It appears to be two worlds apart between Mr Adetunji Damazio and Alhaji Samsudeen Pedro, both descendants of returnees who settled in the Brazilian Quarter, an ancient community on Lagos Island. But the traditions their freed forebears imported from Brazil about two centuries ago have bridged the seeming gulf.
In past years, Agudas as the emancipados (returnees) were called, comprised Catholics in the majority, Muslims and traditionalists, all united by Brazilian cultural mores like Caretta, Fanti, Meboi and Abe, they were exposed to during the slave trade.
Many decades down the line, the customs continue to strengthen the bond between Damazio and Pedro and hundreds of other descendants within the community irrespective of their religious beliefs.
“Caretta is a cultural display in the history of Brazilian returnees. Everyone from Brazilian Quarter — Christian, Muslim or traditionalist — participates in it,” Damazio explained.
“It is a form of carnival during which some people wear masks. It is more of a cultural thing than religious though Caretta has a Christian background. It is a way of reuniting families. During the Muslim festive period, we celebrate together too.”
First held in 1881 during the inauguration of Holy Cross Cathedral on Catholic Mission Street, Lagos Island, Caretta held again in 1888 to celebrate the silver jubilee of Queen Victoria of England.
“Since then, we hold it on Easter Monday, Christmas Day and New Year Day,” Damazio, who is the Chairman, Lagos Division of IBILE Elders Forum, told Saturday PUNCH.
Stretching from the East of Tinubu Square, which comprises Bamgbose, Odunlami, Upper Kakawa, Tokunbo, Igbosere, Catholic Mission and Campos Square, Brazilian Quarter houses memories of the Afro-Brazilian returnees enslaved in Brazil, Cuba, and El Salvador, among other Portuguese-speaking countries.
“Brazilian Quarter is known for the assemblage of people who returned from those countries. That is why within the Brazilian Quarter, you will find Brazilian names of freed slaves. We are called Popo Aguda to differentiate our domain from Oke Popo,” 72-year-old Pedro, a descendant of Momo Pedro, explained while speaking with our correspondent.
Apart from Caretta, Meboi is another popular culture that closes religious divides among Lagos Island ‘Brazilians’ and brings them together as one big family during any festive period.
Like Caretta, Meboi is also organised in honour of an individual who has contributed to the progress of Brazilian Quarter. Its followers– either Christians or Muslims– ride horses while putting on bull head objects covered with symbolic blood.
Pedro stated, “Religious differences do not affect all these cultural practices. For instance, Muslims and traditionalists participate well in Caretta organised during Christmas, Easter and New Year. There is no discrimination when it comes to festivals in Brazilian Quarter. We are under one umbrella of culture engendered by the mutual understanding among our forefathers. In fact, in Brazilian Quarter, we embrace inter-religious marriage. You will see a Christian spouse in a Muslim home and vice-versa.”
In epoch-making festivities, Mr Adeniyi Branco, an elder at the Brazilian Quarter, told Saturday PUNCH that Meboi, Caretta, Fanti and Abe could be fused into one with their followers donning unique custumes respectively.
Branco described such occasions as memorable hosting Brazilians and natives of Popo Aguda (another name for Brazilian Quarter) home and abroad.
He said, “Meboi started from my family house. It was moved to another family after several years. Meboi is a carnival. Meboi comes out during festive periods or when we want to celebrate an elder in Brazilian Quarter. We also have Abe and Fanti. Many people mix up Fanti and Caretta carnivals but they are not the same. On some occasions, they can all come out. Caretta custodians use masks and they dress in colourful outfits.
“There is a little difference between the dressing pattern for Abe and Caretta. Basically, their custodians wear costumes which they can remove outside to have fun with their friends. In all of these, people participate irrespective of their religious background. We are in it together. You cannot differentiate a Christian from a Muslim when the celebration is on.
“We receive visitors from Brazil and our people outside the country return home to attend the carnival.”
For Victor Ganzallo, Fanti stands out among the traditions of Brazilians on Lagos Island. He attends the carnival every year but lockdown occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic put the celebration on hold last Easter. As the years winds up, he hopes the COVID-19 protocols would be further eased for social gathering so he could catch the fun associated with carnival during Christmas and New Year.
He said, “Fanti carnival is one of the most iconic celebrations in the Brazilian Quarter. I was thinking of taking my children for the celebration during the last Easter but it didn’t hold due to the pandemic. It is always fun and memorable. Christmas is around the corner and we look forward to enjoying it.
“Brazilians live on the coast and like enjoyment. The same thing is common to people of Lagos Island living close to the water; they enjoy the nightlife. A lot of Brazilian traditional and social influence is replicated here because of the freed slaves that returned from Brazil.”
United by food
Aside from social gathering, the cultural heritage binding the Agudas is inherent in a traditional delicacy, Frejon, prepared as breakfast on Good Friday. Despite its association with Christianity, the meal is more of a cultural emblem uniting the residents of Brazilian Quarter than being a religious rite.
Bland and drab, Frejon is taken to reflect on the excruciating pains Jesus Christ suffered on the cross of Cavalry,’ said Damazio.
