In the Land of Orixas: Reflections of a Yoruba in Brazil

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, ÔÇśatapa' a and caruru'. What is interesting here is the corruption of the noun "Akara" (the bean cake) and the verb ÔÇśJe" (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 ÔÇśAkara'?") the two words are now totally corrupted and integrated into one noun as known today: Acaraje' in Bahia today.alt

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 ÔÇô 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 ÔÇô 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.