I recently published an anthology entitled Manuel Querino (1851-1923): An Afro-Brazilian Pioneer in the Age of Scientific Racism. All but one of the chapters were originally published in Portuguese and are available in English for the first time. They cover several aspects of Querino’s life and career – leaving enough topics for at least a revised and expanded edition. The facets included in this publication are his work as a politician and militant journalist, art historian, Black vindicationist (he was the first Afro-Brazilian scholar to underscore the positive contribution of Africans and their descendants to Brazilian society), ethnologist and food scholar. For more information on the e-book, paperback and hardback editions, visit https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B097N4F8CB/ref=cm_sw_r_tw_dp_RS4D5PVVYJYDMW0B34CS via @AmazonUK or search for Gledhill Querino on your country’s Amazon website.
As I wrote in part one, I like to think that I freed a slave – a young girl who was being forced to work as a maid for no pay in Brazil – but looking back, I realised that she was, in her own way, a free agent…
Although this story could have taken place today, it happened nearly twenty years ago. I was helping organise the first PercPan percussion festival in Salvador’s Castro Alves Theatre, and had to spend a few nights at the nearby Hotel da Bahia (now the Sheraton). Whilst there, I invited my daughters and Bela over to the hotel to enjoy the pool. I noticed (or was told) that Bela spent most of her time talking to the hotel manager’s son, who was about her age. I thought nothing of it. The next day, I rang home to see if anyone wanted to stay at the hotel whilst I was working (I usually got back at about 2 am). Bela answered the phone and pipped my daughters at the post, eagerly accepting the invitation. Again, I thought nothing of it. When I got back from work at the usual time, I knocked on the hotel room door and no one answered. I thought Bela must be asleep, so I went down to the lobby and rang the room (I only had one key and had left it with her). No answer. Unable to get into my room and not knowing where Bela was or what she was doing, I decided to take the lift to the penthouse and say good-night to my boss, thought better of it when I reached the 10th floor, and headed back down the staircase. There, in the stairwell, I found Bela in a clinch with the hotel manager’s son!
As a result of that and other indications, I began to worry that Bela was trying to use her youthful sexual charms to get a leg up in life. I feared that if she stayed in the ‘big city’ she would finish up as a prostitute, so I purchased a bus ticket to her home town and sent her back to her mother with a small amount of cash to tide her over. She rang me when she arrived to say she had ‘lost’ the money and I commiserated, but didn’t offer any more.
It turns out that I was right about Bela’s use of her sexuality, but she did so within the legal smokescreen of marriage. She accepted a much older suitor who had been pursuing her before she moved to Salvador (yes, she was still underage) and eventually came to own a chain of beauty parlours. Either divorced or widowed, she went on to marry a doctor who was closer to her age, and as far as I know, she is still happily married and a successful businesswoman to boot.
Did I ‘rescue’ Bela or was I merely a pawn in her gambit for freedom? I don’t believe I would have done anything differently, either way. Also, I can’t help wondering how many other young women are still enduring a similar situation but cannot find a ‘saviour’ – or save themselves.
Graffiti artists’ protest against the Cabula massacre, seen in that district in 2015. Photo by Sabrina Gledhill (all rights reserved)
On 6 February, 2015, policemen shot and killed 12 robbery suspects in the Cabula district of Salvador, Bahia. An internal investigation by state’s Public Prosecutor’s office found that the victims – all of them young black men – had been executed. The black movement calls it genocide, a disturbing trend in a country where racism has traditionally been veiled and racially motivated lynching almost unheard of. That being said, exterminating street children (the best-known incident being the Candelaria massacre in Rio in 1993) and known or suspected criminals as if they were vermin is nothing new in Brazil. Ironically, there is no official death penalty in that country.
The graffiti art in the photo illustrating this post was not the only response to the Cabula massacre by the Bahian arts community. From May to August 2015, the Museu Afro-Brasileiro (MAFRO) held an exhibition curated by the museum’s director, Graça Teixeira that displayed thought-provoking installations and artworks protesting the genocide of black youth in Brazil.
I like to think that I freed a slave – a young girl who was being forced to work as a maid for no pay in Brazil – but looking back, I realised that she was, in her own way, a free agent…
The regulations governing domestic service in Brazil have changed dramatically in recent years, giving maids and nannies nearly all the rights provided to officially employed workers under the country’s draconian labour laws. Their most recent achievement is the right to the Length-of-Service Guarantee Fund (FGTS). Unfortunately, as householders find themselves having to pay their servants the minimum salary plus benefits, and the tax burden rises, many are no longer able to afford full-time, live-in help and are adopting a system more common in the ‘First World’ – having cleaners come by twice a week at most, to avoid the risk of being sued for failing to sign their work papers.
One way of getting around this is bringing in a young girl from the countryside to work as a maid in exchange for an education. Sometimes the bargain is honoured. In many cases, she becomes a modern-day slave.
My elder daughter befriended one such domestic worker, a fourteen-year-old girl I’ll call Bela. She worked for a couple that lived in the flat above ours. Through my daughter, I would hear that, although Bela was allowed to study, her activities were being increasingly curtailed. After a while, she was only allowed to leave the flat to go to the bakery, and made to work every day of the week, including Sunday, when she did the ironing.
