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Brazil and Africa were connected in a previous geologic age (note how the Eastern tip of Brazil fits neatly into the cradle of the Gulf of Guinea). Just as the continents ruptured apart, Africans were torn from one shore to the other, with only their culture to connect them.
While large numbers of people were taken from what is now Angola, the ethnic group that arguably had the most visible impact on Brazilian society was the Yoruba, from Nigeria, whose religious traditions are still practiced today.
To survive, the Yoruba deities, known as orixás, took on Catholic disguises. Xangô, the orixá ruler of thunder and drums, was revered as Saint Jerome. Oxossi, the hunter of the forest, became Saint Sebastian. The eldest of the orixás and creator of the Earth is venerated as an incarnation of Jesus, and is known as Obatalá.
You can hear it sung in “Mas Que Nada,” an international samba hit from the 1960s. The opening lyrics, which have been translated only as “folklore,” are unmistakably African in origin:
Ô Ariá! Raiô!
Obá! Obá! Obá!
Ô, Ô Ô Ô Ô Ariá! Raiô!
Obá! Obá! Obá!
And of course, “samba” itself has African roots. The word most likely originated from semba, which means “enchanting” in Kimbundu, and “honoring” or “revering” in Kikongo. Put it together with the Yoruba, and you can imagine the composer of the above song praising the kings of his ancestral past.
The African legacy in Brazil is so present, so entrenched, that it is not unreasonable to think of Brazil as an extension of the African continent. In fact, half of the country’s population has African ancestry, making it the second largest black nation in the world, after Nigeria.
When the Brazilian Institute of Geographic Studies, which is responsible for conducting the census, asked people to identify themselves based on skin tone, they received 134 different descriptions. The terms could have appeared on a dessert menu and included Branca-melada (honey-toned), Café-com-leite (coffee with milk), Canela (cinnamon), Morenada (mocha) and Tostada (toasted).
While the “one-drop rule” -- which defined someone as black if they had one drop of African blood -- was the basis for legal segregation in America, in post-slavery Brazil the government’s position was that of “racial democracy,” which dismissed the idea of race in favor of nation. Officially, all Brazilians have enjoyed the same rights, regardless of skin tone.
However, the reality is quite different, as there are huge disparities between black Brazilians and their European-descended counterparts in terms of housing, education, standard of living and employment. Nowhere is this discrepancy more evident than in government, where there is only one black senator, and only one percent of congressmen are black. The prospect of a black president is hard to envision.
Such statistics, of course, never stopped Barack Obama: He was the lone black senator in the United States at the time of his election. The irony is that he spent a lifetime trying to overcome his “funny name” in the states, whereas, had he been born in Brazil, he would have grown up in a culture that had been “oba-oba-oba-ing” for generations.
But Obama’s popularity in Brazil cannot truly be attributed to any play on words. While his African name sounded distantly familiar to a Brazilian ear -- even connoting a sense of well-being and leadership -- it was Obama the man, his perseverance, his struggle against history, and his coffee-and-cream complexion that won him supporters across the Brazilian color spectrum.
That being said, it doesn’t hurt to have a name like an orixá. And should Obama ever be elevated to deity status, he wouldn’t have to hide behind a saint. Africans from three continents could praise him in his ancestral Luo, revealing the true meaning of the name Obama: “He who goes against the grain.”
Sources: Enciclopédia Brasileira da Diáspora Africana by Nei Lopes; Africans in the Americas: A History of the Black Diaspora by Michael L. Conniff and Thomas J. Davis.