An ancient African ritual deep in a Bahian favela
by Elizabeth Willoughby
On the outskirts of Bahia, Salvador in Brazil, I have arrived with my friend S to a terreiro (Candomblé temple ground) in order to watch a secret ceremony deep in a favela (ghetto). The favelas of Brazil are not recommended stomping grounds for tourists, so we arrange for a driver to bring us in, wait for us and take us back in the morning – Candomblé rituals tend to be long affairs. This is the second to last ceremony of the Candomblé year – the ancient religion transported from Africa centuries ago. Tonight is the night for the iabás (female gods) to gather together and celebrate. They do this by possessing the bodies of the "children". I've wanted to watch such a ceremony for ages. In preparation for this trip, I managed to track one down through a contact that I'd nosed out on the internet, and here we are in a small, church-like wooden building, standing behind a low wall barrier, waiting for the ceremony to begin.
In the dank heat the drumming starts, beating life into the dark night air. Three alabés (drummers) in brilliant red shirts and stark white pants are perched at the head of the room and belt out a rhythm on their tall, conga-style drums. They're calling the orixás (gods). In front of the alabés stands the babalorixá, the priest who leads the night. He begins chanting. He is answered by a chorus of women.
Barefoot ladies in bulging hooped skirts float in – their long colourful necklaces swaying against white lace blouses, keeping time with graceful, swinging hips; their hair bundled in white turbans against black skin. Repeating the lines of the priest, and in step with the sonorous beat of the sacred drums, they weave into a growing circle in front of the babalorixá, dancing counter clockwise around a tall centerpiece of axes. Arms gesture in unison indicating to which of the many orixás they are currently singing: hands float over imaginary waves for Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea; they cover one ear for Oiá, the goddess of the river who cut off her ear to make her husband love her more than his other wives; they fan themselves like conceited Oxum, the goddess of beauty, fertility and sweet waters; they--
Someone taps me on my shoulder. It's my taxi driver. We have to step outside to hear each other. He says he's tired and I've seen enough. I say no way, I'm staying for the whole thing. He says he's leaving. S tells him she's a lawyer, which is a lie, and he'd better not abandon us here in a favella or she'll bring the wrath of the law down upon him if we get out of here alive. The two start yelling at each other in Portuguese, and I cannot exactly follow the threats and name calling. He walks away. S and I look at each other and return to the ceremony in denial.
The ladies dance on, chanting and prancing to the booming percussion as the air ripens, hot and thick. Finally, when each of the orixás have been honoured with psalms, the babalorixá leads the hymn calling for the possessions to take place. All at once the ladies fold in half, eyes closed, derrieres extended, ululating in unearthly voices, pixilated, entranced. Helpers rush to their aid, removing their waist bands and retying them around their chests to hold in the spirits. The possessed begin dancing disorderly, fervently. Each is led out of the chapel and returns in the Candomblé costume of the particular god that is possessing her. On and on the spirits dance...
The ceremony winding down, S and I leave the terreiro on foot and enter the streets of the slum. The sun has not yet risen, but will soon. We see two dark figures walking on the opposite side of the road and wonder if we should approach them to ask if there is a bus stop nearby, or hide in a doorway until they're out of sight. We decide to approach them. They direct us to a bus stop a block away. We stand at the stop and wait and, contrary to all expectations at this hour, a bus arrives. Even more unexpectadly, it drops us off close to our hotel in the city. We are happy that we had no troubles during the clandestine, religious possessions and that our wander through the slums in the wee hours was without incident. Can't say much for the protective driver we hired.
A fact or two:
Candomblé terreiros used to be hidden away in the forest surrounding Salvador, where the slaves from Nigeria would practice their religion out of the watchful eyes of their masters. Attempts to force African arrivals into Catholicism brought to light certain similarities between the Catholic saints and Candomblé orixás, providing a way for the slaves to honour both sets of saints/gods at the same time. Today the city has engulfed the terreiros, reducing some of the mystique but allowing for easier access through favelas. Throughout the year, most of the ceremonies are for specific purposes rather than celebrations. Candomblistas (practitioners of Candomblé), for good intentions and for bad, address their personal orixás for assistance through a terreiro's priest or priestess. Many of Brazil's modern-day politicians still look to their orixás for advice and help.
There's nothing like a great adventure travel story — one that's fun, thrilling and full of the unknown. If that's what you want, check out my WorldGuide Tales from the Road pages. This blog is about the stories a travel writer can't sell. The misadventures. The plans gone awry, luck run amuck. Sometimes with my partner, HB, sometimes with friends, and sometimes I manage to mess things up without any help at all. These are the stories that make your friends laugh and call you a knucklehead. These are the stories you really remember.
Image and article ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2015
This article was originally published at WorldGuide.eu
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