The custom of celebrating the Bonfim (literally the “good end”) crossed the Atlantic with the African returnees and proved to be one of the most effective instruments in their strategy to build a new social identity for themselves in Africa. For those who had returned, celebrating Bonfim meant celebrating their memories of Bahia, Brazil, and their return at one and the same time, since they interpreted the word bonfim as meaning a “good end” to their lives in Africa. This festivity also granted the returnees the chance to affirm their catholic faith and the particularities of their “Brazilian” culture. This is very clear in the fact that they originally sought – and still seek – to give the African celebration the same spirit as the Bahian one – i.e. making a religious celebration an opportunity to get together and have fun. Yes, they would hold a mass, but more importantly there was a parade, the dancing of samba, the singing of songs in Portuguese, the eating of bean stew (feijoada) and other Brazilian dishes, and most importantly, the Burrinha performance.
For the first Agudas, the Bonfim celebrations formed a basis from which they were able to publicly express the cultural traits that marked their new identity. The celebration of Bonfim was perceived not so much as a catholic festivity as something essentially “Brazilian.” This is the understanding that the church hierarchy has of the festivity, such that in the mid-1990s, the priest of Porto-Novo cathedral, where Bonfim has been celebrated since the church was erected, admitted that “the ‘Afro-Brazilians’ celebrate this, but it isn’t a religious festival.”1 Which does not prevent it – as a “Brazilian” festivity – from even now having the advantage of strengthening the group in both its internal cohesion and its relations with the rest of society.
Today, in most towns in southern Benin, Bonfim celebrations are restricted to a mass followed by a simple family lunch, and do not apparently bring together the whole Aguda community. However, in Porto-Novo, with its higher concentration of “Brazilians” throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the original format has been maintained. However, the city’s “Brazilian” community no longer celebrates it all together, but split into two associations.
Tradition has it that a freed slave and returnee from Brazil, Simplício Gonzalo, was the person who introduced the Bonfim and Burrinha festivities to Porto-Novo.2 He set up the Brazilian Brotherhood of Good Jesus of Bonfim of Porto-Novo (Irmandade Brasileira Bom Jesus do Bonfim de Porto Novo), 3 which brought together all the “Brazilians” of the city. The muslims would not take part in the mass, but they would still join in with the Bonfim celebrations alongside the catholics. It was a celebration for all the “Brazilians,” as everyone in Porto-Novo agrees. The Brotherhood was still very active in the 1960s, when its president was Casimir d’Almeida, grandson of Joaquim d’Almeida, from Ague.4 Pape Casimir is remembered as one of the great driving forces behind the festival, alongside Marcelino d’Almeida, in whose house the rehearsals were held, and Edouard Amaral, well known as a musician and maker of the costumes and parade figures for the Burrinha.5
After these three influential figures left the stage, the Brotherhood went for a number of years without a chairman, until Casimir d’Almeida’s widow invited her nephew Karin-Urbain da Silva to take on the responsibility. A grandson of Ignacio Paraíso, Mr. Da Silva is a businessman and undoubtedly the richest Aguda in the city. Although he is a muslim, he has always been true to the tradition, supporting the Bonfim celebration and the Burrinha group.
Times changed and it was no longer fitting to organize the event along the original lines. As such, a new association was set up, Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens (Association of Brazilian Descendant), chaired by Karin-Urbain da Silva.6 Here, ethnic roots clearly took precedence over religion.
As chairman of the new association, Karin-Urbain da Silva supported the Burrinha group financially and received delegations of Brazilian who visited Benin. Muslims and catholics took part in the Bonfim celebration together, but despite the apparent unity, the catholics complained that its core idea – providing mutual assistance and support for the relationships within the group – was being compromised. Certain conflicts ensued and the catholics, led by Edouard Amaral’s three sons, decided to create their own association in 1990, which they called Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens – Bourian (Association of Brazilian Descendants – Bourian).7
According to observations made in Porto-Novo from the 1990s to 2010, the festivity is comprised of three distinct parts, beginning with a parade on the Saturday night on the eve of the mass. Some of the members of this parade wear Burrinha costumes and parade along the city’s main streets to the sound of a band, announcing the festival to the people and stopping off at the houses of the “Brazilians” to invite them personally. The second part of the festival is the mass, when the members of the Brotherhood appear en masse carrying their banner. Dressed in white (as is the custom in Bahia, in homage to Oxalá), they wear green and yellow sashes across their chests with the words “Our Lady of Bonfim.” A smaller parade with no band or flags marks the exit from the church. The third part, after the parade, is devoted to revelry and socializing. It begins with a picnic of a variety of Beninese and Brazilian dishes, such as feijoadá and kousidou.8 Late in the afternoon comes the much-awaited Burrinha performance, which attracts the city’s residents in great numbers. The festa ends with a great open-air dance.
