This article originally ran in the November 29, 2004 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly.
Editor's Note: This article offers a rare glimpse at the practices of Afro-Brazilians through the eyes of a Continental African. The writing is a part of the New Orleans Public Schools Africana & Multicultural Studies Unit's focus on the African Diaspora. The African Diaspora consists of all African peoples outside of the African Continent. This includes African-Americans, Afro-Brazilians, and others. These groups came to be as a result of one or more of the forces of migration, exploration and enslavement. In this work, Dr. Niyi Afolabi, of New Orleans' Tulane University, gives his personal account of Yoruba cultural elements in today's Brazil.
As much as the demands of academic life hardly allow one to do a travelogue upon returning from a research visit unless it is for the purpose of publication; the domain of the "scholarly" and "scholastic," I appreciate this unique opportunity to reflect freely on my impressions of visiting Brazil over the course of the last two decades. As a Yoruba, the act is especially gratifying. The Yoruba number over 20 million people. The Yoruba cover a "cultural-geographical" space that extends between Nigeria, the Republic of Benin, and Togo, and farther extends in African diaspora connections and survival in countries like Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad, Haiti and others. Religious and cultural manifestations have been some of the "sacred" media with which Africans enslaved over three centuries ago have been able to retain their spirit(uality) and language relatively "untouched," at least from the viewpoint of the odds against them after so many years of transatlantic dislocation and dispossession. As a Yoruba, I was quite impressed to see the relies of my language and culture in Brazil and what I provide here in terms of reminiscences is only a sample of my deeply felt appreciation of Yoruba Brazilian connections I first visited Bahia (Brazil) in 1982 as an exchange student from Nigeria researching Afroculture; especially the Carnivalesque manifestations in Bahia, Rio, and Sao Paulo. The research was for the purpose of writing my Honors Thesis in Portuguese, Festanca Brasileira: Carnaval en Sao Paulo, no Rio e na Bahia (Brazilian Revelry: Carnival in Sao Paulo, in Rio, and in Bahia for the University of Ife (now Obafemi Awolowo University). Six of us altogether (three ladies and three young men) who were sent on an immersion program, or what was called the Year Abroad Program. We were all studying at the University of Sao Paulo in southern Brazil, but given in the rehearsals of many cultural organizations, and it was at a Filbos de Gandhi meeting that I first heard members sing the traditional Ijexo chant in classical Yoruba. I was spiritually and psychologically transported back to Nigeria as I heard my own language as spoken in traditional rites. After all I had read about Bahia, I felt my research would be incomplete without visiting Bahia in the Northeast. After we completed our first semester, I embarked on a three-day bus ride to the Land of African Gods/ Saints or "Bahia de Todos os Santos" as Bahia was and still is, called. Although I spent about a mouth in Salvador-Bahia, I still could not get enough of Bahia; I had to return years later for a re-immersion at my own expense. Aside from the similarities in clothing, architecture, food, and religious beliefs and practices; the most striking observation was the use of my Yoruba language in almost every area of Bahian life. On the street corners of Pelourinho, Campo Grande, and Curuzu, for example, I could buy and eat "Acaraje" (bean cake which derives from its Yoruba original, "Akara") as if I were in Nigeria. This food item still retains its original flavor if not diluted with salad and other Bahian staple food items such as shrimp, ‘atapa' a and caruru'. What is interesting here is the corruption of the noun "Akara" (the bean cake) and the verb ‘Je" (which means "to eat"). One can only come to the conclusion that through many years of enslaved Africans offering "Akara" to each other as a gesture of invitation ("Would you like to eat ‘Akara'?") the two words are now totally corrupted and integrated into one noun as known today: Acaraje' in Bahia today.
