Brazil’s Candomblí© High Priestess Dies in Bahia, at Age 80

Mãe de santo Olba de AlaketuRespected and renowned Afro-Brazilian high  priestess (mãe de santo)  Olga de Alaketu, who royal ancestor were brought to Brazil as slaves, died September 29, at the age of 80, in Salvador, capital of the northeastern state of Bahia.

The death occurred in the Sagrada Famí­lia Hospital where she had been taken due to complications of diabetes. The ialorixá was the fifth generation of the princess Otampê Ojarô, from  Ketu, in the Western Africa’s Benin. Ojarô had been brought to Brazil as slave in the 18th Century.

Olga was born September 9, 1925, and took over as the spiritual leader of the terreiro at age 23. This was an unusual choice since these leadership posts are almost always given to much older people with years of experience. She married José Cupertino Barbosa, with whom she had six children.

Her temple, or terreiro as they are known in Brazil, was called Ilê Maroiá Láji. It was located in the Brotas neighborhood and was visited by several personalities including late writer Jorge Amado, French ethnologist Pierre Verger,  singer Maria Bethânia and singer-composer and current Culture Minister, Gilberto Gil.

The place, which is believed to have been built in 1636,  was declared a national heritage site earlier this year by the Brazilian Culture Ministry.

According to Brazilian anthropologist Yeda Castro, ialorixá Olga de Alaketu was the African-Brazilian religious leader who preserved the most the iorubá language. She was the high priestess of the Alaketu Terreiro for 57 years.  

Mãe (mother) Olga, as she was also known, helped bridge the distance between candomblé and Catholicism. Her friendship with abbot Timóteo Amoroso Anastácio of the São Bento Monastery of Salvador brought forth the so-called "Hill Mass," which used African instruments like atabaques, berimbaus and agogôs. The practice, however, was never accepted by the more traditional sectors of the Brazilian catholic church.  

Olga also got lots of respect from Brazilian politicians and the federal government. She received medals and merit badges in the administrations of former-presidents General Ernesto Geisel; General João Batista Figueiredo, the last military president and Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Candomblé faithfuls, gathered in terreiros often on Friday nights, sing and dance while incorporating spirits in hours-long ceremonies, which may involve the sacrifice of animals.

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