This is the traditional structure of the festivity, which was maintained faithfully by the Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens – Bourian on the two occasions I was lucky enough to participate in it, in 1995 and 1996. In the former, the mass was held on January 22nd. On the Saturday before it, around seven o’clock in the evening, the participants gathered at the Amaral family house, which was also the headquarters of the association, where the instruments and costumes were kept. On the sidewalk in front of the house there was a large banner with the entity’s name on it, flanked by two Brazilian flags of the official size. Actually, these were only introduced to the parade in 1992, copied from a magazine, but since then they have been part of the parade, to “show our status as Brazilians,” as Jean Amaral explains.
The three Amaral brothers – Jean, Adolphe, and Auguste – all wearing the same costume, organized the parade. Around 50 lanterns with candles were handed out to the participants.
The way the parade was organized and its general atmosphere brought to mind certain aspects of the carnival in Brazil, except that no alcohol was consumed. The band played at full volume, the lantern-bearers formed lines along both sides of the street, and the other participants danced in the middle. The two Brazilian flags opened the parade, borne by the young Antoinette Campos and Eveline Mariano, the group’s main singers. A girl wearing a fine, shimmering costume with two large wings danced between them in much the same way as a lead dancer from a samba school in Brazil in the 1950s. Yaya, Yoyo, the lion, Mammywata, Mitterand, and the frog danced with the participants, inspired by the musicians, who brought up the rear. One of the Amaral brothers set the pace with a whistle, while the other two, just like in small Brazilian samba schools, walked up and down the parade from one end to the other to make sure there were no stragglers and the participants sang as loudly as possible and in good Portuguese.
Is out on the streets
Come and see, come and enjoy
It’s a delight
For those, for those
who like to watch”
With particular emphasis on the word “Brazilian.” At the head of the parade, wearing a multi-colored shirt, loose red pants, and white shoes, with his arms held wide open, Jean Amaral greeted the public in the true style of a samba school patron.
One of the most popular songs, apart from the one cited above, which clearly nobody understood, was composed by Mme. Amégan in 1992 in Nago, the closest thing to a lingua franca for the Agudas, interspersed with a few words in Portuguese: “Awa yo lodjo / Awa kpeni oke yo / Awa yo lodjo onio / Odjo odu adjo Bonfini / Gbogbo agouda edjeda re wa ba yo (repeat) / Titio, titia / Gbogbo wehi we edja wa de yo / Awa yo lodjo oni / Odjo odu Bonfini / Gbogbo agouda edjeda re xa ba yo.” Translated freely by the author, the lyrics mean: “We are celebrating, we are content, all you Agudas, come and join us in the revels and be happy too. Come, it’s the festival of Bonfim, the festival of the Agudas. Come and join us in the revels, uncle, auntie, friends, everyone, come and join us in the revels. It’s the festival of Bonfim, it’s the festival of the Agudas.”
The following year, 1996, the parade on the eve of the mass, on January 20th, followed the same format except that it lasted twice as long. From half past eight in the evening until three o’clock in the morning, the group visited Aguda families and friends. According to the organizers, the choice of houses to visit took into consideration both the location of the districts they could parade through and the families’ links to the Aguda tradition. Other houses were paid courtesy visits, such as the residence of the commander-general of the national police force. Most of the families visited appeared to enjoy a good standard of living and social standing. Poorer households were also visited because they were important landmarks in the festivity’s traditions.
When the group met up inside a house, despite the lateness of the hour, the residents would go out into the street to dance and socialize. Some had a backyard or courtyard, into which everyone was invited, and after much dancing the household owners offered soft drinks and water and a financial contribution to the association.
Back at the Amaral family home at around three in the morning, the festivity continued, lubricated by soft drinks and beer. Speaking in Nago, Jean Amaral announced the amount that had been raised in the parade, according to the treasurer’s notebook: 62,200 CFA francs. At this point, someone remembered that they had left out the house of Florentine Campos, who was awaiting them with a big dinner, so off they all trooped, singing and dancing.
Desfile na véspera da missa do Bonfim - 20 de janeiro de 1996 - Porto Novo, Benim
Desfile na véspera da missa do Bonfim. No primeiro plano, a sra. Amégan, née Campos, e as porta-bandeiras Evélyne Mariano, a esquerda, e Antoinette Campos. Ao fundo, com um pandeiro, Jean Amaral - 20 de janeiro de 1996 - Porto Novo, Benim
Desfile na véspera da missa do Bonfim - 20 de janeiro de 1996 - Porto Novo, Benim
Desfile na véspera da missa do Bonfim. No primeiro plano, a Sra. Amégan, née Campos, vestida à "brasileira" - 20 de janeiro de 1996 - Porto Novo, Benim
Desfile na véspera da missa do Bonfim, com os braços erguidos, Jean Amaral - 20 de janeiro de 1996 - Porto Novo, Benim
Desfile na véspera da missa do Bonfim. Em destaque, a porta-bandeira Evélyne Mariano - 20 de janeiro de 1996 - Porto Novo, Benim