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Back to the roots: Quilombola travel in Brazil and West Africa

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Pages 23-39
Received 15 Sep 2020
Accepted 28 Oct 2020
Published online: 09 Apr 2021


In the African Diaspora, travel remains an integral component of diasporic exchange and aspirations of belonging. For many, visiting continental Africa or segments of its Diaspora can foster or strengthen self-recognition and narrative ownership. In this article, we examine how these potential outcomes related to different forms of Quilombola travel, such as transatlantic return (Quilombolas travelling to Africa) and destination-making (Quilombos as travel destinations). To analyse the latter concept, we observed tourism development in the Quilombo Campinho da Independência, in Paraty, Rio de Janeiro. For the former, we analysed a 2010 trip to West Africa by Quilombolas from Santa Rosa dos Pretos, Filipa and Santa Joana, in Maranhão. While individual experiences and interpretations varied among interviewees, the majority framed engagements with travel and tourism as a means of resistance. They demonstrated that when equitable and community-led, travel contributes to long-term anti-racism and anti-oppression initiatives in addition to its aforementioned benefits.

De volta às raízes: viagem quilombola no Brasil e África Oeste

Na diáspora africana, retornar, é um elemento integral de intercâmbio e vínculos de pertencimento. Para muitas pessoas, viajar ao continente africano ou a locais da diáspora, fortalece o auto reconhecimento e o resgate de narrativas próprias. Neste artigo, examinamos a dinâmica entre viagem e identidade no turismo étnico através de dois tipos de viagem: o retorno transatlântico (Quilombolas viajando para a África) e o desenvolvimento do turismo local (Quilombos como destinos de viagem). Com base na análise, observamos o desenvolvimento do turismo no Quilombo do Campinho da Independência, em Paraty, Rio de Janeiro; e uma viagem de quilombolas de Santa Rosa dos Pretos, Filipa e Santa Joana, no Maranhão, à África Ocidental em 2010. Embora experiências individuais e interpretações variem entre os entrevistados, a maioria dos participantes deste estudo revelaram que as viagens de retorno e turismo local são formas de resistência. As entrevistas demonstraram que o turismo, quando igualitário e liderado pela comunidade, contribui para iniciativas a longo prazo de antirracismo e anti-opressão, além dos benefícios mencionados anteriormente.


In recent decades, travel related to African heritage and ancestry, an integral component of diasporic exchange and aspirations of belonging, has grown exponentially. Contributing to this growth are advancements in communication and transportation technologies (Coles & Timothy, 2004), increased economic mobility in different societies that has made travel increasingly more accessible (Williams, 2018), and continued development of travel-related destinations, experiences, and exchanges throughout Africa and its Diaspora (Araujo, 2010; Holsey, 2008; Reed, 2014; Pinho, 2018; Schramm, 2010; Williams, 2018; Pierre, 2012). While experiences and expectations may vary among individuals, this form of travel generally entails engagements with collective identity, kinship, and homeland that shape and are shaped by conceptualizations of Blackness (Holsey, 2008; Pierre, 2012; Reed, 2014). For some, visiting the continent and/or segments of its Diaspora is also a rite of passage that interlaces the past and the present, whereby enslavement memorialization and the veneration of ancestors occurs alongside interpretations of contemporary circumstances (Hartman, 2008; Holsey, 2008).

In Brazil, the dynamics of African ancestry and heritage travel are increasingly manifested in different iterations of Quilombola1 travel, such as transatlantic return (Quilombolas travelling to Africa) and destination-making (Quilombos as travel destinations). While each of these iterations has been studied independently, particularly by scholars interested in identity and representation (i.e. Montero, 2017; Ribeiro & dos Santos, 2018) and ethical economic development (i.e. Bowen, 2017), their relationship is unclear. When viewed conjointly, how do experiences of travel and destination-making contribute to the making of Quilombola identities, narratives, and memories in diverse communities? And to which extent do these activities contribute to local and national projects for collective rights and visibility within the broader Brazilian populous and the wider African Diaspora?

