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In the Brazilian state of Bahia, about an hour by car from the better-known city of Salvador, lies the historic city of Cachoeira, where the Irmandade de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte, Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death, holds their annual mid-August festival. Don’t let the name fool you; there is nothing macabre about this celebration. A unique testament to the strength and endurance of the African Diaspora, Boa Morte is a festival of deep cultural, social, spiritual and religious significance, a joyful expression of life, faith and happiness.

The Festival exemplifies the syncretism of Catholicism and traditional African religion known in Brazil as Candomble. The “Good Death” refers to the blending of the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church and the Candomble worship of the iyas, female spirits of the Ancestors. Members of the Sisterhood who have transitioned and ancestors who during slavery, died free or fighting for liberation, are also venerated.  They all are believed to have achieved the Good Death. The Virgin Mary, because of her bodily assumption, and the ancestors, because of their struggle and ultimate freedom before or upon death, were all insured a proper passage from the material to the spiritual world.

boamorte4The Sisterhood is said to be the oldest organization for Women of African Descent in the Americas. It is a vestige of African Secret female societies, and began more than 150 years ago in pre-abolition era Brazil. Brazil had more than four times as many Africans imported to its shores as the United States, with the majority entering the country through Bahia. 

During the colonial period, Cachoeira was a rich city at the heart of the cane-growing region; its beautiful examples of Baroque architecture attest to its former opulence. It is referred to as the Heroic City because of its role in fights against the Portuguese, but for people of African decent, the Sisters of Boa Morte are its true heroes.

During Colonial times when Candomble, a traditional African form of worship was outlawed, the Sisters cloaked their formation as a lay catholic sisterhood to pass down their traditions and pay homage to the orixas, disguised as Catholic Saints. They used their skills to earn money to buy others from servitude as well as their spiritual power and social network to provide new freed slaves protection, sanctuary and safe passage to quilombos, settlements of freed and escaped Africans. Brazil was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1888, due in part to the power and prowess of these amazing women.

con_womenDuring the incredible festival of all-night vigils, masses, processions, and feasts, the current Sisterhood show their gratitude and reverence to Nossa Sehnora who answered their prayers for freedom and to the original ancestors of the sisterhood by commemorating their death and ascension.

Traveling to Cachoeira for Boa Morte was my first experience outside of Brazil’s major metropolitan areas; in contrast to it’s more urbane Neighbor Salvador, better known Rio or bustling Sao Paolo, at first glance Cachoiera seems a sleepy, beautiful, but somewhat faded, almost abandoned colonial town. But as with the Virgin Mary who masks the Candomble rites and rituals, nothing at Boa Morte is exactly as it seems.

boamorte1As each day of the festival passes, the energy builds, people descend upon the City from every direction in tour buses, cars and taxis and the ceremonies begin to take a more secular than religious tone. Sound systems appear, and a carnival atmosphere develops. Bahianas, female vendors dressed in white with huge full skirts and colorful head scarves set up shop along the streets serving all manner of delights, most notably acarajé, black-eye peas fritters fried in palm oil, with a spicy shrimp sauce and vegetables, which is served like a sort of Brazilian Falafel or taco and is a signature dish of Bahia.

On the final day the sisters become festive, with the black shawls and somber faces of the processions long gone they treat the crowds to a swirling, whirling solo dance inside a crowded circle known as Samba de Roda. Decked out in their jewels and white eyelet they dance and spin at the center of a circle of onlookers defying their mostly septuagenarian status. While much of the sacred rituals of Boa Morte are reserved for the members of the Sisterhood, the Samba de Roda is a public exhilarating, magical celebration of life and freedom.

Tips on Travel to Boa Morte:
 

- There aren’t many hotels or inns in Cachoeira, most tour groups travel back and forth to Salvador, some accommodations may be available at smaller pousadas or guest houses, but book far in advance. If you decide to stay, be flexible, you have left the big city, and some of it’s comforts

- Wear or bring white clothing for the procession.
- You will see many other African American tourists, increasingly the Festival attracts people from across the diaspora.
- Wear comfortable shoes, many streets are cobblestone and when the Samba starts you will want to jump in!
- Expect that you will not want to leave! On my trip to Cachoeira I purchased a t-shirt that says it all, it reads in Portuguese:
“Globalization is when you are dreaming of Cachoeira, but you wake up in New York”

  

Photo Credit: Right, Courtesy of VisionsofBrazil.com; All others courtesy of the author