Read Your Way Around the World is a series exploring the globe through books.
I was born in Salvador, in the Brazilian state of Bahia, and lived in the general vicinity until I reached the age of 15. But it was when I left that I really came to know my city. How was I able to discover more about my birthplace while traveling far from home? It might sound rather clichéd but, I assure you, literature made this possible: It took me on a journey, long and profound, back home, enveloping me in words and imagination.
A frequent visitor to public libraries, I discovered the books of Jorge Amado. I already knew something of Amado, not from reading him but because he was an omnipresent figure in the cultural life of Salvador. Stepping into the world of his novels began a great love affair, for two reasons: I experienced the power of writing in the hands of a capable narrator — one who captivates us and brings us to the heart of the story — and, later, I recognized myself as one of Amado’s protagonists, for his books are inhabited by the people of my community.
Salvador was the first capital of Brazil, founded in 1549 as part of the Portuguese colonial project in the Americas. In the Salvador of yesteryear, one would find Europeans, mostly Portuguese and Dutch, as well as Indigenous peoples, especially the Tupinambá. Many different ethnicities from Africa were also represented, such as the Yoruba, with roots in Nigeria, Benin (previously Dahomey) and Togo, as well as the Bantu people of the Republic of Congo and Angola. With spirit and creativity, the inheritors of the African diaspora — a large majority, since about 80 percent of the current population of Salvador self-identifies as Afro-Brazilian — fashioned the rich and beautiful cultural life of the city, making Salvador a living monument to African cultures in the Americas.
What should I read before I pack?
To understand the formation of our unique society and, consequently, the cityscape of Salvador, one should read, before anything else, “The Story of Rufino: Slavery, Freedom and Islam in the Black Atlantic,” by João José Reis, Flávio dos Santos Gomes and Marcus J.M. de Carvalho. Rufino was an alufá, or Muslim spiritual leader, born in the Oyo empire in present-day Nigeria and enslaved during his adolescence. “The Story of Rufino” is an epic tale, encapsulating the life of one man in search of freedom as well as the history of the development of Salvador itself, a place inextricably linked with the diaspora across the Black Atlantic.