By Kate Maryon Herrick
The day had started out as most of our days in Bahia did. After a breakfast of mostly fruit in the small common area of our hotel, I, along with the ten other students from my master’s program, our professor Sheryl, translator Melanie, and guide Rita, loaded ourselves into a 16-passenger van and set off. During the last week, the weather had alternated between bright sun and warm rain, but as we settled into the van, the Brazilian sky was already intense and hot—the promise of a sunny day.
“Be sure to wear sunscreen,” Melanie had warned us during breakfast. “And bug spray. We’ll be outside a lot, and we’ll probably be walking through mud.” I had accordingly doused myself with SPF 85 to protect my fair complexion and copious amounts of bug spray. I figured my hiking sandals would be the easiest to wash if I got any mud on them. In a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, and a bandana, and with my rain jacket safely stored at the bottom of my shoulder bag, I considered myself prepared for the day’s adventure.
As the van bounced and jolted down the cobblestone streets, I watched the cement buildings fly past and give way to dense tropical jungle. Though we had been in Brazil for almost a week, I was still awed by the abundance of vegetation: palm fronds swaying in the breeze, vines crawling up and around and in and out and through, towering bushes, brilliantly colored flowers reminding me of jewels. I grew up in Utah, learning to find beauty in the sparse mountainous deserts. I was used to carefully trimmed lawns, trees planted in strategic corners, flowers kept in patches and watered vigilantly. The plant life of Brazil overwhelmed me with its beauty, its proliferation, and its wildness.
Over the bumps and jolts of the dirt roads, I thought about Utah and how different my life was there. Everything about it seemed so contained compared to the brightly colored houses, the energetic people, the rhythmic music, and the dense jungles of Brazil. With my blonde hair and fair skin, I often drew attention in Brazil. Even among my classmates, I stuck out as the only Mormon and by far the most conservative in my dress, speech, and actions. I had enjoyed my experiences in Brazil, but always felt out of place, never quite connected.
Rita stood and began telling us about the Candomblé religion while Melanie translated. I tried to listen over the noise of the van and scribble legible notes. Candomblé was rooted in the West African beliefs and traditions brought over to Brazil by the millions of African slaves who worked on the sugar plantations and tobacco farms. “Even though the traditions came from different nations in Africa, the religion is one,” she emphasized. The Portuguese slave masters did not allow the slaves to worship their own deities or orixás because it seemed like a form of rebellion. Outwardly, the slaves conformed to the masters’ commands, disguising their devotion to the orixás as the worship of Catholic saints.
Over time, the orixás blended with the saints until there was almost no difference between them, “mixing Catholic symbolism and African spiritualism,” Rita explained. Though it is no longer necessary to syncretize Catholic saints and Candomblé, Rita said that the blending was a strong part of participants’ Black identity. “We are blessed to practice what we feel—we have religious democracy. We can practice both,” she said proudly. I could tell by Rita’s knowledge and earnestness that her religion was important to her, and I could relate to that, though my own conservative Mormon religion seemed a far cry from the feasting and dancing of Candomblé.
I didn’t know much about the village we were going to visit, except that it was a quilombo: originally a community of runaway slaves, it had become a permanent settlement where everyone practiced Candomblé. The village was called Engenho da Ponte, which translated as “Sugar Mill at the Bridge,” referring to the miles of cane fields on either side of the unpaved road we were driving down. The fields gave way to open pastures and clumps of trees, small houses appearing sporadically. I could see a larger grouping of houses up ahead and a small crowd of people standing under a tree on one side of the road. The van started to slow. We had arrived.
As we pulled up, the group waiting for us under the trees—two women and several men, all very dark and wearing brightly colored clothing—was all smiles. The women’s hair started in tight braids at their hairline, continuing to the crown of their heads, where it suddenly broke free and bushed out at will. One of the women, whose name I learned later was Selma, came forward and welcomed us one by one, sprinkling water on our hands and shoulders as we descended from the van. I sniffed my hands; they smelled flowery.
“It’s lavender water,” Melanie explained, “for purification.”
When we had all been purified, Selma led us down the road toward a church, and we followed in a ragged group.
The church looked tall even from a distance, painted white with blue doors and trimmings, small crosses crowning the points of the roof. Fifteen or twenty children standing on the front steps of the church broke into song as soon as we came in view, welcoming us. They were all quite young, most of them girls, and were wearing straw hats with ribbons hanging from the brim. I was so surprised at the scene that I laughed out loud. It felt like their “Primary” was welcoming us with a specially rehearsed musical number.
