|Before I jetted across the world and was living in Brixton, I had another way of traveling. It involved walking down the hill skirting around endless kebab and second-hand furniture shops, turning right at the bottom dodging the evangelising pamphleeters opposite Ritzy cinema, smiling courteously whilst declining the four or five “hey friend, want marijuana, cocaine, LSD..” sellers on Coldharbour Lane and turning left into the undercover market.
Within minutes, I was in Africa – stall after stall piled high with cassava, plantains, jack fruits, mangoes, goats legs, tilapia; throngs of mainly Afro-Caribbean women out shopping, some wearing vibrant African clothes and hats; shops blasting out music with the pulsating rhythms of Africa and the West Indies. For a time, I could imagine I had left dreary Englandbehind.
Well now that I have crossed the Atlantic, I have found Brixton in Brazil
I have spent the last few days in Salvador which has been aptly named “Africa in exile.” It has one of the largest Black populations in Brazil. The local food is distinctly African, often cooked in palm oil, accompanied by ingredients like hot pepper, manioc, ground nuts, ginger and bean paste. There is in particular a fish dish called Moqueca which is very tasty.
Many people continue to practice Candomble, a traditional religion drawing on various African deities and spirits, each with their own personalities and ritual preferences. It is not very public, but according to my guidebook, there are still more than 1000 temples (terreiros) across Salvador, and elements of the religion can be seen in some Catholic churches.
And of course, there is the music. For the last week, the city has reverberated to the sound of African rhythms as the entire city (well 2 million, at least) took to the streets to dance, often to the accompaniment of huge groups of drummers. One of my best evenings was following small energetic groups of drummers as they weaved their way around the narrow cobbled streets of the centre of Salvador. People kept dancing madly to their beats even as the heavens opened up and unleashed a tropical downpour. The Bahians´ reputation for being the party people of Brazil is not undeserved.
Behind all the partying, though, is a traumatic history. A chain of links that tell a story of one of the largest forced migrations in history, as thousands of people over three centuries were uprooted from their homes in mainly Angola, and the Congo to be shipped across the Atlantic. Those who survived the journey, and many didn’t, were forced to do gruelling work in the mines and plantations that stoked the Portuguese economy. An estimated 1.3 million slaves were imported into Bahia before slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, which is double the number imported into the entire United
States of America.
Being here has reminded me of seeing another link in the chain of the slave trade, when I was in Ghana. I was there for an African debt conference, and on my penultimate day went to visit Elmina Fort on the coast, where slaves were loaded onto the ships. One of the most shocking sights for me was seeing a church inside the fort where the ´respectable´ English slave-holders would worship whilst directly below, thousands of slaves were packed tightly into a dungeon awaiting transportation.
Following the links across the Atlantic, I visited another church yesterday called Nosso Senhora do Rosario dos Pretos, which stood out from the vast number of over-the-top baroque churches here by the sheer number of black saints that it featured. The reason for this was that it was built by slaves for their own use as they weren’t allowed to use other churches, and it was built at night so that the slaves’ normal daytime work would carry on uninterrupted.
The legacy of slavery lives on. On the surface, Brazil has seemed to me to be a very integrated, multicultural society. But a few conversations have already alerted me that behind the veneer, a
deep-rooted racism lives on in Brazilian life. The reality is that Black Brazilians are much more likely to be poor than other Brazilians. It is certainly evident in Salvador. For example in the relatively rich area where I am staying near the coast, there are very few Black faces in the streets. The only Black
Brazilians you are likely to see are housekeepers or cleaners. I read one statistic that whilst about half of Brazil´s population is Black, they make up two-thirds of those living below the poverty line.
I guess the links of slavery also bring me back to Brixton. Slavery left a scar on both the countries in Africa that lost huge populations of young people such as Ghana, and on the countries that received slaves such as Brazil, where even abolition still left the Black population on the bottom of the economic and social scale.
Brixton of course was one of the first places that many Caribbeans settled in after arriving in the 50s and 60s as it became apparent that Independence in their countries was not going to deliver economically. Similarly, many Africans came to Brixton and surrounding areas after leaving their home countries for a mixture of political and economic reasons as post-Independence hopes were crushed by poverty, conflict and tyranny.
More waves of migration rooted in the traumatic history of colonialism, yet also one that has brought a lot of positive benefits to the host country. One of the many reasons perhaps why I love both Salvador and Brixton.
Link to link. Salvador is closer to Brixton than we think.