On travelling alone across the black Atlantic

On my last night in “the colony” before journeying to Brazil, a rare thunderstorm strikes the Western Cape.

The thunder applauds my departure as I fly across the Atlantic. I was blissfully unaware at the time, fidgeting in my window seat with excitement and discomfort, that the feeling of being indigenous is relative.

A layover in Luanda gives me time to catch a glimpse of the full moon and transition from the Portuguese I grew up speaking in Maputo to a new accent — a new iteration.

I land in São Paulo as dawn is breaking. A Canadian man I meet in the immigration line treats me to a coffee and a toasted cheese sandwich. I change currencies, buy a SIM card and touch base with my Queen Mother and sister.

Upon stepping out of the airport, I begin to understand that wealth should be measured by the quality of air you breathe. The last time I saw this much vivid green was at home in Lusaka, December 2016.

This is my first time being a tourist on a new continent. Despite my hybrid upbringing in the southern region of Africa, I have yet to travel in a way where visiting museums, parks and cathedrals is on the agenda.

I will be in São Paulo for eight days, hosted by my friend Bridget O’Brien and her family in a lush green suburb of the city. I am in awe of the jungle in their backyard, the birds that wake me up each morning with a chaotic symphony.

What has to have been the most memorable party (so far) happened on my first Sunday in São Paulo.

Take one-part Samba, shake with two parts local black-owned businesses, sprinkle with curls and coils of all dimensions, throw in some live graffiti by Black Womxn artists who don’t mind inhaling spray-paint fumes, now choreograph that samba rhythm with a couple hundred bodies in a tower brick building, bring in every couples’ favourite local singer so we can sing along and feel Collective Love.

Now what does it mean to be referred to as Negra or Preta? I’m learning to take it as a compliment.

Blackness means something totally different here and that is something beautiful to discover. It feels like the black population of Brazil is in a moment of remembering — remembering what it means to be of African descent.

What was it that triggered this?

On the other side of the Atlantic in South Africa, where I find some sort of home base, blackness has always been a thing. But what this party — made free to the public — has me thinking is: Has being indigenous been a source of pride for Africans?

Yes, we’ve been divided, our consciousness sold, resold at a higher price, diluted and, in some instances, so highly concentrated. But what I’m really concerned about is: Would we be as proud to be indigenous if we were not invented as the Other?

Here on the other side of the Atlantic, a man holds me by the wrist and asks me where I’m from. A question I’ve been asked many times in Cape Town, usually the second question to be asked upon meeting a stranger.

Of course, this context is different. I tell him I’m from Zambia and he says, “I knew it, I knew you were African.”

I’m shook.

This man is beautiful, Angolan, and so is his friend, Cape Verdean. That familiar smell of melanin, coconut oil and sweat. And yet, I stand out. The diaspora experience is one of alienation and comfort.

I meet the beautiful man twice more during my stay in São Paulo. Once at a public square, Praça Roosevelt, a skate park where two young girls come to speak to me about God, and two young women sell me traditional Brazilian sweets called brigadeiros. We check out an exhibition by young artists and the crowd is lit with delight, everybody is happy to meet me, again.

Upon entering the underground metro, we ask a man who is cleaning about the time the station closes, because we want to get fresh mango juice from the corner store before departing.

The man says he doesn’t speak Portuguese, only English, hails from Nigeria. For once my colonised tongue comes in handy! We communicate in a language that is not ours and I contemplate the situation of three Africans in Brazil negotiating two European languages to understand one another.

The beautiful man and I meet again on a day when I had spent the afternoon at the Mercado Municipal, the biggest market in the heart of the city, where the juice of exotic fruits dribbles down my elbows and the fruit vendors argue for my hand in marriage. We meet at Aparelha Luzia, a venue decorated in gold embroidered tapestries of Candomblé ceremonies and black and white images of the Black cultural resistance.

Aparelha Luzia is where emerging artists of the queer and black community in São Paulo perform, gather and celebrate.

It tends to drizzle every so often in this city, never too long to stop the party, and one in every four people has an umbrella under which we huddle.

I’ve been walking the streets of this urban jungle on my own with my 35mm camera disguised in chitenge — pulling out my other eye on the environment, where every other building wall has a colourful mural on it, a reclaiming of space.

With my 35mm, I have been aiming to capture what it feels like to be lost and finding myself in a new place.

I’ve been taking the underground metro on my own, something the beautiful Angolan man is surprised by. It is a brave thing to travel alone as an African womxn, let me tell you.

It is also something liberating, like no other experience. It comes naturally given that our daily existence asks us to be hyper-aware of our safety, strength and beauty and how these three things intersect to make us desirable and on the defence. This is a curious and empowering experience that I wish upon all African womxn.

And it goes something like … waiting for a solar-powered hot shower on an overcast Monday, a newfound gratitude for sunny days.

Açaí palm, blueberry, avocado smoothie delight and the sound of helicopters lifting police and/or elites to the highest hill. This city is rolling hills and almost every crevice bears the mark of something indigenous.

Being blessed by the Archbishop of São Paulo in a Gothic Catholic cathedral in the heart of the city, where homeless people of all shades sleep outside a place of salvation and a local middle-aged couple steals a photograph off me without consent.

I guess I appear like the African Mother Mary on a Sunday, with my head draped in braids, beads and a white scarf and crumbs of coconut and banana cake on my smiling cheeks.

I’m breaking in a new pair of heels on the concrete and falling in love with every tree and Black person who recognises me from a past life.

The soil here is fertile; the water is never too cold. I know this feeling of remembering, of untying my tongue and reading words plastered on a street corner: Ninguém é LIVRE enquanto alguém é ESCRAVO — No one is FREE while someone is a SLAVE.

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Chaze Matakala
Chaze Matakala
African Studies Scholar & Visual Storyteller

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