The country Africa that we imagine in Brazil

Read this post in Portuguese in África em Palavras 

Since I am spending some time in my beloved country (Brazil), I had decided to post about some Africa-related event in Brazil. As you know, Brazil was on the other side of the Atlantic slave-trade and for centuries it received regularly enslaved Africans on its main ports, including Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. It is hard to give a precise number, and scholars disagree on their estimate, but it is between 5 and 14 million African souls that were taken by force in slave ships. Not the same number arrived in Brazil.

So, it is not a coincidence that our history, culture and identity is deeply marked by this African presence. Why is a Brazilian studying African history/literature, some people ask me in the UK. They clearly don’t know Brazil and Brazilians. We have Africa in our lullabies, in our food, in our clothes, and dance, and religion, in our streets, in our veins! At least that is what we Brazilians like to think: that we know Africa, that because of slavery we have the inherited knowledge of this country… I mean, continent…!

Following my idea of writing about some Africa-related event, I started my research. Google suggested me to have a look on this article about an Africa art exposition that happened in 2003 in the CCBB, (a cultural Institute in Rio de Janeiro). “Art from Africa” was the title, and the website from the council of Rio de Janeiro says that “if you intend to go to the exposition Art from Africa you should be prepared to let go your tribal side and play the drums! (…) To be seen and not touched there are more than 300 hundred pieces from 31 African countries, that were produced between the 15th and 20th centuries.” The countries were never listed.

I remember this exhibition very well. Many beautiful sculptures, paintings and other objects of art all mixed in the same room. A Benin Kingdom’s bronze head from the 15th century was positioned just next to a 19th century Masaai (Kenya) necklace. It is all African, it does not matter the place, period, or even artistic movement. And this is a mistake that is made not only here in Brazil but all over world. I remember in Paris, my shock when I realised that African and Latin American sections were moved from the Louvre to the Musee du Quai Branly and named “Art primitif”. Over there, Benin’s bronze heads were also mixed with Masaai Necklaces.

I like to tease people who doesn’t understand my frustration with these kind of expositions and say: let’s organise an Art from Europe exhibition and mix DaVinci, Velazquez and Rodin. One next to the other, no explanation of their artistic movement. Oh, and of course, we can not forget the hand painted plates and pearl necklaces. Author: unknown.

In 2008, President Lula made mandatory teaching African history at the primary schools. When we had to go in the classrooms and teach about Africa to our kids we realised that the Africa we know here in Brazil is the Africa of the slave trade. We know the Africa that is in our stories, in our music, in our religion, in our streets, which means, the Africa that now is Brazilian. We think of Africa as an unity, as a country, that is frozen in space and time, with no history, or art movements. For us, Africa is defined by the horrible experiences of the slave trade in the past and famine and wars in the present. We don’t know anything about African countries, African histories, African literatures. We don’t know the difference between Benin and Kenya, between Chinua Achebe and Shaun de Waal.

As I said before, we are not alone. In this video here of a TED’s presentation, Chimamanda Adichie tells us about the idea of Africa she encountered in the US. It is what she called the single story, that only admits one version, and deals with stereotypes. In the case of Africa, a story of poverty:

“Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.”

Where I want to get with this? well, may I let Chimamanda answer for me?

“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

When African history was made mandatory in our schools, it was the first step to tackle ignorance and the racism that comes with it. But the kind of history we are teaching matters. Are we contributing to the stereotype of poor Africa or are we empowering Africa? Are we saying that  Brazilians descendants of enslaved Africans have their family history tied to a messed up continent (in the past and present) or are we looking at the many countries, many cultures, many histories that contributed to our Brazilian cultures and histories?

comments are really welcome =)

Categories: Announcements, News, & Upcoming

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. As causas de história da África ensinada a partir de um passado de escravismo, sem maior conexão com as histórias dos diferentes povos africanos e com as relações sociais desenvolvidas entre esses africanos aqui no país, repousam em uma dificuldade de interpretação das fontes disponíveis que “contam” essas histórias, em maioria de tradição oral, e na pequena difusão da história da Àfrica nas licenciaturas. Nesse último caso, pode-se superar as limitações com a literatura a disposição, o que possibiliaria, inclusive, inspirar projetos de história da àfrica, nas escolas, com participação de outras disciplinas.

    • Regis,
      Many thanks for your comment. I agree with you that one of the main causes of the focus on the history of slavery rather than on African history is related to the lack of sources. The availability of good primary and secondary sources about Africa is scarce, which opens space for generalizations and stereotypes. However, I do not believe this is related to the oral tradition, as you said. There is a good amount of written sources available, but they have to be translated to the Portuguese, studied/analysed and made available to school teachers and scholars. They are there. We have to bring them here! (and we need money to do that, of course!)
      Thanks again for your contribution. Please, check the Brazilian version of this site on and in specific of this post in

  2. Good to read the post and the comment.
    What can I say? It is just like that, but things are changing. We can see it, slowly, comming – the change. I am in Brazil, and I am also Brazilian. It is true that we still see Africa as ‘a’ place, not a continent with many different people, landscapes and culture. But I can say that more and more about the many africas are being present in our cultural world. I can give some examples.Two years ago there was a beautiful exposition about Benin in the Afro-Brazilian Museum, in Sao Paulo. Just Benin and its history, artists and art. In 2011 there was a special issue of a magazine dedicated to Brazilian history (edited by the National Library of Brazil) focused on the relationship between our country and Angola. There was also a special version of a scientific magazine directed to kids all about South Africa, in 2010. Well, very little things, I agree, but for me they show a movement, growing slowly but steadly. I am an optimistic :-). The law that made compulsory the teaching of African history and culture in our schools was a result of a long time fight. We do not have it respected in all the country but many initiatives have been since 2003. Of course, there is (a lot) more to do. We can be part of this, and help transform this reality that give Brazil a false image of Africa, showing ideas, words and art. Lets do it.

