A Brazilian in Nigeria

When the partizipants of global prayers were invited to write about their journey to Lagos, I was immediately worried about it: how could I deliver a scientific analysis of a city that, before then, was a total unknown to me? Fortunately, this was not the objective. Here, I propose to put aside the pursuit of academic knowledge, to focus on a more intimate narrative of Lagos, one that is made up of my personal impressions of the place.

In fact, putting my experience of Lagos into words comes as a rather difficult exercise. Although we spent a relatively short time in the city – 10 days – it was all very intense. Actually, it still feels like I was there for much longer. At the same time, some days I wish I could go back to Nigeria and take a closer look at a reality whose surface I am afraid I only just scratched, leaving so much of it untouched… I keep reviewing the journey, picturing the places and people we met, reluctant to forget any details and troubled by the thought that eventually these days will sink into some dusty corner of my memory… This probably has to do with the fact that all the photographs I took to document my visit are irrevocably gone. It makes me wonder how much we rely on images to pass on our travel experiences, leaving behind older habits such as writing and storytelling.

Having set out these preliminary points, let us start by the very beginning of the trip. My feeling was one of anticipation: for the first time, I was going to Africa! As strange as this may sound, generally speaking, Africa appears as a much more exotic place to Brazilians than to Europeans. Countries like England and France have known the continent through decades of colonization and continue to encounter African populations through migration. In Brazil, on the other hand, the origins of African presence go back to the period of the slave trade. Brazilians` image of Africa is a mystified one. In the collective imaginary, 'Mama Africa' is a faraway land across the ocean. If Brazilians are aware of inheriting cultural and religious African traditions, they know little about the continent’s social and political reality. Differently from what happens in Europe, in Brazil the word "Africa" evokes gods and tambours, rather than poverty and conflicts.

Having been given the opportunity to step foot in Nigeria, I was curious to see how much of Brazil I could recognize – or not – in it. My first surprise related to the amount of vaccines I ended up taking. As a Brazilian, I reckoned I was already immunized against most tropical diseases. A few days before my departure, when I finally decided to double-check the list I had been sent, I found myself having to take five vaccines in one day! Getting the visa was also more complicated then I thought. My passport with the travel permit stamped on it arrived only 24 hours before departure, after weeks of bureaucratic procedures.

During the flight from Paris to Lagos, the Air France hostess approached me. As an unaccompanied woman, and obviously non-Nigerian, I probably appeared to her as someone in need of advice. The airhostess told me to be extra careful in Lagos, which she described as an awfully dangerous city. According to her, the main threats concerned criminals and mosquitoes. Her advices did not discourage me though: the feeling of insecurity created by both human and animal presence is one that I know. In Brazil, I am used to watch out for my bag in the city and for snakes in nature. Paradoxically, the recommendations of the French lady helped create a sense of familiarity with the territory I was about to enter.

My first encounter with a Lagosian was at the airport’s snack bar, where I met a smiling, talkative woman, beautifully dressed in a blue "boubou" and matching turban. While helping me to tell the waitress that the price she charged for my drink was not the one indicated on the menu, she told me the name of a few gods of the traditional Yorubá religion. I felt at home instantly, happy to recognize the names of the gods she mentioned and reassured by the familiarity of her laugh. This welcome seemed to me as a good omen and announced the promise to reconnect with some of my roots. I wondered if the Black great-grandmother I had been told about came from Nigeria, hoping deep within me that this was the case. In some way, it felt like I was bonding with ancestors who I knew so little about.

From the airport, we went straight to a resort located at the borders of the city, for a five-day workshop with the project’s team. What at first looked like a kind of "writers` retreat" in a tropical scenario ended up allowing us to slowly immerse ourselves into the Lagosian reality. Fellows working on Nigeria were invited to present their understandings of the city. Seeing their photos and listening to their speeches, I could not help thinking of Brazil: state corruption, police violence, social inequality, an ineffective health system, poor public education… In fact, those features are not specific to Africa or Brazil but can, to different degrees, be found in practically all "non-developed" and "developing" countries.

