A Brazil travel diary: Nova Terra, Nossa Terra

I am on Ilhabela, which means “beautiful island”. I am here to work in paradise, on a distant shore where my decolonial daydreams have brought me.

I came here by bus from São Paulo, seated next to an elderly and very talkative man who was too tall to put his legs in front of him so he stretched out in the aisle.

I am convinced that every road trip to paradise must include a windy road. I hop on the Balsa ferry to take a short trip to the island — 83% of which is covered in the Mata Atlântica, a lush rainforest I will get to know intimately as I transplant my current master’s research in African studies from the Zambezi to the Atlantic. And surely, there is at least one drop of the Zambezi in the ocean surrounding this island.

My third day here and my residency hosts take me on a boat ride to another side of the island, to a place called Bonete.

The waves coming off the boat meet the sunlight to form rainbows, many of them, and my heart beats fast as we flow past ocean-facing villas, caves and the infinite hills of Atlantic rainforest.

My mind is floating across the ocean and into the very cellulose of the trees. The taste of salt on my lips indicates to me that I am not dreaming; I am really here in paradise.

I swim in a cachoeira (waterfall), the first of many. I walk about the village, which is much more isolated and smaller than the urbanised side of Ilhabela where I will be residing for the next month in a house with three other artists as part of the Casa Na Ilha residency programme.

This is the wild side of Ilhabela. People here are descended from pirates and slaves and everybody in between. The solar panels outnumber the motor-powered boats. I talk to a man named Alesandre; he’s curious about how African women like me survive. I share with him what I can.

A flicker of recognition strikes me. Two men, seated on yellow plastic chairs on the beach. I saw them on the bus the day before, all the way on the other side of the island, and I knew then that we would know each other. A photographer and a neuroscientist, both with warm souls.

We share lulas, mandioca chips and caipirinhas. The sun is unforgiving, matching the attitude of the dreaded borrachudos — bloodsucking black flies, which I will also get to know intimately while on this island.

The people I came with are headed back to the other side, but I decide to stay in this place where I’ve found a little taste of freedom.

The nights were full of stars and the rare magic of phosphorus plankton experienced with Caue, the photographer. The days were full of borrachudos, fresh fish wrapped in banana leaf, conversations on bloodlines and mixed heritage, electric mountain tops, adventures to abandoned beach houses in Enchovas, the secret lives of mushroom spores, hammock naps and ocean dips.

On the fourth day we return by walking the trail. I have only my Havaianas, so barefoot is a better option. The forest floor is moist and muddy. Eduardo, the neuroscientist, says that when he grows up he wants to be as brave as me.

Monday November 20 is Dia da Consciência Negra (Black Consciousness Day) in Brazil.

To deny the contributions of black bodies to what is currently Brazil would be like denying the majority of your family. And you can’t isolate yourself on an island. The interconnectedness is too strong.

I learn, seated in a circle with Brazilians of all shades and ages, that Brazil has the highest population of people of African descent second to Nigeria. How can I explain this feeling of beginning to understand Africanity beyond the mother continent? Perhaps the word saudades — a longing for home, when it feels like I’m already home.

The band plays instruments such as the berimbau, so much like uhadi, the musical bow in South Africa. Capoeira, an Afro-Brazil martial art that includes dance and acrobatics, is the only time I’ve witnessed boys and men fight with smiles on their faces to infectious beats. Little girls paint African goddesses on paper and twirl in wide white skirts, which remind me of my own traditional dress in the Lozi culture, musisi.

A mass service consists of a priest spitting bars about acknowledging roots through black consciousness. The floor is covered in red and pink rose petals and the altar is decorated with palms, birds of paradise flowers, little dolls with skin darker than mine and wooden busts of African faces carved from memory.

Then I encounter Nossa Senhora Aparecida, the Black Virgin Mary, one of the most revered saints in Brazil. I came all the way across the Atlantic to witness the worshipping of a black woman, an apparition of the Divine Feminine.

It is clear that music and spiritual consciousness made it across the Atlantic too, crystallised with salt-water and generations of reinterpreting what it means to be human. Africanity is a mode of survival, a way slaves practised their African spirituality in a newfound homeland that catered to Christianity. This may be described as sincretismo, the amalgamation of many spiritual forms.

Many of the people I met at the Black Consciousness festival, celebrating the life of anti-slavery leader Zumbi dos Palmares, have become intimate informants about cultural resistance on this island.

They are members of the queer community here, the carnival community and also members of the Association for the Movement of Afro-Descendants of Ilhabela.

Waking up each day to the sound of the ocean, I’ve been welcomed to birthday parties, samba dancing, poetry slams, municipal meetings honouring the work of cultural workers and surf competitions in Castelhanos.

Another wild side of the island, Castelhanos is the side of Ilhabela facing Africa. Gazing out into the horizon and that feeling of saudades washes over me again.

I hitchhiked through the Mata Atlântica with a new friend named Helena. The temperature drops on the highest peak because we are actually in the clouds.

Giving new meaning to my favourite Bob Marley song, Natural Mystic, this forest She speaks to herself — endless hills of multilayered trees — and She sprouts rare succulents and blossoms particular flowers only once a year. What a privilege to breathe the cleanest air.

The final month of what has been a year of change begins with huge waves crashing on giant rocks and swimming in the Cachoiera do Gato, which is located only a few layers of rock away from the ocean. The sand here is pebbles and in other places fine black grains glitter at night. I learn never to underestimate how deep a river can run.

Castelhanos is a heart-shaped beach and claims at least one life every year. I have found myself sitting cross-legged in a hammock listening to birds singing sweet songs along with Miles Davis playing in the home of an artist named Bea. I met a man named Tanaka and experienced the joy of sharing the meaning of his name in Shona — “We have been made beautiful”.

I spoke to my neighbour named Duda, who says you can tell a Caiçaras — indigenous people of the island — from the thickness of the soles of their feet, punctuated by many borrachudo bites, and hard hands that shake a variation of our handshakes in Africa. A gaze in the eyes lets us know this is real.

Valeu and Axé are affirmations of peace and ways to give thanks while counting your blessings, but there are too many to tell. My heartbeat and dreams have been so distinct while on this island.

The drummer in the band playing at the surf competition gives me his drumsticks, the tips bearing the marks of powerful musical beats to match my own tempo.

I am a one-womxn band, featuring a multiverse of island folks with diversity for days, much like the Mata Atlântica. 

Chaze Matakala
Chaze Matakala
African Studies Scholar & Visual Storyteller
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