On Being a Woman in Bahia
In honor of International Women’s Day, or Dia Internacional da Mulher
Outside, Rio Vermelho sings and bustles. Cira, Regina and Dinha sell their dendê-based goods at their respective barracas, or stalls, throughout the neighbourhood. It’s no coincidence that behind every pot of vatapá or dried shrimp sits a woman, often elaborately dressed, serving one of Salvador’s much-loved street foods; after all, the baianas were the ones to bring the once exclusively religious foodstuff onto the streets to be tasted by people like me.
(Interestingly, and not surprisingly, the democratisation of food is a process that has largely been led by female figures. In Lyon, France, for example, it was the mères lyonnaises who, in the 19th century, introduced what is now considered the famous Lyonnaise cuisine to the masses. I still remember walking through the Old City in Lyon last summer and thinking about how proud these women would be to know that Lyon is often considered the gastronomic capital of the world.)
One cannot navigate the cultural landscape in Bahia without perceiving the feminine energy of the orixás Yemanjá, Oxum and Iansã. Yemanjá, the mother of all deities, protects and embraces the ocean. Oxum, the orixá of agua doce (bodies of water like lakes, rivers, waterfalls etc), flaunts her vanity in her shades of gold. The dance of Iansã, the orixá of tempests, is perhaps one of the fiercest of dances I’ve watched thus far in Bahia. Here in Rio Vermelho, a district overlooking the sea, Yemanjá watches over us all. Variations of her image have been painted on walls, within her sacred home by the sea, and her symbols adorn the jewellery artisans make and display on the street.
Many of our capoeira rodas ended with Bahia’s famous samba de roda, a quick-footed dance that concluded the fights with a bout of good-humoured fun. I’d always be impressed by the way Marlon spontaneously did the splits during his little jive, but watching fully dressed baianas shaking their hips, rotating their arms and seemingly floating on their feet has always left me awestruck. It was only the other day that I found out that the samba de roda was originally performed exclusively by women.
When we visited Cachoeira in the Recôncavo region last week, we visited a museum centred around the Irmandade da Boa Morte (the Sisterhood of Good Death). The Afro-Catholic sisterhood was first formed by free African women who, through great collaboration and endurance, bought the freedom of their enslaved sisters. To them, a ‘good death’ was one achieved in liberty. To think that these women, who were once treated so unjustly, are now celebrated and respected is truly indicative of what women — and people in general — can achieve when in solidarity.
Then there’s Candeal. I could go on and on about this wonderful neighbourhood. Despite the strong machismo culture in Brazil, in the households of Candeal it is evident that women are tremendously capable of achieving dignified lives, most impressively not only for themselves but also for those around them. Thirty-odd years ago on a particular 9th of October, when Candeal was still a squatters’ village, a group of women fought against the police officers who came to evacuate the ‘illegal’ community. David’s homestay mom, Graciete, was one of the pioneers of this movement. Today, she remains one of the most respected members on the street in which I lived — 9 de Outubro, named after the day itself — and in Candeal.
And finally, there are the girls I’m lucky to share this experience with. Many girls’ nights and walks and hang-outs later, Jordan and Asia still make me laugh in the way I did when I first met them, and make me feel so loved and appreciated when I need it the most. It touches me to know that I’ve witnessed their blossoming into the beautiful women they are — one can only hope I’ve grown in the same way they have.