To answer these questions, we conducted ethnographic fieldwork with four Quilombola communities. The first case study, Quilombos as Travel Destinations, focuses on tourism development in the Quilombo Campinho da Independência, in Paraty, Rio de Janeiro. The second case study, Quilombolas and Transatlantic Travel, analyses a 2010 return trip to West Africa by Quilombolas from three communities in the state of Maranhão: Santa Rosa dos Pretos, Filipa, and Santa Joana, in Maranhão. Our analysis relies on, and thus ultimately contributes to, two intersecting bodies of literature: Personal Heritage/Roos Travel and Ethnic Tourism. The former, as it pertains to African and African Diaspora Studies, examines historical and contemporary interpretations of Africanness through travel, and is particularly focused on kinship, homeland, and enslavement memorialization (Araujo, 2012; Hartman, 2008; Holsey, 2008; Reed, 2014; Schramm, 2010; Pinho, 2018). Traditionally, it encompasses people interested in investigating their own roots, and the individuals who facilitate exchanges (Coles & Timothy, 2004), and typically avoids identifying travellers as tourists (Holsey, 2008). Meanwhile, the latter literature is more broadly associated with tourism experiences pertaining to the ethnicity and culture of others (Jafari, 2002), though in the case of Brazil, the emergent subset of Afro-Ethnic Tourism (Trigo & Netto, 2011) commonly functions as an umbrella term encompassing both descendants and non-descendants. Nuances between these literatures and their respective terminologies are expressed throughout the remainder of this article, as the authors default interviewees’ perspectives (and terminology), and how specific observations relate to the works of other scholars. For example, in the first case study, Quilombolas are hosts, and travel is framed in terms pertaining to the tourism industry. However in the second case study, Quilombolas are guests, and generally treated as pilgrims, visitors, and returnees, rather than tourists. Understanding differences and similarities between literatures, therefore, is crucial to capturing the specificities of Quilombola travel.

In the next section, we provide additional details on each case study and the methods undertaken in this article. Then, we contextualize the relationship between tourism and African heritage and ancestry in Brazil, a country that remains plagued by structural racism and systemic inequality (Almeida, 2019; Ture & Hamilton, 1967). Next, we present, discuss, and analyse each case studies. Lastly, we consider parallels between the case studies and the ways in which they contribute to our understanding of Quilombola travel and broader discussions of travel.


The case studies undertaken in this study were independently developed by each of the article’s authors. Fieldwork for the first case study took place between June 2013 and November 2014 in the Quilombo do Campinho da Independência. During this period, 20 semi-structured interviews were conducted with the leadership of a local community association (AMOC), as well as visitors and other community members, such as artisans, youth, Griôts (elders), locals with previous experience in the tourism industry, and an instructor of Jongo, a traditional dance associated with the community. Interview data was complemented with analysis of photographs and pamphlets, field journal and participant observation.

Meanwhile, ethnographic fieldwork for the second case study took place between June and October of 2019 and entailed the following locations: Santiago, Cape Verde; Bissau and Cacheu, Guinea Bissau; and Maranhão, Brazil. In the first locations, the author traced the itinerary The Journey of the Quilombos: from Africa to Brazil and the Return [to Homeland], a 2010 Quilombola trip to West Africa. In Brazil, the author interviewed trip participants from 3 out of the 11 Quilombola2 communities who participated on the project: Santa Rosa dos Pretos and Filipa, in Itapecuru-Mirim county, and Santa Joana in Codó. Overall, 30 semi-structured interviews3 were conducted with scholars, heritage professionals, NGO workers from the organization Ação para o Desenvolvement (AD),4 and trip participants from aforementioned communities. Interview data was supplemented with photographs, videos, pamphlets, travel keepsakes, and site observation at locations visited during the trip, such as Cidade Velha and the Rabelados community in Cape Verde, Amilcar Cabral’s mausoleum in Bissau, and Cacheu’s plaza, fort, and riverbank. Since the research took place nearly a decade after the original trip, the author also visited locations developed as a result of the trip, such as Cacheu’s Memorial da Escravatura e do Tráfico Negreiro.


As previously discussed, Personal Heritage / Roots Tourism refers to travel undertaken to uncover, explore, or experience places related to one’s ancestral origin, recent family history, or other means through which personal connections are forged (Coles & Timothy, 2004). Often, this is a layered and emotional process. First, enslavement memorialization sites, which are normally a part of travellers’ itineraries, are powerful vestiges of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and visual testaments to the suffering of millions of enslaved Africans and generations of their descendants (Abaka, 2012; Hartman, 2008; Hasty, 2002; Holsey, 2008; Munroe, 2016; Schramm, 2010; Thiaw, 2008; Wamba, 1999). Secondly, ongoing violence against Black people in the aftermath of enslavement has compounded generational trauma that is not unlikely to emerge in ancestral sites, where the past and present are closely aligned (Hartman, 2008). For many African and African Diaspora travellers, therefore, (re)membering enslavement closely aligns with present-day systems of oppression that operate beyond geographic lines (Rahier, 2020).

