To its locals, Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, is unarguably the cultural city of Africa. The ancient city houses a tapestry of intertwined cultures — Afro-Brazilian, Brazilian and local — weaved into a city where barely 300,000 people live.
But to view that kaleidoscope with clarity, go to the Musée da Silva that sits at the city’s heart, just a stone’s throw away from the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It’s a private museum where Brazilian, Haitian and Cuban culture live on, built by an Afro-Brazilian, Karim da Silva, whose father, Faustin Amzat Geo da Silva, was enslaved by the Portuguese in the 19th century.
In all, an estimated 5 million Africans had been taken as slaves to Brazilian territories.
Da Silva created the museum in 1870 to “safeguard his family heritage,” says Olive Adande, a museum tour guide. But this isn’t some heirloom. It’s a reminder of Porto Novo’s proud legacy. When the slave trade was abolished in Brazilian colonies in 1888, this was one of the cities on Africa’s west coast that embraced former slaves and their descendants who’d been ferried to Brazil from 1501 to 1866. In all, an estimated 5 million Africans had been taken as slaves to Brazilian territories. The returnees brought with them the culture and traditions of the Afro-Brazilian in Bahia, the northeast Brazil state where they had been shipped. Da Silva’s father, Geo da Silva, was among them.
But many of the other monuments to that mixed cultural heritage are now dying. The number of surviving Afro-Brazilian homes in Porto Novo is shrinking, courtesy of urbanization. And the city’s Grand Mosque, built by slaves and their descendants, is crumbling — a new mosque has been built to eventually replace it. Today, the Musée da Silva stands almost in resistance.
Modeled after typical Brazilian houses, the museum was built with locally sourced materials such as clay, stones and wood and comprises three buildings. The first includes a hall dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. — his “I Have a Dream” speech is emblazoned on banners in French and English, with a silver bust of him at the back added in 1998. African wooden and brass artifacts, old gramophones, musical instruments and artworks from Brazil, Pakistan and Benin fill three rooms.
The second building — the historic Paraiso Piquino Bambero — is named after da Silva’s maternal grandfather. Painted in bright yellow, black and white, with wide windows and doors that give way for ventilation, the building was one of the first to be erected when the slaves returned. To climb up the wooden staircase to the second floor is to go back in time. This is where the da Silva family lived, with typical Afro-Brazilian living rooms — separate for men and women — and large dining rooms filled with family memorabilia. Small individual rooms, squeezed in between, were aimed at enabling parents to pass on “good values” to their children, explains Adande.
But this building also carries a stamp of the present: an old camel-like mannequin used to celebrate an Afro-Brazilian festival called Bonfim. The annual event, held in January, draws people from across Benin and beyond, Adande says.
The third building has four rooms — some of which were the living quarters of workers while the museum was being built. Here you’ll find artifacts of world, African and Beninese history and rooms dedicated to the Atlantic slave trade.
Each journey through the museum is a fresh and insightful learning experience that leaves me in awe of the cultural connection Africans have with Afro-Brazilians, Cubans and Haitians through the slave trade. Adewale Emosu, a journalist who writes on culture, says he thought such a “rich encyclopedia” on Afro-Brazilians and their history could be found only in his home country of Nigeria. But after visiting Musée da Silva last year? “Gratified, I would say, is an understatement.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Guided tours cost 2,000 CFA, or $3.
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