Entering Menininha’s house is like walking inside a birthday cake. White paper strips hang from the ceiling like freshly grated coconut. Fluorescent lights shine between layers. Three windows on each side are curtained pink, Grandma Naná’s favorite color. It is her birthday we are celebrating. Naná, mother of Yemenjá, Queen of the Sea.
Before we can join the party at Menininha’s Candomblé House, we have to wait, outside, in back, while the initiates drum and chant. Women arrive, dressed in white cotton skirts and cut lace petticoats. Table-sized cloths are wrapped tight across their chests, and tied with lace bows. Mostly it is women. A few men arrive. They are gorgeous. All men in Bahia are gorgeous. They carry in trays of pastries covered in brown paper: tapioca tubes stuffed with coconut, white corn steamed in husks, thin baguettes of tuna, brown balls filled with cheese. Coffee brews, guava and mango juice pours into paper cups. Then we are ready.
To enter the House, climb up the front steps; dip a cup into the water bucket and toss three times behind you. Women enter left, men right. Find a place on a sea green bench, look around. Take it in, slowly.
The room is big; square, the size of my entire house, thousands of miles to the north. Three drummers pound, 100 people begin to dance. This is the dance of slaves, servants, and workers: their arms churn in cooking. The rhythm quickens, they hunt. It slows, they turn the soil. Hours pass. White lace spins, women swoon and when they drop, they are held, lifted. Sweat and tears are dried with cloth, and then the lace bows are tied tighter – to hold the spirit. This is a weekly gathering of love. And today, it is even grander: a birthday party for the grandmother of all the deities in this story: the gods and goddesses of the sea, the river, thunder and wind. No baby in a manger. No sitting in silence. It is a tradition whose rituals I have never seen.
I take in more. A woman circles the room holding a basket. Reaching in, she tosses popped corn on our heads. I lean into the woman next to me, with questions, “What does popcorn signify?” A Blessing. “Who is the gold warrior in the corner made of Styrofoam?” Oxun, Goddess of the River, Naná’s other Daughter. She likes honey and kindness. “Who are the African women pictured on the wall?” The Mãe de Santo lineage, the matriarchs of this Candomblé House.
Sitting under the white satin tent covered in stars, planets and the crescent moon is the daughter of Menininha, and her daughter in turn. Surrounding them are the most sacred images: A portrait of Yemenjá, as white-breasted mermaid. A life-size sculpture of St. George on his horse. A wooden African mask. I open with joy to such a crazy mix. I kneel before the living Mãe do Santo, lift my hands and say, “Benza Mãe”, a blessing, Mother. I feel her power.
Returning to my sea green bench I extend my hands out in front of my body, holding the holiness. A man in white pants and giant lace bow approaches: a black and white butterfly. I bow to him. He presses his cheek next to mine. It is wet and warm. Touched, I turn to watch the dancers jumping, falling, the release of emotion, the sound of the heart, the place to be held on this Sunday morning. The drumming quickens, and the dancers form a line. Each, in turn, dances her dance, then bows to the source of life: the sun shining through the eastern door. Axé.
That night, I dream I am the Mãe de Santo of my own Candomblé House. We push the sofa back and the dance begins.