After the singing, Selma invited us to enter the church and form a circle, “a sacred space that represents the center of the world,” Melanie told us. The church was sparsely decorated—white walls again with blue trimming. There was no glass in the high windows; instead, vividly green vines crept into the corners and down the walls. Nature was reaching into the sacred space. Selma began to speak in a lilting Portuguese, as if she were singing or praying. When Melanie began translating, I realized that it was a prayer, a prayer to St. Roque, to whom the church was dedicated. The girl next to Selma spoke when Selma had finished, then the next child, then the next. I realized they were all praying, adding their own words to the sacred circle.
Soon it became apparent that we visitors were expected to participate, foreigners and non-Portuguese speakers though we were. To my relief, Melanie demonstrated in English, explaining that we should ask for blessings from whatever god or spirits we believed in. I waited my turn apprehensively; it was a very different kind of prayer than I was used to.
As I listened to the alternating English and Portuguese, I found that my eyes were suddenly wet and my heart was full. I wasn’t sure why, but I was moved by Candomblé’s mixing and acceptance of all religious beliefs in all languages. I had the familiar feeling of being among a community of people who believed strongly in their religion and their gods. Though my beliefs were very different, they were allowing me to be a part of their circle, asking me to share myself with them.
When it was my turn to pray, my words sounded stiff after all the fluid Portuguese. “May the Lord bless each of us with all that we stand in need of,” I said, “and may he bless and watch over our communities. May he bless us with health and safe travels, wherever we go.” I smiled as I felt myself become a part of the circle, a participant in that sacred space, a member of a community.
When the prayer ended, we and the children followed Selma to the house of the oldest person in the village, a 91-year-old woman. She was waiting on her porch, her dark skin wrinkled, her capable hands folded in her lap. Melanie told me later that many of the prayers offered by the children had been honoring this woman. As we all settled around her, she began to tell us the story of Engenho da Ponte. I was impressed by how attentive and respectful the children were—doubtless they had heard the story before.
The woman told us (with Melanie translating) about St. Roque, the symbol of their community, who is associated with healing and with the orixá Obaluaye. For many years, an old man or old woman appeared annually in a sacred area near the village, an apparition representing the orixá. In a yearly celebration of this manifestation, a procession would move from house to house, one person carrying a small altar with a figure of St. Roque, musicians playing their instruments, the villagers singing and dancing. I looked around and saw that some of the men had drums, guitars, tambourines, and triangles with them. We were going to reenact, at least partly, a quilombo procession.
Our procession started out in Engenho da Ponte, stopping at just two or three houses before continuing down the road, the children singing and the musicians playing the same music at every stop. I couldn’t catch the words, but I almost had the tune memorized by the time we left the third house. All the villagers went barefoot, and I marveled at the toughness of their feet, treading over all surfaces. We followed the same red dirt road we had driven down and then abruptly turned to follow a small path that took us into the wild growth of the jungle, everyone still singing, playing, and praising St. Roque.
At first, the path was the same red clay of the road, but it became wet in places, and I was soon hopping around to avoid the mud. As the path took a bend and headed downhill, the clay immediately turned into brown-gray mud, gooey, thick, and impossible to avoid. The viscous stuff clung heavily to my sandals, and I found it harder and harder to pull my feet from its sucking depths. Finally, I gave up and stepped out of the procession line to remove my sandals, deciding that it couldn’t be too dangerous to go barefoot—it seemed to work fine for the villagers.
When my bare feet hit the mud, suddenly I was not just feeling things on the surface; I was participating with my whole being, digging deep, immersing myself, discovering something richer than I had expected, every crack and pore of my toes saturated. I knew I looked funny, fighting with the vegetation and trying to keep my balance, my feet making slurping sounds, and I laughed at myself as I followed the procession.
Soon my legs were caked with mud all the way up my calves to my knees, turning my pale skin a solid brown. The children, clapping and singing as they nimbly followed the path, were completely unaware of the mud, seeming to float over it. This was their world, a path they had walked many times, mud they knew well. They were at home here in the humid jungle singing the songs of their faith. They were even comfortable enough to help the strugglers. One little girl took my muddy sandals, offering without words to carry them. One of the older girls was quick to steady me when I slipped. I was amazed at the strength of her grasp on my elbow, and at how easily she glided across the mud, without even a wobble.