He added, “It (Good Friday) is not a colourful day and we are to abstain from eating anything that has blood. We take snails and crabs that day. From the eve of Good Friday, we start preparing Frejon because it is strenuous to cook. It is made from black beans.
“It is not delicious and is a way of having a feel of what Jesus Christ suffered for mankind on the cross of Cavalry. Frejon is taken as breakfast. Muslims and traditionalists among us do take it too. It is a tradition that has gone beyond religious sentiment.
“On that day, if I enter any house in Brazilian Quarter and ask for Frejon, it’s as if I am asking for water. I don’t need to pay for it.”
On the afternoon of Good Friday, Damazio stated that Moyo – cooked bloodless crabs and eba – is taken as lunch by all.
According to him, the water used for boiling the crabs is used to prepare eba which they eat with uncooked pepper and boiled crabs.
Reliving memories of his youthful age in the neighbourhood, a septuagenarian, Mr Lukman Martins, told our correspondent that he and other Muslims at the quarter ate from the delicacies, especially Frejon, and participated in the carnivals.
He said, “I grew up here. The Brazilian Quarter was not rough then as it is now. It used to be a cool area. But due to different kinds of people coming into the community, the ambience has changed.
“In Campos, our colour is green and yellow. We wear costumes in those colours during Caretta. Everybody participates in it. There is no discrimination whether you are a Muslim or a Christian. I participated in Caretta when I was young. We danced around the community and had fun.
“These days, it is my children who participate. They rent chairs, cook and dance. Frejon is prepared and everybody eats from it. It is costly to prepare. Usually, Christians among us prepare it and serve everyone. That has promoted unity among us.”
In spite of the discrimination the emancipados faced in a foreign land, their sojourn during slave trade afforded them the opportunity to showcase African culture. Till now in Brazil, people worship Yemoja, a revered river goddess rooted in Yoruba cosmology.
Online checks show that in Salvador, Bahia, lemanjá (a variant form of Yemoja) is celebrated by Candomblé every February 2, the same day consecrated by Catholic Church to Our Lady of Seafaring (Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes).
On that day, many people line up at dawn to present their offerings at lemanjá’s shrine in Rio Vermelho. Gifts for Iemanjá include flowers and objects such as perfume, jewellery, combs, lipsticks and mirrors. The items are gathered in large baskets and taken out to the sea by local fishermen. Afterwards, a massive street party holds.
On the same day in Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul State, the image of Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes is carried to the port of Pelotas. Before the closing of the Catholic feast, the boats stop to host the faithful of Umbanda a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion combining African traditions with Roman Catholicism carrying the image of Iemanjá. The meeting is held to the delight of thousands of bystanders on the shore.
Lemanjá is also celebrated on December 8 in Bahia during a city holiday dedicated to the Catholic saint.
On the eve of New Year, several Brazilians across religions dress in white and gather on the beaches to welcome the New Year, watch fireworks, and throw white flowers and other offerings into the sea for the goddess in the hopes that she will grant them their requests for the coming year.
Some send their gifts to lemanjá in wooden toy boats. Small offerings of flowers and floating candles are left on the sea many nights at Copacabana. Paintings portraying lemanjá as a woman rising out of the sea are also sold in Rio De Janeiro shops.
Known as Yemayá (the mother of all living things and owner of the oceans and seas) in Havana, Cuba, it is celebrated every September 7 in a procession held at the municipality of Regla, home of Our Lady of Regla Church.
Over the years, Brazilians and descendants of freed slaves have found a common ground via cross-cultural fusion while relegating agonies of Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the background.
“I am used to people being curious about my name. You cannot run away from your identity. I answer Candido, a Brazilian name, as part of my name and my son does too. I don’t see anything wrong in it. Of course, some members of our family changed their Brazilian names. I don’t see any reason for changing it. It is our story and we cannot alienate ourselves from it,” Ganzallo said.
In recent years, representatives from Brazilian Embassy have been attending the Caretta carnival on Lagos Island and charting a progressive course with the descendants, Pedro disclosed.
“Brazilian Embassy invites us to programmes. We are very close to them. They also honour the invitation to Caretta. Presently, the embassy is planning to get teachers who will be teaching us Portuguese. We are trying to get a place that will be suitable for learning,” he said.
In the spirit of the cultural bond, Damazio is looking forward to attending the next weeklong Rio De Janeiro Carnival, considered as the biggest carnival in the world with over two million on the streets daily.
“Our forefathers who were taken to Brazil introduced some of our cultures into the Brazilian system and it was adopted. In Brazil, for instance, they worship Yemoja. So, we both share mutual cultural backgrounds,” he stated.
Places on Lagos Island with Brazilian names
Upon arrival from Brazil, the returnees retained their Brazilian/Portuguese names which include Gomez, Ganzallo, Marinho, Salvador, Da Soussa, Da Rosa, Da Silva, Damazio, Soares, Cardoso, Pereira, Pedro, Martinez and Martins.
