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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Beads and Prayers: a Candomblé Ceremony in Brazil

Written by Libba Hockley
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      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. 


      A percussion band follows us everywhere we go through the Candomblé community. A group of men, each holding a different instrument, leads us through the dirt paths with soiled bare feet, smiling and singing in the late morning heat. One of the female leaders gives us straw hats to wear just like the ones that cover their heads. Multicolored ribbons with the words “Lembrança do senhor do bonfim da Bahia” which means “In remembrance of the savior of Bahia” hang from the hats’ rims, waving in the breeze and coloring this village. Our crowns of ribbon blend in with the community, and from afar I imagine it looks as though we—a group of North American graduate students—are a part of them. Children giggle through weathered cheeks and old eyes as they wrap around a white wooden porch staring at our foreign faces. One child looks up at me; I hesitate to hold her gaze at first, but find myself trying to see into her soul.

      We travel from mud hut to mud hut, following the music and black toes of Bahian children, feeling the dirt floors beneath our feet, smelling the earth dens they call home. They lead us through the religious ritual of one of the first African saints, São Rocque (St. Rocky), stopping at each home to ask for food and spices in order to complete the Final Feast of the Saints. At each small room, the parade of people crams in, beating their hearts into the mud floors, clapping and singing the words of their history.  


      I glance above me at the low ceiling and see large streaks of light peering in through broken clay tiles. I think about what it’s like on a rainy day, how much water must pour in, how they stay dry, and if it matters. They are living with the earth, connected with the dirt, the rain, the sun and the clay mud. In a way, I can’t help but envy this closeness with the rain, with the land. When it rains at home, I shut the doors and windows to my house and curl up on my couch, dry and warm, so far from the mud.  


      The locals of the community then lead us to the nearby village of Calembá where other mud huts stand in the dry, baking sun. We watch a woman mush dendê kernels, sloshing her wrinkled wrists back and forth in the stringy pulp. Liquid the color of rusty gold sprays the crowd as she sings and spins in circles around the pot. Bahian land is filled with dendê palm trees. She picks the dendê kernels from a nearby tree, then smashes, boils and strains the juices. Out comes dendê, or palm oil. She pours the oil into old plastic Pepsi bottles and sells them to nearby villages or to any passersby.

      We stand in the casa de farinha (flour house) where we watch a man and woman of the Caonge village take manioc tubers and process them by hand into flour. Manioc is a staple food in Brazilian society, somewhat equivalent to North America’s wheat. It grows in the ground as a tuber. Then is picked, peeled, shredded, pressed, sifted and roasted until it becomes a thin dry powder, ready to use in a plethora of Brazilian dishes from porridge to stews to baked goods. Its starchy nutrient-dense properties provide for all Brazilians, feeding them from the bountiful earth of their country.

      The band then leads us to the apothecary, or “rezadeira” (healer) of the community. We enter a small dark hut.  Broken chunks of dry mud make up the floor, smoothed out by the many soles that have crossed it. We stand in a circle behind the hut, surrounding a tiny, old woman as she twists and smashes the herbs of her garden. She is making a flu medicine guaranteed to battle any bug. Her biceps flex like the arms of a young man as she folds and presses on damp, green leaves. Her eyes peer deep and heavy, supported by dark shiny wrinkles that tighten as she smiles at us. Our eyes hang on to her every move. She tells us that her sons never once needed a doctor.

      After giving us bottles of the apothecary’s flu medicine, the women lead us to a large table nearby set atop with colorful dishes. A delicious feast prepared for the Saints lies before us, a high honor to receive in the community. Clay bowls of fish, rice, beans, oysters, crab, okra and manioc stretch the length of the tables. I eat as though I’m in the comfort of my family, surrounded by strangers whom I’ve just met hours before. I wash it all down with freshly squeezed guava juice, a definite at every Bahian meal. The food tastes as though it has come straight out of the ground or sea, doused with spices and generosity, and served in bowls of earth.    


      After lunch, we watch a dance performed by the village children. The dancing associated with the Candomblé religion is crucial in the recognition of the deities. Through dance, the deity uses the chosen dancer’s body in order to communicate with other humans; dressed in green and red flowing skirts, the children bounce and slide, moving to the music. Bare feet slap against cool, hard tiles that layer the floor of the community house. Drums beat loudly in the background as small fingers reach out through the circling crowd, grab my hands and pull me in.  

      I step and sway my hips trying to match their movement. After all they’ve done—blessed me, led me, taught me, and fed me like their own community member—the least I can do is dance and try to make them proud of me. I step into their heartbeat. My arms hover over the children’s heads. My feet shuffle back and forth as a girl pulls me around in a circle of sweat. Body heat penetrates my skin, giving me energy and a desire to dance until my smile is as wide as theirs.

 I’m reminded of why we live: to love, to dance and to sweat with everyone, no matter how unfamiliar it seems. I’m reminded of what kind of pleasure and exuberance can come from living as simply as these Bahians. It makes me want to give to them, to the earth, and to myself. I want to give myself the power of belief. Their blessings, those songs, this dance connect me not only to the people of this land, but to the land itself. For the first time in my life, I experience a belief that resonates with my own.  

      As I stand in a circle with the locals of this village, listening to the sounds and songs of prayer coming from their mouths, swaying back and forth like a pendulum of people, something shifts within me. I believe so strongly in the natural world, in the power it has over the land and its inhabitants. These people live with the natural world: the dirt is their floor, the trees and mud are their walls, and the sun is their light. They rely so heavily on the natural world for survival and therefore respect and embrace it as a divine force. By praying to Iemanjá, goddess of the sea, or Oyu, goddess of wind, or Shango, god of fire and sky, natural forces become their gods and natural elements, their strength.  

      From mud huts built by hand, to hand-pressed manioc flour, to extracting plants’ healing properties, I experience these people blessing the offerings and sacrifices of the mineral and vegetable kingdoms. This belief system is right there in front of them, proving its existence and answering their prayers every day.  

      The natural world has been my spirituality, a belief as natural as the blood in my veins, but it has been hiding behind pressures and restraints. It is my own stubbornness for not wanting to give in to beliefs that are not mine: I felt I could not believe in something beyond me, that I could not look outside of myself and develop a relationship with a greater power.

      As we leave the community center, sweaty hairlines and tired legs, I feel a release, a letting go of doubt and disbelief, a giving in to possibility. I can’t quite imagine anything else this village can do to open my heart any further.



      As we head back, the leaders of the community turn into tall grass, away from the path to the van. Like everything we’ve done up until now, we don’t ask questions, just follow. Two single file lines of children welcome us into a chapel that stands alone in the middle of a large, lush meadow; the curving hills of Brazil as its backdrop. It is the same chapel I saw the moment we drove into the community. The children’s soft voices ring out in empty fields of green, giving me goose bumps in the early evening’s sun. The men beat their rough hands against drums, pick the tight strings of small guitars, and hit their palms against tambourines, bellowing percussion beats into humid air. I follow their booming voices.

      The chapel stands small and white, with open windows that let in a few blushed rays, streaking the worn-tiled floor with a dusty glow. Still curious about their lives, I step into this circle of Bahians, grazing my pale wrists against the ebony shoulders of two children. Their voices seep out through the chapel’s sun holes, singing to the gods above, singing from their little souls. I don’t know why, maybe I’m thinking of my faraway loved ones, or maybe I’m just exhausted from traveling, but I can’t hold back the bubble in my throat or tears that well up behind my eyes when I hear the children sing. 


      We go around the circle, alternating between a North American student and Bahian local, asking for the blessings of those we love from those we worship. My heart beats strong, heavy thuds that drown my chest and throat. I’ve never prayed and definitely never out loud to a room full of strangers. As the circle of prayer begins, I think about this place I’ve just entered. I look at the bare feet of the children and remember the mud huts we passed, the dusty road that led us here, the sun dancing in the leaves’ underbelly. I think back to all I’ve just done, all the heart and earth that suffused every hut. And the only genuine thought that comes to my mind is the power of the natural world.

      Awaiting my turn, I try to plan what I’m going to say. I want to pray to the natural world, to ask it to bless all the people of this community and my fellow travelers, to bless my family and friends, and the good health of myself and everyone around me. I realize I can be honest about my belief in the physical world, as someone who has always turned to nature—its beauty and cycles—for strength and comfort. I want to believe in what I’m asking, to whom I’m asking it, and know that it might somehow make a difference.  

      Sweat beads above my lip and my voice wavers as I ask for the blessings in front of this foreign circle. My words echo in the tall plastered walls. Beyond this tiny chapel, the still green of the countryside breathes and pumps life into everything around it. Caked mud on the children’s soft soles bleeds into bending grass. Sun rays birth into each open space, casting an energy that soaks into the ground and climbs up through my toes, spreading blood to the puffed tips of my fingers. Life is infinite. Spirituality is close. What I’m doing feels right, and for the first time in my life, praying feels good. It feels real and it feels like something or someone other than who’s in this chapel is listening.  

      I choose my new necklace beads based on my instinctual attraction to the natural world; another way to discover Orixá without the help of a fortuneteller. The aqua blue represents the goddess of freshwater rivers and streams, and the jade green signifies the goddess of trees and forests. They are not much in the way of religious emblems, but they hang next to my bed now as a reminder of the people of Engenho da Ponte, of the power and presence of the land. They are something concrete I turn toward, something I hold in the palm of my hands.


©Libba Hockley




Last modified on Wednesday, 01 May 2013