Monday, 18 June 2007

"Eu vou pra Bahia"*

I suppose the time has come to explain how I wound up in Bahia. The briefest reason I can give is that I sang "Eu vou pra Bahia" so often when playing berimbau that I brainwashed myself into going.

Capoeira had led me to Jorge Amado, whose novel Tent of Miracles introduced me to Manuel Querino, who became the inspiration and focal point of my MA research. Ironically, I knew much more about Brazil when I was up to my eyebrows in books and writing my MA paper. Once I'd graduated, the details were already starting to fade as I was finally being recognised as a Brazilianist by my friends and employers at the Centre for African American Studies (CAAS), who invited me to give a lecture on Querino to celebrate and mark my newfound status.

That lecture was the beginning of the end, because one of the people who happened to be in the audience was Consuelo Novais Sampaio, a visiting professor of History from the Federal University at Bahia, and a good friend of my MA advisor (who also introduced my lecture), E. Bradford Burns. When I told her that I was thinking of going to Nigeria to study Yoruba, she said, "Why not study it in Bahia? They teach it at the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies!"

I didn't need much persuading. The entire reason for making Brazil the focus of my MA in Latin American Studies was to get a grant to visit the country. Unfortunately for me, the topic I chose - Brazilian race relations - was so sensitive at the time that the soon-to-be-defunct military government rejected any scholars intending to study that subject. My advisors - particularly E. Bradford Burns and Johannes Wilbert - suggested that I water down my proposal to make it more palatable.

Either because my heart wasn't in it, or the Brazilian government saw right through me, it was rejected and I finished my MA and graduated without setting foot in that oft-sung land. I ended up paying for the trip with money obtained from a grant to study Yoruba at UCLA and - in true LA style - a game show. My 31st birthday party at CAAS was also a bon-voyage party. I left for Brazil on Tuesday, December 7th, 1986, intending to spend three months in Bahia doing preliminary research for a PhD in History. I was already enrolled and planned to get started on it as soon as I got back; but as Robbie Burns once wrote, the best-laid plans "aft gang a-glee". I decided that, instead of studying the place and its people, I would rather be a part of it. Since then, I have learnt and grown a great deal from living in a society to which I will never fully belong. The following entries will contain excerpts from the diary I wrote at the time.

*I'm off to Bahia

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