Another sad fact about Brazilian maids is that they are often subjected to sexual harassment. I gathered from the news that filtered through my daughter that this underage girl was being sexually stalked by the man of the house. His jealousy might be the reason for her virtual house arrest, as she was even accused of flirting with the baker!
Even worse – again, according to Bela – she did not receive any money directly. The couple claimed to be depositing her wages in a savings account in Bela’s home town, but there was no proof that this was actually the case.
One weekend, I was taking my family with me on a scouting mission to organise a tour of the region for architects who would be planning a resort on the North Coast of Bahia, and invited Bela to go along. My daughter wanted her to go with us to keep her company, and I felt sorry for her, as she was rarely allowed to cross the street, let alone go on a day trip into the countryside. Bela agreed with alacrity, and we all had a good time visiting the colonial landmarks and resorts I selected for the architects’ itinerary.
When we got back, I was startled to hear Bela say that she could not return to her home/workplace because she had left without permission. She seemed fearful of the consequences. I immediately offered to let her stay with us, and she accepted. My daughter was pleased and I thought I had done a good deed. Then things got complicated…
On a more serious note, the worst experience I ever had with a taxi driver was very recent. It was fortunately just a short way from the Historic District to the Historical and Geographic Institute. Somewhere en route, the driver and I got to talking about crime (always a meaty subject with taxi drivers, as they are unusually exposed to it) and he revealed that he was a police officer. Then he regaled me with the story of how he was jogging along Dique do Tororo in his expensive trainers, wearing an even more expensive watch, when a mugger pointed a knife at him and demanded that he hand them over.
He did, but as the mugger was walking away, the cop/cabbie pulled out his concealed gun and aimed it at his assailant. When the mugger pleaded for his life, the former victim, now executioner, said he was going to send him somewhere no lawyer could get him out of and riddled him with bullets. Then he rang up his friends on the force and had forensics clean up the crime scene!
I was chilled. And terrified. There I was in the same vehicle with a confessed cold-blooded killer who was clearly proud of his exploits. We were close to the institute, so instead of asking him to go around Piedade Square and leave me at the front gate as I would normally have done, I asked him to pull over at the other side of the square, hopped out, paid my fare, and breathed untainted air again. I was reminded of my first impression of Brazil when I arrived in December 1986 – people seemed to be more afraid of the cops than of the robbers. In nearly 30 years, nothing seems to have changed…
One thing I will miss about Bahia is the taxi drivers. They range from friendly, reliable and helpful – particularly Henrique (email@example.com), who was recommended to me by the Sacatar Institute – to the downright psychotic. Since the friendly, reliable and helpful taxi drivers don’t make for a good story, I will focus on the psychos.
The worst was the guy I call ‘rabid road runner meets The Shining’. I was going home in the company of an American friend – which meant that although we were speaking Portuguese in the taxi, his accent betrayed the fact that he was a ‘gringo’ – and hailed a cab near the Afro-Asian Studies Centre. Half-way along, the driver started speeding and I asked him to slow down. Using paggro with which I was all too familiar, he slowed to a crawl until he thought we’d had enough (I said nary a word) and started speeding again. Both my friend and I protested, but to no avail.
When we were finally nearing our destination, I told the driver to turn left into the cul-de-sac where I lived. Instead he revved and tore up the hill to the right. My friend and I both shouted at him to stop, so he pulled over, turned around, and grinned at us with a manic expression that made me think he’d pull out a butcher knife and growl “Here’s Johnny!” We paid and jumped out of the car as fast as we could while he did a 180, burned rubber and vanished around a corner. Just another taxi ride in Bahia…not!
I have been back in the UK for exactly one month and many things spring to mind as a posting topic, but none so emphatically as driving! Of course, there are the obvious differences like driving on the left, as everyone else calls the right side of the road (or as they call it in Brazil, ‘mão inglesa’), but my experience has revealed much sharper contrasts.
When I arrived in Brazil in December 1986, the economy was at a standstill. The day I arrived in Bahia, a general strike had been declared and the beaches were full. There was a price freeze in place and most basic commodities had vanished from the shelves, awaiting a thaw. The people I was staying with obtained dairy products and meat from their relatives in the countryside. The supermarkets were bare. The very thought of purchasing a car was a far-fetched dream for most. When I asked a Capoeira teacher if he had a car, he said he had to sell it because he couldn’t afford the petrol. It took a few minutes to realise he was joking. By the time I left, it was so easy to buy a car that the roads were clogged. Endless traffic jams were making Salvador worse than São Paulo. But in all that time, I never wanted to buy a car. Wondering why? Let me explain.
I had just arrived from Los Angeles, which of course is a city designed for driving cars. Public transport was (still is) so bad that anyone who could afford the cheapest hulk would prefer one. My first automobile in that city cost $100 (purchased from a friend of a friend) and listed to one side. I seem to recall that it was a Ford with push-button transmission. I was immediately pulled over after taking delivery because it didn’t have a catalytic converter!
