Alberto da Costa e Silva: “We need to take good care of Africa”

Alberto da Costa e Silva is a historian, poet, and diplomat. He performs diverse activities, but his passion seems to be one: Africa. He was born in São Paulo, in 1931, Alberto lived part of his childhood in Fortaleza and then when he was 13 years old, he moved to Rio de Janeiro. His affection for history and poetry came from the influence of his maternal grandfather, who owned a large library and fostered his love for books.

In 1957, Alberto da Costa e Silva graduated at the “Instituto Rio Branco” (Rio Branco Institute). After that, he was assigned as a diplomat in such places as Lisbon, Washington, Madrid, Rome, and Caracas. After that, he was the Brazilian ambassador to Paraguay, Portugal, Colombia, Nigeria, and Benin. Within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, he was head of the Cultural Department, Under-Secretary General and Inspector General of the organ. Besides that, he is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Letters.

According to Alberto, the African continent is multifaceted, just like any other. The problem is how people perceive Africa. For him, the continent is viewed as a single thing and people do not perceive that diverse cultures live there. “People have the mania to say ‘I am going to Africa’. It’s very different whether you go to Dar es Salaam, or to Luanda, or go to Lagos, “he reflects.

As a researcher on black Africa, has published many books telling the history of the continent n the course of time. Alberto, now 85 years old, received a team from ATLANTICO at his home in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, he spoke about his work as a diplomat and his perceptions on the African continent. “To care for Africa, it is not enough t just to buy and sell, we have to look with interest and curiosity of who opens its own window to the neighbor’s window.

ATLANTICO — How did you first become interested in Africa?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — It did not happen in Africa. It took place in Brazil, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I read “Casa Grande e Senzala”, everybody reads that today, but without any notion of discovery, that was a revelation, a revelation of our African past and for the first time, it was declared loud and clear and it began to be studied. After reading it, I could understand it was not possible to know Brazil, without first getting more in depth knowledge on Portugal and Africa, because most of our lives, among all sectors, have been affected by these two places. I began to be interested, so I read a great number of books and especially everything related to Africa in Brazil, I used to buy and read them. There was very little available. But my curiosity was immense. Very little was published on Africa in newspapers, but I was seeking to know more about that subject. I was interested in African art very early, and I began to read a lot about African art. I had a very curious feeling about it, and, afterwards, I started to have certain nuances about African art that had been represented in European and American art, just the same way ancient Greek art was represented by Italian art in the Renaissance. Art had been, let’s say, the seed of a new conception on Africa, as well as the discovery of how ancient Greek-Latin had changed the way Europeans used to see the world, (before) they had seen in a practical way, now it was viewed in a naturalist manner. Africans were doing just the opposite, making the Europeans abandon naturalism and returning to a conceptual art, to a free creation type of art. Then, at a certain point in my life, at the age of 23 or 24, I decided to go to Itamaraty and start working there. And I discovered, in the Itamaraty library, books I read sometimes, from contemporary authors, with descriptions of the voyages of the Portuguese, Italians, and Spaniards, to the African coast. Many of them had belonged to the “Barão do Rio Branco”. It was a secret addiction.

“I am not responsible for this (slave trade), I do not have to ask forgiveness from anyone. My predecessors had to ask forgiveness, but I did not inherit this, I did not receive the legacy from participating in this tragedy.”

ATLANTICO — Why does Brazil need to become more familiar with the history of Africa?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — We must know more about Africa because it is connected to our past, it is part of the construction of Brazil. We must study it because Africa is extremely interesting. Searching for something new, something different, to satisfy our curiosity… something that assaults us and then it will take control of us, it is a type of addiction, sort of like crack and cocaine. (Laughs) In the case of Africa, it is an addiction for good purposes.

ATLANTICO — In general, when one studies the history of Brazil, blacks are portrayed as captive workforce, except in some rare exceptions. What is the real role of black people in our history?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — The true role of the Negro was the colonizer of Brazil, the co-builder of Brazil. We get a lot of kind of collective remorse about the problem of slavery, and we tend to see him as a former slave, when, in fact, the Negro is not an ex-slave, he or she is a former African.. This is something different, because all of us have been slaves. In the history of humanity there is no culture that has not known slavery. Slavery was not only present in Brazil. It occurred in Rome, in England until the end of the Middle Ages and it even took place in Africa, in Japan. The Brazilian Indian had even experienced slavery, and the American Indian experienced slavery… Thus, what happens is the following: we end up seeing the Africans and their descendants as a workforce and that permeates, or better yet, it permeated Brazilian historiography up to 30 years ago. This view that Gilberto Freyre is the first to dismantle, the wronged Gilberto Freyre, that Brazil forgets how much it owes to him, that only remembers that black is captive labor. And we forget that this African, brought here by force that would introduce elements of tropical agriculture, iron working, and the first furnaces in Brazil were made by Africans. When gold was discovered, it was the blacks who wrought gold, because they already had traditionally wrought gold in Africa for a long time, because they had already dug in mines, made underground connections, etc. Do you believe that Portugal, which had no gold, knew how to work with gold? They learned here from the Africans! Africans would also teach the white man and the Indian how to raise and handle cattle. African already had the skills for raising and handling cattle in Africa. And what will do the cowboys from the Northeast of Brazil? He will open the Brazilian territory. Lots of people speak about the “Bandeirantes”, but the Brazilian cowboys were the ones who really pioneered and occupied these spaces.

The African influenced the Brazilian a lot, you can see that in Bahia..I am going to say something, I am really not sure about, and it is a hypothesis I am working on. The “Casa Grande” (Big House) in Brazil is a creation from the “Senzala” (Quilombo-Maroon). I will explain. The “Casa Grande” is normally a big brick house, generally abiding by Portuguese style architecture which was the center of an area of economic exploration. The master lived there with his women, his sons and their wives, the daughters and their husbands, the clustered assistants and slaves; as this is not found in Portugal. In Portugal, there would be a big house, where the owner of the property lived with his wife and one or two children, the son who would inherent the house and the servants.. And he has other women in different houses. Now, what is it like in Africa? There is a big house; each woman has her own cabin, but everything in one only fenced in house. There are his women, children, slaves, and aggregates… The “Casa Grande” is a socioeconomic political structure based on a concept of Portuguese thinking and African construction. The way the “casa grande” owner lives, the big boss lives the same way as the big chief in Africa. The concept is, the more people who live under your control, the more powerful you are. Then, there are things people quickly recognize on a street in Rio de Janeiro similar to what one sees in Africa for those of you who have lived there, such as the way people walk and the way people sit. Certain of our manners are very African, and others are not … Others we have lost. But, there is the presence of Africa here, the impact of African thinking is very strong in Brazil, the same way the Portuguese way is. If you go to Recife, you will see those enormous Carnival dolls. Then, when you go to Africa, and you arrive in Togo, for example, you will see those same types of enormous dolls. They went from Brazil to Africa. Those dolls are Portuguese party dolls. They came to Brazil from Portugal and from Brazil to Africa. Certain things we think are African creations, but they are not. “Feijoada” (black beans and meat stew) was originally a Portuguese dish made with white beans, but it was originally made from white beans. And when we get something from other people, we change it.

“My main interest has already been the past, as I am tired of the present. What is going on today is not pleasing to me. The past also does not please me, but I like to know what went on.”

ATLANTICO — What are your main memories of the time you lived in Africa?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — There are so many memories. I went to Lagos, in Nigeria, the second time in 1960, in the hotel I went to eat breakfast and I saw two ladies near me and one of them said, like this, “How are you my fellow patriots?” It was a Brazilian African lady who had returned to African when she was 14 years old with her parents and who had never seen a Brazilian again and had not spoken Portuguese any more, but she spoke and wrote Portuguese perfectly. She was with a friend who also was from Brazilian background, but had forgotten how to speak and was no longer able to speak the language. Dona Romana da Conceição. We had a conversation and it was exciting for me and for her. I did not expect this to happen. It was a very lively and exciting experience. And afterwards, evidently, I found out that the Brazilian block was disappearing, as downtown was the most valuable property and the Brazilian streets were being demolished to build great buildings.

ATLANTICO — You argue that Africa, as a unit, does not exist. What would be the best definition for the continent?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — Just like Europe is a unit, they are trying to put it together and see how difficult it is….

ATLANTICO — What would be the best definition for the continent then?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — Africa is a continent, just like any other, it is made up of different cultures. When I say that Africa is not just one thing, that is because people have the habit of saying, “I am going to Africa”. It is extremely different when you go to Dar es Salaam, or to Luanda, or go to Lagos. African only recognize themselves as African, when they arrive in Brazil and the United States, because then they looked at each other and began to recognize white and black, African and European. It is very curious and interesting when someone studies ancestries; and verifies the difference between Creole people born in Brazil and Africa. To the point that African women do not marry Creoles and vice versa. They did not consider themselves as equals. We tend to think that it is the same thing. When I speak about a unit, I am referring to this.

“When I say there is not just one Africa, it is because people have the mania to say, ‘I am going to Africa’. People have the mania to say ‘I am going to Africa’. There are so many differences in going to Dar el Salaam, or to Luanda, or going to Lagos”.

ATLANTICO — What is the reason for the recent world interest in the African continent? Can we call it colonization?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — Since I began to be concerned about Africa and I see the interest from other countries in the world and Brazil increasing and decreasing, depending on the development and circumstances. I have lived in Africa for three years and I experienced those moments when Africa was considered as economically very valuable and an intellectual curiosity.After that, things changed. Africans have already undergone so many hard-knocks and they do not need to suffer any more hard-knocks from a friend. Because our way of seeing things is different from theirs. A curious fact: my wife, who passed away, was polyglot and had language skills and was teaching French for the wife of the Minister of Finance of Nigeria. One day I arrived home and my wife said “You do not know what happened. Mina told me, ‘Now that I feel closer to you, I wish to ask a question, I have always wanted to ask a western woman. How can you stand being the wife of one man? That is a very boring mission; as they are a lot of hard work. They need at least two to be able to bear it”. And she answered “You know, I had never thought about that?” (laughs). They are cultural and behavioral differences.

ATLANTICO — You have kept up with the history of Africa in the last 50 years. What have been the main changes on the continent, from the period you were here up to now?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — My main interest has already been the past, as I am tired of the present. What is going on today is not pleasing to me. The past also does not please me, but I like to know what went on. My career made me return to other subjects. For example, I was the ambassador to Lagos, after that, I was the Head of the Cultural Department Control Division at Itamaraty, after that, I was the General Assistant Secretariat for the Administration, and after that, I was the ambassador to Lisbon, ambassador in Colombia, and then to Paraguay. So, I had to study a lot, but my greatest interest was on ancient Africa and I dedicated myself to that. Most of my weekends, I spent dedicating my studies on ancient Africa. Well, in the beginning Africa was a great hope. In the 1960s, Africa has grown a lot, took control of business interests and its natural resources, and began to improve in various aspects, moreover, because the political parties began to become national parties, each one of them started to represent a group or a nation. Large political parties joined into a set of allied people, but even in these parties, there were divisions of agreements with people. Those segments/nations that took control began to drain the resources generated in the countryside to the city. Thus, for example, Ivory Coast made a lot of progress related to the price of coffee and cocoa, but some coffee and cocoa bean growers benefitted very little, because the state marketed the product, which which was in the hands of people who did not understand it, of whom had never seen a coffee tree.

Then, a conflict started not only among people and different nations, but among economic and antagonistic interests, between the city and the country, whereas the city represented some nations and the country was represented by others. At this conflicting time, the military forces took control of almost all these countries. The French and the British armed forces transformed into Senegalese armed forces. Then, it was a very complex period during the 1980s, when Africa became controlled by a single party regime, either military or civil, but when it was civil, it was backed by strong military support. So the 1980s, it could be said that for Africa, more than for Brazil, it was a lost decade. In the 1990s, a reversal started, the continent was starting to accept the fact that the countries could be constituted by many different peoples and different nations.

ATLANTICO — Many people say Africa is the continent of the future, as the population is so young, there is positive economic performance, and as it is going through process of changes. What prospects do you have for the continent for the next few years?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — I pray that they will continue as they are now, as few places are going through conflicts. There are still areas in conflict in Africa, but I hope they will overcome it.

ATLANTICO — How have you been following the immigration issue?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — There has always been immigration, as the history of humanity there has always been a history of immigration. Nobody stays in the place where he/she is born, I say nobody when speaking about the human being. One is always expanding and mixing with others.

