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Returnees: Community in Africa Preserves Brazilian Traditions and Resists to the Present Day

CC BY-SA 3.0 / Gorivero / Zumbi dos PalmaresBronze sculpture of Zumbi dos Palmares, hero of the black resistance against slavery, installed in Praca de Se, Salvador de Bahia
Bronze sculpture of Zumbi dos Palmares, hero of the black resistance against slavery, installed in Praca de Se, Salvador de Bahia - Sputnik Africa, 1920, 06.05.2024
At the crossroads between Togo and Benin, where the borders merge into a rich cultural tapestry, lies a unique community: the African returnees from Brazil. Several other African countries also have these people, who returned to Africa after the so-called Golden Law abolished slavery.
Anice Lawson, a doctoral student at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris, explained that the group has preserved aspects of Brazilian culture in their daily lives.

"We identify this community by their surnames: De Almeida, Da Silveira, Da Silva. These surnames they kept after they returned from Brazil," he said.

In an interview with Sputnik, she said that she was born in Togo, but spent a significant part of her life in Benin. According to Lawson, there are several communities of returnees in these two countries, as well as in Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and countries in southern and eastern Africa.
She says this community carries with it deep historical ties between the African and South American continents. The Bonfim Festival, for example, is a celebration that echoes festive traditions from the Brazilian state of Bahia, where participants dress and eat in homage to their Brazilian heritage, which has been revived in Togo.
According to Lawson, most of these returnees speak the language of the country where they now live, but many try to incorporate Portuguese and keep it alive.
"I'm studying this community a little bit out of curiosity and also because I have an affinity," she said.
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Food, especially the dish feijoada, is an emotional connection to Brazil, a way to "kill nostalgia" and reaffirm their identity. "They usually eat at the table, with a knife and fork. They also brought Brazilian food, like feijoada, which is a Brazilian dish that people eat here to celebrate and remember Brazil."
However, Lawson touches on sensitive issues, such as the social dynamics within returnee communities that end up reproducing the patterns of oppression they experienced in Brazil.
"It's a very sensitive issue to talk about returnees in political terms," she said.
In her research and interviews with people from the region, Lawson learned that some groups maintained working relationships with other people when they returned to Togo. "In a sense, the Brazilian community enslaved this community from the interior. But not in the sense of enslaving Brazilians or people from the Americas."
What surprised her was that in some cases, the returnees formed a social elite with political and economic influence.

"They have someone who takes care of the house, someone who takes care of everything. I think in a way these people who have returned have become a community that has built itself up to the point of becoming an elite in society," she explained. "I think they unconsciously reproduced what they experienced in Brazil during slavery. I don't know, I say unconsciously, because if it was conscious, I don't think they would have done it. [...] Everything they suffered in Brazil, they didn't want to suffer here anymore, and they have, I think they appreciate the freedom they have gained."

Separated by Distance

Lawson lived in Rio de Janeiro while learning Portuguese and studied social sciences in the city, at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ). According to her, Brazil, with its intrinsic African history, also has deep-rooted racial problems.
"What I realized in Brazil, unfortunately, and I'm sad when I talk about these issues, is that even today the black person is still considered a person who is not human," the African researcher said.
Although she was enchanted by Brazil during the five years she lived there, Lawson understands that there is still progress to be made. "Whether we like it or not, Africa and Brazil have a history that has never been erased. And it didn't start yesterday."
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"We have to acknowledge this slave-owning past in order to try to move forward. As long as we don't know our own history, it's difficult to locate ourselves in our personal and social lives, to build a present and project ourselves into the future. Brazil and Africa are distant places because the Atlantic Ocean separates us, but I think we are the same people. It's only the distance that separates us.
Monica Lima e Souza, a professor and researcher in African history at the UFRJ, highlighted the trajectory of the returnees who, once freed under the Golden Law, sought to return to the African continent.
"The story of these people has fascinated me for a long time," Lima e Souza said. "It was very hard, very difficult. It was very, very hard work and it involved a lot of problems in the lives of these people. But there were those who managed to be part of this group [of returnees] [...] Most of the people I met left the ports, the cities, and therefore slave-owning Brazil during that period, in the 19th century, when there was, I repeat, a more intense number of returnees. And as far as I was able to investigate, they were people who were involved in urban work, they were artisans, they were small traders who lived in the city and who made our cities have their activities".

How Many Enslaved People Were There in Brazil?

Between the mid-16th and 19th centuries, approximately 4 million African men, women, and children were brought to Brazil by European slave traders, representing more than one-third of the world's slave trade.
Souza's research shows that before the Golden Law was passed in 1888, at least 3,500 people had returned to Africa between 1830 and 1870, mostly from urban areas where there was a higher concentration of returnees. "And this is, of course, infinitesimally small if we look at the number of enslaved people who were brought here, to Brazil, during that period. But in any case, it's a significant number."

"These are stories of people who were brought, kidnapped from their homelands, put in the holds of slave ships, brought here to Brazil and the Americas, in a situation of captivity, and managed not only to win their freedom, but also to gather resources to return to their continent of origin," Souza told Sputnik.

Artisans, small traders and urban workers were the protagonists of these stories, she said, and they faced difficulties in addition to the lack of institutional support, such as the risk of re-enslavement - which even meant that the final destination of return was not the exact place of origin, but other African regions.
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"The places they were taken from were often places where there was a risk of re-enslavement. [...] And these people who returned were mostly looking for port cities where they would have a chance for a better life, which often didn't correspond to their exact place of origin," Souza explained.

She pointed out that these people received no financial support from the Brazilian state or local organizations. Instead, they had to work and build organizational networks to seek freedom and make their return possible.
"Elsewhere in the Black Americas, there were religious groups, even the local government itself, that encouraged the return of freedmen to Africa. In the United States, there was even a campaign, and there really was a movement called Back to Africa that was stimulated by religious leaders. And it had to do with many factors there, including the fact that the freedman was an 'undesirable in this society'. They feared the figure of the black freedman."

What Was Slavery Like in Brazil?

The Brazilian researcher said there were various attempts to resist captivity. Her research was based on reports of escapes, negotiations for basic rights, and even the organization of strikes by the enslaved.
"Sometimes a master or mistress would promise freedom to an enslaved person if he or she served the master's parents or children for a number of years. Then the enslaved man or woman could free himself or herself."
Another aspect was the practice of negotiating spaces of freedom, where these individuals sought to guarantee minimum rights that they did not have, such as weekly rest, the cultivation of their own fields, and the celebration of their cultural traditions.
According to Souza, there is a need to expand the recognition and understanding of these stories in both literature and film. According to her, there is a wealth of unexplored narratives about this crucial period in Brazilian history.
"Here in Brazil, there was no support for these people to go back [to Africa]. So these people came back through their own work and their own efforts. Of course, when I say their own work and effort, [I mean] including [the effort] to weave relationships, to make contacts, to get support that would often help them and their families to make the journey back."