structure and they are supposed to pull off an anointing purpose when they are drawn over certain ritual objects. Last but not least, the Seals represent or identify each and every Abakua set or association over a hundred of these groups currently exist in Cuba.
Within Ñañiguismo, several hierarchies are acknowledged. For instance, the Ndisime is the man aspiring to become a member of an association, while the Abanekwe is an initiated man. For their part, those who have preserved and enforced all ritual and social guidelines for a long time are called the plazas. Other nobles within this category: Iyamba, Mokongo, Ekuenon, Isue, Nkrikamo, Nasako and others.
For the most part and even though Abakuas do not worship deities, like in the case of the Regla de Osha, they do have saints that protect the different sets or associations. Thus, we find the Abasí, the supreme god, followed by Llarina Allerican, with a direct linkage with Shango; Llarina Oro Conde, linked to Yemaya; Llarina Ibandá, linked to Oshun; Itia Arará linked to Babalu Aye, and many others.
There's no doubt that the Abakua Secret Society plays a major role in Cuba's religious framework. For over a century, it has handed down the most genuine values of the African ancestors who came from the Nigerian region of Calabar, regardless of the extreme level of persecution and harassment it underwent by authorities. It continues to be a symbol of brotherly love and friendliness among its members, ordinary people who feel proud of their inheritance and pay tribute to their forerunners.

The Myth of Sikan
Nasako used to be a very prestigious sorcerer. Through his witch crafting, he managed to goad almighty Abasi into sending down a supernatural power that would eventually settle peace between the men of Efo and Efik, engaged in a longstanding dispute over lands. These two territories were divided by a river where the raucous braying of that supernatural being by Abasi could be perfectly heard. Men from both tribes used to pray on the two banks of the river since those who could possess the god-sent being would dominate the region.
One morning, Sikan, King Iyamba's daughter from the nation of Efo, went to the river to bucket some water for her daily chores. On her way back home carrying a pail of water on her head, she overheard a thunderous sound that scared her very much. Suddenly, she threw the pail of water and made a beeline for the village.
When she got back home, she told his father. King Iyamba understood the sound had been produced by the god-sent being. The father rushed to take the bucket of water home and found a fish flipping inside. Iyamba picked up the pail with the fish in it and went to see Nasako, who confirmed that was the powerful being Abasi had sent.

In the presence of his daughter, Nasako recommended Iyamba to keep strictly silent about his finding for it could either settle peace or unleash war. The three of them swore not to reveal the finding of the fish.
However, Sikan revealed the secret to her boyfriend, Prince Mokongo and son of King Chabiaka in the foe land of Efik.
Aware of the secret, Mokongo stormed Efo with his army to claim possession of the fish. Nasako then said that those who love the god-sent fish would be great and was to be worshipped for the sake of everybody else.
Shortly after that, and following Nasako's instructions, the peoples of Efo and Efik signed peace on the skin of a leopard during a solemn ceremony held by the bank of the river that had once divided both territories.
Nonetheless, Sikan was detained and sentenced to be beheaded for revealing the secret about the Tanze Fish.