After climbing down and back up a dried streambed, we came to a clearing in the forest where the brown dirt mixed with bits of leaves and branches from the trees overhead. We formed a circle around the edge of the open space and Selma stepped forward. Here was the place where the orixá apparition used to appear each year, she said. It was considered the most sacred place in the community, the sacred space that Obaluaye occupied.
I looked around as Selma spoke. The trees were tall but thin, their branches high up. Plants that reminded me of corn, new and green, sprouted all over the center of the clearing. I could see bits of blue sky far above, the bright sun finding a path through the dense leafy cover. And suddenly I was reminded of another sacred grove of trees, another place where heavenly beings appeared, and I understood the reverence that enwrapped Selma and the children.
The hike had made me hungry, so my stomach rumbled while, at the next quilombo, we watched an older woman make dendê oil, or palm oil, the brown and dark orange seeds giving way to bright orange pulp and oil. We learned how manioc flour is made. We crowded into the backyard of the village’s medicine woman, tiny but strong, who showed us how she made a cough syrup out of natural plants that grew in the area.
Finally, we sat down to a huge, delicious lunch of locally grown foods in a house that I came to understand was the terreiro, or meeting house, of these communities, presided over by the Candomblé leader or mãe-de-santo (mother of saints). Her name was Dona Gilvane, a tall, round woman— her head wrapped in cloth, her dress festooned with strings of brightly colored beads. She was the head of the terreiro—the spiritual leader for the whole area.
It occurred to me that none of the men we had seen in the villages seemed to have leadership roles. Selma had led us through the forest; Dona Gilvane presided over us at the terreiro; and at least half a dozen other women from the Candomblé house had been guiding us and the children throughout the day. I learned that while Candomblé was not an exclusively female religion (there were many male orixás and many houses had a pãe-de-santo—father of saints—at the head), it was women who were honored and given authority.
It was impossible for me to avoid noticing the contrast between matriarchal Candomblé and patriarchal Mormonism. I had never been bothered that Mormon leaders were all men because I had always been taught that women, being different in capacities but equal in worth, are to be honored and respected. Women are capable of great things and have important work to do. In this Brazillian religion, a similar understanding of the capacity of women had taken on a completely different form: recognizing the power in the hearts of its women and their capacity to understand and guide in spiritual matters. The women I met that day exuded strength. Their positions in their religion and society had made them stronger and surer of their place in the world. Candomble, with its ability to transcend barriers and differences, gave these women the power to find their place in the sacred circles that created the center of the world.
Toward the end of the afternoon, we gathered inside the terreiro once more for a dance presentation from the children. The music was fast and rhythmic, the drums, tambourine, triangle, and guitar accompanying the voices of the dancers as they twisted their bodies, praising gods I did not know. I clapped along and smiled, joyful with them as I watched the children concentrate on their steps and song. Suddenly, they rushed forward and pulled us from our seats onto the floor and into the music.
It was a samba, and my feet were clumsy in my hiking sandals as I tried to mimic the children’s barefooted grace. Selma had given us some dance advice beforehand: “Watch their feet, and think of the mud we walked through today.” I laughed as I realized that the quick shuffling motions looked much like what I had been doing that day on the muddy trail.
Soon the room was full of moving bodies, all of us dancing together, sweating together, laughing together in a whirling circle of joy and music in praise of something larger than ourselves. I had never danced with so much energy, never moved my body to worship my god, but my spiritual heart recognized the joy and respect that the samba represented. In that moment, I felt closer to those Brazilian children and women than I did to any of my classmates. The sense of religious community, devotion, and praise was as familiar to me as my own twirling body.
When the dancing finished, we stood in a circle—a sacred space—for the final time, arms around each other as the villagers and children sang a song of farewell. We waved goodbye as we loaded ourselves back into the van, calling out Ciao! and Obrigada! As we drove back through miles of sugarcane, images from the day played in my mind. I saw my bare feet, no longer white, but brown with Brazillian mud. I saw Selma standing in the sacred forest clearing; saw Dona Gilvane standing in the terreiro. I felt the pulse of music in my veins. I saw green vines growing through the windows of the church as I prayed in the sacred center of the world.