Till date, some streets and facilities on Lagos Island bear some of the returnees’ names. Popular among them are Campos Street, Campos Square and Upper Campos, a triad Pedro epically referred to as a T-junction confusing strangers, “Orita meta to ‘n damu alejo,” in Yoruba.
“Martins Street is named after my ancestor called Ojo Martins,” Damazio said while relating the great Martins’ sojourn to our correspondent.
He said, “Many people think anyone who bears Brazilian name is a product of slavery but it is not true. Ojo learnt trading from Mr Martins, a Brazilian merchant who came to Lagos Island then.
“When Martins was getting old and saw that Ojo was agile, he took Ojo to Rio De Janeiro and taught him trading. Martins was a textile merchant. Ojo spent 10 years there, got married to a Brazilian and returned to Lagos to continue his trading.
“A lot of people who have known Ojo as Martins’ worker started calling him Omo Baba Martins (The son of Martins) and he adopted him. He was the progenitor of Martins on Lagos Island. His first son, Antonio, was my great, great, great grandfather.”
Damazio stated further that Martins returned from Brazil with a fruit known as Breadfruit which he planted in a spot on Lagos Island now called Breadfruit Street.
Though the major occupations of the returnees were architecture and trading, the Lagos-based Yoruba group chairman noted that some of them engaged in oil mining, which led to the naming of Oil Mill Street (now known as Mobolaji Bank Anthony Street).
The returnees’ craft
One of the most notable things about the Nigerian-Brazilian returnees was their mastery of Brazilian architecture which they replicated in some building constructions on Lagos Island, Ebute Meta, Ikoyi and Victoria Island.
“There are some areas in Brazil that when you are there, you will think you’re on Lagos Island because of the close semblance in the architectural designs,” Ganzallo said.
While most of the 19th-century structures built by the returnees are fading out, with many of them in a deplorable state, Brazilian Quarter still retains some of its sights and sounds.
Apart from Holy Cross Cathedral, Brazilian Quarter houses an ancient mosque on Bamgbose Street named Brazilian Salvador Mosque built in 1848.
On Oil Mill Street, a pavilion for the descendants sits on a parcel of land. Known as Popo Pavilion, the facility serves as a centre for relaxation and social gathering among the natives and their allies.
Campos Memorial Mini Stadium is another heritage of the Afro-Brazilian slave returnees on Lagos Island. With a seating capacity of about 5,000, the stadium managed by the state government, has a football pitch, a lawn tennis court and a mini beach ball pitch.
Cultural assimilation promotes global unity — Historians
A professor at the Department of History and Strategic Studies, University of Lagos, Ayodeji Olukoju, said that communal solidarity among natives of Brazilian Quarter irrespective of their social and religious differences was a gift of the Yoruba to the world, making the culture to survive in foreign countries after centuries of forced migration from the homeland.
He said, “The case of Lagos Island is, however, peculiar. Such returnees were (re)absorbed and settled in seamlessly. They even became the new African elite in Lagos, Calabar, Abeokuta, etc. as the pioneer lawyers, journalists, doctors, teachers and clergymen. Those who returned from Brazil and Sierra Leone brought Christianity and Islam as well as Brazilian and Saro social and cultural practices.
“The African community in Lagos was distinct from that of the European colonisers, and its elite suffered discrimination. It can then be appreciated that they chose to stick together as a community, consistent with the basic Yoruba ideas of non-discrimination on religious grounds and kinship solidarity.”
Olukoju observed that dynamism of Yoruba culture made it possible to accommodate Brazilian and other cultural imports without losing its essence.
He added, “We should understand why the Brazilian Embassy is eager to associate with descendants of returnees from Brazil. This is a display of soft power in international relations: exerting influence through unobtrusive and seemingly mutually beneficial non-military exchanges that win hearts and build international solidarity- in the national interest of the hegemonic power.”
On his part, a professor of History at the Tai Solarin University of Education, Ogun State, Rasheed Ajetunmobi, said such unity among descendants of Brazilian returnees was characteristic of high socialisation in Lagos.
He said, “Lagos is a melting pot of people and culture. In terms of Brazilian culture on Lagos Island, the most important aspect of it is that it has been modernised. It only gives an impression that the inhabitants of Lagos generally have a high degree of socialisation. They easily interact with people no matter where those people are coming from.
“What obtains in the Brazilian Quarter and Lagos at large is assimilating other people’s culture, synthesising them and sharing theirs which is a good way of promoting national unity.”
Also, a professor of African History and Deputy Vice Chancellor, Academics at the Nasarawa State University, Olayemi Akinwumi, stated that the cultural bond among natives of Brazilian Quarter was a recipe for engendering peaceful co-existence and unity within and outside their domains.
He noted, “Inter-group relation comes in different forms. It can be peaceful or volatile. Social connection like that of people of different faiths in the Brazilian Quarter has been one of the factors promoting inter-group relations not only within Nigeria but outside the country.
“In Brazil, Cuba and Latin American countries, Yoruba culture is strong there. It will continue to gain currency as people may want to be establishing connections and appreciate the cultural affinities they share. That ultimately promotes oneness.”
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