Anyone who's ever looked closely at a map of the Atlantic might have wondered if South America and Africa couldn't just nestle into each other like a pair of spoons. And plate techtonics theory posits that in the Earth's prehistory that's exactly what the land mass looked like, northern Brazil and Venezuela fitting up against Ghana and Benin long before drifting plates caused the continents to drift to their current positions.
But Brazil and Benin have been connected more recently than that by culture and human destiny. I first learned about this curious bit of history in Benin, when my hotel suddenly began filling up with Brazilians, and the Beninese flag on every second flagpole along the length of the hotel's property was replaced by the Brazilian's bold "Ordem e Progreso." "What's going on?" I asked one of the Beninese hotel staff.
"The Brazilian president is coming to visit us," he informed me. And it was true: that night President Lula himself pulled up at my hotel to participate in a brief celebration of Benin's fascinating "Agouda" history (read related news article).
Turns out that in the 18th century some of the millions of slaves that were yanked from Benin and inland (note the moniker "Slave Coast" that remains on that stretch of the Bight of Benin to this day) wound up in plantations in Brazil. There, over the course of a couple of generations they learned Portuguese and grew integrated in Brazilian customs and traditions. When they were emancipated, they returned to the land of their ancestors, Benin, but brought with them their Brazilian ways.
To this day there's a small population in West Africa that greets each other not with "bonjour" but rather "bom dia, como passou?" and responds not "bien, merci" but "bem, 'brigado." And President Lula, on the course of a Pan-Africa tour in which he took in several countries and strengthened his deveoping-world alliance, made a stop in Benin to celebrate the cultural links between Benin and Brazil that tradition and history sustain to this day.
The Beninese love celebration, and President Lula was treated to lively folk dances and music. In return the Brazilian statesman extended a promise of solidarity and development aid to its West African partner. I got to mix my Portuguese into the French I was so happy to be using, and the world suddenly got a little smaller.
In the United States it's all too easy to think of the world in the post-colonial lens of north and south, developed and under-developed. But this happy incident - this serendipitous crossing of two very different worlds - reinforced the growing notion that the links run equally east and west.
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