As if this is not fascinating enough, there are buildings, places, stores, houses, and houses of worship in Bahia named after Yoruba Gods such as Orixa Shopping, Hotel Oxumare, Jardim Oxala, Edificio Ogum and Ile Axe Opo Afonja. A myriad of carnivalesque groups which illustrate their African connections with the names of their organizations, such as Ile-Aiye (House of the World), Olodum (Celebrant or a shortened form of the Supreme God, "Olodumare," hence, Olodum (are)). Although these have become popular through the internationalization of their music and cultural projects, the one that most symbolizes African authenticity is the Filhos de Gandhi (children of Gandhi); which ironically chooses not an African God or name, but the philosophy of an Indian hero, Mahatma Gandhi. In the course of my research, I had the opportunity of participating in the rehearsals of many cultural organizations, and it was at a Filhos de Gandhi meeting that I first heard members sing the traditional Ijexa chant in classical Yoruba. I was spiritually and psychologically transported back to Nigeria as I heard my own language as spoken in traditional rites to which children are riot allowed even to this day. It is ironic that I had to go to Brazil to discover the intricacies and preciosity of my language – Far from being a matter for anguish, it was one for celebration. I was not only fascinated, I was bemused. My most memorable spiritual and cultural awakening in Bahia occurred when I visited one of the Candomble' temples (terreiros) where I had scheduled an interview with a member of a carnivalesque group. After six months in Brazil, my Portuguese was at a level where I needed to show off how "Brazilianized" I was and I proceeded to greet my host in Portuguese, state my name, where I came from (Nigeria), and my purpose in interviewing. To my surprise, this initiated worshipper of the Gods, spoke in Yoruba and not in Portuguese, although he understood me in Portuguese. First, he said: "Omo-Osun, se wa mu omi dudu?" This question literally translates as "Son of Osun, would you like a cup of black water?" Now, while I understood that he was offering me something to drink, I could not understand "Omi dudu" because it simply translates as "black water." For me, as a Yoruba, "black water" may simply mean muddy water or stagnant water that has tuned into mud after rainfall, but this still did not make sense because such water is not drinkable.
I started to perspire and for a moment, I was faced with a dilemma: here is a Brazilian trying to speak my language, and I, the native Yoruba speaker, trying to understand him without speaking Portuguese. When my host realized that he was not communicating, he went into his house and brought what he was offering me in a flask. Then, he poured it into a cup, and behold, it was coffee! I could not help but stare in amazement at the ability of this Yoruba-Afro-Brazilian to negotiate the meaning of coffee in my own language, an effort I would rather not make, but to use the "corrupted" English loan-word that I will then render as "Kofi" [kawfee]. This anglo influence is very common in Modern Yoruba, especially in Nigeria. Yet, the first part of my interviewer's statement is even more interesting. Instead of calling me "son of Nigeria," he chose to locate where I came from with the name of a God, Osun. By calling me "Omo-Osun" or "OMO-Oxun" in Brazil, he was simply calling me a Yoruba or Nigerian by associating me with one of the Gods from that region. I must confess my experience with this worshipper left a lasting impression on me, but he did not stop at that. He went on to give me permission to see the African Gods that are kept in their chambers. As he was about to open the first door, I quickly asked him to stop, for this is not a venture for the uninitiated. He looked at me curiously and obviously surprised that a Yoruba would not like to pay homage to his Gods. What he did not understand was the fact that colonialism had stripped us of those traditions and beliefs.
While I believe in my Yoruba Gods and their role as intermediaries of the Supreme Being, my upbringing would not allow me to enter sacred places without the necessary initiation rites. Such a defiance of tradition has its repercussions, at least the way we have been raised and socialized, and I was not going to break that tradition. Of course, my host did not understand my hesitation as an authentic Yoruba. I was revering his Gods by not wanting to defy or disrespect them. I did not want to show an ignorance of the necessary greetings required of me when I entered such a sacred territories.
