SAO PAULO — Melanito Biyouha tries to remember the languages she’s heard today at her restaurant in Sao Paulo’s African corner.
“English, Bassa, Wolof, Swahili, umm … Lingala,” she said. “And of course Portuguese, both with Angolan, Mozambican and Brazilian accents.”
She speaks Portuguese with a Cameroonian accent, she said.
Almost 500 years since slavery set Brazil on the path to establishing the largest African-heritage population outside Africa, Biyouha’s restaurant has become a home base for the first significant voluntary influx of Africans into the country.
Mostly lured by the prospect of work in an expanding economy, they find a culture that is more receptive to immigrants — and their skin color — than many of the usual places Africans have migrated to recently, such as crisis-ridden Southern Europe.
Though most enter without visas, immigration is so relatively minor here as to be viewed more as a curiosity than a political issue.
But Brazil also throws up its own set of difficulties and prejudices in gigantic, fast-living Sao Paulo, and life for Africans is usually tougher than it is even for their African Brazilian counterparts, still much poorer on average than whiter Brazilians.
“Even though so many Brazilians are from Africa, and so much of its culture is African, they know almost nothing of African history or of African culture, and my dream is to change that,” Biyouha said.
Little by little, native-born Brazilians are starting to come into her restaurant, where she serves whole fried fish, spicy sauteed spinach and filling polenta alongside dishes from across her continent. But most here are Africans, as is the case in the Nigerian-owned restaurant next door, the Brazilian-owned restaurant one more over, and the Nigerian-owned restaurant one door down from there — all of which opened after she set up shop here five years ago.
Many of the patrons fill out visa applications or registration papers.
“I know some are doing very well, and some have some problems,” she said. “Brazilians are receptive to immigrants, and I think it’s easier here than for my cousin in France, for example, even though there is a larger community of Africans there.”
Outside, the corner is almost permanently full of recent arrivals from Nigeria, Congo, Angola, Senegal and Ivory Coast, among other countries, who shuffle in front of posters for evangelical Christian events near the four businesses, just walking distance from Brazil’s main newspaper, its stock market and a frightening community of hundreds of drug-addicted locals living on the streets.
“But it’s not easy anywhere to be an immigrant,” Biyouha said.
She was an early arrival. After growing up in a lower-middle-class family in Yaounde, Cameroon’s capital, she came here as a tourist in 2004, fell in love, saw opportunities, and decided to stay. Her original plan was to bring techniques for treating African hair to a salon of her own, in Brasilia, but in 2007 she came to Sao Paulo and started selling her fish to new immigrants from all over Africa and Latin America.
After waves of immigrants poured into Brazil throughout much of its history, economic crisis in the 1980s caused the flow to change direction, and many Brazilians left for the U.S. and Europe in search of work. But a growing economy over the last decade has again reversed the tide.
Brazil is readjusting to having immigrants arrive looking for work, though the current number of foreigners living here is probably little more than 1% of the total population of almost 200 million, including best guesses as to the number of undocumented migrants.
According to the Justice Ministry, in 2011 there were slightly more than 15,000 documented Africans in Brazil, from 55 countries, almost three times as many as there were in 2009. There’s little information on how many more are without papers, but observers say the number is much larger.
Brazil offers a few paths for immigrants to become legal residents.
“You can apply for refugee status — that works. You can get married, or you can find a company to sponsor your visa,” said Gregory of Lagos, Nigeria, who didn’t want to give his last name, acknowledging that he had arrived here hidden on a boat.
Now married, he works at a photography store and has earned a master’s degree in international trade. He suspects the reason he hasn’t gotten a better job yet has to do with his origins.
“They get my resume and they think, ohh ... an African, from a poor country. Black,” he said. “There is a myth that there isn’t racism here, but it’s just swept under the carpet. If dark-skinned Brazilians are suffering, imagine how it is for an actual African.”
Some of the most recent arrivals sell cheap jewelry on the street, a common sight over the last decade in Southern European cities. Those who have entered the formal economy have done so as teachers, hairdressers, bartenders. Some slaughter animals according to halal specifications, for export to Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia.
Low pay is not the only downside to being new on the scene in this rough-and-tumble city of endless skyscrapers, said Richard Emeka, a Nigerian shoe cleaner.
“We are close to cracolandia [the local term for crack-addicted street communities], but we have nothing to do with it,” he said. “But the police come by here to hassle us, and if we don’t pay them off, they plant drugs on us and arrest us.
“Drugs come from Colombia or Bolivia, not from Africa,” Emeka said. “What comes from Africa is all of Brazil’s culture — samba, the food, almost everything. They ought to recognize that.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.