The Journey of a Brazilian Babalawo
by Lakunle Jaiyesimi
While the Nigerian state is being divided on religious lines, the Middle East gets dichotomized with the spilled blood of the dead and injured, the Mexican wall goes up in defiance, Britain is exiting the European Union at all costs, Lybia is tearing her own skin out of her body and so on, individuals around the world, as is in this case, Paulo Jose Monteiro da Silva with his family is living the life of a man on a journey back home, irrespective of how many crossroads he meets on the way.
Like so many other naturalized Brazilians, having been born and raised in Brazil after many generations of inbreeding and cross-cultural relationships, Paulo knew no other culture until, reading through the newspapers once while he was younger, he came across some striking Yoruba names. That chance encounter with mere names stimulated an interest to find out more about the culture that may actually be that of his long-lost ancestors.
Thereafter, Paulo made relevant enquiries, which saw him learning to speak English and some Yoruba words and songs. This attempt at re-embracing an old culture, perhaps belonging to one’s ancestors, is enviable to say the least, especially when all you can learn about the culture and her people are restricted to what you can pick up from the pages of newspapers, internet, books, and what you are told by people who may claim to have personalized some working knowledge of the Yoruba culture. Also, and significantly so, there are numerous traditional festivals in Brazil, as in other American countries like Cuba, where rich Yoruba culture, amongst others, is in full display. For instance, the day of Yemoja (although called Iemanjá here but has the exact history as is in the Yoruba worldview) was elaborately celebrated on February 2, 2017. It was an eye-catching event.
Much more than the occasional encounters with Nigerian-born-and-bred Nigerians, one of such persons who have a working knowledge of the Yoruba culture is Paulo’s new “o genro” (Portuguese term for the son-in-law), a Brazilian academic who has visited Nigeria, specifically Abeokuta to study the myths and practices of Ifa, hence, himself becoming an Ifa Priest, Babalawo Ifagbenro as he is called in Brazil. Babalawo Ifagbenro is one of his likes, who with so much pride practices Ifa in Brazil, consulting for any patron who wishes to patronize him like this writer will one day.
“128 anos depois o Pelourinho deixou de ser um espaço de açoite Negro para se tornar este local de efervescência Afro-cultural, hoje dançamos e cantamos onde correu sangue e suor de nossos antepassados,” Babalawo Ifagbenro said, during a visit to the site of greater trade and slave-holding in Brazilian history, Pelourinho, translating to “128 years later the Pelourinho is no longer a place of Black scourge to become this place of Afro-cultural effervescence, today we dance and sing where blood and sweat of our ancestors ran.” Those were scintillating words of a people with an identity sought and obtained, largely away mentally from that which was unconscionably imposed at birth into a world self-considered as alien. They are words that try to separate the old experience of slavish labour and pain from the current flood of appreciative activities (sing and dance joyfully).
As must be inherent with many of his likes, the passion to sap up the elements of the Yoruba culture is all pervasive that it drove Babalawo Ifagbenro to the doorstep of love, which plays shelter to quintessential Black Brazilians, from Father to Mother to the pretty black Yoruba-named daughters. The house was erected by hands that knew very little of the edifice of Yoruba culture but subsequently decorated and knitted meticulously by the gentle lashes of the Yoruba’s treasured culture.
Delicately overlooking different corners of the house are sculptures and artworks that reproduce the living awe of Yoruba mythologies, from the Ose Sango (a staff which is the primary emblem of Sango’s followers), a huge Ori Olokun and others, male and female constitution, in line with the belief that two aspects always constitute reality (spirit and matter, day and night, visible and invisible, male and female, essence and existence, good and evil), which is a universal and prehistoric phenomenon. This is the house of the Monteiros and this writer had the privilege to visit just once.
It was with a contagious eagerness exhibited by every member of the family that aspects of what has become their culture, an obvious blend of major aspects of the Yoruba culture in their reckoning and those of Brazil and of other distant places picked up on the airwaves, were introduced. As I went through the ritual of appreciating each of these aspects, physical or intangible, I realised how significantly close the symbols of this Brazil-domiciled culture is to Yoruba.
On entering the expansive compound of the Monteiros, one is immediately taken in by the absorbing aura, the warm hands of familial spirits. With the accommodating nature of everyone you meet, it is almost impossible to remain conscious that one is not on Yoruba soil. In fact, with the recent isolationist drives of even hitherto communal worlds, one feels more at home in the midst of genuine relations, devoid of every bit of deliberate judgements. They have remained so for a long time. It was really a time to relive the experience of the communal life of agboles (close-knit family enclaves common in ancient Yoruba world).
Just beyond the gate that pours into the gaping compound is the Orúbo Èsù and sitting beside it is a bottle of palm oil, with which the required sacrifices are made to Èsù. The wall of the living room is adorned with a large drawing of Berimbau, a musical instrument used in Capoeira, which is a Brazilian martial art with dance, fight, and music combination religiously attended to by many Black Brazilians and white admirers. There is the tripod of dance, music, and religion constituted respectively by Capoeira, Samba, and Candomblé (referred to as a dance in honour of the gods), which is a religion, mainly practiced in Brazil and officially originating in Salvador, Bahia at the beginning of the 19th century, it is based on African belief with elements borrowed from other religions. There is more that sates even the best of inquisitive tourists of their hunger for the knowledge of diversity and cultural neo-assimilation.
However beyond all of these physical contraptions that establish this black Brazilian family as a cultural aficionado, their tilt towards a culture that was hitherto alien to them becomes more pronounced when the names of the individual members are called owing to the fact that the daughters were given Yoruba names at birth, and as practicable as possible, they style their appearance as much as their worldview essentially Yoruba.
This was played out at the recent superlative wedding ceremony of the first daughter of the family to Babalawo Ifagbenro, an event that can be replayed through the following links taken by permission:
Lastly and unfortunately, Paulo laments the dearth of the African culture on African soil and on the airwaves of globalisation, a culture which for many years he so longed for. As often as he had eagerly tried to grasp the cultural trends in African countries through the only means immediately available to him on the internet and the television platforms, he has been met with elements entirely different and unexpected – the frequent, almost hourly reports of wars, insurgency, poor governance, corruption, maternal and child deaths, and very little, almost non-existence, of the practices of African culture on the continent, which perhaps unknown to Africans in Africa, many in the diasporas always marvel at.
However, without an iota of prejudice to the above situation, Paulo has an ongoing wish to visit Nigeria, as his genro has previously done, to learn on a first-hand basis the past and current customs of Africans from those that constitute descendants of a mutual pedigree, some of whom had been transported as slaves to Brazil centuries earlier by Portuguese slave masters. This visit, as he claims, will facilitate the establishment of an Academy for the teaching of Capoiera in Nigeria, which will be one of his contributions to his motherland.
Onígba ní ńpe igbá è ní àíkàrágbà káyé tó fi kólè
– A Yoruba proverb meaning, “It is the owner of the calabash who first called it a broken piece of gourd before the world used it for scooping dirt.” – from the Yoruba Proverb Treasury.
(If one does not value what one has, other people will find it useful and value it even more or less.)