Lagos, Nigeria – Though he grew up in one of Africa’s largest English-speaking cities, Alexander De Souza remembers a childhood when Portuguese was spoken in the streets, Brazilian dishes were served in the kitchen and friends and family lived in houses styled in the architecture of Sao Paulo.
De Souza spent the early years of his childhood in the “Brazilian quarter” of Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, a part of town so named because former slaves from Brazil settled there to restart their lives in the 19th century.
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Decades of British colonisation that ended in 1960 made Nigeria a firmly Anglophone country, with English the lingua franca and thousands of Nigerians living in countries such as Britain and the United States.
But in the Brazilian quarter of Lagos, the festivals, meals and architecture all have a distinctive South American touch, thanks to the legacy of the “agudas”, a distortion of the Portuguese word for the cotton that became a moniker for the returned slaves.
Yet, many in the quarter worry that these traditions and cultural relics may not last much longer.
The descendants of the freed slaves are moving out of the neighbourhood. Brazilian-style houses have been sold off and renovated. And, in September, a developer levelled the Ilojo Bar, a 161-year-old house built by a returned slave that had been designated a national monument.
“[The demolition is] a very big, massive loss for this culture, for this community,” said Gasper da Silva, a resident of the quarter and president of the Brazilian Descendants’ Union, which organises traditional Brazilian events there.
A question of heritage
Da Silva traces his heritage back to Hemengildo Gaspar da Silva, a prince of the Oyo Empire, which held sway over the Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria and parts of neighbouring Benin before colonisation.
Sold into slavery by his guards in the late 18th century, da Silva’s great-great-grandfather was taken to Brazil and forced to work as a servant.
After gaining his freedom in the 1800s, he sold fabric, married two wives, had five children and then returned to the shores of Nigeria at the age 66.
“He wanted to come back to trace his history,” da Silva told Al Jazeera.
He bought a swath of land in what was to become the quarter, and built a family house in the design of those he’d seen in Brazil.
Families such as the Martins, Da Rochas and Campos – whose very names illustrate the Brazilian influence – did the same: establishing themselves as a unique community of Portuguese speakers in a land that was gradually falling under the influence of British colonists.
When slavery was abolished in the 19th century in the Americas, the number of agudas in Lagos grew as former slaves in Brazil travelled to West Africa.
A census taken in 1888 by the British colonial government recorded 3,221 “Brazilians” in Lagos, according to a 2010 history of slave repatriation in West Africa published by the Brazilian government.
During the 20th century, the city’s population swelled and the post-independence government filled in land around the Brazilian quarter to build modern freeways and high rises for banks and oil companies.
Still, the families in the quarter kept their traditions alive in the face of growing modernity, passing down property and customs from generation to generation.
The neighbourhood continues to hold carnivals every Easter, new year and Christmas, when Brazilian dishes, such as frejon and feijoada, are served to revellers.
An exchange of traditions
The African slaves also influenced the way of life in Brazil. They brought their language, Yoruba, which is widely spoken in southwestern Nigeria today and also in parts of Brazil’s Bahia state. Masquerades traditional to the Yoruba people known as Egungun can also be found in Brazil, just as they can on the streets of Lagos.
On a weekend in late October, a crowd of intoxicated young men followed a masquerade, called an Agodongbo, through the Brazilian quarter, hitting each other with tree branches in a show of strength as they trailed the masked performer.
As Graciano Oladipupo Martins followed the muddy Lagos roads that snake between the narrow, multi-storey houses of the quarter to join the crowd, he noted the changes in his neighbourhood.
“You see, most of the houses are undergoing renovation,” said Martins, a Portuguese language instructor and great-grandson of an African trader who’d sent slaves to Brazil. “The Brazilian touches are fading, gradually.”
Though the name “Brazilian quarter” remains widely used in Lagos today, the neighbourhood’s unique style is becoming less and less apparent, residents say.
Knowing the buildings
Da Silva’s family home, an example of Brazilian architecture that included a distinctive penthouse room on the roof, partially burned down years ago.
Martins sold his family’s house because it was empty. Most of his relatives had moved to parts of Lagos where they could afford land and build their own homes. Developers bought the house and renovated it. Now it looks like any other structure in Lagos, Martins said.
“Some of the Brazilian houses were not well-kept,” said Oluyomi MacGregor, a leader of the Brazilian community. “Some people did not know the history of their buildings.”
Other structures have fallen into unscrupulous hands. The house of Ramon Campos, a structure built in 1812 and overlooking a square that today serves as a space for football games and street parties, was demolished earlier this year without the consent of the family that owned it.
But perhaps no loss has been felt by the community as acutely as that of the Ilojo Bar.
The building, which had hosted a drinking spot and a musical instrument shop at various points in its long history, was one of the few in Lagos protected under the authority of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments.
But members of the family that owned the building claimed it was unsafe and dilapidated, and decided they wanted to tear it down.
Taiwo Awoniyi, chief heritage officer at the National Museum in Lagos, said the family tried four times to raze the building, only for museum officials to intervene.
On a Sunday morning, during the September Eid al-Adha holiday, the bulldozers finally succeeded, levelling the structure.
“It’s a death. We are culturally bereaved,” MacGregor said. “It seems as if there’s a deliberate policy not to have historical heritage in Lagos.”
The demolition contravened the law, Awoniyi said. “The demolition as far as we are concerned at the museum is an act of criminality,” he explained.
Legacy, a historical group based in Lagos, took measured drawings of the building years ago. It could conceivably be rebuilt.
But before its demolition, long-discussed plans by museum officials to restore the building and turn it into a tourist attraction never got off the ground because there wasn’t money to pay for it, Awoniyi said.
Shocked by the building’s destruction, da Silva has discussed with other families the idea of rebuilding Ilojo Bar, perhaps by raising money from wealthy families in the community.
The only people he hasn’t discussed the demolition with are his relatives back in Brazil, the descendants of the two sons of his great-great-grandfather, who remained in the South American country. He has kept in regular touch with them over Facebook, discussing each other’s families and lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
“They are going to feel so bad,” da Silva said of his relatives. “I feel it is going to be a kind of disgrace on our part here.”