Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Angolan Nation

Much has been happening in Brazil over the past month. The Olympics went down just fine, Brazil didn't win many medals but at least got some redemption from the 2014 World Cup 7-1 fiasco against Germany. The President was impeached by the conservative Senate, and the repercussions of this are still unclear. All bank workers have been on strike since the impeachment as a refusal to work with the current President Michel Temer. I repeat, no bank activity besides what can be done online and with ATMs is possible in Brazil right now. The Bank unions have stopped the country's business, and many other protests and political manifestations are making a big fuss. Some groups call for general elections, and most simply demand that the current president is kicked out, because he wasn't democratically elected.

Despite this turmoil I've been doing a lot of work over the past month and wanted to write a synthesis of my current thoughts and findings. I have been influenced by local scholars and have benefited from several meetings and events. Keep in mind these claims are all preliminary. Citations are available upon request.


Candomblé is an umbrella term, used to describe generally a field of religions practiced in Brazil with African origins. Anybody who has critically thought about Africa and its history knows that “Africa” as a continental denomination obscures much of the complexity and internal differences within such an extensive and diverse region of the world. These differences are manifest in Brazil through different “nations” of Candomblé, which correspond to a historically delineated ethnic group. These ethnic groups were particularly relevant during the long era of the slave trade, when traders and colonial officials recorded the known origins of enslaved peoples from Africa, who were transported and arrived in Brazil. Such documents of their lives and journey still exist, and have been used by generations of historians to better understand the differences among the slave population, and their possible origins. These documents include ship logs, bills of sale, baptismal records, marriage records, wills, and funeral records, among others.

However, trusting colonial officials, slave traders, owners and their documentation is risky business for historians. How are we to verify the recorder’s knowledge of an enslaved person’s background? Most of the time the two parties didn’t speak the same language, or were able to communicate little, and the power differential was so stark in favor of the slave trader or slave owner, that an interest in getting a slave’s story straight and verifying background information was questionable at best. Notoriously slave traders, who were not exclusively European, fudged numbers and information in their favor, to boast their own status and success. Despite these fallbacks, much documentation remains to verify the numerous origins and ethnic groups of Africans brought to Brazil, as well as other places in the Americas (most notably the Caribbean, Colombia, and the United States).

The African ethnic groups present in Brazil were often broken down into meta-groups based on huge regions of Africa, also obscuring much important difference. At times, more specific names were used to identify a more precise tribal or linguistic affiliation. Among the meta-groups used to represent African populations in Brazil were “Mina”, “Nago” and “Ijexá”, referring to those from the Mina Coast and Yoruba territories, “Jeje” from Dahomey and the Bight of Benin, “Angola” and “Congo” from large areas of Central-West Africa, including the ports of Luanda and Benguela, which were the biggest and most lucrative for the Portuguese Empire. Often these names were given to slaves who were sold and transported from a particular port, which only represents the final stage in their journey of enslavement on the African continent. Many enslaved people were captured in the interior of the continent by slave raiders or as victims of war, sold several times along the way and sometimes transported between various ports on the coast of West Africa before shipping to the Americas. Such histories and life backgrounds are often obscured or unknown in the remaining documentation.

The Nagô, Jeje, Angola and Ijexá are also examples of the various “nations” that established candomblé traditions, principally in Bahia, as a form of preserving their religious practice, ethnic language and cultural rites. The term “nation” is used as a way of delineating ethnic heritage in the African diaspora, sometimes associated with a particular territory established in Brazil, such as a terreiro (religious site). These particular national delineations often gained more importance in the American context, reconfiguring previous ethnic divisions based on a shared history of struggle in a new context. These nations were especially relevant in the formation of creolized languages, facilitating a shared cultural practice and organization, at times as a subversion of the dominating slave order. The importance of religion as a space of social organization and preservation of traditions is notable historically, and continues to the present. Over the past month I’ve been investigating the importance of national divisions within current Candomblé houses in Salvador.

Much information is known about the Yoruba and the “Nago”, or “Ketu” nations of Candomblé in Bahia. Several historical leaders and founders of these candomblés in the 19th century were born in present-day Nigeria and Benin, and travelled between Africa and Brazil during the periods in which they founded terreiros in Bahia. Because of this proximity and contact with the homeland, these houses often claim to know their African origins specifically and use it as a form of cultural capital and prestige. Many of the leaders were free Africans, and some owned slaves as a way of aggregating community members and family, a common practice familiar in the African context preceding the American form of racialized slavery. Much detailed historical work has been done on these houses and their connections to West Africa, and they have received great attention by the state, activists, both national and international, and through the media as cultural symbols of resistance and perseverance in the face of slavery and racism.

