In an African ceremony both somber and celebratory, about 500 people walked to the foot of the South Street Bridge toting gifts of fruit and flowers Sunday afternoon for the Yoruba goddess Oshun.

The noon ritual, in which followers - many wearing white - dropped the offerings into the Schuylkill, marked the beginning of Odunde, the annual celebration of African culture that draws hundreds of thousands to the area around 22d and South Streets.

"Oshun is why we're here. It's as simple as that," said Oshunbumi Fernandez, chief executive officer of Odunde, the nonprofit that organizes the festival her mother, Lois Fernandez, founded 39 years ago.

Senemeh Burke, a Yoruba priest from Atlanta, has officiated at the ceremony for the last few years.

"When we get to the river, we ask Oshun if she will accept our offering," said Burke, adding that Oshun is the Yoruba deity of civilization, culture, art, and love.

Amid the rhythm of African drummers and the smell of soul food and incense, Fernandez took a deep breath.

"The feeling in the air is so electric. I feel God's presence," she said. "The weather is beautiful. The people are coming, and the vibe is beautiful."

The annual festival featured more than 100 vendors from the area and around the world, selling African and African American soul food, clothing, and artifacts.

The event turns the area of about 10 blocks into a massive African marketplace. The gathering runs along South Street from 21st to 23d Streets, from Naudain Street to Grays Ferry Avenue and Christian Street along 23d Street.

Among the crowd was Shameka Johnson of the city's East Oak Lane section, who brought her 11-year-old twins and 14-month-old daughter.

Asked why it was important to bring children, Johnson, a school counselor, said, "Tradition. It's about teaching and instilling and passing down the legacy of Odunde. More importantly, venerating our ancestors."

Fernandez and others notes that Odunde, which means "happy new year," is the last major African American street festival in Philadelphia.

Lamine Berete, a native of Guinea who lives in North Bergen, N.J., was operating a vending station lined with hundreds of African masks and sculptures.

He said it was his first time selling goods at Odunde. "I have items from West Africa, South Africa, and North Africa. I have metal, wood, and textile pieces. It is all made by different tribes. It is all hand-made."

Asked for his thoughts on Odunde, Berete said, "So far, it is kind of exciting. It looks like we will be getting lots of people."