Saturday, August 23, 2008

Sao Roque, Mae Stella & Olu Baje

Saturday, our first weekend on island, 23-Aug.

This first week had already been quite full and it was barely half over. In addition to our two tours, we had had a midweek visit from Orlan, a French performance artist the same generation as Yoko. She was famous or infamous for her Feminist manifestos and the body modifications she had had done to herself via plastic surgery. Orlan seemed to question western ideas of beauty and position of women in society. She had come for lunch with her young husband, documentor and translator and their liaison from the Alliance Francaise. On Thursday evening after our brief tour of the old city we went to hear her intone her theories at MAM, the Salvadoran modern art museum. Stopping for a fast dinner, and catching the last ferry to the island, our culture excursion ended at almost 2:00 AM.

Friday at lunch, Augusto informed us that he would be attending a festa to Sao Roque and a Olu Baje ceremony on Saturday at seven o'clock in the evening. San Roque, St. Lazarus in English was a French saint who saved his community from the plague. The Olu Baje is the public ceremony centered on the ritual meal in honor of Omulu, the Orixa who was depicted with a head to toe straw covering. The legend is that he was born with open wounds and pustules which left him horribly ugly, his skin pocked and scarred. He was the Orixa of the poor, he governs disease, pestilence and healing. Augusto was willing to escort anyone interested in joining him. He explained that the this was an opportunity to witness the synchretic nature of Catholicism and Candomble. These two ceremonies back to back would illustrate how much the dialogue went back and forth between each discipline. I was game. Most of us were. I stayed close to home Friday night, but was struck with insomnia, so sleep was fruitless. I was summoned to the phone at 8:15 Saturday morning, just after I had come out in search of coffee, attempting to reverse the effects of my sleepless night. Augusto happened to drop by the terreiro where the Olu Baje, and Mae Stella their Mae de Santo was willing to allow me interview her and observe her prepare the Comida de Santo to accompany the evening service. He had just arranged one of the motor-taxis to pick me up. They would be arriving at Sacatar within 10 minutes. "Could I be ready?"

--"Yes. But shit, I was whumped." I thought, This is what I came for. Two minutes later he called again. "You must wear all white, and long pants." I knew that already. I made sure that I had my camera battery and a pad, grabbed coffee a banana and headed for the front gate.
Ten minutes later I was led into the terreiro where Simon, an attractive young woman in a pink shift introduced me to her Mae; Stella, two other Mae's who had come to help and various other congregants. All of the women were dressed in white dresses with white wrappers over their clothing.I parked myself in the corner pulled out my pad and began to take notes. Augusto was gone. Two minutes into the interview, Mae Stella suggested that I take pictures if I had a camera. Damn-straight. Another coup. We were off and running. I struggled to comprehend her Portuguese, it was not as polished as Augusto's or Luis's. Mae Stella rattled off her method while pureeing shaved coconut, peanuts, cashews and dried smoked shrimp for the Vatapa.

A middle aged woman, still shapely and attractive though missing most of her front teeth on both top and bottom of her mouth. She worked quickly, with a long agenda of tasks to complete before nightfall. She indicated that she had been working for two weeks to prepare for the Olu Baje. Olu Baje is the I learned that this was a typical pattern for all of the ceremonies. She said that before she had access to a blender it took her even longer, crushing all of the ingredients in the tall mortar and pestles that typified plantation life. We laughed at the reality of grinding all of the ingredients by hand. Still she had had to smoke and dry the shrimp, find animals for sacrifice, and fulfill many other duties. The two goat skins were drying just outside her kitchen window. Hours later, I found the entrails of a recently killed duck and chicken suspended behind a beam out back. In the same backyard two of the women were cooking beans over charcoal braziers, fejioe fradginho, branco e preto-black-eyed peas, white and black beans. There was Caruru to make. Chicken to cook, plus abarra, bolhinos de milho, acaraje, salad, rice and goat. Production of Bolhinos de Aipim were already in process. Linens had to be pressed. Popcorn popped. The few tasks given to males were to whittle pitanga branches for drumsticks, gather three types of leaves, one of which would serve as plates for the food service, and Palm fronds for decor. She barked orders left and right, tasted every single item that was cooked, and made a variety of offerings to the Orixa throughout the day; an Executive Chef and Spiritual Leader rolled into one.

