Dual religions: How Afro-Brazilians maintain their spiritual roots

World Today

Ever since they were first brought to Brazil as slaves, Afro-Brazilians secretly practiced their polytheistic religions – sometimes in plain sight. How? By masking it with Catholicism. CGTN’s Lucrecia Franco reports from one church where this ‘dual faith’ system – known as Candomble – is practiced.

In Salvador, the capital of Brazil’s northern state of Bahia, one Catholic Church, Our Lady of the Rosary of Black People, is a strong example of what some call dual religions, masking the true – and ever more popular – Candomblé rituals now practiced openly throughout the city.

It is the beginning of lent at the church and a mass is being held with all the usual trappings: crosses drawn on foreheads, hymns, prayers and communion.

But it is not a regular mass. It is, in fact, a testament of the tenacity of the Afro-Brazilian community to maintain its beliefs and culture.

On other occasions, services are much more raucous and joyous affairs, with much clearer connections to African roots, rhythm, dancing and decidedly different spiritual energy.

Here, behind almost every Catholic saint is an African deity. Saint Benedict, for example, represents ‘Ossaim’, an ‘orixá’ with the power to cure the sick.

Built over a period of almost eight decades by African slaves and finished in 1780, the church continues the practice of a dual-belief system, allowing practitioners to express their ancestral belief.

“Here we have some people from the congregation who are also practitioners of Candomblé. They come from important Terreiros, or temples, to lead the celebrations of their saints. Many famous mothers of saints come here to our services,” Analia Santana, one of the members of the churches’ congregation or brotherhood said.

In general, Afro culture is experiencing a renaissance across Brazil, especially since religious tolerance and freedom were guaranteed in the 1940’s.

Prominent in Salvador, Candomblé is one of the religions that was practiced for centuries by secret sects deep in forests or hidden away in backrooms. Derived mostly from Central Africa, at its core is a polytheistic fusion of different living African entities, different orixás, each representing specific powers found in nature.

They are depicted in the MAFRO, Salvador’s principal Afro-Brazilian museum.

“When you are in the streets of Salvador you will identify all the elements that are here in the iconography of the objects that came from Africa,” Marcelo Cunha, the director of the museum sai. “And if you look carefully at these sculptures you will also see these men and women out there.”

The fact that Candomblé is flourishing is evident inside the more than one thousand temples, often with a mixture of races, that are estimated to exist in Salvador.

In an outlying neighborhood, the orixás are called and reveal themselves openly. One Candomblé Mother of Saint, Iraci de Souza Lira, the guardian of a temple, says the religion will never end.

“Despite all the discord in all the other different religions, there is an upward trend with Candomblé,” she explains. “It is growing, because when you plant the seeds of love and aim for peace and other good things, it only gets bigger.”