    • Monica,
      thank you so much for your comment. Although my post comes in the format of a rant, I agree with you that things are getting better and that the law that made African history compulsory is a start, a good start indeed. And yes, I believe it is not about only criticising, ranting and demanding, but also being part of this movement to show the many stories that constitute a rich African history. So, let’s do that. Let’s bring this material over, share and show.
      Many thanks for your comment and your optimism =)

  3. Thank you – so clear a picture and so evocative. I was particularly taken by how you talk about the ‘intravenous Africa’ of/for Brazil – “it is in our lullabies”!! – aw man! – how intimate? How rooted and yet also how ephemeral, moveable, transformable? I wonder if there are any studies of the heritage of lullabies – how their messages are transmitted, those kinds of histories… this also made me think of a book project I am loosely involved in, based in Khayelitsha, a Cape Town township, which encourages people to think in narratives and so into literacy – both to preserve the specifics of cultural memory from elders and to project a story of self into a possible future; and I am more and more convinced that this is where we might start – with lullabies and song…
    Other points your post raises remind me, strongly, of the debates around the responsibility placed on the African author, and who and what constitutes African writing, and I’m thinking particularly of the latest round of Caine Prize shortlisted writers’ events in London – a prize, it needs be said, administered and given in the UK for African writing in English – a debate which always seem to start the same way, with the question from the audience for the writer/s along the lines of: “What makes you an African writer?” Cue palpable irritation from all the writers, and responses around the theme of ‘what makes a European writer?’ – and that once this is a question posed with the same intensity to writers of European descent, African writers may consider it viable (the implication being that this wouldn’t be viable ever, realistically speaking). In the context of the Caine Prize and what it is that the prize celebrates, I think this positioning is super-awkward … One of the 2012 Caine Prize events was part of Southbank’s ‘Africa Utopia’ – another potentially dubious title in these terms… Other related bits for diaspora writers – I was at a panel discussion this weekend in which the Nigerian diaspora writer Teju Cole, alongside ‘Narcopolis’ author Jeet Thayil, was asked whether he felt a ‘Dickens- or Zola-like pressure’ to document his diaspora experience of the ‘urban moment’… you can imagine how that went down…
    Are those stories, either the outdated poverty-porn monoliths or the multi-voiced counter expressions, available, accessible, as against mandatory History in school? Is writing a valid counter-expression for African writers or writers of African descent? Or at all? Is that even plausible as a category? What does the African fiction shelf look like in bookshops? What’s its shape? Your post talked about art exhibitions, and I am thinking of alternative languages of expression… I wondered…

    • Lovely Katie,
      I followed the debate about Caine praize you mentioned, and curiously, in the video I posted, Chimamanda comments on how her supervisor said that she was not authentic anymore, because she was in the US, writing in English etc.
      I wish our debate here in Brazil could go that far to discuss what makes an author African. Unfortunately, we are still stuck in: do Africans write?
      However, we do discuss a lot about what makes someone, or something Brazilian (and/or Afro-Brazilian). And the African contribution has been present in most of the analysis of Brazilian culture. But again, we get stuck there. It is like Africa does not exist before, during and after its relation to Brazil; and its history (ies) can not be different than ours.
      I wish we had an African fiction shelf anywhere around here….
      Thanks for your comment! =)

      • African fiction is not available to buy in bookshops in Brazil? Serious? Not much wonder that, as you say in your post, people don’t know their Soyinkas from Coetzees! Ngugis from Gordimers! (or that I’m doing the big, international prize-winners and not talking about my beloved Ivan Vladislavic!) Out of interest, what kind of fiction is on the school curriculum? What makes literature?
        Yes – there is a lot of anxiety, still, around the ‘authentic’ African voice in fiction. Worth looking at Ngugi’s arguments on this if of interest. Will undoubtedly discuss this some more on the blog as Ngugi is speaking at ASAUK on the 6th Sept and Kate and I will both be there.
        Can we put a shout out on the AiWB/AeP site (! – super excited about this) for any studies of Brazilian lullabies/oral culture, maybe? Aware that this would demand you to be translator both of my request and of any responses, so am very cool if that’s not possible…

      • oooohhh, I am happy, happy very happy to do all translations!! That sounds like a fantastic idea!
        We have loads of Brazilian literature in our curriculum (which includes black Brazilians writers) but no Africans. And also some international stuff. I read The Karamazov Brothers when I was 15!! Dear me!
        I had some this crazy idea of starting an online book club only of African Literature. And one of my mains ideas for Africa em Palavras is to provide regular feed of African Literature. Care to provide us with a decent list of “can’t keep living without reading these”?

  4. Brilliant!! Let’s do a shout out then to any scholarship (or info) on lullabies and their genealogies, pls.
    And I do indeed have such a list – in fact, many lists! O yes – no fear… would love to share and get people’s thoughts. Bring em on..!


  1. Now We Are One « Africa in Words

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: