New neighbourhood, old issues

The new view makes it all worthwhile

The new view makes it all worthwhile

We are now living in Cabula, a district of Salvador with a distinctly African-sounding name that is home to one of its greatest terreiros (Afro-Brazilian temples). According to Wikipedia – caveats duly noted – this area used to be a maroon settlement, or quilombo, formed by escaped slaves of Bantu origin – from cultural groups currently found in Angola. Cabula is also the name of a secret 19th-century sect that combined elements of Spiritism, Islam and Bantu religious beliefs. Powerful stuff! I have also found that Cabula might also be the name of a town or region in Angola itself. Any confirmation of that will be greatly appreciated.

One thing I noticed right off when we moved into our new place was the high level of security – or at least, security preparedness. We received lots of keys, but the main doors to the two buildings in the complex are most always open. Now I know what all the keys are for.

Early this morning, before 6 am, I heard loud voices outside my bedroom door, which also leads to the outer staircase and the top end of the lift shaft. The building management had already advised us about a scheduled power outage that was supposed to start at 8 am, so I thought the voices and banging I heard were maintenance workers getting a head start. I almost popped my head out the door to complain. So glad I didn’t.

After tossing and turning in bed for a while, I heard more voices, and then the original two identified themselves as “police”. That gave me a chill, because the last time someone had shouted “police” outside my bedroom was when I lived in a very low-income district, and I had just heard the same voice issue death threats to the kids who were sheltering under our house’s overhang. I played possum both times.

This time around – and this is the most credible version of the story I’ve heard so far – an individual was seen running into the complex and the security guard called the police. The most incredible part – though I know it’s true – is that they actually came! They must have spent hours scouring every floor and stairwell, because I later heard that the police were still there when my housekeeper arrived at 7:30 am. They don’t seem to have found the intruder, and the janitor tells me no one was burglarised. The mystery deepens.

It is a bit strange after 17 years in a much larger complex with – presumably – much better security. Living in a country with such huge income disparities, where even people renting a flat in a run-down building in an up-and-coming neighbourhood would seem rich compared to those living in shacks in hardscrabble slums, invasions of apartment complexes are bound to happen. It’s not the first time we’ve experienced it – the last time was nearly 20 years ago. Two apartments in our building in Rio Vermelho were burglarised on All Souls’ Day, when many people in Bahia head for the cemeteries to remember their dead (we were home at the time, which may explain why we were spared).

Perhaps the main doors of this complex in Cabula will be locked from now on – or until we let our guard down once again.





Statues on the Dique do Tororó

Orisha statues by Tatti Moreno (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

Orisha statues by Tatti Moreno (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

In my last post, I reflected on the lack of wildfowl on the Dique do Tororó. I failed to mention another element that has become a permanent part of the landscape so far, heightening its status as a tourist attraction and picture postcard while causing some controversy. I’m referring to the statues of orishas, Afro-Brazilian divinities, created by sculptor Tatti Moreno and installed in and around Tororó during the most recent landscaping project completed in 1998.

The statues are controversial because the Pentecostals disapprove of religious imagery in general. The previous mayor, João Henrique Carneiro, was of that persuasion. He allegedly wanted to remove them for religious reasons, but their scenic and tourist value spoke louder. For practitioners of Candomblé, as orisha worship is called in Bahia, the statues are just that.  Statues. They do not contain any ashé – the divine energy of creation. The lagoon is sacred for its waters and is still the site of offerings, although they have to be made discreetly since the landscaping project was carried out.

Previously, the picturesque boats that transport pedestrians from one side to the other in lieu of a bridge could also be hired to go out to the deepest parts of the Dique that are sacred to Oshun and Yemanjá, and place offerings in the waters. To this day, in the wee hours before the Yemanjá Festival on 2 February, devotees head for Tororó to make offerings for Oshun, the divinity of fresh water, motherhood and prosperity, beforehand. That is because the feast of Our Lady of Light is actually Oshun’s day, according to the traditions that associate Afro-Brazilian divinities with Catholic saints (see my post on Afro-Brazilian syncretism).

Statue of Oxum by Tatti Moreno. Source:

Statue of Oshun by Tatti Moreno. Source:

Dique do Tororó – Salvador’s fowl-free Serpentine


 Postcard of the Dique do Toróro at the turn of the century

Link to photos of the Dique when there were geese (scroll down)

I love to drive by the Dique do Tororó – an artificial lagoon encrusted in the heart of Salvador, Bahia. If you look at the water and its landscaped surroundings, you will almost feel that you have found London’s Hyde Park in the tropics – at least, the Serpentine. But if you look in the other direction, you will see jumbled heaps of motley brick dwellings sprouting almost organically from the hillsides. And this is where the European concept of a manicured urban oasis cum sculpture garden misses out on the most important factor – in my mind – the swans, ducks and geese that are the main adornment of any London park, or English river, for that matter. Attempts have been made to introduce different kinds of wildfowl into the Tororó landscape, but they have all met with foul play. In other words, they ended up on someone’s dinner table. Until the problems of poverty and the attendant hunger pangs are solved in the surrounding neighbourhoods, the wings of wild geese will never shimmer over the waters of Tororó.


Aerial view of Dique do Tororó – taken before the construction of the present-day Fonte Nova Arena

When the police go on strike

Scene from the 2012 police strike - source:

Scene from the 2012 police strike in Salvador, Bahia – source:

One of the first words I learned in my Portuguese class for Spanish-speakers at UCLA was greve. “Strike” is huelga in Spanish. Like earthquakes, your first police strike is the hardest. The shock of seeing troops and military tanks in the streets before realising that, no, it isn’t another coup. But this one – the third in my experience – is the worst in terms of violence and fear. A siege mentality has set in, and it’s only day two. Salvador’s unarmed municipal guard is refusing to police the streets because it isn’t safe for them, so imagine how ordinary civilians feel. Some buses run, others don’t. All of them stop much earlier than the 6-pm “curfew.” Most shops are shut, including grocery stores. Opportunistic individuals and gangs are robbing business establishments and sweeping down streets and beaches snatching wallets, mobile phones, handbags, necklaces, whatever dangles. Some of the “hooligans” are probably striking police officers, making sure we miss them – they’re never around when they aren’t on strike.

Another day in Paradise.

Quick update on April 18, 2014

OK…so the military police strike ended last night, and today one of the leaders (now a city councilman) was arrested for his role in the 2012 strike – just a coincidence, I’m sure. And now the strike seems to be back on, in reprisal for the arrest of the city councilman who, by rights, shouldn’t be out there leading strikes in the first place… And the beat(down) goes on.

FrenchMottershead’s SHOPS project

FrenchMottershead visited Bahia from January 7th to 27th to work on SHOPS, “an ongoing, international photographic project, uncovering communities formed by independent, local traders”. I worked with them as a writer/observer/cultural consultant and am currently writing an essay on that experience for the book they will publish in 2009. Here is their blog on the project so far:

10 Feb 08 – They’ve just added a “making links” blog

Yemanjá Festival on Itaparica

Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a very special Yemanjá Festival in Barra Grande, on the island of Itaparica. This year, February 3rd fell during Carnival, so the festivities were significantly reduced. Even so, they were beautiful and deeply moving. Here are some of the photos I thought best captured the event (just click on the photo to see the slideshow).

Yemanjá Day on Itaparica – 03.02.08