Mãe Menininha do Gantois (Mother Menininha do Gantois)
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Last update: 09/03/2017
In Bahia, wearing white clothes on Fridays is a very old tradition coming from the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomblé. This tradition is a tribute to the African god Oxalá, who in religious syncretism, represents a personality equivalent to Jesus Christ.
At the beginning of the Brazilian colonisation, candomblé rituals were practiced in the farmhouses and in the slave quarters. It is known that the first terreiro [yard, candomblé spiritual land] was created in Bahia, officially 450 years ago. It was called Engenho Velho [Old Plantation] or Casa Branca [White House] and operated on today’s Vasco da Gama Avenue in Salvador. From there arose the terreiros of Gantois (located in Federação), and Axé Opô Afonjá (in São Gonçalo do Retiro), and from these two, many other terreiros originated, in both the capital State and in the main cities of the interior of Bahia.
Candomblé is a religious practice that reveres the Orishas – the spirits of nature originating from the primary elements: earth, fire, water and air. Such spirits are warrior gods who protect hunting, fishing, maternity, kings and queens and others. The Orishas are worshiped in secret initiations and annual festivals dedicated specifically to them. For each Orisha, there are colours, clothing, a day of the week, salutations and/or peculiar foods, which people refer and/or offer, asking for protection, health, happiness and peace.
Candomblé fans dress in sui generis clothes and dance to the sound of drums. When entering into trance, they believe that the spirits of Orishas are able to penetrate their bodies.
In this context of the African gods, on 10 February 1894, Maria Escolástica da Conceição Nazareth was born. She would later be called Mãe [Mother] Menininha do Gantois, and would represent the most popular mother-of-saint in all of Brazil.
Why, however, is the word Gantois in Mother Menininha’s name? It is necessary to explain that this was the surname of a Frenchman, resident in Salvador, who ceded a piece of his property so that a candomblé yard could be built there. As a tribute to that gentleman, from then on, the candomblé followers began to link the name Gantois to everything that was related to that terreiro.
It should be noted that Maria Escolástica was a direct descendant of freed slaves: from the black women who founded the first Nagô yard in Brazil – Ile Axé Aira Entile – in 1849. The first mother-of-saint known in the country was Maria Júlia da Conceição Nazareth, and she was the mother of Mãe Menininha. She worked in a candomblé in the neighbourhood of Barroquinha, in Salvador. When Mother Maria Julia died in 1910, her daughter – Pulchéria Maria da Conceição – was chosen to be the successor of the yard. Eight years later, with the passing of Pulcheria, Mother Menininha would take over the work of the yard. She was only 22 years old at the time.
Admired for her wisdom, kindness, knowledge, humility and a firm hand, Mãe Menininha do Gantois was the main person responsible for the diffusion and popularisation of candomblé in Bahia, having been a friend and spiritual advisor to several distinguished personalities, such as Jorge Amado, Vinicius de Moraes, Dorival Caymmi, Zélia Gatai, Pierre Verger, Caribe and Nina Rodrigues.
Jorge Amado, one of his great admirers, said that she was a daughter of slaves who became queen, and had guided the people of Bahia with exemplary dedication and perennial goodness. Caymmi, on the other hand, on the chorus of his song Mãe Menininha, emphasised that the hand of sweetness was at Gantois. Vinicius would praise in prose and verse the famous mother-of-saint who wore lace skirts and thick glasses.
Mãe Menininha, moreover, was much sought after by anthropologists and sociologists, who saw in her a precious source of information to write her theses and academic studies. Her importance was so evident in the cultural scene of the country that the Brazilian Post and Telegraph Company even issued a commemorative stamp in honour of the centenary of her birth.
The dear mother-of-saint died on 13 August 1986 at the age of 92. Gantois was then succeeded by his eldest daughter, Cleuza Millet, who became known as Mãe Cleusa de Nana, and who led the place until 1998. With her death, the succession of the terreiro passed to Mother Carmem de Oxalá – the younger sister of Cleuza. None of them, however, was as much loved and admired as Mãe Menininha do Gantois.
Recife, 23 March 2006.
(Updated on 9 July 2008)
Translated by Peter Leamy, December 2016.
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Source: VAINSENCHER, Semira Adler. Mãe Menininha do Gantois. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Fundação Joaquim Nabuco, Recife. Disponível em: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar> . Acesso em: dia mes ano. Ex.: 6 ago. 2003.