ATLANTICO –But is the phenomenon more troubling today??

Alberto da Costa e Silva — So, we are not going to see this in Africa and Europe, but much more in Palestine conflicts. People thought there was an easy solution, but there is no solution for conflict.

ATLANTICO –What is the moral to this story? What is your message?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — We need to continue placing our priorities on Africa. Mankind cannot be eluded; if we do not take good care of Africa, it will be a big problem in 100 or even 50 years from now. We have to care about Africa. Our concern for it is not just buying and selling. We have to look and be interested and have the curiosity to open our neighbor’s window. We do not have a debt with Africa. The phenomenon of the transatlantic slave trade was terrible and it was the most ferocious action that man could ever had done, as it was the forced transmigration of 12 million human beings… I am not responsible for this; I do not have to ask forgiveness from anyone. My predecessors had to ask forgiveness, but I did not inherit this, I did not receive the legacy from participating in this tragedy. The blame from the past is not transferred to the present and we do not explain our failures through the past. There is a tendency in Brazil to attribute anything to slavery. This is the result of our incompetence to build a just world.. I am 85 years old and when I realized it, these problems could have started to be solved, they did not occur because we are incompetent. We did not have a sense of justice, we are not generous.

ATLANTICO— What do you think of the racial quota system?

Alberto da Costa e Silva — It helps a lot. We always had important black men and women around us. What we do not have is the rise as a whole. We need to create incentive s so that there are more black lawyers, black bank clerks, black nurses, and hotel attendees, etc. In order to achieve this collective ascension, it necessary to give this push and the quotas represent this. Despite the critiques, because this hurts the spirit of meritocracy, but even if it hurts that spirit, it signifies that we are doing something and from that something good is going to result from it. It is the minimum we can do. I am favorable not only in universities; I am in favor of jobs and in positions. Now, there is something very curious about black people in Brazil who are different from black people in the USA, very different. A person who has black ancestors in the USA is by origin. Then something very curious happens when a foreigner comes to Brazil — this has happened to me more than once — they say: “You are right. A white man is not common in Brazil, we only meet mixed races”. Another friend of mine, a great Africanist historian, after about 15 days walking through the interior of Rio de Janeiro, while working on his research project, said “You say that Brazil is the second most black country, but you have few black people here ,there are many mulattoes here”. (laughs) But when you live in Africa, then you see that blacks are not so common here.

ATLANTICO — Please speak about your next book.

Alberto da Costa e Silva — I already have 12 chapters written and I am trying to make progress. But, these last 8 years I have been a slave to doctors. So, I have been to: phono-audiologist, physiotherapist, acupuncturist, and I continue my work when they let me. I was married for 54 years and she passed away in 2011. Life is good and all places are good, living and looking at the world, and reading. My father lost his ability to reason when I was 3 years old, that was the reason for unhappiness for life. But that man was my best childhood companion, because he had all the time for me. He spent his whole day on the swing seat with an open book, and he spent the whole day reading. When I asked him to draw something for me, he would draw. We used to walk along the streets, he and I and the nurse. At that time, we used to live in Fortaleza and he would know the birds that would sing, the names of the plants, he knew about everything. Then, when I was 18 years old, I suffered from pulmonary tuberculosis and I spent three years in Campos do Jordão to heal from my tuberculosis, and I met Verinha there. If there is a God, and probably there is, it is a force that Or better yet. He guides the universe, as the universe is inexplicable. Do you think that God is to be blamed for my toothache?

The diplomat’s literature

The following are the books written by Alberto da Costa e Silva, related to black African history: “A enxada e a lança: a África antes dos Portugueses” (The hoe and the lance: Africa before the Portuguese) (1992), “As relações entre o Brasil e a África Negra, de 1822 a 1° Guerra Mundial” (Relations between Brazil and Black Africa, from 1822 to the First World War) (1996), “A manilha e o Libambo: A África e a Escravidão, de 1500 a 1700” (The shackle and Yoke: Africa and Slavery, from 1500 to 1700) (2002), “Um Rio Chamado Atlântico” (A River Named Atlantic) (2012), “Francisco Félix de Souza, Mercador de Escravos” (Francisco Félix de Souza, Slave Merchant) (2004). Alberto also published poetry books, essays, memorials, anthologies, collective works and adaptations.