Oboi Reed in Quilombo do Remanso, Brazil. All photos courtesy of Oboi.
[This piece was contributed by Oboi Reed, founder of The Pioneers, a bike club that promotes cycling on Chicago’s South Side, and co-leader of the Southeast Side community advisory group for the city’s Streets for Cycling 2020 plan.]
In February, I embarked on a journey to live and study in Brazil for six months. With the tremendous support of many family and friends, I travelled to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil to study public health in the African-Brazilian community in Salvador and elsewhere in northeast Brazil. Throughout this nearly four month program, Brazil: Public Health, Race, & Human Rights organized by The School for International Training, colleagues and I were blessed to have unparalleled access to the people, families, organizations, institutions, and systems that make up the fabric of Brazil’s healthcare delivery system. We experienced firsthand, in sight and in sound, the contemporary successes and challenges of the public healthcare system for African-Brazilian people and all Brazilians. We engaged patients, community health agents, nurses, doctors, administrators, activists, educators, and more. We directly participated in the Candomblé spiritual tradition. We explored Candomblé traditional healing as a critically important and culturally relevant system of healthcare – in fact a viable & effective complement to the Brazilian government’s system of healthcare delivery.
We traveled throughout northeast Brazil, visiting a diverse set of communities: Itapuã, Cachoeira, Alecrim, Ilha de Maré, Feira de Santana, Santo Antonio de Jesus, Lençóis, and Luna. The exposure to different geographies, lifestyles, cultures, people, income levels, struggles, and successes was an incredibly eye-opening experience. The opportunity to achieve all of this in such a short timeframe was a divine blessing and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It served as an important chance for me to grow personally, academically, and professionally by embracing my global citizenship. My life has changed forever.
Some of Oboi’s colleagues from the program with Quilombo de Remanso residents.
One such very special community we visited was Quilombo do Remanso. On a dark, chilly night, we were riding on a bus on a dirt road in what looked like the middle of nowhere. We were about a seven-to-eight-hour drive from Salvador. It was a calm night, with no other activity on this dirt road. We had been driving slowly for safety reasons, for at least an hour. The bus begins to slow even more and, like magic, the lush greenery opens up into a small clearing. As the bus slowly pulls in I notice a small house. After the academic director called my name, I disembarked the bus, fetched my bags, and walked into the home of my host family. I was now home for the next five days.
A quilombo is a community founded by Brazilians of African descent who escaped slavery. The quilombo communities served as a sanctuary for African people wishing to reclaim their freedom, identities, culture, and history. These communities represent a rich history of over 500 years of active resistance.
Remanso is home to about fifty families. The entire quilombo takes up a sizable piece of land. While you can certainly walk across the entire community, the homes are nicely spread out. The community is completely surrounded by thick vegetation with the main road going straight through the middle of the community. Several other artillery roads intersect with that main road and all meet at the center of the community. At the center of the quilombo there is a school, the Remanso Community Association building, an outdoor paved pavilion, and several other buildings.
Young people from the quilombo.
In this very low-income community, people struggle for the basics, running water and electricity. The community struggles for convenient access to affordable healthcare and a quality education. There are very few cars in Remanso and many people walk to get around. There are also a number of people who use bicycles for transportation. This is likely not out of a need to be healthy. This is born out of the fact that there is no public transportation system and most people cannot afford to buy cars.
One such person was my host father. His name is Domingos Pereira de Souza and he is Black Power Riding. The first time I met him was when he rode in on his bicycle late one night. He looks like me and reminds me immediately of my father and family back home in Chicago. He speaks with authority and confidence. and his spirit is strong. He is slim and muscular, and he shines with both maturity and youthful energy. He loves his wife and his five children, three girls and two boys, and he shows it. He is the heart of his community and a proud son of Quilombo do Remanso.
Domingos is 51 years old and was born and raised in the quilombo. He is a proud African-Brazilian man. He is a father figure to many young people in his community. In my several days living with him and his family, I noticed the respect he generated from the youth in the community. He is admired and appreciated as a wise elder.
Domingos Pereira de Souza.
Domingos had a good childhood and always loved the quiet and peacefulness of Remanso As a child he always felt safe in this community where everyone was considered family. He was a healthy child and he was very young when he learned the importance of work and helping his family around the home. He began doing physical labor at an early age, helping his family in their garden by planting cassava, sugar cane, sweet potato, corn and many other fruits and vegetables. As an adolescent he started working in the mining industry and did this well into adulthood. When he started having children he moved into the home construction industry. He worked construction for many years. Today, he works on an organic farm in the city of Lençóis. Challenging physical labor is simply a natural part of his life.
He is a healthy 51-year-old man. He does not smoke or drink and he regularly jogs for exercise and plays soccer with the children in the community. He sleeps well and eats reasonably well. He leads a very active lifestyle, even going so far as to bike to work every day. Quilombo do Remanso is a rather isolated community and the nearest large town, Lençóis, is about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away. He works in Lençóis and bikes to work and back home on a daily basis. He readily attributes his great health to his daily bike ride.
I was inspired by seeing Domingos and many others riding often throughout Quilombo do Remanso. As cycling is one of my passions, I had every intention of buying a bike as soon as I reached Salvador. However, that did not pan out very well. Many people warned me against cycling in Salvador for a number of reasons, the most important being safety. In Salvador drivers have the right of way and they drive very fast and aggressively. Since there are almost no bike lanes, except for near the beaches, drivers are not used to sharing the roadway with cyclists. In addition, the city of Salvador is very hilly, with a lot of steep inclines. Also, road conditions are not very good in many places. At the urging of my academic director and other program staff, I made the tough decision not to purchase a bike in Salvador.
Inspired by Domingos and feeling like I could ride safely in Quilombo do Remanso, I borrowed a bike on several occasions. It had been about four months since I last rode. Getting back on a bike for the first time in several months was incredibly awesome. Again, I felt what it was like to ride the winds and it was indeed a beautiful feeling. I rode around the community on several occasions and I loved every ride. The roads in the community were not perfect. They were very sandy, causing me to slide quite a bit. I had to pay very close attention to not wipe out. Overall, the experience of riding a bicycle in Quilombo do Remanso was a dream and I enjoyed every moment of it.
I saw in Domingos the epitome of Black Power. It is who he is and it is a natural part of his being and consciousness. It is a part of his physicality as well as his mental strength his spirit. It is in everything he does, every action he takes, and every word he utters. Domingos considers being Black a privilege and a responsibility. He is proud of his Blackness and works hard every day to live up to the examples set by his ancestors. He is strong because he comes from a strong people. The legacy of his ancestors inspires him to be different. He is inspired to inspire. He is motivated to motivate. He has a different attitude, because he is different. He believes deeply in the necessity to be a complete and whole Black man. He is Black and he is proud. His life reflects this reality. He is Black and he is powerful. His daily bike riding mirrors this fact. He is Black Power Riding.