Beads, the color of aqua and jade, dangle from my fingertips. The freshwaters of Mountain Creek catch them in its path, purifying their plastic centers until the sun shines through them with verve. I’m washing these necklace beads in the waters of my hometown just outside of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. They left the hands of a market merchant in Bahia, Brazil two weeks earlier, shifted amongst jostling clothes still damp from the humidity of Brazil in the undercarriage of a 747, and ended up here in the woods of Pine Grove Furnace, grounding me to something.
I’ve worn these beads a few times since returning from Brazil, wrapping them around my neck, letting them fall beneath my shirt to rest in between my rib cages. That’s the way the people of the Candomblé religion wear them, hidden under their clothes, close enough to salty skin to allow the energy of the Orixás to permeate their bodies. Finding such faith and mysticism in a ring of color is not something I ever thought I’d entertain. I never believed in a higher power, at least not enough to pray. Being raised without an organized religion, I’ve had a hard time finding honor in worship. It is something I see every day, that surrounds me in a Christian-dominated hometown, something I’m fighting because it’s unfamiliar, and because I constantly question.
The religion of Candomblé is practiced by two million Brazilians today. Derived from the Yoruba people of West Africa, Candomblé appeared in the 1500’s when Africans were forced to leave their country and shipped to Brazil to live as slaves. To preserve their African faith, the slaves of Bahia developed a secretive religion that centered on the Orixás, or spirits of their homeland. These Orixás, sixteen in total disguised as Catholic Saints, became a way for these Africans to stay true to the rituals and practices of their faith.
Although some people of Candomblé were willing to recognize Christ, the church refused to accept any signs of African traditions. According to the Christian belief system, the Candomblé practices—which revolved around natural elements—came too close to paganism and witchcraft. As a result, the slaves began to hide their African icons deep within the ornate and intricate Christ alters, peppering churches with ornaments of hope for souls that were fearful of fading. Even after the abolishment of slavery, many people of Candomblé were afraid to worship freely, so they continued to pray solely to Catholic Saints.
I am in Brazil with a group of students from my graduate school program. One of our stops is just outside the town of Cachoeria at a quilombo, or runaway slave village; one of three that is part of the Engenho da Ponte community. Our van jostles down a narrowing dirt road as we enter the community, orange dust scuffing up the back end. I see a hut made of mud. Humid air blows in through the van windows, carrying smells of earth and chalk, reminding me of the clay I molded in my high school pottery class. The sun beats down on this still village, drying the mud-hut walls and hitting the single standing chapel with the sheen of an egg white over flames.
A group of Bahians stands outside the sliding van door. One of the females welcomes me with lavender water, spritzing it over my shoulders and chest, blessing me into her community and celebrating our arrival. Her dress sways back and forth as she moves with steady steps over the dirt path. Polished beaded earrings jingle with every step, brightening her smooth, rounded cheeks. This blessing begins a series of Candomblé rituals that will last throughout the day. I feel part of a performance at first, unaware of the chord this place will soon strike in me.
Each deity in the Candomblé religion signifies an element of the natural world and has assigned colors and favorite types of food. The people of Candomblé revolve their ceremonies and worship around these Orixás and believe in the power that the chosen Orixá passes on to the human. Each Orixá is said to choose its believer and finds a way to communicate that he or she is the spirit of this individual and is able to wear the appropriate beads and has the right spirit to worship. Each color represents a different natural force. In this way, the Candomblé religion seeks harmony with nature, using its Orixás to represent, instill and spread the power of the sun, wind, fire, earth, and water.