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How can ties of solidarity be strengthened between continental Africans and black movements in Brazil? To start with, a deep appreciation of a shared of heritage of the two peoples is necessary

‘Brazil has the largest population of blacks outside of Africa, in fact second only to Nigeria.’ I have always know this at the back of my mind as one of those ‘do-you-know-facts’. And here it was being reiterated at the Nyerere Intellectual Festival by Prof Monica Lima e Souza, a black history professor at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro. Since you are already thinking it, yes she is a woman of colour. By melanin standards, you would say she is pretty light for a black, shoulder length curly hair, medium build with a friendly predisposition.

Before this day, I hadn’t really given much thought to the ties that Brazil has to the ‘Motherland’. The closest I have ever considered Brazil was in sports and entertainment. As a teenager my beloved Play Station gaming console character was Tekkens’ black dreadlocked capoeira fighter Eddy Gordo; on the soccer pitch I adored the legendary Gaucho Ronaldinho and felt embarrassed as a black person by the petty tantrum antics of Robinho (Balotteli these days) and today I long for a dream vacation in Rio after watching the feature animated 20th Century Fox film, Rio. But never had I really appreciated the depth of a shared heritage between the people of Brazil and continental-Africans.

Back home over the last couple of years the Kenyan audience has experienced a massive deluge of foreign produced soap operas, most airing on prime time. Kenyan TV has diversified from the ‘traditional’ Mexican palette and has been introduced to Philipino and Hindi shows subsequently. The newest entrants into this soap opera gourmet menu are the Brazilian soap operas. And one of these caught my attention, ‘The Irrational Heart’. Main characters aside, this show has Lazaro Ramos, a black actor, playing the character of Andre Gurgel – a macho-artistic-cool-Casanova-type guy. This was the first time I saw a black person play a non-subservient, solid supporting-cast role. I was keen to know his fate in the show albeit my not being the most ardent of soap opera viewers. His long and short are that Andre falls in love with Carol, a white woman played by Camila Pitanga, they have a child together. Carol breaks up with Andre on account of his philandering nature; the show ends with a repentant Andre on a hospital bed inflicted with testicular cancer. I don’t quite think that is the image I was looking out for of a thriving black Brazilian male.

Here I was at the just concluded 5th Julius Nyerere Intellectual Festival at the University of Dar es Salaam. In a great deal this annual festival espouses the theme of Pan-Africanism in its agenda. This should be of no surprise considering the festival is named after one of continental Africa’s foremost Pan-Africanist champions, Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere. The Pan African movement soars on the ideological wings of worldwide African solidarity and self worth.

‘Brazil has the largest population of blacks outside of Africa... they need to know where they came from,’ says Prof Lima e Souza, amidst a profusion of apologies for her slow English. During one of the lecture sittings she explains how Brazil has had a systematic denial of her people’s African Heritage. ‘We look into the past to make the future clear...’ she continues to stress the importance of Brazilian blacks appreciating their heritage by knowing their history.

In the appreciation of this history, Prof Lima Souza went on to state that the history she advocates for is the kind that is tied to social change movements as exhibited by black social movements. This echoed the thoughts of other speakers at the festival like Prof Thandika Mkandawire and Prof Manuh Takyiwaa who stressed on the affirmation of a black identity and self worth of all the peoples of African descent.

Black social movements in Brazil have experienced some successes in their efforts against the negation of a black heritage. Most dear to Prof Lima Souza’s heart will have to be the formal education policy that provides for the teaching of black history as part of school curriculum. In the process of teaching this black history, Prof Lima Souza is of the opinion that black Brazilians need to appreciate alternative history as can be offered through the social movements anchored on Pan-Africanism, ‘history from different sides’ as she put it. ‘We do not teach a linear approach to African History; we appreciate the whole, and hence draw a lot from the Pan-Africanism Movement.’ As such, Prof Lima Souza is of the conviction that Africa needs to have Brazil in her thoughts and work in solidarity. The community of African diaspora in South America is not so much removed from the very struggles and realities that continental Africans face or have faced in the past. We have a tied heritage. A narrative is told of how Nyerere in Tanzania in East Africa rallied the clamour for social justice for the blacks living in the Americas. This is the same kind of solidarity that Brazil needs with continental Africans today.

With Prof Lima Souza at the Nyerere Festival was also Prof Milcar Araujo Pereira, a historian as well from the Collage of Education at the Federal University of Rio De Janeiro. Prof Pereira’s main focus was on the history and power of the black movement in Brazil. His was an evening of dialogue on social movements. The dialogue session was set in Nkrumah auditorium in the cool of a coastal evening with a handful of people, sipping sugarcane juice, bitter Swahili coffee and nibbles of roasted cassava and kebabs. Prof Pereira, a youthful fellow with a subtle sense of humour, addressed the nature of the black social movements in Brazil. He spoke of Brazil where there was ‘a mix of racial openness and exclusion’, as Jenny Barchfiel of the Associated Press would have it on her Yahoo News article dated March 17, 2013.

Prof Pereira enumerated statistics that exhibited the exclusion of the black majority from positions of power in both the economic and social spheres. He went on to show how the ‘black’ factor in Brazil was being resolved subliminally by encouraging blacks to become more white through whatever means. He described it as a racism of inclusion, whereby the African heritage is negated by means of assimilation. Ironically with all these ‘assimilation’, black Brazilians seem to be on the shorter end of the social stick. The movement in Brazil has seen to it that several affirmative action steps are taken. The policy on land redistribution to black Brazilians, university admission race ratios and the aforementioned black/African history curriculum are some of the wins. Regardless of these gains, Prof Lima e Souza insists that Brazilian African heritage needs to be affirmed even further. It is rather interesting observing the rhetoric and action being undertaken in the South American nation considering that in the last couple of decades Brazil has experienced a race majority-minority reversal. Brazilians of African descent account for upto 51 percent of the population in Brazil today.

So before we can get excited that the race has improving representation on popular media, before we can muse about the beauties of the Brazilian people, ethnicity and sportsmanship, before we can take pride in a shared heritage the people of colour share around the world, we need to heed the exhortation, we need to identify with the Brazilian struggles, because it is in effect our own history.

* Edwin Rwigi is an intern at Fahamu.


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