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LETTERS FROM AFRICA

Throughout the 19th century, thousands of freed Brazilian slaves crossed the Atlantic to Africa, a return voyage similar to the ones that set off from the United States over the same period.  Although the American process was more organized, receiving formal support from the American Colonization Society, the “returnee” phenomenon in Brazil stemmed from the same basic difficulty of assimilating free blacks into white slave-owning societies.

Current estimates are that around eight thousand freedmen returned to Africa between 1830 and 1888, the year that slavery was abolished in Brazil.  Compared to the more than 40,000 that left the US for Liberia, the numbers were modest.  They were a small proportion of the free population of color, which numbered 1.3 million in 1845, alongside 2.1 million whites and 3.1 million slaves.  Still, it is important to take into account the fact that as a rule, the return of these freedmen was a spontaneous phenomenon.

There are now hundreds of these returnee families, spread among cities in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana, where they comprise distinct communities, with their own customs and traditions.  They are called Agudas in Benin and Nigeria, and Tabom in Ghana.  They brought from Brazil a knack for commerce, skill at working with their hands, and an instinct for capitalism.  They prospered in legal trades, as traders, carpenters, and builders, and in illicit ones as well, like the slave trade, thus reproducing the cycle that had cost them their freedom.

They were the first to plant dendê (from which palm oil is extracted), which they exported to Brazil.  They brought cassava (mandioca), beans and jerky, incorporating these into local culinary habits.  In Lagos, Porto Novo, and Uidah they built neighborhoods in the Brazilian colonial architectural style, calling them the Brazilian Quarter or Quartier Brésil.  We can still see their mansions and mosques, and note their resemblance to the churches of Bahia.

The dates and celebrations from Brazilian religious traditions remained part of their calendar.  They celebrate Catholic saints with folkloric dances from Brazil, like “bumba-meu-boi,” created by slaves on northeastern plantations.  They still sing songs in Portuguese, and greet each other on the streets with Brazilian expressions, even though they no longer speak the language of their grandparents.  Their cooking mixes their Brazilian heritage with African flavors.  That heritage is preserved especially in their surnames, which have not changed at all.

In four trips to Africa between 1999 and 200, I retraced part of this history that is buried in the memories of the returnees.  I interviewed members of 50 families in the cities of Lagos, Porto Novo, Cotonou, Ouidah, Agoué, Lomé, and Accra, reconstructing genealogies and compared them with written sources.  It was thus possible to retrace the biographies of these people who created this diaspora within a diaspora.

The “Letters” from the title are simply messages from those returnees addressed to the Brazilians in general and to their “relatives” (people with the same surname who live in Brazil), in particular. The concept of kinship adopted in the project was more symbolic than real, as it is almost impossible to establish a concrete relationship between families with a same surname living nowadays in Brazil and in Africa.

The original Letters from Africa research sprouted from a journalistic project carried out and published by the newspaper Correio Braziliense in April 1999. The photos were also published in the newspapers O Dia, Folha de São Paulo and in the magazines Veja, Isto É and Ícaro. In 2010, Letters from Africa became a book and a traveling exhibit presented in 11 countries in Africa. Find more about Letters from Africa here.  

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