‘Freeing’ a modern-day slave (part two)

breaking chainsAs 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.

Looking back on 2015: A disturbing trend in Brazil


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.































World Cup reflections

As usual, a highly publicised international event has arrived in my city and I’m watching it on television. Salvador’s Fonte Nova stadium has seen dramatic games and a torrent of goals. That’s likely to dry up (Fonte Nova means New Fountain in Portuguese, hence the pun) in the quarter-finals, if the round of 16 is anything to go by.

Orisha statues by Tatti Moreno (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

Dique do Tororó with the stadium under construction in the background (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

I had lunch on Tuesday with two American friends who were going to the USA-Belgium game later that day. I haven’t heard their feedback but the view from my TV was thrilling. That wasn’t their first World Cup match at Fonte Nova. They told me that even when the seats are way up high, they have a spectacular view – the stadium was designed to make the city’s lovely Dique do Tororó part of the scenery. However, it seems that the Baianas do Acarajé (women in traditional dress who sell Afro-Brazilian bean fritters) were nowhere in sight, although they ostensibly won their fight to overturn FIFA’s ban on their presence within a mile (or kilometer?) of the stadium. In fact, my friends have seen no street vendors whatsoever in the vicinity of Fonte Nova – and they said there were plenty during the World Cup in Germany.

Acarajé sellers demanded to be allowed to sell their wares near the stadium during the World Cup

Acarajé sellers demanded to be allowed to sell their wares near the stadium during the World Cup

They also told me that, inside the stadium, they could have been anywhere in the world. It has been entirely stripped of its Bahian and Brazilian identity for the duration. Very sad.

Another American friend informs me that there are plenty of scalpers. There is hope yet of seeing at least one game – the last one is scheduled for Saturday – but I’m not too optimistic. A seat way up in the ‘gods’ is bound to cost a minimum monthly salary, or more. I’m not sure it’s worth it, no matter how dazzling the view.

World Cup’s doing wonders

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.

Here’s a report about the project

New neighbourhood, old issues

The new view makes it all worthwhile

The new view makes it all worthwhile

We are now living in Cabula, a district of Salvador with a distinctly African-sounding name that is home to one of its greatest terreiros (Afro-Brazilian temples). According to Wikipedia – caveats duly noted – this area used to be a maroon settlement, or quilombo, formed by escaped slaves of Bantu origin – from cultural groups currently found in Angola. Cabula is also the name of a secret 19th-century sect that combined elements of Spiritism, Islam and Bantu religious beliefs. Powerful stuff! I have also found that Cabula might also be the name of a town or region in Angola itself. Any confirmation of that will be greatly appreciated.

One thing I noticed right off when we moved into our new place was the high level of security – or at least, security preparedness. We received lots of keys, but the main doors to the two buildings in the complex are most always open. Now I know what all the keys are for.

Early this morning, before 6 am, I heard loud voices outside my bedroom door, which also leads to the outer staircase and the top end of the lift shaft. The building management had already advised us about a scheduled power outage that was supposed to start at 8 am, so I thought the voices and banging I heard were maintenance workers getting a head start. I almost popped my head out the door to complain. So glad I didn’t.

After tossing and turning in bed for a while, I heard more voices, and then the original two identified themselves as “police”. That gave me a chill, because the last time someone had shouted “police” outside my bedroom was when I lived in a very low-income district, and I had just heard the same voice issue death threats to the kids who were sheltering under our house’s overhang. I played possum both times.

This time around – and this is the most credible version of the story I’ve heard so far – an individual was seen running into the complex and the security guard called the police. The most incredible part – though I know it’s true – is that they actually came! They must have spent hours scouring every floor and stairwell, because I later heard that the police were still there when my housekeeper arrived at 7:30 am. They don’t seem to have found the intruder, and the janitor tells me no one was burglarised. The mystery deepens.

It is a bit strange after 17 years in a much larger complex with – presumably – much better security. Living in a country with such huge income disparities, where even people renting a flat in a run-down building in an up-and-coming neighbourhood would seem rich compared to those living in shacks in hardscrabble slums, invasions of apartment complexes are bound to happen. It’s not the first time we’ve experienced it – the last time was nearly 20 years ago. Two apartments in our building in Rio Vermelho were burglarised on All Souls’ Day, when many people in Bahia head for the cemeteries to remember their dead (we were home at the time, which may explain why we were spared).

Perhaps the main doors of this complex in Cabula will be locked from now on – or until we let our guard down once again.





