Why Brazilians are eager to visit Nigeria in spite of fraud, kidnapping — Consul General Bandeira

September 7, 2019
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FEW foreigners would feel so much at home in Nigeria as do Helges Samuel Bandeira, the Acting Consul General of the Brazilian embassy in Nigeria, and his wife. But then, a closer look would reveal that once you remove his skin colour and his slightly different accent, what is left of Bandeira is essentially African. He jolts into life at the sound of African drums! He could interpret the sound of the talking drum and pronounce many Yoruba words with almost the deep accent of a Yoruba man. Yet he has only been in Nigeria for one and a half years!

“I was appointed to Nigeria in 2018,” he said. “And last month, I became the acting Consul General. I studied in Law in Brazil and worked as a lawyer for some time. I was also an entrepreneur and a teacher. I owned two language centres in the state of Santa Catrina. In 2014, I was admitted into the Brazilian diplomatic corps. I worked for some time at the headquarters in Brazil.

“My first mission was to Angola where I was the Head of the Mission for five months. It was a temporary mission. Then I went back to the headquarters in Brazil. I was appointed to the consulate in Lagos in 2018 and I have been the Head of consular services here ever since.”

Asked to recall his experience so far in Nigeria, Bandeira said: “I really enjoy living here. I think that Nigeria is a fascinating country. I think that the cultural differences from the different Nigerian states provide a very enriching experience to whoever visits Nigeria.”

He also explains why it is so easy for him to blend with the African culture, saying that like every other Brazillian, he has his roots in Africa.

He said: “We have similarities in the culture between our two different countries. Both Nigerians and Brazilians are very happy people. We like making friends. We like talking to people. We are more outgoing. We, that is Nigerians and Brazilians, are more relaxed than people from other countries.

“I think Nigerians and Brazilians make friends more easily. We enjoy inviting people to our homes. Our notion of family is more extended. I think that even here in Nigeria, your notion of family is even more extended than we have in Brazil. That notwithstanding, I think and believe that we have a lot of similarities between both countries.

“You also have to remember that Brazil has a very strong African influence. You can see that we have two religions in Brazil—Candomble and Umbanda—which are both based on Ifa, and they are very popular in the country. The followers of these religions till this day still chant and sing in Yoruba, although not all may understand what they are saying.

“It is like in the olden days when people used to attend the Christian Mass which was conducted in Latin. You know the people just followed the mass in Latin, replying the prayers in Latin even when they didn’t know what they were saying.  But that was what they were taught to do and that was what made sense to them.

“I think the same thing happens in Brazil with the people who still sing and do the enchantments in Yoruba. It is these religions that are also part of Brazil lifestyle, and you would even see Brazilians who do not have African descendants practising these religions and understanding them.

“The orisas (deities) are very well known in Brazil. Almost all Brazilians know the main orisas and what they stand for. However, not all the orisas have crossed the Atlantic Ocean! Some have only stayed here in Nigeria. But Yemoja, Osun, Sango, Obatala, are names you mention in Brazil and people already know what you are talking about.”

Asked where his knowledge and deep Yoruba accent comes from, Bandeira, re-adjusted his sitting position and said: “Yes, I am very conversant with the language, culture and history of Nigeria, especially the Yoruba people. As I told you earlier, to us in Brazil, it is also part of our culture. We do not see it as something that comes from abroad or something strange; we see it as something that is Brazilian.

“When you tell somebody in Brazil that Yoruba culture actually came from Nigeria, a lot of people become even more fascinated with the idea. I recently went to Osun-Osogbo to see the festival. I saw a lot of Brazilians there. You may not have noticed it, but Brazilians are one of the few people in the world who love Nigerian culture and sincerely want to come to visit Nigeria.

“If you talk to people from other countries, you will notice that sometimes they are not as fascinated by Nigerian culture as Brazilians.”

The young diplomat was asked how he felt when he saw Brazilians, Europeans and other foreign nationals wearing the Yoruba aso ebi (ceremonial uniform) at the recently held Osun-Osogbo festival. “I do wear native Nigerian clothes,” he retorted. “Most are actually gifts from friends. They know that I enjoy and cherish traditional culture a lot. What I usually tell people here is that, if you don’t know your past, you don’t know who you are. You are lost and have no way of planning your future.

“We in Brazil know that we are a developing country as well. Of course, we want to be a rich country, a developed country, but we do not want to be like Europe or the United States; we want to be Brazil. But we want our people to, of course, have access to more resources. And I think the same thing applies to Nigeria.

“In order for that to happen, you need to have a very clear understanding of who you are, where you come from, and your current situation. So I think it is very important to cherish these traditional cultures. And that is what you have so much in Nigeria. Everywhere, there is so much culture here, which I think can be economically explored.

“For instance, there are these Brazilians who despite all the bad things that are being said about Nigeria, they keep coming. There’s kidnapping here. There is fraud. There are scams. Some say the airport sometimes does not offer enough security. But despite all that, these Brazilians still come here. That is how strong your country is. I often say this to Nigerians that you have a treasure which I think sometimes you do not care much about, which, to me, is very sad, to tell you the truth, especially after the huge, fascinating experience that I had at Osun-Osogbo!”

Given that Yoruba culture is very popular in Brazil, how much of Nigerian foods does Bandeira eat?

To this, he laughed and said: “Now you are touching on a very delicate matter. In Brazil, we eat akara. But there, it is a food offered as offering to orisa. And the akara you eat is called akaraje. Don’t forget that ‘je’ means ‘eat’ in Yoruba. So what we have for eating is akaraje. So when you travel to Brazil, you can eat akaraje,especially in Salvador where there is strong Yoruba presence. I love to eat akaraje in Brazil.

Of course here in Nigeria, it is one of the foods that I like eating. I also like iyan (pounded yam). I know that some Nigerians may feel sad when I say this, but the truth is I don’t like egusi (melon) soup that much.

But how about ogbono and other Nigerian soups, does he eat them?

“A-haa!” he yelled in excitement. “I eat other soups. Usually, when we go to people’s houses and they serve typical Nigerian foods, we don’t have a problem with it. But like I said, I don’t like it when it has too much strong flavour or when the foods are too spicy! What I usually tell people is that I am oyinbo (white man), but not veryoyinbo!”

From his disposition, it is obvious that culture attracts Brazilians to Nigeria. But what does Bandeira thinks would draw Nigerians to Brazil?

“I think that currently we have different types of travellers from Nigeria to Brazil. We have a lot of people in academia. Students too travel to Brazil. We have a programme for graduate and post-graduate scholarships to Nigerian students who may want to study in Brazil. It is an interesting programme that has been in place for quite some time now.

“Every year, we have candidates which we select from. It is based purely on merit. You don’t have to know any governor or any politician. If you are a good student, we want you to come and study in Brazil. So we have students and professors who travel a lot. But we also have businessmen who travel from Nigeria to Brazil, looking for opportunities either to import or export or invest.

“We also have a lot of people who are associated with Ifa here in Nigeria who travel to Brazil to see how Ifa is practised there in Brazil through ‘Candomble and Umbanda.’ The Ooni of Ife has been to Brazil in recent times and he is always sending people back and forth; same with the Alaafin of Oyo. So we have a strong cultural connection between Brazil and Nigeria, and I think that spills over into other areas.”

One could not help but ask him about inter-marriage between Brazilians and Nigerians.

“It is very common too,” he said. “We see mostly Nigerian men marrying Brazilian women. The other way is not very common. But we see a lot of families of Nigerian men and Brazilian women. Some of them live here in Nigeria while some of them live in Brazil.

“For us in Brazil, we are very used to mixing when it comes to marriage. We have people from different countries mixing together in Brazil who are part of our identity, just like religion, which we do not even identify as being foreign but something that belongs to Brazil.

“So I think that one of the aspects of our society in Brazil is the ability to integrate, to mix. If you go to Brazil, you will see that everyone has a little bit of everything: a little African, a little native, a little European, a little American and so on. That is what Brazil is: a mix of different ethnicity, different cultures and so on. It is very common to see families of Nigerian-Brazilians over there.”

The Brazilian Consul General would love to travel all over Nigeria. But would that be possible?

“No,” he retorted. “I haven’t travelled a lot to tell you the truth. There is a lot of work to be done here in the consulate in Lagos. I try to be very diligent with all the visa applications and with our fellow Brazilians that are here. So I don’t travel a lot, unfortunately. I have to stay here to oversee all the operations and make sure that everything is running smoothly, correctly and accordingly to the law.”

One gets the impression that most consuls-general are not as young as Bandeira. But he has a good explanation for that.

Hear him: “I was assigned to Nigeria as the Deputy Consul General. But with the departure of the then Consul General, I became the Head of Mission. That is why I am the Acting Consul General. It is true that most Consuls-General and Ambassadors are older, but I think it is the reflection of our society. I think that things are changing.

“Even here in Nigeria, I mean Lagos, there are consuls-general and heads of missions that are younger. I think it is good because we the younger ones might not have experience like the older ones, but we allow ourselves to be more involved in all of the operations, and we are willing to do things ourselves, to put our hands to work. Whereas when you progress more at work or in your career you already expect other people to do things which you could normally do yourself. Which I also think is understandable and is correct.

“A senior ambassador is not going to interview everyone that comes to ask for visa. But I do that myself! If I think that somebody does not have good intentions for the trip, I interview the person myself. I want to know why you want to go Brazil, what you want to go and do there, your intentions, because we want good people to travel. And I think that is important even for Nigeria.

“All consulates have to be very selective, because if we allow bad Nigerians or people that have bad intentions to travel, that will give Nigeria a bad name.

“There are good and bad people here, just like anywhere in the world. But if only the bad people are travelling, the image the country will have abroad will be bad. That is why I cherish it so much when we receive information from other people that some persons who have applied for visa are not genuine.

“It is always so nice when other Nigerians tell us that this company that is intending to travel does not mean well. We often receive such information from other Nigerians. And I think it is good and equally important for good Nigerians to travel abroad and see other countries.”

An interview with Bandeira would not be complete without he talking about the carnivals Brazil is popularly known for.

“Carnivals are great moments in Brazil,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we hold parades in all of our cities and everyone is happy. I often tell people that in our carnivals, it is usually clearly easy to see strong African influences. We did not learn to play the drums with the Europeans. So when you hear the drums in the carnival, when you hear the Samba, of course, you can trace the African origin!”

He confessed that one of the things he misses out here is the Brazilian carnival. “Yes, I do miss the carnivals! That is something that everyone participates in. Of course again, when you are much younger, you participate more actively. Right now, I am not a big party goer. I stay more in my house with my wife. I watch the carnival on television. I miss carnivals. I enjoy carnivals as a cultural expression, but I can’t participate very actively these days.”

Like carnivals, Bandeira relishes talking about football. His eyes lit up when he was drawn into a discussion about football, which he prefers to call soccer.

He said: “Well, you know that I am a diplomat (laughs)! So I have never been athletic, to tell you the truth. Of course, soccer is our national passion. I am usually also in my jersey like most Brazilians when the country’s football side has an international engagement. At such moments, I am always cheering for Brazil.

“When I was in the headquarters in Brazil, at such time, we used to get together with friends to play soccer, but on a laid back atmosphere. Even in family gatherings in Brazil, it is very common to go to play.

“In Brazil, we like eating meat a lot. So we eat barbecue and go play soccer with cousins. For me, I play on a laid back and unprofessional way (laughs).”

About his work in Nigeria, Bandeira says “it has been really challenging. My duty majorly here is to separate the wheat from the chaff and to allow the good Nigerians travel and have good experiences abroad and make sure that the bad ones remain here.”

He says that when he moves around Lagos, especially Lagos Island, he feels impressed and fascinated by the Brazilian culture that has been preserved over the years by Nigerians who were once in Brazil but later returned home.

He said: “I think it is also important to note that some of the Yoruba who went to Brazil came back, and to this day, we still hear of Brazilian first names and last names here in Lagos.

“We also have different associations here who want to protect the history of the Brazilian descendants, which I also think is very fascinating.

“It is also fascinating that when you walk around Lagos Island, that there are still some traditional Brazilian architecture left. I hope that the Lagos State Government can preserve whatever is left there because, as I told you earlier, a people without history are a people without a future.”

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