Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Candomblé on Facebook

Last week I met with a local pai-de-santo ("Father of the Saint", or male leader of a candomblé terreiro) and discussed various aspects of the religion, his personal history, opinions on Ruth Landes and on gender roles in the religious hierarchy/leadership. It was a very interesting conversation, which I think lasted for about 2 hours and went in various directions to deepen my understanding (or at least my questions) on the subject.

As is very common today in Brazil (and throughout the world), I got in touch with him through facebook (after meeting through a mutual friend). There's an interesting phenomenon in Brazil in that access to internet has expanded incredibly throughout the country, but cell phone services are still very expensive. In general people use pre-paid phone plans and most of the time have little to no credit to make calls. In addition, calls between different operators are about 5x more expensive than between the same operator, so if two people don't use the same one, it's almost impractical to make a phone call. This, amongst various entertaining and time-sucking factors, encourage people to stay online and chat on Facebook to make plans, chit chat, keep in touch, etc.

Throughout our conversation, the pai-de-santo (I am keeping him anonymous for the purposes of this blog entry) kept mentioning other "houses" of candomblé, main religious figures and other references I was unaware of. Most of the names and symbols are in the West African language, Yoruba, which made it even more difficult for me to take notes and keep up (I am actually starting a Yoruba class later today so I can understand more of these conversations and the symbolism used in the religious chants and nominations). In order to explain and demonstrate the references, he turned to Facebook, which was already open on his computer during the entire conversation.

I was (perhaps wrongfully) surprised to see that beyond his personal Facebook "friends" he browsed through various pages of big, well-known terreiros in Salvador that have come up numerous times in my research. They had pictures of the house itself (a sacred space), mães and pais-de-santos, historical photos of the terreiro, and various political campaigns against religious intolerance and especially in response to a recent move by a city councilman in Salvador to prohibit the sacrifice of animals in the candomblé religion in the name of animal rights (a big scandal and honestly, a ridiculous request for anybody know understands the practice of this religion that has been threatened and persisted for centuries in Brazil).

When I saw this, and other houses/associations of candomblé on Facebook, I at first sort of laughed at myself, thinking "wow, even candomblé is on facebook". Then I thought to myself how incredibly useful this would be in my research, as a wealth of information and even contact to the houses I hope to further collaborate with. Sure, it's selected information and images for public display, but the fact they are accessible to this extent is exciting and encouraging in its own way.

The more I thought about my initial surprise and critique of their presence on Facebook, the more I began to deconstruct my own ideas and expectations about the religion, which on the surface level are very much grounded in a primitivist mindset, or a desire to freeze candomblé in a time of Slavery and 19th Century Africa. As somebody with friends who practice candomblé, who has lived in Salvador for almost two years now and has seen the reality of technology, modernity, capitalist development and lifestyle, why would this be surprising? Do I expect people of a certain religion to live in a certain historical time, peripheral to global developments and innovations? Where do these expectations come from and why, after so many studies and conversations on this subject, do I still have a shameful gut reaction?

My attempts to root out deeply engrained notions of a primitive or exotic "other" is a constant project for me as a developing anthropologist, as popular notions reinforced by the media or pure ignorance on a subject (and how could one really be adequately informed on all the "other" cultures foreign to our own in the world?) inform my conceptions rather than a more logical practice of recognizing a global "we" and shared experiences in a constantly changing world.

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