Thursday, 23 August 2007

Back to 1987 - Jumping ship (part 1)

It's taken a while to get to this point in my story, which was also a pivotal point in my life. I'm still dealing with the consequences and enjoying the benefits of my decision to stay in Brazil.

To recap, I was only planning to spend three months in Bahia, gathering preliminary information for a dissertation on the role of high priestesses (iyalorisas or maes de santo) in the non-Candomble community. I had enrolled in the UCLA Department of History's PhD program before I left. However, a number of things happened to me in Brazil: I felt at home in Bahia, which was and is very similar to Puerto Rico, where I'd grown up; I had no one to go back to in LA, except Lily, my Siamese cat; I had only enrolled in the PhD programme because I couldn't see any immediate option to the "perpetual student" route; I had become deeply and passionately involved in Capoeira Angola. Given these factors, living in Bahia seemed a viable and attractive alternative.

Also, people in Bahia kept telling me that I was just a tourist; only they knew the real hardships of life in Brazil and they would still have to face them when I was gone. It sounds silly to say that I took it as a "dare," but it's true. Still, I was seriously in doubt. Like the character in Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," I stood at a fork in the road. I decided to consult the orishas through Mãe Stella de Oxossi (see photo above) of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá to help me choose the way forward.

Mãe Stella (or Odé Kayodé) has been the high priestess of one of the oldest and most prestigious Candomble temples, or terreiros, in Bahia, since 1976. She gives public readings on Wednesday mornings, the day that Shango receives offerings at his altar. Through the usual course of serendipity (the person I was staying with worked at a clinic with Mãe Stella's cousin) I managed to get the address of the temple and the date of the readings. I took a bus way out to the Cabula district and walked down a long sloping hill till I reached the wide gate and white walls that marked the entrance to the Ilê Axé compound.

A man with dreadlocks was being spiritually cleansed with bunches of leaves as I passed him and went into the reddish house where Mãe Stella gives the readings. I sat on one of the sofas in the waiting room and waited (I later found that "hurrying up and waiting" is very much a part of life in Candomblé). I had arrived relatively late - around 9 am - so there were plenty of people ahead of me. Finally, Mãe Stella herself came out of the shrine to take a break - I recognised her because I'd seen her at a conference in New York City the year before, and she was just as regal as ever. Seeming much taller than she actually is, she looked down at me and turned to her secretary, saying "She's the last one." So I waited more hopefully than ever.

After a while, the man with dreadlocks walked in (he turned out to be Lino Almeida, the DJ and activist who recently passed away at an absurdly young age). He came straight up to me. "You should leave," he said. "Mãe Stella is tired." "But she said she would see me," I implored. "She said I was the last one!" I was determined to stay because it might be my last chance to see her. He shrugged and walked away.

When I finally entered the shrine for my reading over an hour later, I was very nervous. Would my Portuguese be up to understanding everything that was said? My "doubting Thomas" side came to the fore - I wasn't going to provide any information that could be used in the reading, just my name and nationality. I left my shoes at the door and walked across to the table in the corner. Mãe Stella was sitting there, with a basket of cowries and beads before her. I settled into the chair across from hers and thanked her for seeing me. She looked at the cowries for a while, then asked if I had any questions.

I told her that I would only ask two - I realised she was very tired. "I'd like to know my orisha." She studied the cowries again, and said, "It looks like...yes, it's Oshun." She said it so tentatively that I wondered if she was in doubt, but then I realised that that was the answer. I had always thought my orisha would have something to do with water but assumed it would be Yemanja. I knew very little about Oshun, except that she is a river divinity. "Your name has everything to do with your orisha," the high priestess continued. I was named after a river nymph, the goddess of the Severn. How could she know that? Had she read Milton's Comus? I was very impressed.

All my life I have borne the name of my orisha - long before I knew the orishas existed. My "doubting Thomas" side was confounded. Furthermore, I was born near a lake, and have always preferred fresh water (lakes, rivers, waterfalls) to the sea. My favourite metals are gold and bronze and I prefer them to be set with brown topazes, cat's eyes and amber. Later, I read a Jungian theory that the orishas are part of the collective unconscious and that people unconsciously "adopt" the orisha that most closely fits their preferred avatar - the personality they secretly desire to emulate. I am living proof that this is hokum. How could I possibly have adopted the traits of a divinity I'd never seen and barely heard of - consciously or otherwise?

Then I asked the other big question: should I stay or should I go? After reading the cowry oracle once again, she said: "If you return to the United States, you may or may not come back to Bahia. But if you stay here, you will have everything you desire, though it will be a struggle followed by victory." I thanked her and, on my way out, mentioned my research project, asking if I could interview her some time. She said, "Don't call me, I'll call you." And that was that. I got the overwhelming feeling that she was tired of being studied, and that I would much rather be a part of Candomblé than study it.

My next assignment: buying contas - a necklace of amber-colored beads, the color of Oshun. Ore ye ye o!

Olóomi máà, olóomi máà iyó
Olóomi máà iyó ènyin ayaba odò (ìyáàgbà)
Ó yèyé ó.

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