Since that initial visit, my research has taken me to Brazil on many other occasions but the first impact has somewhat waned in terms of the positive shock and disbelief. While my interests overlap between the literary, the cultural, the musical, the sociological, and the linguistic, I continue to be fascinated with preservation of African traditional religion in Candomble houses, in music and in visual arts. Various African Gods adorn squares, murals in airports, trade and shopping centers, and even carnivalesque floats. Samba, carnival, capoeira, soccer, and Brazilian mulatta women are some of the fantasies projected to the unsuspecting visitor/ tourist who does not fully understand that behind these realities are also myths and subtle racism. Samba, the most popular Brazilian music, used to be considered a "pagan" dance the same way candomble' and capoeira were censured and forbidden among blacks – While the mulatta (mixed race) woman is considered beautiful and representing the perfect cosmic race, she is also exploited and humiliated and often depicted in narratives as a desirable "prostitute." Soccer and carnival also serve as "escapist" measures to ease the tension of the year and forget daily social problems with the illusion of merrymaking that these cultural phenomena offer during the few days they last. Regardless of the racism which Brazil hides under the myth of "racial democracy," Brazil is still a fascinating and culturally rich country. There, people tend to understand the rules and realities of their marginality and try to make the best of it in a somewhat questionable passivity. A Yoruba visiting Brazil, or any conscious brother or sister from the Africa continent or the African diaspora, must visit Bahia. Bahia is the African Rome or Mecca, where millennial African traditions are currently preserved and revived. The way forward lies in establishing and reviving Pan-African connections and empowering each other not with cosmetic words of solidarity alone but with political acts of change.
1. Dr. Afolabi discusses the "cultural-geographical" space covered by the Yoruba people. What forces of dispersal led to the Yoruba presence in so many different places?
2. Explain the corruption of the Yoruba word, "Akara." Identify an English word that is similarly based on concrete African origins. Explain how the English and African words are related.
3. When people of differing cultures interact, confusion often occurs. Explain how, in Dr. Afolabi's interaction with the Condomble initiate, a difficult moment resulted as each tried to be respectful of the other. Their efforts led to understanding for both in the end.
This article originally ran in the November 29, 2004 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly.
I will like to disagree with Afolabi's guess of the Yoruba's population, definitely it is more than that 20 million quoted. I think the main objective of his research should be the reasons responsible for the impermeable culture of the Yorubas. The culture has simply defied all odds and influences against it over the centuries from Mecca to Bahia.
"the akara of Ije.s.a"
The etymology "akara to eat" (which would have to be from "akara jije.") is often claimed but it is unlikely. Semantically, what other kind of akara exist--"akara mimu" ("akara to drink")? Similarly no one goes around hawking "bata wiwo." ("shoes to wear") because it is the only conceivable use. But on a recent visit to Salvador, Bahia, an eminent colleague reminded me that akara has many regional styles of confection, such as those of Ogbomo.s.o., etc., so it's reasonable to think that the Brazilians have taken one specific type to stand for the whole, maybe because they regarded that one as more delicious, or perhaps it was simply the one their population was most familiar with. (Conaisseurs can inform us whether the exquisite akara of Salvador resemble more one particular regional style of akara back in the akara homeland!)
To support this explanation, notice that the hypothetical promotion of a specific (Ije.s.a) subcase of akara for the totality of the prepared food would not be an isolated effect: it is paralleled in another example given in the writeup: "o.mo. O.s.un" (probably meaning "descendant of the Os.ogbo region" or perhaps as Afo.labi assumes, "initiate in the O.s.un ritual grouping") is used to denote ALL Yoruba descendants, regardless of their particular regional origin/oris.a affiliation.
Ah good Doctor, so fear catch you?
You no fit boldly and joyfully enter the secret chambers of the gods of your ancestors? Coward!
O.k , jokes aside, I too would at that age, steeped in ignorance, had done the same. I quite fully understand and identify with your fearful ignorance based on your correct statement
Having been raised to absolutely despise the traditional beliefs, I lost the opportunity to have had first hand knowledge or understanding of the religion. This is both a good and bad thing.
As an adult, having rejected most of the beliefs instilled in me in place of the traditional beliefs and having understood the mechanisms of socialization, I believe the good thing about not having had deep first hand experience of the traditional is the ability to be "objective" about understanding the traditional beliefs in a non romantic or fearfully ignorant way. The bad of course is self evident - second hand/not enough knowledge obtained painfully and time consummately from diverse sources, some of which are probably even questionable(as with all things)
What I would like to see; what I haven't seen - unless I'm writing from a position of ignorance on this is an easily accessible but comprehensive body of works that distills and sets out the essential principles of the Yoruba traditional beliefs and practices; much in the same way as the other world religions have done with their Korans, Bibles, Gitas e.t.c
Not unlike our own reality, both in Nigeria as Nigerians, as Africans and Blacks in the world trying to survive?
