Getting Involved in Candomblé IV: In it for the long haul
by Iya Melissa
I’ve been extremely blessed to have the love and guidance of my Babalorixá, elders and brothers & sisters. When I first began this journey, I did not anticipate that anything that actually transpired would have. As the daughter of a Yoruba man, my goal over ten years ago was to be initiated in Nigeria. Oxum, in her divine wisdom, had other plans; I was initiated in Brazil instead. In fact, I think it’s my own slow, long and winding story that influences the advice I give others who are interested in Candomblé; take your time, don’t create expectations (easier said than done), and observe as much as you can.
My first trip to Rio still feels like yesterday. I was in the middle of graduate studies in 2003 and was awarded a Mellon grant to research Candomblé in Brazil. I was particularly interested in the treatment of Ori, and wanted to study the connections of this specific form of worship between Nigeria, Cuba and Brazil. I traveled to meet an anthropologist/Iyalorixá who would take me to visit the State University of Rio/Universidade Estadual do Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and speak with other scholars about my interests. I had an amazing time, learned that there was so much to learn, and knew that I wanted to go back. I didn’t visit any terreiros during that trip, but met many wonderful priests.
As time progressed, I began to spiritually trust my anthropologist/Iyalorixá friend who knew of endless resources about Candomblé. My quest, spiritually, had been about Orixá; I believed (and still believe) that Orisa is Orisha is Oricha is Orixá. While I was in the process of learning with a Babalawo and preparing to be initiated in Nigeria, I realized that the relationship I would like to have with a spiritual leader wasn’t the type of relationship I had with the Babalawo. Ultimately, I asked my anthropologist/Iyalorixá friend for a divination.
The reading revealed that I needed a Bori and ultimately needed to be initiated. Not having a terreiro of her own, she said she would introduce me to two Babalorixás that she knew well; I had actually met one on my previous trip – he was also an anthropologist. A few days after the reading, she officiated my Bori ceremony in New York in 2005 and we began making plans for me to travel to Brazil in the summer of 2006.
My first reading was with the man who would ultimately become my Babalorixá. My friend and I went to his house, visited the Mercadão de Madureira, had a fabulous meal and spent a couple of days in his quiet home. We also visited the Babalorixá I met at UERJ at his large terreiro about 2 hours outside of Rio proper. They were preparing for an Olubaje, and we stayed there for the week leading up to the feast. It was an amazing opportunity, but I visited as a guest and not an abiyan. As an observer, I saw the grandeur and beauty of Candomblé, but didn’t have the experience of a practitioner. Even though I helped clean the barracão, make souvenirs for the feast and prepare ritual foods, at night I slept in a bed in the guest room – not on a mat in the barracão like everyone else; I was just a visitor, and had no idea what I was getting into.
After spending time with each Babalorixá (both Ketu), I realized I felt more comfortable with the man who ultimately become my Pai. The following July, I returned to his Ile for initiation. I didn’t know what to expect going in and I felt like each day brought a new surprise. My Portuguese was poor and I relied mostly on my Spanish to get by in addition to translations by the anthropologist/Iyalorixá who was with us in the terriero for the entire process. In an attempt to prepare for future visits, I vowed to improve my fluency to be able to communicate on my own as best as possible. I spent the first three months after initiation watching the Brazilian TV show and movie, “Antônia,” and listening to Maria Bethânia practically each and every day.
Once my preceito ended and I was back on the Internet, I joined Candomblé forums on Orkut where I spent hours reading – not to learn about the religion (though it was interesting to understand other people’s experiences), but to pick up the language. I also exchanged emails with my Babalorixá and other members of the ile several times a week; in the beginning I used to type entire emails into a translator, but by the time I returned for my 1st obligation I only needed to translate a word or two. Portuguese is the fourth language I learned, and the process is far from over. My Portuguese gets me by for what I need, but I couldn’t, for example, defend myself in court, attend university or even read a good novel (although non-fiction generally isn’t an issue) in Portuguese. Developing a working knowledge of the language is essential.
Before returning for my 1st obligation in July of 2008, I visited with my Pai that April while on a trip for work to Rio and Bahia. Many members of the ile came to his house for a BBQ, and it was great being able to socialize with everyone in ways that I wasn’t able to during my initiation. Getting to know everyone in a social setting definitely helped me relax as I prepared to return for the first obligation in a line of many. Turning 1 felt like turning 13 – no longer a child, but far from being an adult. Completing the 3rd obligation felt like turning 18; able to drive and vote, but not able to buy a drink. Although Ketu doesn’t have a 5th year obligation, I felt a little more liberation and responsibility turning 5; almost like turning 21 – in college and maybe even living alone, but not yet dealing with full-blown adult responsibilities. As I completed the 7th year obligation – the obligation that closes the initiatic cycle – I have to say it felt like turning 30; unabashedly and undeniably grown.
It has definitely been a journey since that first trip to Rio over a decade ago. Everyone involved has made sacrifices – financially, mentally, with time and other contributions – from my Babakekere who put his U.S. life on hold to be able to participate in ceremonies in a foreign country, to my wife who is supportive and understands that I must travel yearly for prolonged periods of time without her for spiritual renewal, my family who respects and accepts my choices, my friends who understand that I’m not blowing them off when I turn down invitations because I’m saving for a plane ticket, and obviously my Babalorixá – who dedicates his life to taking care of others (sometimes before taking care of himself) – and Orixá family who donate their blood, sweat and tears to tirelessly help our Pai maintain an ile in service to Orixá.
There are many Orixá traditions in the USA, but if you feel drawn to Candomblé make sure you’re ready to commit for the long haul. Understand the financial commitment that you’re making if you choose to enter a house in Brazil; airline tickets, passport renewals and visa fees can add up pretty quickly, and even more-so if you’re traveling with children or pets. When you factor in the amount of time you may need to take off from work if initiation is in your path (about a month), financial contributions to the ile, costs of ceremonies/ebos you may need, gifts, etc., you begin to get a clearer sense of the sacrifices you’ll need to make.