Circles of care: healing practices in a Bahian Candomblé community
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This thesis explores the dynamics of healing and care in a terreiro (house of worship) of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé. My research is based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork with a Candomblé community in South Bahia, Brazil, during which I took part in the rituals, ceremonies, and everyday activities of the terreiro, and eventually became a ‘daughter of the house’. While the terreiro is at the heart of this study, I also draw upon observations and experience from the local neighbourhood, the nearest city Ilhéus, the state capital Salvador, and the city of Rio de Janeiro, where I started my journey, to complement and contextualize what I encountered inside the terreiro. I argue that cuidado, or care, is key to the cultivation of Candomblé’s vital force axé, and hence to achieving well-being and power in a socially exclusive society that is often perceived as profoundly uncaring. My thesis demonstrates that the circulation of axé and cuidado between humans and gods (orixás) is an essential part of Candomblé healing, understood as a process of reflexive self-transformation. Far from being altruistic or self-denying, then, cuidado effectively becomes a form of self-care. Subverting dichotomous logic, Candomblé cuidado is used to create and negotiate (healing) power through its capacity to simultaneously connect and divide. This thesis explores how boundaries are both transgressed and reinforced by way of cuidado in terms of transformative healing; kinship relations with the orixás; the exchange of human faith (fé) for divine axé; and performances on ‘divine stages’ and ‘profane stages’. Finally, cuidado is also used as a moral-political argument for the recognition of Candomblé in public health campaigns, in the context of an often-dysfunctional public health system. The analysis of dynamics of cuidado and boundary work in a terreiro, under consideration of the broader national context, makes this thesis an original contribution to the literature on Afro-Brazilian religion and healing. My ethnography also adds to the growing literature on the anthropology of care, especially in medical anthropology, and it pushes forward the discussion by explicitly reflecting on the circulation and negotiation of power through care.