Their ceremonial room more closely mirrored Ligia's in Cachoeira. Concrete, set a few feet below the foundation of the main house. The main house had two bedrooms both furnished with two single beds. A cozy sitting room, small bathroom and a sizeable, yet simple kitchen. A room to Oxumare, their spiritual head was off of the kitchen. A cement counter ran along the length of the wall that the ceremonial room shared with the main house. The fundamento sat in the opposite corner and her throne was set in a niche on the wall catty corner to the fundamento. At either end of the wall shared with the house, there were narrow doorways which ultimately led out to the street. The backyard was a decent sized rectangle, possibly eight feet wide by fifteen long. There was a cistern in the corner filled with water for washing. There was another Orixa house in one corner, two covered sheds, A sacrificial fire pit and a covered drain leading to the town's sewer system. The central square in the ceremonial room had a three foot diameter ring of popcorn, three inches high. At one of the side doorways there were offerings to the Orixa, and a young woman sat on her haunches in the opposite corner scraping tendons and sinew from freshly boiled goat heads and feet. A few young neighborhood children ran in and out, observing the activity. Two young girls, possibly ten years old, also dressed in white quietly observed their elders at work. The next generation to be inducted into the terreiro. The next day, Mae Stella told me that the girls entered into service between 14-15 years of age. One of the older Mae's continued to wink at me, shooting me goo goo eyes like a teenager while she worked.

By eleven AM I was parched and starved. She saw my hung dog look and asked if I wanted coffee. Hesitating at first, I felt that I should not be indulged while they were so fast at work. Mae Stella asked again. This time, I jumped at the offer. A small silver tray was brought to me, with freshly brewed coffee an elegant dainty demitasse, docantes of Stevia and a small spoon. This brought a welcome reprieve until midday. In the meantime I walked between the kitchen activity, the careful processing of the goat and the preparation and cooking centers out back. Each woman completed their task deftly with a great sense of economy of motion and use of materials. Occasionally, the younger woman would take a break to gossip, giggle and rest. These moments were brief since Stella seemed to have eyes in every room. The only things consumed by anyone were cigarettes and coffee. Periodically a young comely boy ran up to me looked deeply into my eyes or at my camera and then ran quickly out of sight. This was Lucas, recently adopted by Mae Stella. A little bit of a hellion, but generally a harmless young boy. By about 1:30, he had been whining for food for at least ninety minutes. Finally Stella consented and one of the women offered him a dish of stewed chicken and rice. Seeing him eat made me want to keel over. They must have sensed my hunger. Within about twenty minutes, I had a place at the table and my own bowl of lunch. The chicken had a russet colored sauce or Molho, slightly vinegary with a flash of garlic and palm oil. The rice, cooked plain without salt, took to the rich sauce and the combination gave me back some vigor.

All of the women would complete a project and carefully clean all of their implements, sweep, mop and prepare for their next duty. Finally by 3:30, the cooking frenzy was winding down. One by one the women began to take individual plates of chicken and rice, while Mae Stella continued to intone orders to her charges. She continued at her fast clip for another ninety minutes before she too stopped for a bite of lunch. Now all of the counters were cleared and a variety of simple ceramic bowls were brought out to hold each prepared ritual dish. She debated with herself which vessel would best show off each dish, changing her mind several times, before commiting to the final arrangement. Their was a dish for each Orixa. Once her decisions had been finalized, most of the women began filling the various ceramic containers, while my goo goo eyed friend finished ironing lace. A large stack of freshly folded lace was brought into the room. Each dish was wrapped in lace, Mae Stella again stopped to decide which swatch was appropriate for which dish and corresponding Orixa. Next a large platter was brought out and she spent forty five minutes, laying on lace, tying bows at each end and then summoning my admirer to fill her platter with freshly popped corn and shards of coconut. Once it was full, she took thread and basted the lace to seal the popcorn and coconut tightly in this container until the ceremony. At this point, she suggested that I take a break, go home, rest and return around 7:30 PM. that evening. Glad for the reprieve, and tired of having to constantly recharge my nearly dead camera battery for the next, "money shot", I was glad to walk home to Sacatar, shower, rest and ready myself for the service. I could tell that it would be a long night.

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