the surface, the festival is purely, ardently Catholic, but the reality
is more complicated. The name of the festival refers not only to the good
death of Mary, who, according to scripture, ascended into heaven, but to
slaves who managed to become free during their lifetimes. The Catholic rites
are only part of the celebration; there are other religious, social and
After spending a week enjoying the big city restaurants and music
of Salvador, I headed to the small town of Cachoeira with a friend, Paola
Gianturco, a writer-photographer who wanted to include the Boa Morte rituals
in her book on festivals that celebrate women. We were joined by her interpreter,
Carlos Scorpião, a professional guide with an intense interest
in African-Brazilian culture. After the bustle and noise of Salvador,
it was fascinating to observe the rhythms of life in a town that is usually
as quiet and slow-paced as the Paraguacú River that flows beside
streets are lined with colonial buildings with tile roofs and walls painted
in brilliant colors, embellished with white trim as supple and curvaceous
as cake frosting. The buildings are in various stages of decay and rejuvenation.
A number of restoration projects have been undertaken recently with the
help of the state government, which has recognized the tourist potential
of the town's colonial architecture and riverside setting. Some artists,
mainly woodcarvers and painters, have taken up residence and opened small
A few days before
the festival officially began, we wandered into one of the sisterhood's
three headquarters buildings in the center of town. Several of the sisters,
dressed in ruffled white blouses and ample skirts, greeted Carlos fondly
and happily answered our questions with the help of his translations.
When we asked them about the festival, they were quick to say, "It
is all to worship the Virgin."
A few seconds later,
however, they were talking with equal fervor about orixás, the
deities of Candomblé, the
African-Brazilian religion that invokes spirituality through ritual dancing
and trances. Candomblé and Catholicism have coexisted in the minds
and hearts of many black Brazilians since the days when the Portuguese
colonists required slaves to be baptized Catholic and to attend weekly
Mass on their plantations. The slaves maintained their African traditions
in secret ceremonies, disguising their orixás as Catholic saints.
"On top of the
altar were Catholic objects, and the orixás were hidden under the
table," Carlos explained. "It was like a chameleon changing
its colors to survive."
Boa Morte sisterhood was founded in the early 19th century, ostensibly
with purely religious intentions to pray for the dead and to provide decent
funerals for its members. In fact, the members also intended to preserve
African traditions and to free slaves, either by helping them escape or
by earning money to buy their freedom. Although the group was the female
equivalent of Catholic lay brotherhoods, the Boa Morte's relationship
to the church was never formalized. In the 1980's a priest in Cachoeira
confiscated the sisterhood's property, including precious jewelry, religious
statues and a sandal bearing the image of the Virgin. A young lawyer,
Celina Maria Sala, came to their aid, pursuing the case through several
appeals and finally finding 19th-century paperwork proving that the sisters,
not the church, owned the items. The case was resolved in 1998, but Ms.
Sala continues to take a lively interest - now functioning as a festival
organizer and liaison with the growing number of curious outsiders who
come to the celebration.
After such a bitter
conflict, one might wonder if the Boa Morte sisters would continue to
stage celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary. But their sincerity and
enthusiasm was clear as the festival began. On the first night, each of
the 24 sisters was splendidly turned out in the traditional Bahian garb:
ruffled eyelet overblouse, huge ankle-length skirt, lacy turban, white
cotton shawl and yards of necklaces made of gold chains, cowrie shells,
and beads whose colors signify their personal orixás.
The sisters posed
graciously for photographs before shouldering a magnificently dressed
and bejeweled recumbent figure of the Virgin, carrying it through the
streets, followed by a small crowd of photographers, tourists and local
citizens. After the parade, they attended Mass in their chapel. Then it
was time for the ritual white meal - a feast of fried fish, onions, potatoes,
rice and wine - that the women served to anyone who appeared.
Mass and procession on the second night marked the death of the Virgin
Mary. The sisters eschewed jewelry and wore long black pleated skirts,
white blouses, white eyelet scarves and black shawls carefully arranged
not to reveal their red silk linings. They did not smile as they filed
into the chapel for the Mass, and the procession through the streets afterward
was funereal rather than festive.
next morning, however, the sisters, the chapel and the town itself were
transformed. A new statue of the Virgin stood at the altar, surrounded
by huge arrangements of tuberoses, chrysanthemums, birds of paradise and
wheat. The sisters were resplendent in black skirts and shawls turned
to the bright red side - the same clothes the sisters have traditionally
worn at their own funerals - and jewelry.
No fewer than five
Catholic priests officiated at the morning Mass. The news media presence
was almost overwhelming, with a young anchorwoman from a São Paulo
station doing commentary inside the church, and television cameramen and
photographers from as far away as Paris and San Francisco jostling for
clear views. Bodyguards protected the sisters as they proceeded through
town, followed by bands, large groups of women in Bahian dress and proud
The streets were teeming
with people, and the distinctive smell of palm oil rose from sidewalk
stands where white-clad women were frying acaraje (bean fritters), and
men were selling popcorn and crushing sugar cane to make syrup. Many in
the crowd were tourists - visitors from other parts of Brazil and a number
of African-American tourists. Some were wearing African robes, or T-shirts
declaring "Free Mumia" or "We Love to Be Africans."
