Monday, August 18, 2008

Shit, Shower, Shave; then learning Caruru

After three days in a bed that was wanting for more comfort than thin slats and threadbare sheets a cold shower seems like spoonfuls of Caviar. Everywhere I look, even where I least expect it I am accosted by profundity. I had woken up slowly, drunken with images and lacking that blind deep sleep of simple dreams and rest. I wanted to savor the quiet and the sand in my eyes. Women singing, fireworks, church bells and a lame ring tone melody on one of the other border's cell phone brought me to full consciousness. An hour later, I got out of bed, in preparation to shit, shower and shave; then locate pao and cafe de manha. Something.
Last night a Babalow had come home with us from the ceremonio. He seemed to be from this community, though now was just passing through. My Dona da casa had offered him her bed, and she took the third love seat cum couch. Por causa que ele estive pra la, tinhamos cafe de manha feito na casa. Legal! Since he had stayed overnight she made us all a light breakfast. Coffee, Beiju, butter and bananas. I left at ten to go to the Irmandade. Immediately upon my arrival I found Mae Zelita and let her know that I would start taking pictures. She agreed and I walked outside to the terrace to capture the making of the broth and the washing of the okra for the Caruru. Today's meal, Caruru, is possibly the most overtly African dish in the festa. It is a unctuous stew of okra and smoked dried shrimp, garlic, peanuts, cashews and palm oil, all cooked to a pulpy mash.
Just after I began, the house managers ran towards me screaming and flailing their arms. "Nao. Nao pode. ni um foto pode tirar agora. Deve vai embora! Agora mesmo!"
They were refusing me the ability to shoot or even be present. Shocked, I stopped, frozen in motion. I let my camera drop to my side, and began looking for Mae Zelita. As I looked, I blurted in my broken Portuguese that she had sanctioned my presence. "Agora, NAO!. Hoje ela nao pode fazer nada. Nao tem poder ela!"--Powerless; what? As I grasped the fragments of their statements, today Mae Zelita was not in charge, someone else was. Hours later, Francisca Marques gave me the low down. Every year a commission is created amongst the sisterhood. A chief commissioner defines the arc of the week's activities including the food preparation, fund raising and processions. Sunday, the last official day of festivities was always given over to the commission elected for the following year. This allowed them to get their feet wet, and understand how to implement their duties. Thus, it was true. Mae Zelita had no jurisdiction today. Shit.
I heard someone call to me in a hoarse grunting voice, "Voce tinha cafe de manha, hoje?" Have you had breakfast this morning?-Mae Zelita to the rescue. Following her lead, I lied and said that no I had not eaten at all. "Perfeito." She responded and she ducked into the kitchen. Returning quickly with a cup of coffee and a dosante of stevia in one hand and a small plate which held a small roll of white bread stuffed with ham, another roll smeared with butter and a napkin. In her absence I had shuffled across the room to find a seat between two Mae's near the door. She brought me the "stall tactic" or breakfast and I began to eat, while my companions began to get setup for cutting okra. A few minutes later, Francisca entered, hugging various Mae's, and offering kind greetings to all. She was the same woman who I had been standing next two at last night's Samba de Roda, with the videocam. We had been jockeying for position, trying to document the various dancers and bands. I had come close to asking her to move several times when she blocked my camera angles. Being new in town, I had decided to let it go. Now, again she pulled out her camera and started filming the food production. Zelita seized the moment and began jeering at the kitchen managers. A volley of terse whispers and sniper glares came at me. Mae spat out, "Se ela pode tirar; entao, ele pode tambem!" -If she can, then......
The more vocal brown skinned woman with glasses marched towards me, and with a bitchy undertone she growled " Entao, voce pode deixar agora." -You can stay now. Disdainfully she added, "E sim, pode tirar fotos, tambem." Vanquished by me, the stranger she stormed off.
I surveyed the room, looking for a response, animosity or empathy from the sisters. Everyone present was quietly at their work. Some of the sisters had still not arrived. One of the cheerier women had brought in a censor which flooded the room with the smoke and fumes of frankincense and myrhh. Three times she walked around, anointing all of the women, the foods and implements for cooking in the room and on the terrace. This happened every morning, but I had not previously been privy to her procedure.
As anticipated, my memory card filled quickly, this being my last day in Cachoeira. I sat for a time, recharging my battery and dumping shots I felt that I could part with. Slowly, the women began to hum. First individually, then as a collective they began to sing together. I am not sure of the content, though the songs seemed light and praiseworthy. The incense vapors floated with their melodies. Their volume increased and a few women stopped cutting and began to add hand claps, punctuating the phrasing of their songs. Trancelike and ethereal they humbled the few onlookers like me who stood and sat in awe of their performance. Francisca told me that they were asking Yaya, or their Nossa Senhora for blessings, for support and especially for luck; going forward. I asked if they received any sign in response to their prayer songs? She continued, "Yaya would approve their wishes over the day today and over the next several months as they completed their annual rituals and began preparations for the coming year. Good luck in life, in prayer, especially in festas would be essential. The success of this festa and the following one next year would be proof; her acknowledgment."
Waiting for the next activity to begin, Francisca and I continued to discuss the sisterhood and her research in ethno-musicology. Francisca had been living in Cachoeira for eight years, documenting Samba de Roda and the Irmandade. In a few months she would be receiving her Phd; and she needed to move on. She was low on funds and short on patience. She had successfully trained a cadre of individuals and academics from teens to doctoral fellows in the manner for conducting proper field research in ethno-musicology and anthropology. Graciously, she filled in many of the gaps I had about the sisterhood and the community. She suggested some books to read and offered to give me a teaching brochure that she had created. The brochure had won her awards from UNESCO. She also offered me a bed in her home, when I returned to Cachoeira. As Francisca described her reality, I reflected on the nature of higher education here and in the USA.
"I want to ground my life. I want to teach and I need to make some money. I am now in my forties! Twice I have been selected to teach at University. Yes, here in Cachoeira. I would like to stay here. Both times I have passed my examinations and have been approved for hire. But, always at the last moment I have not been seated. I haven't paid off the right people. I deeply believe in free public education-Yet, I hate our system of corruption. Everything is corrupt here. How can you be qualified, pass the exams and not be seated; Twice?" Phew. That is a harsh reality.
Sitting in silence, digesting her story I wanted to cry, or hug on her. From behind us, came shuffling and high pitched voices in American English. Twenty or so mostly African American women all in white cottons entered the room following behind a middle aged man who defined the scene they were observing. Brazenly they took over the room, pulling out their cameras, and sitting with the sisters, embracing them for photo ops, as though they were the focal points and not the Irmandade. Disgusted and not really wanting the knowledge, I put my camera aside and asked them where they had come from. "Brooklyn."-came the chorus. "Oh...." "We are from the Simmons Museum of African American Art. Didn't I know it? Was I American too?" I responded, "Yes, Mount Morris Park-Harlem." I wasn't sure if I was disgusted more in their overt American-ness, dominant and self centered in nature; or in their inability to show respect and humility for this group of women who were holding up a tradition of solidarity for over 200 years. Turn off the TV and get real. Pausing, catching my breathe to contain it's fervor; silently I acknowledged that I too was an interloper, a voyeur here in Cachoeira. You cannot be too self righteous. Probably, they would pay for the privelege of the picture taking. The sisters lived from these contributions. In that way, they could help them. Possibly, someone who saw their pictures back in NY, could affect change or embrace their dedication as inspiration in their own work.

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