Identity

Intimate Portraits of Boa Morte, Where the 'Sisterhood of the Good Death' Honors Afro-Brazilian Ancestors

The 'Sisterhood of the Good Death' are a group of devout women in Brazil that honor the lives of Black people who have passed with an annual celebratory event called Boa Morte.

by Tarisai Ngangura
Sep 6 2018, 2:50pm

Photo by Tarisai Ngangura.

Last month, in the small, historical city of Cachoeira, in northeastern Brazil, 23 Black women known as the Irmandade da Boa Morte, or the Sisterhood of the Good Death, congregated to celebrate the last day of the cultural tradition known as Festa da Boa Morte, or the Festival of Good Death.

Almost 200 years earlier, these women's ancestors from West Africa—where Black people were forcibly taken by Portuguese colonizers to Brazil into slave trade—started an organization whose one prerogative was to uphold the sanctity of Black lives through the African religion of Candomblé, a religion concealed behind the veil of Catholic theology to avoid persecution.

To become a part of the Sisterhood, it is required that you be a part of a Candomblé house, which involves private initiations held over a period of three years. The process is known only by the sisters and shared with no one else—not even their own families. With Boa Morte, Black women celebrate “espiritos ancestres” ancestral spirits and the lives of Black people all over the world: those still living, deceased, and those who will come in after.

photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Irma Nilza, 77 was born in the neighboring city of Muritiba, 20 minutes from Cachoeira. As a member of the Sisterhood, she greets those who come to the festival.

“Boa Morte first started in Salvador,” said Irma Nilza, a member of the Sisterhood for 21 years. “That is where Black women from different groups in Africa who came on the slave ships started creating what would become the Sisterhood. They sold clothes; worked outside; did everything they could do to collect money and start something, because there was nothing for them in Brazil.”

This celebration of the dead, which began in the 19th century, became an annual week-long commemoration of festivities that now sees hundreds of Black people, separated by continents, come together. As noted by New York Times writer Joan Chatfield-Taylor in 2004, "The name of the festival refers not only to the good death of Mary, who, according to scripture, ascended into heaven, but to slaves who managed to become free during their lifetimes."

photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Irma Nilza exercising inside the Church of the Sisterhood of Good Death, a day before the third day of walking around the city.
photo: Tarisai Ngangura | The Sisterhood of Boa Morte through the years.

The sisters of Boa Morte celebrate the festivities—which include prayers, marches through the city, food, dancing, and Capoeira—as a symbolic marker of African resistance and a reminder that Black women have always been the backbone of Black resilience.

Five months before Boa Morte, in Rio de Janeiro (which is about a 22-hour drive from Cachoeira), activist Marielle Franco was assassinated after leaving a roundtable event. The 38-year-old queer city council member was known for her work that revolved around reproductive rights, gender equality, and socio-economic disenfranchisement. Franco, among many other Black lives, was honored during Boa Morte.

photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Dona Dalva, 90, is the oldest sister in the Sisterhood and a leading figure in Brazil’s Samba community. Here she is standing with nine-year-old Tiffany (on her left), watching a Capoeira match before the beginning of the Samba de Roda.
photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Olivia Santana (white head wrap)

“The women of Boa Morte represent the strength and power of Black women," said Olivia Santana, the State Secretary for Women’s Policies in Bahia, Brazil's fourth largest state. "They don’t just fight for themselves, they go out and they talk about poverty and police violence. They are fighters like Marielle Franco, and they deserve the nation’s respect.”

It is a radical, almost futuristic inclination that led enslaved African women, miles from the Motherland, to create a Sisterhood whose main endeavor was is to ensure that Black people could live lives with some semblance of dignity, while wholly aware of how this mission would be affected by the complicated dynamics of gender and its relationship to violence.

photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Irma Adelide, Irma Nilza, and Irma Anna Gilda walking during the event.
photo: Tarisai Ngangura | The women getting ready to begin the march around the city of Cachoeira to mark the first day of the celebrations of Boa Morte. The Sisterhood, along with over 50,000 visiting tourists and the locals, walk alongside one another.

When the Sisterhood was created in the early 1800s, the sisters set about collecting money that would be used to purchase the freedom of Black slaves. Besides being denied access to education, housing, and medication, African slaves were not allowed access to the cemeteries, which were reserved for white Europeans. Some of the money the sisters collected was used to buy plots of land in which Black people would be buried after death, and small amounts of money were also set aside for the family of the deceased.

The Sisterhood has continued their mission rooted in grassroots activism and, in 2005, after many years of lobbying, the Samba group that was started by their eldest member was successfully declared an Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. In 2015, they also opened and marched in the Marcha das Mulheres Negras Contra o Racismo, a Violência e Pelo Bem Viver, or March for Black Women Against Racism, Violence, and for Self-Care.

photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Irma Jordeana, 43, is the youngest sister in the Sisterhood.
photo: Tarisai Ngangura | Dona Dalva dancing in the Samba circle to sound of handclaps, drums, and tambourines.

Denize Ribeiro, a professor of Health and Nutrition at the Federal University in Sao Felix and a founding member of Coletivo Angela Davis—an organization for Black women centered on decolonization and the critical theory of subalternity—has attended Boa Morte for over 15 years, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends.

“These women are the continuation of the first Black feminists in Brazil. The Sisterhood is part of a historical strategy of resistance against slavery and against racism,” Ribeiro said. Almost two decades ago, the Sisterhood came close to ending as funding diminished and national interest lessened. “The federal government refused to help. The state government refused to help. The women had to make a plea to African-American women who had visited Brazil, knew the history of Boa Morte and its links to Candomblé, and were willing to support them. Because of their financial help, the women were able to continue their work, and even renovate their church and museum."

The festival ended on August 18, a date also marked the 500th anniversary since the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade. Over four million Africans would find themselves in Brazil, and from that horror birthed a resistance that now looks like two dozen Black women dancing the samba throughout Cachoeira for five days with candles and flowers alongside their sisters. This is how Afro-Brazilian women highlight that the lives of Black people matter—and they deserve good deaths, too.