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Bahia: Even in Brazil, African heritage lives on

Bahia: Even in Brazil, African heritage lives on | Creativity |
Though hundreds of miles away from the continental Yoruba – Yoruba people in Africa, the descendants of African slaves, mostly Yoruba, transported acr...

Via Charles Tiayon
Charles Tiayon's curator insight, August 2, 2014 11:02 PM

The present-day Brazil is made up of people including the descendants of the African slaves brought into the country in the mid-sixteenth century. Some of these are the Bakongo, the Mbundo and the Ovimbundu peoples from Angola and the Congo; the Fon people (or Jeje) from Benin; the Yoruba people (or Nago) from Nigeria and Benin. And it is needless to say that the culture and tradition of these people, though with various changes are with them in their adopted country. 

Jemila told Sunday Tribune that their mother is from the Urhobo extraction in Delta State, Nigeria. Then, were they in Salvador to trace their maternal roots, sort of? “No,” the elder of the sisters said. Flanked by George, their tour guide and other relatives, Jemila said: “Mummy is Urhobo and she teaches us the language back home in London.”  Then I decided to take her up on this claim: Digwe, I told her and she replied Migwo, though in a flawed intonation. At any rate, I returned her greeting: Vredo.

Encounter with Canadian born in Lagos

Jemila and Zeyana were not the only people who have one link or the other with Nigeria or Africa who made most of the opportunity the quadrennial FIFA tournament offered to check out on the norms in Brazil, vis à vis a background about which they were already well informed. What of Sonam Mehta? Sonam, a Canadian, was born in Apapa, Lagos, where she spent the first seven years of her life before leaving for Toronto, Ontario, where she resides today. Even in her home country, Sonam still ‘feels’ Nigerian with Daud, Nkiru and Ogo helping her out in her pharmacy profession.

These ones could not have been able to guide this writer on his mission to the city reputed for its collection of monuments that earned it the title of World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985. Help, I thought, could only come from Brazilians on how to go about my mission, but even that prospect was not being threatened, thanks to language barrier. However, out of the blue emerged Francois Duc, who found me out in my confused state.

I was in company of two Peruvian ladies who themselves were seeking direction from an equally uninformed me, who was only better off by the abridged map of Salvador I had picked up at the Rodoviario (bus station) on arriving in the Bahia State capital a few days earlier. As I tried to share the little information I had with the ladies, approached Duc, who looked to be in his late 60s. “Hello, you are from which country? I can see you are not a Brazilian. If you dress like a Brazilian or even walk like one when you are not, I will know,” he said.

A Swiss tells of Nigerian Civil War

After telling him I was from Nigeria, Duc opened up: “I know Lagos. I saw Sapele being destroyed during the Biafran war. That was in 1969, I was a sailor then. I am from Switzerland, my wife is Hindu from Brazil and I have been living in this country for 23 years,” he retorted. And the name of his ship? “MES Malaya,” Duc replied.

To say I was excited would be an understatement as I had hoped to rely on him for much information on my mission to the city. But as I tried to engage him further, he dropped the bombshell: “Sorry, I am a very busy man,” and then disappeared into his gems shop. However, before he left me to my fate, Duc, who refused his photograph to be taken, handed me a lifeline: “There are no African influences here, but a reconstituted Africa.”

Centro Historico

A simple explanation of Duc’s suggests that the presence of African peculiarities in Bahia (and by extension, the whole of Brazil) goes beyond mere traits (carried from that continent by those who were taken as slaves hundreds of years back into Brazil). The African essence, rather, has found home in another environment which now defines its world view.

My encounters with these people took place at different locations at the Centro Historico (Historic Centre), said to play a major role during the Portuguese colonial period. Being the first slave market on the South American continent, Salvador was the destination of most African slaves who were brought to work on sugar plantations. The city was also the first capital of Brazil (1549-1763). At the Centro Historico is a place called Pelourinho Arena (the word ‘pelourinho’ means pillory), where slaves were always disciplined back in the day. However, that same spot is known as Independence Arena and it is the choice venue for a lot of activities today. 

The whole area of the Centro Historico, which covers an expanse of land on which are still standing historical structures like churches, cafes, restaurants and shops, is referred to sometimes as the Pelourinho – beyond the point the slaves were subjected to in those days. The slaves practically left their mark in the sands of time and this bears witness to the rigorous tasks they were made to carry out. The land surface of the Centro Historico is paved with rocks – the handiwork of the slaves. The fact that rocks are still so deep in the earth shows the high quality of the work done by hundreds of slaves on it. 

The labour of these slaves could, however, have been consigned to history. Sunday Tribune was told the story of how an attempt on this was halted.