Statues on the Dique do Tororó

Orisha statues by Tatti Moreno (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

Orisha statues by Tatti Moreno (photo: Sabrina Gledhill, 2012)

In my last post, I reflected on the lack of wildfowl on the Dique do Tororó. I failed to mention another element that has become a permanent part of the landscape so far, heightening its status as a tourist attraction and picture postcard while causing some controversy. I’m referring to the statues of orishas, Afro-Brazilian divinities, created by sculptor Tatti Moreno and installed in and around Tororó during the most recent landscaping project completed in 1998.

The statues are controversial because the Pentecostals disapprove of religious imagery in general. The previous mayor, João Henrique Carneiro, was of that persuasion. He allegedly wanted to remove them for religious reasons, but their scenic and tourist value spoke louder. For practitioners of Candomblé, as orisha worship is called in Bahia, the statues are just that.  Statues. They do not contain any ashé – the divine energy of creation. The lagoon is sacred for its waters and is still the site of offerings, although they have to be made discreetly since the landscaping project was carried out.

Previously, the picturesque boats that transport pedestrians from one side to the other in lieu of a bridge could also be hired to go out to the deepest parts of the Dique that are sacred to Oshun and Yemanjá, and place offerings in the waters. To this day, in the wee hours before the Yemanjá Festival on 2 February, devotees head for Tororó to make offerings for Oshun, the divinity of fresh water, motherhood and prosperity, beforehand. That is because the feast of Our Lady of Light is actually Oshun’s day, according to the traditions that associate Afro-Brazilian divinities with Catholic saints (see my post on Afro-Brazilian syncretism).

Statue of Oxum by Tatti Moreno. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/celiacerqueira/4629669537/

Statue of Oshun by Tatti Moreno. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/celiacerqueira/4629669537/

Dique do Tororó – Salvador’s fowl-free Serpentine


 Postcard of the Dique do Toróro at the turn of the century

Link to photos of the Dique when there were geese (scroll down)

I love to drive by the Dique do Tororó – an artificial lagoon encrusted in the heart of Salvador, Bahia. If you look at the water and its landscaped surroundings, you will almost feel that you have found London’s Hyde Park in the tropics – at least, the Serpentine. But if you look in the other direction, you will see jumbled heaps of motley brick dwellings sprouting almost organically from the hillsides. And this is where the European concept of a manicured urban oasis cum sculpture garden misses out on the most important factor – in my mind – the swans, ducks and geese that are the main adornment of any London park, or English river, for that matter. Attempts have been made to introduce different kinds of wildfowl into the Tororó landscape, but they have all met with foul play. In other words, they ended up on someone’s dinner table. Until the problems of poverty and the attendant hunger pangs are solved in the surrounding neighbourhoods, the wings of wild geese will never shimmer over the waters of Tororó.


Aerial view of Dique do Tororó – taken before the construction of the present-day Fonte Nova Arena

When the police go on strike

Scene from the 2012 police strike - source: http://historiadenina.blogspot.com.br/2012/02/salvador-na-greve-da-policia-militar-da.html

Scene from the 2012 police strike in Salvador, Bahia – source: http://historiadenina.blogspot.com.br/2012/02/salvador-na-greve-da-policia-militar-da.html

One of the first words I learned in my Portuguese class for Spanish-speakers at UCLA was greve. “Strike” is huelga in Spanish. Like earthquakes, your first police strike is the hardest. The shock of seeing troops and military tanks in the streets before realising that, no, it isn’t another coup. But this one – the third in my experience – is the worst in terms of violence and fear. A siege mentality has set in, and it’s only day two. Salvador’s unarmed municipal guard is refusing to police the streets because it isn’t safe for them, so imagine how ordinary civilians feel. Some buses run, others don’t. All of them stop much earlier than the 6-pm “curfew.” Most shops are shut, including grocery stores. Opportunistic individuals and gangs are robbing business establishments and sweeping down streets and beaches snatching wallets, mobile phones, handbags, necklaces, whatever dangles. Some of the “hooligans” are probably striking police officers, making sure we miss them – they’re never around when they aren’t on strike.

Another day in Paradise.

Quick update on April 18, 2014

OK…so the military police strike ended last night, and today one of the leaders (now a city councilman) was arrested for his role in the 2012 strike – just a coincidence, I’m sure. And now the strike seems to be back on, in reprisal for the arrest of the city councilman who, by rights, shouldn’t be out there leading strikes in the first place… And the beat(down) goes on.