A banner announced the support of a local politician for the Boa Morte
sisters, and a rumor swept through the crowd that the singer Gilberto
Gil, now Brazil's minister of culture, might turn up. In the main square,
a group of women piled out of a bus to parade in flashy costumes made
of recycled materials like coffee packaging and plastic cups.
At the largest hotel
in town, the Pousada do Convento, long tables had been set up in the courtyard,
each marked with the name of a tour group that had arrived from Salvador
that morning. The T-shirts and the political signs help to explain why
so many people care about the activities of 24 elderly women who have
led lives of poverty and anonymity, raising children and working in minimum-wage
jobs in the tobacco industry. The Boa Morte has become a symbol for Brazil's
black advocates, whose message is that Brazil is not a racial democracy
but a country branded by slavery, in which the darkest-skinned people
are usually the poorest and whose families sometimes prefer that their
descendants marry lighter-skinned people.
of their advocacy is urging Brazilians to take pride in their African
heritage and to treasure their unique history, language and religion.
In the 1990's, they got a boost from the renowned novelist Jorge Amado,
who drew attention to the cultural significance of the sisterhood by writing
articles about them in two prominent Brazilian newspapers. In addition,
Mr. Amado gave the sisters financial aid - health insurance and one of
their buildings in Cachoeira. Further aid came from the state government
and donations from African-American tourists, who helped buy the building
that now houses the sisterhood's museum and cultural activities such as
dance and art classes.
According to Carlos
and others close to the sisterhood, the sisters are comfortable with
the political subtext of their
festival. However, when we asked which part of the festival they enjoy
most, they responded with smiles, "The samba."
The dancing came on the third evening of the festival, when, after the
Mass and the parade and yet another public
feast, a band - mainly drums and guitars - set up next to the Boa Morte's
headquarters. The sisters formed a circle
to perform the samba de roda, a Bahian variation on Brazil's national
dance. Each one took a solo turn in the
middle of the circle, some with their canes.
After each had performed
her solo, the sisters invited a few people in the crowd to take a turn
in the circle. And
this was the moment when I found myself doing a few untutored samba steps.
Soon, however, the circle broke up
as the more elderly sisters slipped away through the crowd. Spiritual
and political concerns seemed forgotten as the
crowd poured onto the dance floor to samba into the night.
The principal day of the Festival of the Boa Morte, or Good Death, with
a Mass, a parade and the samba de roda, is Aug. 15, Feast of the Assumption,
with lesser events on Aug. 13 and 14. All activities begin at the Boa
Morte headquarters, at Rua 13 de Maio, in the center of town. We saw schedules
for the ceremonies in our hotel, but start times are flexible.
visitors come by way of Salvador, 66 miles away, by tour bus, car
or boat. Arrangements can be made through
Salvador hotels or travel agents. Our Salvador travel agent was Carlos
Aguiar, who can be reached at
attend a ceremony at one of Cachoeira's many Candomblé houses,
simply ask at a hotel or check with a guide.
Services start late, often around 10 p.m., and go on for several hours.
Outsiders are generally welcome, although
photography is usually not allowed.
Web sites for planning a trip to Bahia are www.braziltourism.org and www.bahia.com.br.
The only upscale hotel in town is the Pousada do Convento, Praça
da Aclamação, (55-75) 425-1716, where I stayed, built
around a cloister filled with tropical plants. Hot water comes in fits
and starts and the rooms are dim and simply furnished, but it has a
pool and a congenial restaurant. A double during the festival is $65,
at 2.9 reals to the dollar; less the rest of the year.
more modest option is the Pousada LaBarca, 37 Rua Inocêncio
Boaventura, (55-75) 425-1070, with a handful of
small but spotless rooms with town views; $14 with breakfast; three-day
minimum during the festival, $138 with
The newly opened Recanto d'Ajuda, near the Boa Morte's headquarters at
25 Rua Ana Nery, (55- 75) 425-4548 or
(55-75) 425-3167, is an open-air restaurant with authentic Afro-Brazilian
food. There is a lovely view of steeples and tile roofs.
Literary Cafe on the Praça de Aclamação, (55-75)
425-1604, is a cozy place to drink chocolate-laced espresso
and buy Brazilian CD's.
Besides the festival itself, Cachoeira's attractions (all within a 10-minute
walk of the Boa Morte headquarters)
include many examples of colonial architecture. The Convent of the Ordem
Terceira do Carmo, on the Praça da Aclamação, is
an 18th-century church in the baroque style. Nearby, the imposing Igreja
Matriz, on Rua Ana Nery, has interesting painted tile work inside. A
short walk across the Paraguaçu River on a rickety 19th-century
bridge leads to the town of São Felix, where
the Centro Cultural Dannemann, at 29 Avenida Salvador Pinto, (55-75)
425-1220, offers exhibits of contemporary
Brazilian art and the chance to watch women deftly rolling cigars, which
are for sale. Closed Sunday and Monday.
To see the lush countryside, hire a local taxi to drive about 40 miles
on a good laterite road to São Francisco de
Iguape, where a magnificent colonial church, now closed and blackened
with mildew, bears witness to the past glories of the Portuguese colonists.
CHATFIELD-TAYLOR is an author who lives in San Francisco.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company