Bahia, in Northeastern Brazil, is known for its abundance of Afro-Brazilian rituals which blend elements from Catholicism and Candomblé - a religion with Yoruba origins brought to Brazil by African slaves. One of the most important events in the state's Afro-religious calendar is the Feast of Good Death (Festa da Boa Morte), which takes place every August in Cachoeira, one of the towns in the region known as Recôncavo Baiano.
The feast is held around August 15, the date when Catholics celebrate the Assumption of Mary. It is organized by Irmandade da Boa Morte (Sisterhood of the Good Death), an organization created in the early 19th century and formed exclusively by mature black women. The founders' descendants have carried on the feast's core traditions and worked to maintain their integrity even through the impressive growth of the event's touristic appeal in the last few years. Read more about Feast of Good Death in 2012.
The Feast of Good Death was listed as Intangible Heritage of Bahia on June 25, 2010 - the anniversary of an 1822 plebiscite in support of Pedro I as Prince of Brazil and an important date in the history of Bahia's movement for independence from Portugal. The event is actively promoted by Bahiatursa, Bahia's official tourism organization, especially among African-American tourists, who make up the greatest part of international tourists who visit Cachoeira during the event.
Cachoeira, just like São Félix across the Paraguaçu River and other towns in the Bahian Recôncavo, has its origins tied to sugar and tobacco production, completely dependent on slave work. Cachoeira was particularly prosperous because of its port; the town center still has remarkable 18th- and 19th-century constructions in varying degrees of conservation.
In the age of slavery, Cachoeira's busy town life allowed a number of women slaves to make money selling food in the streets and buy their freedom. The Sisterhood of Good Death, which started at the Barroquinha Church in Salvador and moved to Cachoeira in the 1820s, had among its missions the purchase of manumission for other slaves.
Honoring the Mother
According to Brazilian anthropologist Raul Lody (in "Abiyamo obirin di oku Mãe. Mulher. Morte", Festa da Boa Morte, Cadernos CEPAC, 2), "the predominant feeling in the Feast of Good Death is the preservation of the cult of the Mother." The earthly mother, the Virgin Mary, the Yialorixá (Candomblé pristess), Mawu, the primeval mother in the Yoruba pantheon - all are symbolically present in this complex ritual, whose religious highlights spread over three consecutive days and involve processions, the saying of Mass, the cooking and serving of food, and the singing and dancing of traditional rhythms, such as samba de roda.
The strict hierarchy of the Sisterhood, in which the greatest authority lies with the Perpetual Judge - a position which can only be held by the organization's oldest member - is marked by symbols such as the staff carried by the Provider, the purse holding candles and matches around the Scribe's waist, or the white ribbons sewn around the hem of the long skirts, which indicate how many roles in the Sisterhood the wearer has occupied.
The Feast's Rituals
Many important events precede the feast itself. One of them is the esmola geral, - "general alms", in early August, when the Sisters walk the streets of Cachoeira singing, carrying purses embroidered with their symbol and requesting money for the festivities.
The feast's opening day, dedicated to deceased members of the Sisterhood, starts with the Sisters' confession and night prayers at the Nossa Senhora d'Ajuda Chapel. Then, dressed in white and in a solemn procession, the Sisters carry the lying image of the Virgin Mary to Cachoeira's main Church - Our Lady of the Rosary Church - where a Mass is said in honor of the ancestral Sisters.
The procession stops in front of Casa Estrela, the "Star House", a place of great historical importance to the organization.
On the feast's second day, the Sisterhood honors Our Lady of Good Death's passing. Dressed in black and white, their heads covered, the Sisters take part in Mass and in another procession with a somber tone.
The feast's third day is the event's joyous apex, a celebration of Mary's Assumption and Glory and of the freedom from slavery as well, which starts with a morning procession and follows with festivities at the Sisterhood's headquarters and in the street. On the Sister's outfit, a red shawl of pano da costa signals the vibrant joy of this day.
The two following nights are completely festive, with samba de roda and foods - cozido, caruru.
During the Feast of Good Death, tourists can take the opportunity to discover the Freedom Route (Rota da Liberdade), which visits comunidades quilombolas, or communities of descendants of escaped slaves, in the Bahian Recôncavo. Van tours with local guides are available from Cachoeira for about R$35 per person.
US Agencies and Bahia Afro Heritage Tourism
Some travel agencies in the United States have become specialists in African Heritage tourism in Bahia. Los Angeles-based Afro Brazil Tours has professionals with an impressive insider's knowledge of Bahia and its culture (and of Brazil at large). Watch their video with Billy Arquimino, Bahiatursa's African Heritage Tourism Coordinator, at the Afro Brazil Tours exhibit in the Los Angeles Times Travel Show.
More About Feast of Good Death
See more photos of Festa da Boa Morte on the official Bahiatursa Flickr.
Learn more about the sociological and cultural aspects of the feast from these online sources:
- "The Feast of Good Death: An Afro-Catholic Emancipation Celebration in Brazil" by Sheila S. Walker
- Festa da Boa Morte (Cadernos do Ipac, 2) by the Bahia Secretariat of Culture (in Portuguese only)
Read a first-hand account of a trip to the festival here:
- Brazil's Boa Morte Festival by Peri Frances on African Diaspora Tourism