What I found in the Recôncavo Baiano, a region located in the interior of Bahia, was an authentic culture that had not been pre-packaged into a tourist destination like many other parts of Brazil. The interior was light- years away from the carnival celebrations and beaches that made Brazil famous. I was delighted by the small towns filled with colonial architecture and green hilly countryside flowing with fields of manioca.
When I first arrived in Cachoeira on a hot summer day, it seemed that I had rolled into a dusty little wild west town. Small candy-colored stores and buildings lined the main cobble stone street, details typical of cities in the Recôncavo. The bright pastel edifices seemed to sweat as they absorbed the last rays of the scorching late afternoon sun. I would not have been surprised to see tumbleweeds blowing down the street. People walked around in a relaxed pace and smiled back at me easily when I greeted them. there was a lightness to the atmosphere, an unhurried way of life that was refreshing.
The Recôncavo has a rich and complicated past. The Portuguese first settled in the area in the mid-1500’s and brought slaves from West and Central Africa to work in the tobacco and sugarcane fields and plantations. The area became wealthy from the profits of these crops. While the economic boom from tobacco and sugar has since declined, the region has remained culturally rich. The slaves brought to the area their african musical, religious, and healing traditions, all of which are still prospering in the present through their descendants.
One could say that the women are the backbone of daily life and culture in the Recôncavo. Some are sambistas who have founded and still lead music schools of samba de roda. Local legend Dona D’alva hosts events at her school and dances and sings well into her 80’s. Others are priestesses and devotees of Candomblé. The oldest woman of the region, Mãe Filinha, a Mãe De Santo—a priestess of a Candomblé temple—turned 108 this year. She is lucid, animated, and remains active in her role as a priestess. She also dances a fierce samba. Others are rezadoras, healers who combine african healing traditions using plants and leaves with Catholic prayers to cure people of spiritual, mental, and physical illnesses as well as the “evil eye.”