By Roy Gachuhi
There are compelling aspects of the African spiritual universe that the slave ship which took away Heloisa Helena Costa Berto’s ancestors hundreds of years ago and landed them in Brazil could not erase in their future daughter: a limitless depth of mental strength, dignity, and a musical eloquence.
What is it in Heloisa’s voice that makes you want to play back the tape and listen to her again? There is a great forest and a vast ocean in it, or so your mind thinks as she speaks. There is a fusion of wind and water, waves of it, and the melody of a bird in the forest. It reminds you of nature that is undisturbed. It soothes. It comforts. It reassures. That is why you want to listen to it, again.
Heloisa is heir to a tradition of Afro-Brazilian religious practices originating, she tells me, from ancient Dahomey, now the Republic of Benin. It is a highly matriarchal order and which places special emphasis on respect to mothers and preservation of the environment. The beliefs are founded on the naturalness of the world.
“Everything in nature has meaning,” she says. “Do not desecrate it.”
Heloisa is one of Brazil’s thousands of victims of the coming to this country of the Olympic Games. She lived in Rio de Janeiro’s prized western zone, in a neighbourhood called Villa Autódromo, where developers wanted to build Olympic Park and private apartments. For 18 months, she waged a daily struggle to preserve her land, in which stood her inherited spiritual centre, and suffered humiliations and prejudices based on her race, religion and gender. She ultimately lost the battle and was evicted but she didn’t lose the eloquence to tell her story.
In a stirring letter detailing her woes at the hands of City Hall published by the community reporting and advocacy organization, RioOnWatch, Heloisa described herself and her Afro-Brazilian religious calling thus:
“I am the daughter of Nana. Nanã is responsible for my existence; she is the one who owns the small piece of land which I care for. Nanã, the Earth Mother, the great matriarch! Nanã is a very old orixá, associated with still waters, with mud from the swamps, and with silt from the river bottoms. Nanã is the lady of death, the one who receives her children after death.
“Nanã is in charge of my Candomblé. This Candomblé was created by her, with her, for her. It emerged through a promise from my birth mother at the edge of a muddy lake, in which she delights and where we began to build our home 35 years ago.”
Brazil has a long history of military dictatorship and the influence of the military is evident even now during civilian democracy. The military police are a central plank of the law enforcement process. Shock troops patrol the favelas and shootings of unarmed civilians is common.
Heloisa told me the black woman in Brazil comes last in the social order. It is bad enough for the black man but far worse for the woman who is demeaned and has to keep struggling hard for basic human rights like education, health care, housing, food. And dignity. Because of this, she has made the empowerment of women her life’s work, through a non-governmental organization she is in the process of forming. And even if she doesn’t think she will live to see the day they will be treated as equal citizens of Brazil, she believes her grandchildren will.
Brazil has almost 60 million people of African descent. It is the second country in the world with the largest number of black people after Nigeria. It was also the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery, which it did in 1888. Race relations remain frayed despite external appearances.
Being demeaned is as if the only life that Heloisa has known. It seems to come from every direction she turns. It comes from those with prejudices against black people, from those who despise people of modest means, from male chauvinists, and from evangelical preachers who deride hers as a demonic practice.
“Yet,” she laments, “we have never hurt anybody, never stolen from anybody, never insulted anybody, never advocated any of these things. We have only just wished to live according to the dictates of God which is to be at peace with people and the environment. We are discriminated against entirely because of who we are and not because of any wrong that we ever did. But we forgive their ignorance, even as they cause us so much suffering.”
The utter contempt with which many people treat her faith is graphically captured in her description of one her countless encounters with an officer of Brazil’s equivalent to our Ombudsman.
She said: “I returned to the Public Defender’s Office once again and they told me we could resolve everything at the sub-prefecture. When I arrived there, they told me to come back in a week on the following Tuesday, July 14, at 3pm. Upon leaving I said, ‘If it’s God’s will, everything will be resolved next week.’ To this, the negotiator replied, ‘If it’s not God’s will, it will be his enemy’s will.’
“I was offended by this, as I do not worship the enemy of God. Anyone with minimal religious knowledge knows that God’s enemy is Lucifer. I don’t have the habit of saying this name and the negotiator has no right to associate me with this entity. In the end I just replied that my father is God.”
The peaceful nature of her faith did not prevent her violent eviction. And yet she is not bitter with the Olympics, the catalyst of her misery. The Games are good for young people, she told me. The youth should involve themselves in sports as a way of channeling their energy away from harmful habits such as drug abuse. But a way must be found to prevent mass evictions of poor people to make way for mega projects which later go to seed after the Olympics end.
“When I see my mother’s promise become no more than dust,” she lamented the destruction of her centre in her letter, “I feel a physical pain in my heart that flows from me as rivers of tears. I have been negotiating with the city for over a year. I have always been clear regarding my spiritist center, and always stated that my house is a spiritist center. The part that is mine is my room, but it is not my house. I am dispossessed of material goods, and live only for my religion. I am a caretaker for the saints and it is in their name that I negotiate. Nothing belongs to me. Despite this, I have a great responsibility. I don’t have permission to stop, falter, give up, fail, or go against the wishes of my mother Nanã. But I have fallen!”
When recounting this to me, she wept those rivers and we paused the interview to allow her time to regain her composure. She did, and went on about how her spirit does not allow her to give up. Those are holy orders. When she was smiling again, she addressed me: “I am very happy that I have met a journalist from Africa. Take back a hug to Africa for the people of the continent of my ancestry from me.”
Roy Gachuhi is in Rio de Janeiro as a writer-in-residence with Agencia Publica, an independent Brazilian investigative journalism news agency.