Thanks to hand-me-downs from my family, I went on to better wheels, but my experience on the roads was pretty much the same – lots of motorway (expressway) driving, both within the city and en route to other parts of the state. I was a prudent driver and kept strictly to the speed limit – living dangerously by LA standards because shortly after I left I heard that drivers who did the same were being shot at! I drove for a total of 8 years before settling in Brazil. And that is where my driving experience ended until last week.
Why, you may ask. would I willingly give up my freedom of movement and put myself in the hands of bus and taxi drivers (the Metro only started running last year and I’ve only taken it once)? Of course, buying a car would have been very expensive – the monthly payments, insurance, maintenance, petrol (or ethanol, which is also an option in Brazil), and parking! But that was not the main or only reason. In short, drivers in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil (being careful not to generalise) are completely insane. Road rage is normal behaviour, especially for bus drivers. Signalling is more like gaslighting. Thought I was turning left? Hah! Gotcha! And motorcyclists weave among the sweltering motorists (who keep their air conditioning turned off to save money) like extras from a Mad Max film. Long story short, as long as I could afford to take a taxi, I preferred to have a professional behind the wheel, but even that had its perils…. (to be continued)
*It has always amused me that in Brazil – at least, in Bahia – if a taxi driver wants to ingratiate himself with a passenger, he (they are usually men) will call them ‘doutor’ or ‘doutora’ (or even worse, for females, ‘madame’). When I was working towards my PhD, I would joke that I wasn’t a ‘doutora’ – just a ‘doutoranda’ (PhD candidate). Then when I actually had a doctorate, I would suggest to those who called me ‘madame’ that ‘doutora’ would be more appropriate! Here in Blighty, people I don’t know routinely call me Dr Gledhill. Still getting used to it.
Recent controversy about the use of the term ‘expat’ for Europeans (as opposed to ‘migrants’ or ‘immigrants’ for people from other parts of the world) gave me pause when choosing the new title of this blog. It is no longer ‘A View from Brazil’ because I’m now in Blighty (aka the UK). However, in my specific, somewhat unique case, I can safely use the term without fear of inflicting a micro (or macro) aggression of any kind because I was raised British in Puerto Rico, have always considered myself British, have never held or desired any other nationality, and never intended to spend my entire life away from the one country where I can legally vote!
That being said, nearly three decades in Brazil – more specifically Bahia – have left me thoroughly acculturated, and that is going to be the main theme of this blog from now on: readapting to life in the UK after living in northeastern Brazil, whilst reminiscing about and keeping an eye on the country I left behind in body but not in spirit. I’ve established a family there which is now in its second generation (also thinking of starting a blog titled Yummy Grannies – all rights reserved).
I need an international driving license and have been putting it off for years. When I finally get around to it, it becomes a Kafkaesque comedy. Of sorts. I’ll laugh about it one day!
Here’s how it’s been going so far…
Today I went to the Brazilian equivalent of the DVLA/DMV and had to queue to get a number, only to be told that I didn’t need one – I just had to talk to the man standing next to me, who was helping a little old lady and taking a very long time. When he was finally free (and there was already someone behind me in the no-number queue), he told me to go to desk X and say M___ sent me, only to be told that I was in the wrong place – they didn’t issue what I wanted there, and I had to go to their outlet at the Citizens Service Centre (SAC) in a nearby shopping mall, where I was told that I didn’t have all the documents I needed, so I went home and will try again tomorrow…
It seems to be a guideline for bureaucrats (unwritten, I hope), even if their job is supposedly to make services more efficient – the whole point of the Citizens Service Centre – that they must always hold back at least one piece of vital information. Yesterday, I was told that I needed a document I had not been informed about when I checked the requirements online. Could be I’d missed it, so no worries, here it is. Then I was told that I also needed to provide black and white photocopies of all documents (fortunately available for an exorbitant price in the mall). No worries, done in a flash. Finally, when I returned with the copies, I was asked if I knew how much it cost! “Erm, has it gone up much? It used to be R$80…” “It went up in March – now it’s R$520! Oh, and there’s another thing – you can’t just bring a 3×4 cm photo any more. It’s all computerised…and the computer isn’t working.” “Any idea when it will be up and running?” “Nope!” “Can you give me a number so I can find out if it’s working or do I have to come by in person again?” “Come by in person! If we gave out our number we’d do nothing but answer the phone all day!” Hoping the third time will be the charm… (By the way, the dialogue was summarised and involved more than one interlocutor – in case it seemed it was that easy to get all the information required!)
The third day was definitely the charm. I have just confirmed hat I don’t need an international driving license in the UK. My Brazilian one will do nicely for up to a year. Just shows that greed doesn’t pay. I would happily have paid R$80 but R$520 gave me pause! Now I find that I don’t have to pay anything…for now. (If anyone knows differently, please tell me!)
I’m used to complaining about the world media’s emphasis on the Rio-Amazon axis in Brazil, overlooking Bahia entirely. These days, more and more features are focussing on Salvador as a “soccer city”. The latest was on BBC World News, about Football Beyond Borders, a lovely project organised by Brits to make the World Cup generate income for underprivileged neighbourhoods.