Alhaji Misbahudeen Oyewale Akanni is the liaison officer in Bahia State attached to the Nigerian Embassy and he has been living in Brazil for over 20 years. According to him, at a time the rocks were going to be removed on the order of a director in charge of the department of culture. Why? Alhaji Akanni added that the girlfriend of the director had come visiting him from Sao Paulo and the lady, who wore a pair of tiny high heel shoes to the Centro Historico, fell because of the uneven surface of the paved ground. For this reason the director felt that all the rocks should be removed.

Then stepped in Antonio Carlos Peixoto de Magalhaes, the Bahia State governor, who not only stopped what he was said to have seen as an attempt to destroy a heritage, he also sent the director packing. Magalhaes died in July 2007. 

Back to Duc’s wholesale statement, how true is it? Social linguistics teaches that language yields to the environment and reacts to same in everyday use. This is apart from the dynamic aspect of language which overhauls it overtime. It is no surprise then that the African languages as ‘exported’ to Brazil by the slaves during the colonial era have undergone some changes distinct from the way they are deployed back “home”.

Yoruba language in Brazil 

However, to Adeyinka Adewole, Executive Director, Instituto Cultural e Linguistica Africana, Salvador, a Nigerian who relocated to Brazil in 2008, some Brazilian speakers of Yoruba plainly manifest errors. He gives his instance. “When they want to greet in Yoruba language here, they say ‘e ka ka karo’, instead of ‘e kaaro’.

But Denilson Oluwafemi (born Denilson José Santana), a Bahiana (Brazilian from Bahia who believes he has his origin in Africa), disagrees, saying the fact that there are differences in the way a particular language is used in a particular community as opposed to the way the same language functions in another does not mean that they are errors. 

According to Santana Denilson Oluwafemi who teaches Yoruba to beginners, “We just have variations, different ways, different meanings but the same language. Nigeria is different and Bahia is different, we have a kind of linguistic variation.”

Denilson may have never been to Nigeria, but his knowledge of the Yoruba language will certainly dwarf that of many present-day Yoruba person who looks down on his/her mother tongue.

Denilson’s love of the Yoruba language is profound and unquestionable. According to the man christened ‘Oluwafemi’ by Ayo Olayanju Ayanwale, former liaison officer of the Nigeria Cultural House in Salvador, he only studied architecture “just to show my family that I was doing something.”

He talked about the influence of the Arab on the Yoruba language; how they contributed the diacritic mark to it, adding that “Yoruba was just oral before the Arab began to write it.” Neither was he oblivious of the transformation of Yoruba language in 1852 by Ajayi Crowther. “Before Crowther, Yoruba language was written by the Arabic people,” he said.

Some noticeable differences between the Yoruba language and the way it is spoken in Brazil today include the orthographic representation of ‘s’ as ‘x’ in the Brazil variation. So ‘Sango’ is written as ‘Xango’; ‘n’ being represented as ‘m’, as in ‘Osun’ written as ‘Oxum’. Despite these orthographic differences, they phonetically align with the way they are pronounced in Yoruba land. 

The voiceless velar sound /k/ in the standard Yoruba language as spoken in Nigeria today is orthographically represented as ‘c’ in the Brazilian version of the Yoruba language. As an instance, the /k/ sound in a word like àkàrà (bean cake) as written by the Yoruba in Nigeria is represented as ‘c’ in the Brazilian Yoruba orthography. The difference does not end there; the word àkàrà is acaraje in the Brazilian version of the language. 

Brazil’s acaraje and àbàrá

“Proof of the pudding is in the eating,” goes an English saying. The evidence of the acaraje, for me, too, must be in its consumption. The purchase of a piece of acaraje from Sheila at the Centro Historico left me in no doubt that it is same kind of akara fried with palm oil in Nigeria. In fact the taste took me down memory lane to the Foko area of Ibadan, where as a young boy, on his way back from his father’s electrical parts shop at Agbeni almost every evening, I must savour akara kengbe fried in palm oil. You can just imagine the taste and texture of the Brazilian acaraje in that light.

But why acaraje, Alhaji Akanni gave an explanation: “According to a research we carried out, they wanted to say it is akara egbe, but because they had difficulty in pronouncing ‘gbe’, they substituted it with ‘je’. Like the Europeans came to Nigeria and they could not pronounce ‘Igbo’ and they said ‘Ibo’. The difference between akara and acaraje is that while the former is not sold with any accompaniment, in Brazil acaraje is something of a burger – sliced and stuffed with shrimps, okro, half-ground fried pepper and what they call vatapa. The buyer has the discretion to turn down the addition of any of these.

MyLuso's curator insight, August 3, 2014 2:36 AM

This is really interesting...

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