In early October 2018, just after the first round of voting in Brazil, I got a message from a comrade in Salvador, Bahia. He wrote:
How do you think that we here in Brasil can organize a real program of repatriation to Kenya? You think that is possible? We are here very close to living under a president that is racist and fascist. You believe that we here can move a serious project to Africa, or even a refugee program?
Since I had not spoken to this friend in a while, I was surprised to get this message. But in view of recent events in Brazil—the coup against President Dilma Rousseff (she was impeached and then removed from office on flimsy grounds), the imprisonment of her predecessor, Lula (to prevent him from running for president again), the still unresolved murders of indigenous and black activists, including former congresswoman Marielle Franco—perhaps I should not have been.
I had known this comrade—let’s call him Zumbi—since I was first in Brazil in 2006. Having intentionally “escaped” the privileged position of being a recently graduated international student in Canada, I went to Bahia for reasons that are still not always quite clear to me now (and is also a tale I rarely tell). Inevitably, these motives then became a mixture of every possible cliché you have heard about why people go to Brazil. At different points it was lessons in Afro-Brazilian culture, “escaping Babylon,” left wing politics, tumultuous and tempestuous romance (of a scale rivaled by no other country in the world), deluded hippie aspirations and young and dumb twenty-something lessons in unbridled surrender. Yet, even against the transience of these motivations, there was always something immaterial and raw that turned my head, my heart, my whole body, towards an ancestral sentience in Bahia that I am grateful to have felt and continue trying to understand.
But I was not deluded by the “racial paradise” narrative that persisted and still persists; my African passport and places of residence made sure of that (also is it just me who feels that white supremacy in Latin America is another level of vitriolic?). And so it was in these movements living in Salvador and trying to understand Africa in Brazil that I first met Zumbi, an Afro-Brazilian educator, historian and writer.
Twelve years after our first conversations about Africa and Brazil and the exchanges and “returns” needed, and against the backdrop of a possible Bolsonaro win, he was writing to me asking if and how he could come back “home.”
In his next message this was more explicit:
Yes sister, so we will begin to organize ourselves for a reconnaissance visit. There are two points I want you to think about with us: 1) A repatriation program for 5-10 families who can live and work in Kenya (and this is a project to develop in 5-7 years); 2) An urgent refugee program, in case it is necessary next year, for some of us that shall eventually need this kind of support. It is just a calling to think together. We are really concerned about the terrible things happening these days, and it can really be worse if this wannabe Trump is elected.
Unfortunately, this “wannabe Trump” was elected, and so Zumbi’s final message to me in late October was: “and so we elected a nazi fascist president.” These words were accompanied by an image in which Brazil’s national territory and flag are overlaid with a Nazi flag.
Zumbi is not alone: since the final round of elections that consolidated Bolsonaro’s win, my people in Brazil have been trying to come to terms with their situation. This is not to say that previous years have been easy and “fascism” is only a thing of the present; with one of the highest LGBT murder rates in the world, the enduring police occupation of favela (i.e. “slum”) communities and the high rates of incarceration of, predominantly, black youth, the struggle has always been real.
Yet, it seems to many that things, in the time of Bolsonaro (and his degenerate kin proliferating in other parts of the globe), are really getting worse. Though there are and were many concerns one could have with Lula and his party, Partido dos Trabalhadores [the Workers’ Party], and Lula himself was not a saint (see, as but one example, Brazil’s role in Haiti during his tenure), there seemed, then, a spirit that continued and was very palpable, which energized many movements to keep fighting. My recent conversations highlight that many of those who have always been animating these struggles in their communities are in disbelief, are exhausted and are expressing the desire to just leave. Though these feelings may be temporary, their weight in the present is profound.
Another academic and activist sister in Sao Paulo, who I also spoke with recently, conveyed the fear that she and her friends—mostly black, female and queer—felt in the streets, the suffocation, and how this was affecting her mental health so much so that she just wanted to get away.
Mourning the killing of much loved and celebrated capoeira master, Mestre Moa Do Katende, by a Bolsonaro supporter a few hours after the first round of voting on October 7 2018, others expressed that “the 12 stab wounds that killed Moa Do Katendê came from the mouth of Bolsonaro.”
And the violence keeps coming from Bolsonaro’s mouth: in the first few hours of his presidency Bolsonaro has already worked to reverse landmark land gains that indigenous and black Quilombola [maroon] communities had fought for over many years. These are rights to identify and set aside new areas for them, and, likely informed by Bolsonaro’s wanting to conduct commercial mining and farming in indigenous reserves, any land claim decisions will now be adjudicated by the Agriculture Ministry and not the Ministry of Justice.
Bolsonaro has also pledged to end “Marxism” in education, with a related vision to challenge the racial quotas introduced by Lula that, in a context of sinister structural racism, have enabled many Black Brazilians to go to university. In one instance, debating these quotas, he said, “I never enslaved anyone” and, likely reading from a fake news history book, “the Portuguese would never step in Africa, it was the Africans who would deliver the enslaved.”
Our wannabe Trump has, still in his first few days of office, made the decision to move the Brazilian embassy to Jerusalem and also plans to replace the human rights ministry with one focused on “family values.”
When we last spoke I told Zumbi that I was not quite sure that Kenya would be an alternative safe place, especially for a refugee program: my country, in many senses, remains highly colonial and anti-African.
For sure Kenya has many merits, but it continues to have a super problematic bromance with Israel, even as it continues to deport Africans. What’s more its legacy of hosting refugees, despite the official narrative, is not unscathed. In addition, like Brazil, our police force continues to kill many young poor people, and one tip of the iceberg survey tallies at least 803 people killed by the police between 2013–2016.
Naturally, I suggested Ghana and Tanzania since they have more progressive histories of recognizing diasporans. But with Magufuli wanting to keep pregnant schoolgirls out of school, and his authoritarian ways, maybe Tanzania is not such a good idea. Although, Kanye West may disagree, I was not even going to say anything about Museveni’s Uganda. Things were not looking good for Zumbi’s refugee program.
All the same, recent events have shown that, even with the contradictory and violent policies of many African contexts, it just may be the right time for Afro-Brazilians to “voltar a Africa.”