Such Ketu houses are precisely those that have attracted international scholars, artists and other intellectuals since the early 20th century. They are the most well known and historical information about them is most accessible. They have been recognized legally by the Brazilian state as “cultural heritage sites”, preserved as National Patrimony and protected like a park, monument or historic Catholic Church. This gain was the result of protest and struggle only since the 1980s, when religious members and intellectual allies campaigned the federal government to formally recognize the African heritage of Brazil and preserve its cultural value against land encroachments, invasions, hate crimes, etc. Since then, other houses, mostly in the Ketu nation, but a few from others as well, have gained similar recognition at the city, state and federal levels.

The scholarship on Candomblé has often overlooked or downgraded the importance and contribution of the “Angolan” nation of Candomblé, despite its prevalence within Salvador, Bahia and many connections to houses in Rio de Janeiro. Ruth Landes and Edison Carneiro, the two scholars I know best, wrote slanderous claims in the 1940s about the Angolan priests and their houses as corrupted forms of Candomblé practice, often perpetuating attitudes from Ketu members and leaders. Such claims are often based on the Angolan houses’ use of Brazilian native spirits called “caboclos”, seen by Yoruba-centrists as a form of mixing African and Amerindian religious practices. Other comments also concerned the general comportment of Angolan leaders and the form of “dancing” (spirit possession) during their ceremonies. These sorts of internal prejudices divided the Candomblé community and created conflicts about proper ritual practice and cultural tradition, and continue in certain ways today.

I’ve participated in seminars, religious events, read on the topic and interviewed two Angolan leaders to get a better sense of the Angolan nation and its current status within Bahian Candomblés today. Much of my interest came from the fact that much less is written about this ethnic heritage of Candomblé, and those scholars I have studied and wish to build upon presented what appear to be unbalanced views of the Angolan nation, years ago. Another important consideration is the volume of people enslaved in the Angolan region of Africa and transported directly to Brazil for centuries as a trade policy of the Portuguese Empire. I have heard on several occasions from Angolan leaders and members that their nation arrived first in Brazil, and that their nation laid the base for African religiosity and cultural influence in Brazilian culture. I want to know if it’s possible to do a similar historical reconstruction for this nation and its central houses. There are several reasons why this may not be true, being that the early history of Candomblé has few sources and the Angolan peoples had less familiarity with written languages than the 19th Century Yoruba. I am just initiating this phase of my research, so the following are general ideas and impressions based on a limited data set and interactions in the field thus far.

From my observation of public ceremonies as an outsider with no internal ritual knowledge, I have distinguished little difference between the “festas” and the divinities worshipped of the Ketu and Angolan houses. Although the gods are called “nkisis” (sometimes spelled “inquices”) instead of orixás, they seem to exhibit similar qualities, act similarly during ceremonies, and use similar symbols and dress. For example, “Kavungo” in the Angolan nation is the spirit associated with sickness; its food is popcorn, it wears a long straw headdress that obscures the face, it is celebrated in August. I went to a ceremony for Kavungo in an Angolan house, and also witnessed several other ceremonies for the orixá Omolú, also celebrated in August, in various Ketu houses and traditions. They similarly use popcorn in their rituals, including popcorn baths as a form of ritual purification, and the visual presentation of Omolú looked nearly identical to what I saw in an Angolan house.

The main difference between the nations is the use of ritual language. Rather than Yoruba, Angolan houses use a mix of languages with Bantu origins (Bantu peoples being a major linguistic group in Central-West Africa, also a broad and obscuring term). Their chants and ritual activities are in an entirely different language, invoking different spirits and a historical past linked to a different land. I take this difference very seriously, as preserving African language, however creolized, resonates with the history of struggle I previously mentioned, and is a feat only attained within the specific ritual context of Candomblé (as far as I know or have encountered in the literature and my experience in Brazil). One Angolan house I went to until recently offered Quimbundo classes as a further means of preserving the language in Brazil, to counter the accessibility and promotion of the Yoruba language in various Brazilian settings (for example, as a public course offering sponsored by a center at the local University).

