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Program uses Brazil's Afro religions to improve health among blacks

Posted: Friday, April 12, 2002

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) -- The pulsing rhythms of atabaque drums fill the temple, sending the guests spinning, clapping and singing the praises of Ossae (Oh-SY-eim), the Yoruban god of medicine and herbs.

It's an unusual setting for a health meeting, but this is a special audience.

High priests and priestesses of Afro-Brazilian religions like Candomble, Batuque and Tambor de Mina, they have come to learn about Ato-Ire, a program funded by the Ford Foundation that seeks to spread basic health information through their temples or ''terreiros.''

''For the majority of Brazil's black poor the terreiro is the main point of reference. They go there for any kind of problem,'' explains Jose Marmo da Silva, the coordinator of Ato-Ire, Yoruban words meaning ''gourd of happiness.''

That's why the terreiros are the perfect place to discuss health problems like hypertension, diabetes, mental illness and HIV/AIDS that often go untreated among Brazil's poor black population, da Silva says.

Better known for rituals involving mystical trances, spirit channeling and animal sacrifice, terreiros are widely sought out by poor Brazilians for health counseling because the advice, and the treatment, often are free.

Most priests also possess a wealth of wisdom about medicinal herbs and plants, handed down through generations. But when it comes to modern medicine, they know they must turn to professionals.

''We have always promoted health among our followers, but ours is an oral tradition. Ato-Ire gives us pamphlets and folders people can take away with them to consult and to show others,'' said Candomble priestess Mae Beata de Iemanja.

Later this year, representatives of Ato-Ire will travel to Cuba and Puerto Rico to address practitioners of African-based religions like Santeria and Voodoo.

The program grew out of da Silva's efforts in the 1990s to alert Candomble practitioners about the hazards of spreading the HIV virus during initiation rituals, when priests cut marks in the initiates' arms using a razor blade.

A dentist and Candomble practitioner himself, da Silva succeeded in persuading many priests to use a different razor for each initiate. But he soon realized the health needs of terreiro members went far beyond AIDS prevention.

Brazil has a huge gap between rich and poor, and the division generally runs along color lines. Although nearly half of the nation's 170 milion people are black or mixed-race, dark-skinned Brazilians tend to earn less, leave school earlier and die younger than the light-skinned.

A recent study by Rio de Janeiro's Federal University showed that while Brazil ranks 74th on the United Nations Human Development Index, it would rise to 43rd if only white Brazilians are considered. Judging only blacks, the ranking falls to 108th.

The average life expectancy for Afro-Brazilians is six years shorter than for whites. Infant mortality rates for blacks are nearly double those for whites, and black women are 7.4 times more likely to die during childbirth than white women.

Many diseases affecting Brazil's black population are preventable or easily treated, doctors say. The problem is the lack of awareness.

''I know one terreiro where two people had both legs amputated because of diabetes. That didn't have to happen,'' said Dr. Maria de Fatima Oliveira, who works as a consultant to Ato-Ire.

Oliveira believes the terreiros, as ''traditional centers of (black) consciousness and resistance,'' can also be used to organize poor blacks to demand their rights within Brazil's balky federal health system.

Da Silva estimates that nearly one million Brazilians worship at terreiros, but the influence of the religion -- the only African institution to survive slavery -- exceeds its numbers.



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