The Importance of Language

I took my first trip to Brazil knowing how to say less than 10 phrases in Portuguese. I relied totally on the translations of a then-friend to help me get around. I’m fluent in Spanish, and that helped a bit, but it was definitely no substitute. This trip had nothing to do with Candomblé; although I knew that I would eventually be initiated to Osun, my plans had always been to go to Nigeria for any and all ceremonies.

While planning for my second trip 3 years later in 2006, I took some virtual introductory courses in Portuguese. I studied with Pimsleur and it helped greatly with my pronunciation, which was my major problem having had Spanish pronunciation on my tongue for years. Unlike in 2003, this trip was all about Candomblé, and I had already made up my mind to be initiated into Candomblé de Ketu. I was still being shown around by my translator-friend, who I later found out mis-translated some of the comments made during the readings. Like any adult would be, I hated not being able to express for myself what I wanted and how I felt about things. I also was very uncomfortable with the fact that I was not able to really let people get to know me because of my language limitations.

I returned to NY determined; I would work on my Portuguese and bring myself to a place where I felt comfortable enough to express myself and understand people’s directives. I began reading and writing more often in Portuguese. I listened to Brazilian music regularly. I was even able to begin thinking in Portuguese. I purchased Rosetta Stoneand practiced daily. When I returned to Rio in 2007 for my initiation I felt competent. I was not, and still am not 100% fluent in Portuguese but it’s getting better everyday.

So why is that important? I think it’s one thing to go on vacation and not be fluent in the country’s language. However, it’s a completely different story to begin your life within Candomblé without being able to understand and communicate. One of the most important things that happens during initiation or any obligation is sitting for a reading. You don’t want to leave something important like your ewos or things you need to know about your Orisa up to chance by either relying on someone else’s interpretation or your own shaky understanding (especially since words like eel, elephant, swamp, squash or plaid don’t typically come up on vocabulary lists for beginners, but may very well be among the list of things you need to avoid).

My advice: learn as much Portuguese as you can to be able to communicate on your own if you’re going to be involved in Candomblé. Don’t leave it up to chance that you’ll get by, and remember that within Candomblé there’s Portuguese vocabulary that is very specific to life in a terreiro.

I’d suggest Rosetta Stone hands down because it’s so easy, but I’d also try to link up with folks from whatever part of Brazil you intend to be in to also have an understanding of slang/regionalisms. Stay tunned, I’m working on a vocabulary list: Portuguese for the American Macumbeiro!