At the resort, I encountered pleasant things which reminded me of my country, such as luxurious vegetation, a long white-sanded beach and some of the culinary specialties. I was excited to discover that the local yam is what, in Brazil, we call inhame. The name of the root is slightly different in the two countries, and so is the way of cooking it – there they boil the yam for breakfast, whereas in Brazil we make a soup out of it. Anyhow, Brazilians definitely inherited the habit of eating these kinds of roots from Africa (a habit that Europeans, oddly enough, resist to integrate in their cuisine). If I was disappointed by the absence of manioc in our meals, I was thrilled with the occasion to eat plantain on a daily basis! In the region where I come from – Minas Gerais – we rarely eat this kind of banana, which is more common in the Northeast part of Brazil, where the African presence is stronger.

In between work sessions, I took the time to bathe in the Atlantic Ocean. In the water, the feeling was of being inside a mirror. I was swimming on the other side of the ocean, aware that, somewhere behind the horizon, lay my country. I remembered the woman from the airport as she talked about Iemanjá. In Brazil, we honor the goddess of the sea each New Year’s Eve. At this occasion, people from different social and religious backgrounds dress entirely in white. When at the beach, we walk to the sea and offer flowers, candles and perfumes to Iemanjá. Sometimes, the offerings navigate on small wooden boats, which slowly disappear from the view as they find their way to the goddess. A special feeling arose at the thought that I was in Iemanjá’s true waters, where she was honored long before Africans were brought to Brazilian soil, before Brazil even existed as a country…

As we left the cocoon of the resort, the team was excited to finally discover Lagos. The road that led to the city gave a preview of what laid ahead of us for the next few days: many hours of intense traffic. Indeed, in Lagos, going from one place to another implied spending several hours inside the minibus. From the vehicle, we watched the city’s daily life evolve. Every now and then someone briefly opened the window, letting in a gust of hot air. It could be someone taking a photograph, or someone buying snacks or even CDs from the mobile salesmen who see the bottlenecks as a great occasion to earn some money. When we had the chance to walk in the streets of Lagos, it came to me as a surprise to be pointed out as "white", or oyebu as they say it. In these moments, it became evident that I was the "other", despite my willingness to recognize some of Brazil and myself in Nigeria.

Lagos seemed hotter, dustier, noisier and more chaotic then any Brazilian city I know. I was particularly surprised by the fact that practically every street had open-air sewages, including those occupied by what looked like wealthy, comfortable houses. When we visited the Redemption City, it felt like a part of me understood why some people choose to live in a religious camp. There, everything seemed cleaner and more organized than in Lagos, from the roads to the toilets. I had the impression that inside the camp, everything worked in perfect harmony - in opposition to the city, where my foreign eyes had a hard time finding order in the apparent chaos. In fact, maybe the success of Pentecostalism in Lagos is connected to the impression that this religion puts order into the disorder – an impression that takes concrete forms within the borders of Redemption City.

At this camp, I experienced one of the most joyful moments of the trip, which instantly gave me the feeling of being home. This time it had nothing to do with order, but instead with dust and noise. At the corner of a large compound, a very informal Evangelical messe was taking place. As I learned later, this messe was meant for the staff responsible for cleaning the camp. In fact, I only understood it was a messe afterwards. At that moment, it felt more like a traditional carnival celebration, which could have taken place in any small city of Brazilian. The rhythm and sound of the percussions, the sensual movements of the women, the smile on their faces, the dust that arose from their feet… It was easy to share their enthusiasm. If it were not for the two boys who stared at my colleague’s green eyes and blond hair right beside me, I would have felt perfectly at home.

