The story of Lagos is incomplete without a thoughtful reference to Lagos Island – formerly known as Isale Eko. Walking through its cramped streets feels like stepping through history, hearing its echo and cherishing the stories contained within these walls that has transformed over the years through pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial eras.
“No person can live there now because it has become a commercial area,” says Olawale, a fifty-ish kiosk shop owner, of the many parts of Lagos Island that have become commercialised and unsuitable for human inhabitation. “So very busy place. Even here, it’s still busy. But Lagos Island has transformed a lot from the eighties and nineties.”
Olawale’s sister, Mrs. Morenike Folarin, sits on a low stool nearby, occasionally tending to a pot of food boiling over charcoal flames by the street side. Folarin had been unable to communicate effectively with me in English, so she called out to her brother, Olawale, to help her out.
Both Folarin and Olawale, small business owners on Lawson Street, a walk away from Tafawa Balewa Square, were born on Lagos Island and have witnessed the steady growth of the place – a fact they allude to with a sense of pride and ownership.
“Yes nah,” he says. He approves of the development happening around Lagos Island, his ancestral home. “We like the infrastructure. Ah, it has changed a lot! Because when you go to, before Balogun, all this Nnamdi Azikiwe, it’s not been like that before. There are still some old houses. But now it has transformed a lot. You see big, big companies there. You see big, big houses there.”
The streets on Lagos Island are narrow, meandering and confusing – vehicles and human traffic are not an uncommon site. This place, the former business capital of Lagos, much like the Wall Street in New York, has more than its own fair share of high-rise buildings, rolling elegantly into the skyline.
Underneath these elegant buildings, in complete irony to the status and class symbols they represent, are traders, artisans, hawkers and vehicles hustling for a daily bread. The famed Balogun market is in fact a street market that sits underneath a sprawling high-rise building – which ends at a point, giving way to the sea of activities in Balogun.
Lagos Island is the capital of all forms of commerce in Lagos.
There are many historical treasures buried within this Island – some, like the Freedom Park which was a former colonial prison, are inanimate, others are etched in the blood of Lagos Island residents – like the Afro-Brazilians who still inhabit parts of the Island.
From the mid-19th century down to about 1930, former slaves, who were captured off the coast of West Africa and sailed off to Brazil, and their descendants, began to repatriate back to Africa. Most, especially the Yoruba former slaves, landed in Lagos where they were given home on Lagos Island and in Badagry.
Bringing with them a unique blend of Afro-Brazilian culture, religion and lifestyle practices they learnt inbuilt to reflect their heritage from South America, with their family names scribed on the walls.
Except one is told or learns their names, there is no other way to identify an Afro-Brazilian. The early returnees formed a close community at Campos, a few feet away from Freedom Park, which they call Brazilian Quarters.
“There are Brazilians at Campos, after city hall,” says Olawale, “They’ve taken Nigerian names. Their houses they write names on it. Maybe Gonzales or something else.”
“Now, everything has loosened up. You cannot differentiate except they tell you by themselves. Some of them are married to Nigerians and their women are married by Nigerians. So they name their children Yoruba names. So that’s how it’s been”
And it is not only in names that the Brazilian Quarters have changed too. Over the years, through colonialism, independence, coup and counter-coup, and, finally, civilian rule, Afro-Brazilians have steadily lost what is left of their heritage from Brazil – even though they stubbornly cling to what they can hold like some of their cuisines and, especially, the Fanti Carnival.
Sitting on a low deck chair is Alashe Salvador – an elderly man with watery eyes and whispery voice. He is sitting in front of his ageing Brazilian-style home, watching the slow foot traffic at Campos. Beside him young children are playing, blocking the entrance to the house.
Alashe says that his great-grandmother was an Afro-Brazilian, a returnee from Brazil. He points to the different houses at Campos, name calling each of the families that live there – Da Silva, Pieros, Fernades, Salvador, Souza.
He points out that the Afro-Brazilians played a critical role in present-day Nigeria and although they might be underrepresented in governance, they have proven themselves to possess a higher level of intelligence and are more educated than most.
“The Brazilian people are very intelligent and we don’t have time for local politics. And we’re more educated than most people on Isale Eko,” says Alashe. “The Brazilians are now trying to speak up, to show that we’re existing.”
The Afro-Brazilians also brought with them religious practices from Brazil. Alashe points at the visible towers of Holy Cross Catholic church and says that the church was the main place of worship for the returnees. Across the road, also, is a cemetery.
It is not that the Afro-Brazilian culture of Lagos is disappearing, Alashe argues, instead, it is evolving, spreading across and beyond Lagos, while still adapting and assimilating other cultures – especially the Yoruba culture, given how both cultures have existed side by side for years.
“We are mostly Yoruba,” Alashe agrees, but their forebears’ sojourn abroad as enslaved people and later as returnees gave them a distinction and deeper complexity in identity and social systems.
Alashe says that most Afro-Brazilian children have left their ancestral homestead at Campos, Lagos Island, and now live in other parts of Lagos. But, still, they return to Campos every Christmas and other festivities to celebrate their more than a century old heritage.
“There are now efforts to learn the Portuguese language again,” he says, acknowledging that a few Afro-Brazilian can speak the language that their forebears returned to the motherland with.
Alashe also adds that a lot of young people (Afro-Brazilians) now know more about their Afro-Brazilians roots and it gets better with time.
And although most Lagosians (perhaps, Nigerians) know very little about the Afro-Brazilians living amongst us today, Alashe says that this doesn’t change history neither does it minimise their impact.
“I can’t remember the actual date [original Afro-Brazilians came back to Lagos] but it was in 18-something. Even before the British, our forefathers were dealing with Portuguese. ”
“The history is there, you can’t change the story,” he adds, noting the important place of Afro-Brazilians in time.
Read the previous instalment in this series: