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On Water

ON WATER (excerpt)

On a street in Jamestown, Accra, is a yellow building. You’ll know it when you see it because unlike a lot of the colonial-era buildings, it looks good today. You’ll also know it because, of course, it is bright yellow. The name of the building is Brazil House. The street it is on is called Brazil Lane. It was built by refugees from Brazil who had first stopped off at the coast of Nigeria but for some reason had chosen to continue on to Accra, where they were warmly accepted by the local Ga community. When they arrived from across the sea, they spoke neither Ga nor Ewe, nor Fante, nor any other language that was remotely local. They spoke Portuguese. When they were greeted, they would reply, ‘ta bom, which in today’s language is the same as saying it’s all good. It stuck. They became known as the Tabom.

*

What little Portuguese I do know, I know because of music. It was through drums that I understood first. The type you hear when you think of Brazilian carnaval. The kind of rich, layered, wall-of-sound percussion you might think of when you hear the word samba or, if you are more familiar with the music, maracatú. The first time I heard this kind of drumming – the origins of which, through the enslaved, were imported from Africa – something in me said yes, deeply. I haven’t had many deep yes moments in my life. I have resigned myself to the possibility that I am just not one of those lucky people who always knows what they want, whether to decline or accept, stay or go. Deep yeses don’t come easily to me, but when they do, I know the past is present.

Another Brazilian song that I came across in my mid-teens is a version of ‘Aguas de Março’, sung live by Elis Regina in a black-and-white video you can find on YouTube. The song, its cyclical lyrics and the footage are hypnotic. If someone were to play me the song on loop, I am certain that I would still not go mad. The lyrics circle over themselves and, like the Bebel Gilberto song, are dense with meaning even in their simplicity. ‘A stick / a stone / it’s the end of the road / it’s the rest of a stump / it’s a little alone’ are the opening words, penned by Antônio Carlos Jobim. Long before I travelled to Brazil, before I realised its history had anything significant to do with me, ‘Aguas de Março’ – which translates as ‘The Waters of March’ – was my entry point into the Portuguese language. If ever you want to learn some basic vocabulary, this song is a good place to start.

*

Some of the enslaved Africans in Brazil were taken from parts of West Africa where Islam was the presiding religion. Arabic influence has a long colonial history across the African continent, one that exponentially pre-dates the arrival of Europeans. In both cases, enslavement ensued, but beyond that, things played out differently. Within the Islamic African context, eventual manumission was possible through conversion from ‘heathenism’ into the faith. This, and also that you could not be born a slave. Even if your mother was one, you might simply be born into the ruling culture and taken as its own – albeit at low regard. By and large, in the trade instigated by Europeans, no such thing was possible.

In Brazil, the enslaved who were from Islamic cultures were referred to as malês. It is believed that this comes from the Yoruba term imalé for Muslim. Perhaps they were Yoruba Muslims. Either way, they were put to work in different ways compared to those who were not Muslims. This was for one simple reason: they could read and write in Arabic, which made them useful for tasks that necessitated accounting, and so while they were not free, they had freedoms of a kind, moving about as servants for the white Brazilians who worked them. It doesn’t sound nearly as bad as the enslavement that other Africans were enduring, yet I suspect that if this were true, the situation might have continued to run smoothly for the remaining half-century until slavery was abolished in 1888. But again, things turned out differently.

In Bahia in January of 1835, shit kicked off. A revolt took place, quietly planned by the leaders of the community of enslaved black Muslims. It lasted three days, and was suppressed by the Brazilian authorities, but sent reverberations through the country. Fearing the bloodlust of another black Muslim uprising, the Brazilian government drew up a solution: get rid of them. Following the execution of the leaders of the revolt, who are said to have known of the success of the Haitian Revolution, it was decided that the community as a whole was not to be trusted. Anybody suspected of involvement was deported to West Africa, which is to say that it didn’t matter whether they were involved or not.

From its birth in 1804 as a country independent of France, Haiti (from the Taíno-Arawak Ay-ti, land of mountains) was the first nation to permanently abolish slavery. This is true despite how often it is paraded that Britain led the way in outlawing the trade in African peoples in 1807, and later their ownership, in 1834. By 1835, the British were offering ships to carry formerly enslaved blacks to Africa. After compensating their own share of slave-owners to the tune of £20 million – £17 billion being the contemporary total finally paid by UK taxes in 2015 – perhaps a complimentary voyage was the least that could be offered.

Oral history has it that one such voyage from Bahia to Nigeria and then Ghana was made by the S. S. Salisbury. Stories differ as to the date of the trip in question but it is thought that the first arrival of returnees (refugees, essentially) occurred in 1829. Crucially, this is prior to the Malé Revolt of 1835, but nonetheless foreshadows it: given the brutality of black life in Brazil, it is evidence that those who had an opportunity to leave did so. In the aftermath of the uprising were two more arrivals with passengers numbering in the hundreds, but on the first – that of 1829 – were seven families under the leadership of one figure. His name was Kangidi Asuman. Kangidi is a place name in Nigeria. Asuman relates not-so-distantly to the Arabic name, Osman.

But, at some point I am yet to know of, he dropped Kangidi. I can only speculate as to why. We must remember that when he was taken from wherever it was he originated – say, Kangidi – things could have happened there that changed it permanently. Slave raids and bounty huntings were bloody occurrences. Who is to say what was left of home, or that Kangidi-the-place even existed still. Perhaps he knew the answer to this because he saw it as he was taken: nothing. Towns do burn, after all.

Whatever the truth, Kangidi was no more. He dropped the name, kept Asuman, and added Nelson. Today, the male descendants of Asuman Nelson – the founding leader of the community known as the Tabom – still carry this name. Time doing what it does, however, the spelling has since changed.

*

One of my co-fellows at the residency in Bahia is Amira, an African American dancer and Lucumí priestess from Oakland, California, with a face that looks a lot like my mother’s. She has been visiting and working in Brazil for years, since a long-ago relationship with someone from here. Like me, she has looked into her lineage, and it happens that she believes she is of Ghanaian heritage. On more than one of our trips by ferry into mainland Salvador, as we browse stores and markets, strangers assume we are related. She is your daughter? they ask in Portuguese and, only half jokingly, Amira says yes.

*

The song ‘The Waters of March’ refers in part to a season in Brazil when it begins to rain. Brazil is on the southern hemisphere, which means that the seasons are the other way around to how they are here, on the northern side. As we enter winter, they enter summer. As they leave autumn, we leave spring. As I write this, in London, it is March; just days from my birthday. Trees are in bloom, and we are indoors – because it is the time of coronavirus. But it is spring, nonetheless, even without us.

In Brazil, March is the onset of autumn. At this time, it rains heavily. Sometimes for days on end. For us, at the residency in Bahia, this manifests as three days of thunder and downpour, before a sudden stop. Finally able to step out again, Amira, myself and some others decide to go back to the holy water place to see if it has been restored by the wet weather. When we get there, there is a small pool. Amira crouches down, unties her hair, and scoops handfuls of water over her head. She sits back a moment, stares out and sobs, quietly. I watch, not knowing quite what to do, but saddened also. I touch her shoulder without knowing if I should. When this is over, she touches the water again and this time, sings. I don’t understand, but I know she is singing in Yoruba and saying, at times, iya mi, which I know means my mother. I know that one of her divinities in Lucumí is Oshun, a feminine divinity of fresh waters. Amira takes a bottle of honey out of her backpack, and pours it tenderly into the small clear pool, cooing lullaby-like as one would to something beloved, repeating at times the words I know, iya mi, iya mi…

*

Every now and then for years after I learn of the Tabom and my descent, through my mother, from one of their founding figures, I will enter the name Nelson into Facebook or Instagram search boxes, and scan for black faces. The last time I will do this, I will reach out to someone who, like me, lives in London. An Azumah Nelson. He will reply and confirm that he does indeed share this heritage, but that what he knows of it is limited.

Perhaps a year or so later, before I leave for Brazil to research this history, he will message to wish me well. When I am back, I will cross paths with him at a magazine launch for which I am reading poems. This is the first time we will meet. When he greets me, I won’t know who he is, and it will take me more than a moment to understand. He will be tall. In another moment, Kareem, a mutual friend of ours, will grab us both and marvel that we know each other. And I will think, but not say: I don’t know him. We don’t know each other, not really. The three of us will laugh about the sea of whiteness in the room and the subtext of how glad we are to have found each other here. Someone else I know will then pull my attention, and the rest of the moment will be lost.

Nearly two years later, we will meet again. This time, at the surprise birthday party of Belinda, the friend with whom I will have travelled back from a literary festival in Lagos, days earlier. On that trip, Belinda and I had feared that the boat ride to the beach would kill us. The boat had stopped numerous times, mid-water, overloaded, its rudder tangled with weeds. We had both pondered our drownings; the absence of our deaths’ reportage on the news. Before Belinda will arrive to singing and loud joy, Caleb and I will talk. He will be a writer, like myself, and quiet. Surprise party duties at hand, we will exchange details and agree to catch up another time. He will message days later, to ask when I am free, and I will be free on a Thursday. We will meet in Bethnal Green for tea, from which point we will become friends, and swap books, and keep in touch.

*

In the living room of the flat I share with T is a bookcase built into the alcove of the wall. It is sectioned off into parts, most of which are filled by the books I brought here when I left my parents’ house. The central section of the bookcase is empty of books, though. Here, instead, are a number of things: a bracelet of cowrie shells; a selection of semi-precious stones; a handful of sand grabbed in haste the day I left the island of Itaparica in Bahia; a candle, usually; a miniature wooden sculpture of an elephant, from Accra; Florida Water of the kind that was sprinkled at my grandmother’s grave, a year on from her death; a bell; and an image, cut from his obituary, of my grandfather and my grandmother on what looks like their wedding day. Last of all, there is a shot glass, not mine but taken from the room at my parents’ house that I shared with my older sister. I won’t say I stole it because it never seemed needed, and it was left behind when she moved out.

I keep this shot glass filled with fresh water as best I can. Sometimes, which means less often than I wish to, I stand in front of this display on a morning and light the candle, and ring the bell. And then I talk. I make a greeting in Ga, my parents’ language, my language – even though I cannot speak it. I say thank you for some things, and say please help for others, and then I say thank you again. I talk, clumsily, a little unsure, but earnestly for a short while, and then I finish, snuffing the candle out between two fingers. Sometimes when I stand there, I worry that I am only speaking to myself, but I keep going anyway. Sometimes, I know that I am not.

This is what faith looks like to me.

*

I have been trying to write about water but I keep getting caught up; keep finding the pool empty, the spring out of reach or dry. In my mind, to write is a verb formation similar to that of to grasp, so therefore, yes, it’s true: I would like to write about something that can barely be held in two hands. Imagine a thing such as that. But we’re here now, so suppose the superior verb is grapple. It has grit in it. Torque, if you will. So now: let’s go. When grappling, the tendency is to grapple with, which is suggestive of a residual division between two entities, each one retaining its selfhood. A sacred space between that which captures and that which is caught. Predator and prey. This feels apt. There is something in it. Grapple. Slight consonance with rubble. Which makes me now think of ruin. Ruinous. Assonance with apple. Ruinous, again; that first illicit fruit. You know how the rest of it goes. One small bite for man that wasn’t so small at all. Knowledge of good and evil thereafter and – wait a minute – as a word, what use could good ever have been against evil when it has such holes in it. Two eyes wide in shock, as though they died that way, or watch on, astounded, still. This also feels apt. And so, I grapple. I am trying to do this with water, but even this word will neither contain nor cut it. I test the image in my head and resurface with the conviction that a floor cloth will be needed at some point after a mess has been made. Ruinous, these fragments, yes. Where is the floor cloth for history? Where is the shore of its ruin?

Writing about water is possibly only minimally less hard than writing about air. What does it smell like? How does it taste? Is it safe to take in? And while I’m circling around the sense of how alike water is to language – as characterised by its slippage as it is by its force – why don’t I also say that insofar as it is not easily contained, writing about it sounds equally impossible. I am less able to encompass water than it is capable of encompassing me. And I can’t swim. If I wade in beyond my nose, I may not survive. I should learn, it’s true – and soon, at that – but maybe swimming is not something I must do here, now. It is possible that I need only to be calm. Un-tense my limbs, and breathe in, diaphragm-deep and babylike, easy. How it’s good, so good. I might be buoyed and carried somewhere I haven’t been before. Another archipelago of being. A place as yet unnamed. Don’t despair.

On Water

We are very happy to share the second part of our expanded online programme for 'From the Ground Up: The Gathering' with an excerpt of a work by Victoria Adukwei Bulley – On Water, 'about looking at the sources of our current situation; trying to salvage what’s still alive at root level so as to choose a different future while there’s still time'. On Water was originally published in The White Review no.29: click here to read the full piece.

Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, writer and artist. Her debut poetry collection, Quiet, was released by Faber in the UK this year, and is set for North American release in January 2023 with Knopf.

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