Tourists find West Africa in Brazilian city Kinship: Travelers interested in the black diaspora enjoy Salvador in Bahia state, where about 80 percent of the citizens claim some African ancestry.

January 21, 1996|By Kerry Luft | Kerry Luft,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

SALVADOR, Brazil -- Tourists come to Salvador and surrounding Bahia state seeking the same things they find in much of the rest of Brazil -- idyllic beaches, a welcoming sun and an easygoing lifestyle set to a samba beat.

But what they also find here is the most African of Brazilian cities, a place where the dress, the food, the music and even the religion hark back to West Africa.

And increasingly, African-Americans are heading south to Salvador, seeking something that goes beyond a relaxing vacation -- a sense of kinship and a common heritage with the blacks of Brazil.

"Here's this population of Africans whose history parallels that of the African-American in so many ways, and who at the same time maintained so many cultural roots," said Aldon Morris, a Northwestern University sociology professor who brought his family to Salvador last year.

"It's like discovering your counterpart thousands of miles away."

The local government doesn't keep track of the number of black Americans who visit each year, but estimates range up to 5,000 a year, or more than half of the annual U.S. visitors.

Adam Carter, head of the Connecticut-based tourism agency Brazil Nuts, believes the number actually is closer to 2,000, most of whom find out about Bahia through word of mouth.

"In terms of numbers, it doesn't knock your socks off, but it's important for what it represents," Mr. Carter said.

Customarily, black tourists seeking links to their historical and cultural past have headed to Africa, but Brazil -- and Salvador in particular -- may be cutting into that market.

"If you're interested in the black diaspora, you've got to be interested in Brazil," said Carol Adams, director of resident programs for the Chicago Housing Authority and a three-time visitor to Bahia.

"There's more Africans there than anywhere else outside Africa, and they've retained more of the culture than anywhere else."

More than 40 percent of Brazilians claim some African ancestry. But in Salvador, the figure is closer to 80 percent.

They are the descendants of some 5 million slaves Portuguese colonists brought to Brazil beginning in 1532. Working in Bahia's sugar and tobacco fields and the coffee plantations of the interior, those slaves didn't get their freedom until 1888.

Even today, Bahianas -- the women of Salvador -- wear frilly lace dresses and snowy turbans, reminiscent of the women of West Africa. Their cuisine features copious amounts of dende, an oil extracted from a palm tree native to Africa and transplanted in the Brazilian northeast. Okra, an African staple that Louisiana slaves cooked into gumbo, is a key ingredient in several savory dishes.

Bahia, like the rest of Brazil, is heavily Roman Catholic, but its true religion is candomble -- a forerunner of voodoo imported in the holds of 17th-century slave ships. Locals report nearly 200 Catholic churches in Salvador but more than 1,000 candomble terreiros, or houses of worship.

Many black Brazilians can trace their ancestry to Angola, Nigeria or other African nations.

"What people find, and a number have said this to me, is that the African experience here is better than the experience you have in Africa itself," said longtime tour guide Conor O'Sullivan, who shepherded 110 African-Americans from Los Angeles in July and another group of 45 in August.

Some are drawn to the Bahian Carnaval, which rivals Rio's in exuberance, or the Boa Morte festival, an August celebration that commemorates a group of female slaves who worked to buy other slaves' freedom.

"I think what makes Brazil unique for me is what they've retained," said Ms. Adams, who also has visited Africa. "People in Brazil were taken away from their culture, just as we were. You do feel a kinship with the people in Africa, but you know they were never taken away."

To be sure, there are some unhappy reminders of Brazil's slave days. The heart of old Salvador is Pelourinho, a historic neighborhood of colonial buildings that has been declared a "patrimony of mankind" by the United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

A multimillion-dollar renovation and cleanup program has restored many of the buildings, which are among the oldest in South America. It also shooed away the prostitutes and pickpockets who prowled the area.

Pelourinho, translated from the Portuguese, means "little pillar." It refers to the whipping post in the public square where slaves were sold and flogged.

And despite the preponderance of black Brazilians, the ruling class remains overwhelmingly white, including much of the Bahian delegation to congress and the state's longtime political boss, Antonio Carlos Magalhaes.

Even so, black Americans say they feel especially welcome here, despite language barriers.

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