But this is the reality of powerlessness.This is how people temporarily (I hope )cope with powerlessness.
I guess people will be people.
What unifies the Yorubas is not the culture or religions of Christianity and Islam but orisa/osiri
Thank you for a very eloquent and educative piece on your experiences while in Brazil. Indeed I was also transported back to the place of my birth where we have Campos square, Brazilian Quarters. Ehingbeti where we have so relics of Portugal and Brazil.
We also have what we used to call Popo Aguda. Popo Aguda refers the area from somewhere in Tokunbo street to around Foresythe.
I dont want to go into the historical facts surrounding Popo Aguda.
However one striking difference between what you witnessed in Brazil and what I experienced in Popo Aguda is that whereas the African tradition is still being practised and preserved in the areas that you visited , such as Bahia, the natives who were resettled in Lagos were known for their Catholic inclination (hence Aguda, the Lagos Yoruba word for Catholics).
Catholic churches of old can still be found in the Popo Aguda area of Lagos up till today.
This raises a fundamental question, how pervasive is the Yoruba tradition in Brazil?. How large is the population of the diasporan Yorubas and in what ways have the religion of Islam and Christianity affected the cultural/traditonal practices of the people.
There is no doubt about it that in Nigeria , even with the overwhelming influence of both Christianity and Islam we still have pratictioners and custodians of our heritage (even in a mega city like Lagos not to mention Osun , Benin, Oshogbo and such other places)
Your narratives are so enchanting that i feel like going to Bahia already
I simply liked your response,
as I also liked MIKO's.
is this allowed ....
WE NEED TO GET BACK TO OUR RICH CULTURAL HEROITAGE AND ROOTS!!!
Prof. Afolabi, thanks a lot for sharing this piece and your wonderful experience with us. Although, officially, I am not a scholar in Yoruba studies, but I am doing a lot of research on the rich language and culture that our ancestors have bequetted to us - whenever I think about this, I always thank Eleduwa that I was born a Yoruba. This feeling makes me to be very proud and on top of the world.
Ironically, I discovered the beauty, richness and sophistication of the Yoruba language, culture, tradition and religion only after leaving the shores of NigeriaLike you, who is very fluent in Portuguese, I can read, write and speak the Russian language fluently - almost like the native Russian speakers. However, the fact that I could speak both English, a colonial language, and Russian languages much better than my own language make me feel very very very bad. It's very unfortunate and baffling that we still use English as the only official form of education despite the fact that we are bestowed with such a very rich language like Yoruba. We have also exchanged/replaced European/Jewish and Arab religions - Xtianity and Islam - with our own indegenious religions bestowed on us by our ancestors. My little research on Ifa has not only revealed that it is a complete way of life, but is not in any way inferior neither to Xtianity, Islam, Budhism, Shintoism or any other religion. I hope that you will find time to carry out more research and publications on Ifa vis-avis these religions. It's high time we went back to our roots and embrace our culture and heritage completely (like the Japanese). Personally, I have vowed to devote my life into correcting this abnormality and making the above a reality. Furthermore, if people like you could go a step further to enlighten Yoruba leaders of the need to introduce Yoruba as the official language in all Yoruba territories, our task will be much easier. We all must come together to make this a reality. Yoruba bo won ni 'Ki a fi owo w'ewo, lowo fi n mo.' Owo kan o gbe'ru d'ori. The Yoruba must be pacesetters and role models for Nigerians, Africans and the entire black race. Without any exaggeration, we are blessed with more than enough intellectual and cultural resources to fulfill this task. Just as I wrote in one of my articles "Oodua republic: To be or not to be?", being part of Nigeria has not only polluted the culture, moral values and language of the Yoruba but is a disaster in general. Thus, in my opinion, the renaissance of Yoruba culture and culture is not possible without tackling the political issue. In essence, what I am trying to say is that in order to have a cultural revival, use, develop and make the Yoruba language relevant among global languages, we must take full responsibilities for our fate and future and not leave them to non-Yorubas (especially the barbaric north)to toy with again. Most importantly, based on my analyis, IT IS ONLY THE EMERGENCE OF A YORUBA NATION THAT GIVE US THE OPPORTUNITY NOT ONLY TAKE FULL CONTROL OF OUR POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC AFFAIRS, BUT AS WELL DEVELOP AND PROPAGATE OUR RICH LANGUAGE AND CULTURE WITHOUT BOUNDS. This should be our ultimate goal.
Concerning your suggestion that every Yoruba should take a trip to Bahia in order to rediscover and appreciate the richness of Yoruba language and culture, with all respect Prof. Afolabi, although, I am not against taking a trip there, however, the idea of making the place a sort of mecca does not go very well with me. First, I want to remind you that just at our back yard in Benin republic, the Yoruba language is still intact - it's spoken there without any dillution or amulumala I am always embarrassed whenever I speak Yoruba to my kinsmen from Benin republic. Thus, if we are looking for a place where the Yoruba language and culture are still preserved, all we need is just cross the border to Benin republic. There is no point making such an expensive trip to Bahia which most people can not afford. Yoruba bo won ni 'ohun ti a wa lo si Sokoto, o wa ni apo sokoto
Furthermore, Bahia, irrespective how successful it may be in preserving the Yoruba culture and language, nevertheless, from the logical point of view, a territory far away from the main abode/territory of the Yoruba just can not serve as the mecca or rallying point for the Yoruba. Ile la ti n ko eso r'ode o Ojogbon Afolabi! We don't need to look for any mecca outside the Yoruba land. Eledua has already given it to us and the place is the 'orisun gbogbo Yoruba, Ile-Ife, the cradle of Yoruba land which also happens to be my home town. The greatest challenge before us now is to turn Ile-Ife into the mecca for all Yoruba both in Africa and all over the world! It's also a viable commercial venture. What I expect from you is to encourage your students and others to visit Ile-Ife and attend major Yoruba festivals.
Thanks again for the wonderful piece. We look forward to reading more from you. More grease to your elbow Prof. Afolabi.
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The most painful thing is that our culture and languages are dying. Go to Nigeria now; a child living at Otukpo does not speak Idoma; a child living in Ibadan does not speak Yoruba and a child living in Enugu does not speak Igbo. The parents of such children feel proud that their children can speak only English, but in actual fact, a child that cannot learn even a second language is DUMB. Childhood is a stage at which the brain can still master many languages. You can confirm this from how well our children speak English but many of us simply cannot change our accents, and those that never used English before find it difficult, almost impossible, to learn the language.
As for me, I am glad that my children still speak my language. It helps on trips home - they do not pose a security threat to us by speaking English - they talk to us in my language. I know it can be very difficult for children of mixed marriages but I know of many women (in particular) and men who are willing to learn the language of the spouse. Please, teach the children; there are just too many black people all over the world now, we should be able to identify Nigerians by language.
As expository it could be! Interesting. And your conclusion that:
is right on the money. But except a lot of deconstruction is done in the minds of both the continental Africans and the non-continental Africans, we might end up living in a self-reinforcing fairyland. Tribalism, ethnicism, nepotism and narcissism are therefore the microcosm of the global racism we also need to fight. Consider the case of black Africans in South Africa (S.A) saying they are going to Africa while traveling out of S.A to another sub-Saharan countries - as if they can't be part of the third-world sub-Saharan Africa. Or the tenacious discrimination against African-American returnees in Ghana, because the Ghanaians think they are perpetually arrogant. Or even Ghanaians against Nigerians in Ghana.
Adding to that is the obvious fact of our balkanized countries where citizens are caught up in the cakehole of voracious rulers with no grain of empathy for the citizens; and citizens with apathy to revolt in the face of subjugation.
Our economic system, political system and traditional values are now completely out of sync.
Oyibo brother? Omo odogbolu,one step down and you encounter the provocateurs. so what now?