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From slave markets to supermarkets: Brazil's complex past and present aren't simply black and white

Image: Yelp.com

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We left Rio on Aug. 18 and came to Brazil's former colonial capital, Salvador, a two-hour flight north. We're staying in an Airbnb apartment right on the beach where surfers come almost every morning to catch the big waves coming off the open Atlantic Ocean.

A few days ago, after taking an early-morning walk along the very well-maintained beachfront path, as many Salvadorians do, we went to our local supermarket called Bompreco. When I went to pay I was surprised to see the words, "Walmart Brazil" displayed on the debit machine. It turns out Walmart Brazil bought Bompreco, which means "Good Price" in Portugese, in 2004 (no doubt for a very bom preco).

This was not entirely surprising since other big American companies like Kentucky Fried Chicken, Subway and McDonalds are also here.

It did, however, get me wondering about something I often do in countries with large populations of African descent: who owns stuff, especially the businesses, and who's in the positions of power. This is a really important question for anyone but especially for people whose history includes centuries of being bought and sold.

This is particularly relevant in Salvador which includes the Historic Center district also known as Pelourinho, (Portuguese for "Pillory") or Pelo. The Center is an incredibly vibrant place that's a hybrid of sixteenth-century European and Afro-Brazilian cultures. The central square is surrounded by majestic buildings with huge pillars, while the cobble-stone side streets are lined with brightly coloured shops and restaurants.

It was the city's centre during the Portuguese colonial period and was named for the whipping post in its central plaza where enslaved Africans were punished. Salvador is one of the oldest cities in the New World, founded in 1549 by Portuguese settlers. It was also the first slave market on the continent, with enslaved Africans arriving to work on the sugar plantations.

It's against this backdrop that we're seeing things that reveal Brazil's morally complex past and present.

We're seeing far more folks who look like the descendants of those who worked those plantations -- that is, the ones who were whipped instead of those doing the whipping. 

The Afro Brazilians we're seeing are doing many of the things we saw them doing in Rio: street vendors, city clean up workers, a few police, beach gear rental people. However, in Salvador, specifically in the Historic Center, which is one of the city's biggest tourist attractions, we experienced something we almost never did in Rio: Afro Brazilians serving us in stores. Also, a few of the many Uber drivers we met while in Salvador were also Afro Brazilian. (Despite my reservations with Uber -- pun intended -- we used it in Salvador because it greatly reduced language problems as we didn't have to deal with cash or explain where we were going since it's all done automatically by GPS.)

We shopped in the seaside Mercado Modelo market. The space, about the size of an average Loblaws, that was filled with slaves for sale 500 years ago, now has aisles of Salvadorian souvenirs and lots of jerseys with the name of Brazilian soccer star Neymar Jr.  

After the market, we took the impressive Lacerda Elevator to the upper part of the city to the Historic Center.

There we visited two museums that were five minutes apart physically -- but miles apart in perspective. The first one showcased the colonial governors of the State of Bahia (where Salvador is located), with rooms full of glass cases filled with old military paraphenalia and walls of pictures of previous governors who were all old, white guys.

The second was a very modern Afro-Brazilan museum featuring colorful Afro-Brazilian art, artifacts and history, including a stunning room filled with ten-foot wooden carvings of more than 15 African gods. They also handed out an English guide on Afro Brazilian history that included some little known facts on slavery in the Americas.

The guide mentioned the well known trans-Atlantic slave trade that lasted four centuries but also the slave trade that came before and lasted 14 centuries: Arabs trading slaves from North Africa. Pulling no punches, it also mentioned the unmentionable: African involvement in the slave trade. This museum was created through a partnership among the Brazil, Bahia and Salvador governments.

However, the most important lesson in Afro Brazilian history came on our way to the Historic Center when we stumbled across a statue of Zumbi.

Now, living in Canada (or while visiting Brazil), it's not everyday that I see a statue of a Black guy, let alone a bare-chested guy in shorts holding a spear and a knife, so this one got my attention immediately.

Zumbi, also known as Zumbi dos Palmares, was the last of the kings of the Quilombo dos Palmares. Quilombos were settlements of fugitive enslaved Africans. And Zumbi doesn't only have his own statue, he has his own day, November 20, when Afro Brazilians honor him as a hero and freedom fighter. Zumbi is actually a national hero in Brazil and has the cred to prove it: an international airport named after him. The Zumbi dos Palmares International Airport serves Maceió, a Brazilian city with almost 1 million people.

That's like Ottawa's MacDonald-Cartier airport being renamed the Louis Riel International Airport...

So, given Zumbi's status, I was shocked at what we found in front of Zumbis's statue the next day: an Afro Brazilian man, in blackface, dressed as a clownish Zumbi, offering to reenact Zumbi throwing a spear for tourists for three Brazilian Reals (about $1.50 Canadian). Maybe he decided that was better than working at Bompreco.

We also saw a show one night at a restaurant in the Historic Center. It featured Afro-Brazilian performers doing dances representing enslaved African's various forms of resistance. In one dance they were dressed as various African gods, in another they performed capoeria, the martial art created by enslaved Africans. This was a show for tourists so it was us in room full of mostly white people watching Afro Brazilians dance a stone's throw from where enslaved Africans were beaten centuries before. 

To their credit, the organizers did hand out a pamphlet before the show giving some background. However, they should do like the Afro Brazilian Museum and provide the good, the bad and the ugly context. Without that, the show, like the Zumbi caricature, is something that exploits Afro Brazilian history to entertain people without challenging them to think or, more importantly, change.

We leave today having learned many things about this amazing country, but one key lesson is: things are not black and white in Brazil.

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Image: Yelp.com

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