Mrs. and Mr. Boye Oseni; Minha Linda, a Salvadoran (middle), at the Odoya Restaurant, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
There is an old saying, dating back to those inglorious slave-dealing days on the South American plantations that still make the rounds today in Salvador, Bahia State, and the first colonial capital of Brazil. Slaves, mostly Yorubas from West Africa, reportedly confronted their slave-masters with this bold prediction, “Your people may have conquered us, but our culture will eventually conquer you.”
Salvador, Bahia, is an important cornerstone of the celebrated and vibrant Brazilian national tourism, but that industry in this nation’s fourth largest city by population swims along in a deep current of old Yoruba influence. This is one place beyond old Yorubaland where you wake up to the sweet and exotic aroma of palm oil wafting from all corners.
Step out, and Yoruba traditional gods are waiting with their holy embraces on street corners. Step in to the tourist section and you get welcomed in this foreign land by people in distinctly gorgeous Yoruba attires. Far away from its West Africa home base, it’s certain to proclaim that Yoruba traditional culture is well, alive, and openly dictating the samba moves in this north-eastern corner of Brazil.
Street corners and public squares
Yoruba gods, giants of Yorubaland of yore, are enjoying unsurpassed embrace here in a foreign land that has also learned to appreciate and proudly uphold revered Yoruba mores, ranging from dresses, food, music, and religion. An average day here in Salvador is suffused in open sightings and reverence of Yorubaland, an experience bound to be ignited by the sighting of a certain mid afternoon ubiquity unexpected in this clime.
These are the Baianas de acarajé, famous stalls and respected merchandizing chambers for fried bean cakes (akara, the popular pan-Yoruba delicacy), dotting most street corners and public squares here mid afternoon. Here, women dressed in flowing white attires, reminiscent of Yemoja worshippers in Yoruba land of old, sit in their stalls, religiously rolling out magnificent akara balls – deeply fried, fresh, hot and steamy, and drenched in good old red palm-oil – for unending lines of patrons. An assortment of mouth-watering offerings garnished with dried shrimps and hot pepper that will freely compete with the world famous “akara’Jesha” and possibly out duel the old “s’ekepu”offerings on Ibadan streets of old.
Early to late evenings may go to encounters with akassa, a culinary cross between the traditional Yoruba corn meal (ekÍ yangan), shapala and moin-moin – additional delicious offerings from the now-transformed mid-afternoon akara chambers, all beautifully wrapped in the traditional palm frond leaves.
The only thing missing here is a calabash of foamy palm-wine and you will be smack back in any old ÌyÍ town. Given the abundance of palm trees and coconut all over town here,it’s a good bet some good palm wine tipple must be here some place awaiting an adventurous tapper. For the daring adventurer, the food stalls experience here is a call to further cultural exploration trips that may sure lead to the terreiros – the temple or the grove of gods – to partake in Candomble, a fusion of African religions combining Yoruba, Fon and Bantu cultures but largely dominated by Yoruba Orica worship.
Depending on which of the many temples in town that you land, it’s not unexpected that you end the night with a round of ‘amalu.’ Rings familiar? That is the Yoruba amala – dark, rich and supple – which you are invited to demolish with forks or knives, Just come as you are, and bring those organic natural forks (fingers); a familiar scenario from hearth.
Step out in the day, familiar faces of Yoruba women in their ‘abadas’ (a form of skirt, ‘Kaba,’ as those roomy skirts that used to be common in Yorubaland are called), pearly smooth dark skinsand proud “pepsodent” smiles greet you on public transportations billboards, heralding tourism in Salvador. These are the “Minha Linda” (My Lovelies) of Salvador. You could of course call them the ÌmÍ-Oge(s)of Salvador tourism and you would be right.
If only these women spoke Yoruba, they would be Aduk¹ or Anik¹in any Yoruba town. Or they could just be ’Yetunde, to again affirm another of Prof. Soyinka’s observation of the power of Yoruba culture to integrate ancestors into the present. Whatever your take, these are plain natural black pearls – no bleaching, no ‘yellow-fever skin.’ Simply and without arguments, proud jewels of inherited Yoruba women beauty.
Again, they stand proudly in contrast to women encountered on a recent travel in modern Yorubaland, from mega Lagos to sprawling Ibadan and the historical Abeokuta city, where it seemed women have become nothing but masquerades in motion with heads dominated by those wild and scary head-scratching “Brazilian weaves.”
For a glimpse into and additional appreciation of the glories of Yoruba traditional religious past, welcome to Dique Do Tororo (or maybe, make that Totoro, a popular section in my own Abeokuta, Ogun State) next to the world-class Fonte Nava Arena in the Itaipava section of Salvador. Come here to engage with Yoruba gods in their splendor.
On this massive lake in a corner of Salvador, you are confronted with the giant sculptures of selected twelve ‘Orixas’ (Ori’as in Yorubaland) proudly alive in public eye (oju aiye)and surrounded by a beautiful park in the city center for all to behold and adore.
Here, proud Yoruba gods stand tall, occupying dignified spots next to the revered local space reserved for that special god dearest to the Brazilian heart – the god of soccer.
Arriving at this spot, you wonder where else in these times you can find such grand public display of Yoruba gods (Ori’as) in their magical splendor. Surely not in modern Yoruba land, where neglect has resulted from years of colonial persecution, full frontal assault from missionaries, both foreign and local, and modern day religionists , who have combined to forcibly relegate local gods to the realm of the uncouth, and dismissively labeled adherents as mere idol worshippers (“awon aborica”).
Clearly, the shrines of Yoruba gods may have been foreclosed and put up for sale at home, but the proud Yoruba princes and princesses of yore are busy spreading their comforting messages of common humanity and human unity overseas.
They keep waxing strong with messages of universal accommodation, patience, tolerance, and the love and acceptance of neighbors as the debts that every man and woman owes the other for mutual peace and progress in our increasingly inter-connected but troubled world. May they continue to answer our prayers wherever we encounter them in the global village. Ac¹, Edumare.
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