Language is particularly important in the ritual context of Candomblé, because the secrets and traditions of the nation are learned only through the oral transmission of rites in that language, which are revealed during initiation. Among other things, this means that I cannot identify the many specific differences between the practices of candomblé nations without initiating myself, and I do not intend to do so. It’s also near impossible, or at least disrespectful and disingenuous, to initiate in more than one nation of Candomblé. My research goals are different, and as of now I’m focused on oral histories and tracing the trajectories of key leaders, especially two women, from the Angolan nation. According to their oral tradition, a few houses descend back at least to a man who was supposedly from Luanda in the mid-19th Century. Although enslaved Africans had been arriving in Brazil from Luanda and other regions of Angola since the late 16th century, it is improbable that I will be able to find any sources, either oral or written, that can link such figures to current practices of Candomblé.

I am currently fixated on the influence of one Brazilian-born female leader, who in the late 19th through the early 20th century initiated many members of the Angolan nation. Her “children” established influential houses that continue today. Through this work I can create what I have been calling “spiritual genealogies” or family trees based on initiation. This analogy works particularly well in Candomblé, as people relate to each other based on familial metaphors (something similar to the “Father” figure of the Catholic Church). Studying this woman is particularly interesting as a re-evaluation of Ruth Landes’ work, because she claimed that the Angolan nation was run by mostly by men—a majority of whom were homosexual. Her theory of matriarchy in Candomblé was largely limited to the few Ketu houses she studied. Expanding the frame of Afro-Brazilian religions and gendered leadership seems promising, to question previous theories and conclusions as well as produce new data and information previously overlooked, at least by academics. I have located some people to begin an oral history project, focused on this women and other related figures in the history of the Angolan nation of Candomblé, which has many links to houses in Rio de Janeiro as well.

With these intentions I am going to work in a few prominent Angolan houses in Bahia over the next few months. At least in one house I have found that the leader, a long time public advocate for Angolan Candomblé and a scholar in the history of Bantu language and culture, has a personal archive with materials of his activities and research throughout his life. He informed me that it’s completely unorganized and deteriorating, so I hope to help organize and preserve some of the essential documents as a way of permitting access to my research and giving back to them as well. I’ve been part of several conversations among Candomblé leaders about the preservation of memory and the construction of archives, memorials and museums within terreiros. Historically, knowledge within Candomblé is passed orally and through ritual transmission. However, the role of scholars in helping document prominent leaders and houses in the history of Bahian Candomblé is unquestionable and highly valuable. Often scholars provide legitimacy and prestige to houses wishing to affirm their particular tradition and practice. I suppose I can offer a similar service for the Angolan nation, with the hope of not meddling too much in the politics of national divisions. I already feel pulled on certain sides, which are sometimes racialized. The Angolan nation observably has more white members and leaders, which presents a threat to the Afro-centric discourse of Candomblé as an anti-racist project and form of resistance to a dominant white order. I think the question of white cooptation and leadership of black religion is worth asking, but I also think it's important to challenge the boundary between black and white as distinct and isolated racial groups. Especially in Brazil, racial mixture often presents itself in various ways besides skin color. For example, one leader of the Angolan nation pointed to his skin color but denied his whiteness, citing his last name as a Catholic name given to black Brazilians as a form of assimilation. Other physical characteristics, such as hair color and texture, nose shape and size, family affiliations, etc. reaffirm black identity in the absence of black pigment. (Not to mention that many historical accounts confirm that Europeans and white Brazilians have been attending Candomblé ceremonies and using ritual healers since the early phases of colonization, not to mention in Africa).  What I've observed in Angolan houses is that many Brazilians of European descent recognize their African heritage and grapple with history of slavery as an important part of their identity. 

In general, the discourse of the Angolan nation appears more inclusive, recognizing connections to native populations and embracing those with spiritual, rather than familial (or blood), ties to the Angolan nation. Angolan leaders claim clearly and loudly that their religion is Brazilian, not African (another big difference from the Ketu nation). The white members of the houses worship and recognize and celebrate an African past to Brazil that is often denied by the certain politicians, public education and other religious institutions. I see terreiros as centers of history learning and making, valuing the preservation of knowledge, continuing the practice of a certain people and recognizing the bright side to a dark past, which is explicitly and politically linked to the history of slavery. Whether or not this history is accurate or empirical is a question only relevant for skeptics and certain positivist academics. I hope to articulate in the future the value and particularities of this Angolan history-making (something scholars have already done in great detail for the Ketu-Yoruba lineages, which tend to have a more Afro-centric view).

I often hear people in Candomblé say, “you do not choose the religion, the religion choses you”. In this way, it is open for everyone, and although this is true in the Ketu nation as well, the Angolan nation appears to present a particularly white-slanted leadership.

These are my initial observations, however, and I look forward to evolving these ideas with new experiences and research.