Brazil: A country with the body of America and the soul of Africa

BY: Mark-Anthony Vinorkor

IN the 1700s, a Portuguese Jesuit preacher, Frei Antonio Viera, visited Brazil to spread the word of God. He found a country with pure Africans in the majority.

Prior to his travel, he had thought that being a country with a land mass equal to the United States, the population would be similar to what he had found when he visited the USA. He was wrong.

This led him to refer to Brazil as "A country with the body of America and the soul of Africa."
The Africans had got there as a result of the slave trade. They had been transported by sea to work on the plantations owned by their European masters. And their population was overwhelming. Their Portuguese masters were in the minority.

A lot has changed since Frei Viera visited. In fact, in less than a century after he visited, slavery was abolished. And a century-and-a-half after he made that statement,millions of Germans, Italians,Spaniards, Portuguese, Japanese,Syrians and Lebanese, in search of a better life, migrated to Brazil. Had the Africans not been in the majority at the time, perhaps, their population would have been dwarfed by the European and Asian "onslaught".

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Today, Africans or people of African descent are still in the majority, albeit slightly. According to statistics I obtained while on a visit to watch the World Cup recently, 7.6 per cent or 15 million Brazilians are purely African that is they are as dark as I am ( and I am very dark.) or as dark as Pele, the Brazilian football legend. They have not mixed with any other race.

Another 43 per cent or 86 million identify themselves as Pardos, that is to say they have African ancestry but to a lesser degree. Such people are mulatto-looking like Neymar.The rest are of either European, Asian or a Middle Eastern origin.
So, out of a population of 201 million, 101 million have African blood.
The African influence is, therefore, still very prevalent in Brazilian life.

connection Brazil/Africans
Prior to my travel, I knew of some connections between Brazil and some African countries.
In Togo, anyone who bears the surname Amorin or de Souza is the descendant of a returnee slave from Brazil.
I also knew, before I travelled that a lot of the foodstuffs we have in Ghana today which we call local foodstuffs were brought in by Portuguese sailors from Brazil.

The Portuguese had realised that the climate in certain parts of their colony was similar to what pertained in the Gold Coast and, therefore, experimented with the planting of some of the foodstuffs found in that country.
They brought sweet potato, cassava, yam, plantain, banana and other foodstuffs which grew very well in the Gold Coast. The result is what we have today.
(Our forebears must have been eating nuts, leaves and berries prior to this.)
I also knew, from watching television that there was some African influence in the decorative arts and music and dance including the all-pervasive samba which I learnt means "belly-button" in one of the Bantu languages and which I also heard began on the sugar and coffee plantations.

Although I was armed with all this information, I knew there was more for me to discover.

It was a football-charged atmosphere with all the shouts, cheers, jeers, heart breaks and excitement. But I had to abandon all that and  discover more about Brazil.

Therefore, with the assistance of my Brazilian friend, Gabrielle Joao Vitor and his wife Fernanda (two of the four Brazilians I met who could speak English), I set out to find out more.

African traditional religion
While Brazil is largely a Catholic country, I was surprised to find elements of African traditional religion in that country. My friends took me to the less developed parts of Fortaleza where we met a practitioner of Candomble,(I hope I have spelt it correctly) an African- related religion. He demonstrated to me how deities are called forth through the spirit possession of cult initiates.
While he did his dance, I could clearly see traces of many African movements in it. Maybe I imagined it but I even thought I had seen ‘Agbadza’,my traditional dance in there.

I was told,through my interpreters that the religion had survived all attempts to destroy it and that in the past, especially during the brutal military dictatorships, practitioners were arrested and shrines burnt.
But the religion is as resilient as the African. It has survived.

Unfortunately,during my trip, I was warned that in the poor areas of  Brazilian cities, phones, Ipads and cameras could be snatched and that it was dangerous to visit those areas with such gadgets to take pictures.
But today, when I cast my mind back, I realise I was unnecessarily cautious.No such thing would have happened.

Culinary similarities
The first food I found similar to what we have in Ghana was boiled corn. Yes, corn-on-the cob. It is boiled, salted and eaten the same way we do here. It is also roasted on charcoal fire the same way it is done here. Amazing! But I have been told corn-on-the-cob could be found almost everywhere in the world. I don't know how true that is.I have not been everywhere in the world.
Another African food I discovered was fried plantain. Yes, ‘kelewele’ of a sort but not cut in pieces as small as what we have here. But it was a bit too soggy for my liking.

I also found a kind of ‘gari’. It is made from cassava and has a yellowish look. I did not have the opportunity to taste it but from the way it looked,it would not be good to prepare eba with. It did not look as if it had much starch.

There was also a kind of koose or akla as  Ewes call it. It is kidney bean paste fried in palm oil. It is a delicacy among the poor in that country.
I also got to eat sweet cakes made with maize flour.
As for the chichinga, it did not taste good. It did not have much salt and had no pepper or onion stuck in-between. So it looked African but did not taste African.

But the dish I enjoyed most was Feijoada, that is rice with beans stew and pork. It sometimes comes with beef. I was told it had no African connection and that it was originally a Portuguese dish. I argued vehemently against that claim. In my view, that dish had an African touch.I claim it for Africa.

I left Brazil thinking we should from now onwards consider it an "overseas African country" which has allowed Europeans and Asians seeking a better life to settle and become equal citizens.
That is the way I intend to see that country from today.

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