Travel Journal: Exploring the Beauty of Blackness in Bahia
As tired as I get of airplanes, airports and TSA, having the ability to travel is a privilege that I truly hold dear. For this reason, one of my personal goals is to figure out ways in which I can commemorate my travels, so why not start with blog posts?!
As a child I remember sitting on a tiny stool in the kitchen drawing airplanes – yes, I truly believed that I could manifest an aircraft from paper. I also remember my chemistry teacher in high school stating that she could tell that I will keep on traveling for the rest of my life – “Catherine you’ll never settle down.” As you can imagine, I, who at that time had not travelled since I was a toddler, was perplexed. Today, I understand that she was reading my spirit – she realized my nomadic tendencies before I did.
I was blessed to begin 2018 in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil with a group of incredible students from Yale. I am pretty sure that I won’t be able to fully articulate the awesomeness of this trip, but I feel that it is important to at least try…
Part of this trip’s meaningfulness stemmed from being able to celebrate my Yoruba identity and spirituality in a new space. Although I knew that enslaved people who were taken from the African continent to Brazil found masterful ways to preserve their cultures, I was unaware of the extent to which these cultures are celebrated in the public sphere today. It seemed that everywhere I turned there was a sculpture of Yemonja, the Yoruba Orisa/deity of the ocean, staring back at me. I realized how visible Yoruba culture and spirituality was which made me as an individual feel seen. I gravitate towards Yemonja in particular because although she is depicted as being a healer who is caring and protective her rage is destructive. I appreciate her multidimensional characteristics and how they challenge the toxic notion that women must swallow their anger. So to be in a place where I was surrounded by representations of her affirmed my ever-evolving perspective on my own womanhood.
During the Transatlantic Slave-Trade enslaved people were prohibited from practicing their indigenous religions. In South American countries like Brazil some people preserved their indigenous practices by fusing Yoruba, Fon and Bantu beliefs with Christianity – a process called syncretization which formed the religion known as Candomble. This meant that while it appeared to their slave masters that they were only worshipping Christian figures they were also secretly praying to their own gods. For example, in the Candomble faith Yemonja is syncretized with Virgin Mary.
In Bahia, we were fortunate enough to attend a Candomble ceremony, which had a lot of personal significance for me. Personally, it is hard for me to reckon with the ways in which Christian missionaries imposed their faith on Nigerians before and during the colonial period. Although the situation in which Christianity was imposed in Brazil was very different to how it was spread in Nigeria, being able to see people navigate believing in both Christianity and the Yoruba religion impacted me deeply. Here’s a picture of getting ready for our first Candomble ceremony:
In an elongated Instagram caption, I described how complicated my feelings were towards being on the beach and submerging my limbs in the Atlantic Ocean – waters that were once used to transport people like goods from their homes to a life of enslavement. While I knelt at the shoreline I thought of Yemonja being the Orisa of the ocean, which therefore meant that she was present in those waters. From that moment on I thought of the rising waves as being symbolic of the spirits of enslaved people in ascension. I thought of the infiniteness of Blackness and walked away from the water stronger. Honestly, I think that I have only just begun feeling what there is to feel about that experience.
I experienced similar feelings while we were in Pelourinho, which is the historic center of Bahia. In Pelourinho there is a building called Mercado Modelo (pictured below) and the first time we entered it I thought of it simply as a market where tourists could go to buy art and souvenirs… A few days later we learned that enslaved people were kept in the basement of Mercado Modelo before they were auctioned.
There was no indication of the previous function of the building, or the lives that were destroyed between its walls. Learning about the Mercado Modelo served as a reminder that I was visiting Brazil as a tourist – as someone with limited knowledge on the country’s history and present – and that it was necessary for me to be mindful of the land on which I walked.
Close to the Mercado Modelo is a statue of Zumbi (pictured below) who was a warrior and the last king of Quilombo dos Palmares – a settlement of people who had liberated themselves from slavery. The juxtaposition of Zumbi standing tall above a building that enslaved people were crammed into reminded me of the importance of resistance – the importance of hope.
We also were able to participate in Capoeira, which I also see as a practice of resistance. Capoeira is a fusion of martial-arts, dance and acrobatics that was created by enslaved Afro-Brazilians at a time where martial arts was prohibited. Through mixing martial-arts with musical elements and rhythms enslaved people were able to mask and therefore preserve their traditional practices.
Honestly, I was terrible at it and yes that’s me on the floor, but I promise that’s a move and not just me giving up on everything.
One of the most beautiful things that I noticed at Capoeira practice was the non-verbal communication demonstrated by participants. The second that an instrument broke someone who was sitting on the floor noticed and exchanged it for a new one. The adults held the children and the children smiled in response. After having heard disheartening stories on the way in which Black children are criminalized in Bahia, I wondered if the children and and parents in Capoeira class viewed it a safe space. They seemed to have created a family while engaging in this sacred practice and it inspired me to think about my non-verbal communication and my desire to ensure that the cues that I give off are signals of love.
A lot of my joy on this trip also came from the people that I travelled to Brazil with – the Yale squad. Each person brought their unique backgrounds and experiences as well as a true openness to learn. They reminded me of how much knowledge to be gained from group interactions and how much healing we can receive when we are in community with each other.
So now, after getting all of the sand out of my suitcase, it has dawned on me that this transformative trip is over, but that its impact is something that I will carry for ever – to me the memory is significant enough.