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Day 34: Salvador

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Set in an ornamental lake, images of the orixá, the gods and goddesses of the African-Brazilian Candomblé religion.
Michael Palin - BrazilSophia takes me to an ornamental lake called the Dique do Tororo, dammed by the Dutch in the middle of the seventeenth century when they were a force to be reckoned with in this part of South America. It's close to the centre of town, right beside the site of the Fonte Nova Football stadium being built for the World Cup in 2014. As we pass it I see a countdown board. It reads, '1070 Dias Para a Copa 2014' – '1070 days to World Cup 2014'. Beside it is a big red hole in the ground.

Rising from the waters of the lake are a series of distinctive bronze figures representing the orixás, the Candomblé deities. Each one has their natural property and their distinctive colour. Xango, in red and gold, is the male god of Fire, Oxum, in gold and white, the goddess of Calm Water (rivers and lakes), Oxóssi, green god of the Forest and the Hunt, Iemanjá, turquoise-blue and gold goddess of the Ocean, Iansã, red and gold, goddess of the Wind and Storms, Ogum, the Warrior god, blue and gold. All attempts to suppress Candomblé and impose Catholicism on the slaves failed.

'The slaves would go to Mass and would be praying for a saint but behind it they were praying for their orixás,' Sophia explains. Which is why the orixás have their equivalents amongst the Christian hierarchy – Ogum with St Anthony, Iansã with St Barbara, Oxóssi with St George, Iemanjá with the Virgin Mary and so on. But it was only in the 1960s that the religious establishment admitted defeat and people were finally allowed to practise Candomblé without fear of being arrested.

'Candomblé basically worships the forces of nature,' says Sophia. 'It's a very ecological religion.'

It's still not that easy for outsiders to watch a traditional Candomblé ceremony, which is why I'm returning this afternoon to the Vale das Pedrinhas. My friend the Mestre Boa Gente has put in a good word for me with his local terreiro, or temple. Dressed in white, as instructed, I turn up at Ile Axé Omim Ogunja, as the temple is called, to find myself in a modest house a few streets away from the Mestre's radio station. I had expected something mysterious and unfamiliar, but all seems rather mundane and domestic. A room opening onto the street is decorated with a lot of pink, glittery fabric and white ribbons intertwined with greenery. This is Oxalá's Day – Oxalá being the god of Creation – and a column in the centre of the room is painted to represent a tree trunk and adorned with branches, whilst leaves are scattered across the floor. Before the ceremony proper I'm shown into a tiny cubicle off the main room where I am to have my búzios – cowrie shells – read for me by the local Candomblé priest, the Pai de Santo, Father of the Saints. His name is Pai João. He's a big man and a tight fit in the confined space. He squeezes a large round belly into an armchair above which is an arrangement of feathers and an African mask. Between us is a low table with a white cloth over it on which are a ring of beads, some cowrie shells, two dice and a glass with some brown thing inside it. He asks me questions, then gathers up the cowrie shells in his big hands, summons up the gods in an African dialect, shakes the shells and scatters them on the table. Each time one of them flies off and I have to retrieve it from the floor. This doesn't seem to bother him much, which suggests to me that this will not be revealing. The replies from the gods are anodyne. I'm healthy but must watch my blood pressure. I have lived a happy, successful life. His credibility is somewhat restored when, after consulting the shells, he quite correctly states that I have three children, and he gets their sexes right (I only discover later that Mestre Boa Gente had disclosed this to him the day before).
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 34: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 147

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