This was not how I felt at the other religious celebrations we joined though. Like Nigeria, Brazil is a country that can be classified as “mystical”, in the sense that religious and esoteric issues are part of people’s daily lives and imaginary. If Brazilians might say they are agnostic or spiritualists without belonging to a specific religion, they will rarely identify themselves as atheists. With that in mind, I had imagined that there would not be a significant cultural barrier between Nigerian Pentecostals and myself. I believed that, to some extent, my “brazilianess” would allow me to move beyond those barriers and share the religious emotions created by the gathering of hundreds of devotees. Alas, this was not the case. To the contrary, within these messes I experienced “otherness” in all its fullness. I was astonished to notice how much of an outsider I was, sitting in the middle of a massive number of people, quietly observing them pray and gesture in a feverish way. We might have shared the same physical space, but the people around me were obviously gone with the wings of their faith, somewhere out of my reach.

We also had the occasion to visit a few Muslim temples in Lagos. The first mosque we visited was a beautiful, imposing mosque, located right beside a busy street market. At this specific location, Lagos Central Mosque appears as a haven of peace: constructed at the top of a small set of stairs, it sits above the horns of the cars, the hubbub of the sellers and the constant coming and going of the crowd. It also offers a shaded break from the intense heat of the midday sun, as is generally the case of mosques situated in warm countries. In contrast to the mosque of Rio de Janeiro – where I carry out fieldwork – here foreigners were not especially welcome. As our Nigerian colleagues negotiated our entry, we took refuge in the shade of the hall by the main door. During this time, the women of the group bargained with a nearby seller for some colorful scarves to cover their heads. After a while, we entered the empty mosque, barefoot onto a fine-looking but quite dirty floor. 

The second Muslim temple we visited was a small mosque situated in a residential neighborhood of Lagos, entirely painted in bright turquoise. It had a large patio where the men were doing their midday prayers, rather than using the space within the building, probably because of the heat. It was also in this courtyard that they did their ablutions before praying. It struck me to watch one of these men doing his ablutions in his trunks! The image immediately brought me back to Rio, where people feel very comfortable in their swimming suits, even when they are in the presence of others who are fully dressed (how many times, in Rio, have I watched men who take the bus on their way to the beach wearing nothing more then trunks and a pair of havaianas!). The particularity, here, was that the man in his bathing suit was sharing the space with women who were expected to cover their heads! This was a very different scenario from what happens in Rio de Janeiro’s mosque, where both men and women are asked to dress conservatively. 

Up to this point, I have been writing about my search for “brazilianess” in Nigeria (or the other way round) from a very personal perspective, describing the moments I glimpsed this in the places we visited and the interactions I had with Lagosians. By the end of the journey, I discovered Lagos actually has a concrete Brazilian presence, and notably a Brazilian Quarter! The first person who told me about this was a journalist from The Guardian. We had a meeting with some of the newspaper’s staff, in which each of us briefly presented his research and country of interest. At the end of the meeting, the journalist in question approached me, glad to meet a Brazilian. He told me his grandmother was a returnee from Brazil and that for many years she directed an Association for Brazilians in Lagos. Although he had lost contact with family members who had remained in the country, he felt a deep affection towards Brazil, which he considered as his adoption country. Even though he had never had the occasion to visit it, he followed closely the evolution of Brazilian social, political and economical life. When he handed me his card, I was thrilled to notice he had a surname that is most common in Brazil!

In fact, during the nineteenth century, a significant repatriation movement to Africa took place among ex-slaves from Brazil. Of Yoruba descent and in search of economic and social improvements, many established themselves in West Africa’s largest port city of Lagos. The “Brazilian Quarter” is situated at “Lagos Island”, the oldest of the various islands that compose the city. We had the occasion to visit this neighborhood that, with its narrow streets and old houses, reminded me of some areas of downtown Rio. With two floors and windows facing the street, the houses there were constructed in what they call “Brazilian architectural style”. Indeed, they look like the houses of our grandmothers in Brazil! The streets and squares also had Brazilian names (not to say Portuguese). Apart from that, I did not see further evidence of Brazilian presence. Maybe I should come back by the time of carnival, as I have been told returnees in Lagos maintain this tradition up until today…