Sites of enslavement memorialization, although never devoid of politics and framing (Araujo, 2012; Holsey, 2008; Thiaw, 2008), promote reflection and dissemination of a painful chapter in human history. Sites of resistance, such as contemporary Quilombola communities, contribute to this process by introducing visitors to specific histories, lineages, and cultural practices that speak to the broad diversity of the African-Diaspora (Lusby & Pinheiro, 2019; Pinheiro, 2018). When pursued autonomously, the extension of Quilombola territory as Roots destinations has paramount of effects, including (1) dominion and ownership over one’s own narrative; (2) exchanges with other Afro-Brazilians and members of the broader African Diaspora; and (3) introducing visitors of various backgrounds, including descendants of perpetrators, to a rich yet often undervalued current in Brazilian life. By staging these concepts side-by-side – Quilombola travel to continental Africa and Afro-Brazilian travel to Quilombola sites – we examine how iterations of travel contribute to sociocultural exchanges of resistance.

As is well documented in the literature, the Transatlantic Slave Trade displaced millions of Africans across Europe, the Americas, and Africa itself. Brazil, where enslavement continued until the late nineteenth century, was a major recipient (and producer) of enslaved persons (Barry, 1998; Hawthorne, 2010). In the localities concerning this study, Rio de Janeiro and Maranhão, as elsewhere in Brazil, enslavement influenced nearly all aspects of public and private life, and was an ongoing threat to free, or conditionally free, persons of Colour (Santos, 2013). For much of its history, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s first capital, was a major commerce centre and entry point of enslaved persons from various parts of the African continent (Honorato, 2016). In Maranhão, where there was a smaller population due to its location and late colonization, transatlantic slave trading was mostly restricted to the Upper Senegambia region (Hawthorne, 2010), and was significantly smaller in scale. Nonetheless, both localities remain embedded in the legacies of enslavement.

The term Quilombo has several potential etymologies, one of which is the word “settlement” in the Bantu language, a term originally used to describe seventeenth Century Angolan camps (Nascimento, 2018). In this context, the term represented temporary settlements, and later, as the Transatlantic Slave Trade intensified, sites of resistance and refuge (Nascimento, 2018). In eighteenth century Brazil, for example, Quilombo was reappropriated to signify the collimation of mocambos, or small anti-slavery settlements, that colonial authorities vehemently opposed (Hawthorne, 2010). As in other parts of the Americas, such as Jamaica and Guyana, such communities, rose as direct resistances to enslavement and colonial rule and were populated by self-liberated enslaved persons, or “run-aways”, as well as other marginalized individuals (Bilby, 2005; Price, 1979). The stigma imposed on Quilombos by colonial authorities, who framed settlers as violent outlaws or lazy idlers, outlived the enslavement era. Despite the advancements discussed below, for example, discourse on Quilombos (and by extension, Quilombolas and other Afro-Brazilians) remains subject to pervasive racist ideologies scholars, activists, community members (and community members who are scholars activists) work hard to dispel.

However, there have been some improvements or efforts to improve racial inequalities. In the beginning of the 2000s, for example, the Brazilian government began to prioritize public policies in an unprecedented way to combat the consequences of the slavery, adopting innovative measures to contribute to overcoming racial inequality in the country (Pinheiro, 2015). Some of the policies from this period focused on the development of Ethnic Tourism as a means to improve relations through education while providing economic opportunities. In 2003, for example, the Special Secretariat for Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR) was created to coordinate the protection of individuals and groups affected by discrimination and various forms of intolerance. In the following year, additional policy changes, such as the implementation of Affirmative Action, also impacted the construction of social and racial justice in the country. Then, in 2005, the National Year for the Promotion of Racial Equality was instituted by the Ministry of Culture and SEPPIR. In the same year, Jongo, an Afro-Brazilian dance, was recognized as Culture Heritage by the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN). Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art of resistance, was also recognized as a national culture a few years later in 2008. These advancements correlated with government-led incentives to promote national and international tourism to Afro-Brazilian communities, such as Quilombola territories, and sites of interest. In Brazil, this form of tourism is housed under the umbrella of Afro-Ethnic Tourism, which depends on a historical, cultural, social economic and political understanding of Black culture in Brazil (Trigo & Netto, 2011). In the following section, we discuss how the development of Ethnic Tourism has affected a participating community as well as transatlantic roots travel.


The case studies analysed in this article underscore the imperative that in order to be successful and ethical, travel must be accessible, equitable, and community-led. Under these circumstances, transatlantic travel and destination-making enabled participating communities to strengthen their self-recognition (pride and excitement over one’s past and current traditions, accomplishments, and culture) and narrative ownership (determining the parameters of how one’s history is told). Interviewees regularly connected experiences related to their ancestry, such as discussing the pain of enslaved ancestors, with current trials and tribulations. Often, travel entailed both rooting and uprooting: the ongoing work of examining one’s heritage (Smith, 2006) and relations with homeland, of strategizing solutions to combat racism and oppression while celebrating achievements, and of coming to terms with unsettling realities (such as feeling as though one has no choice but to engage in global industries such as tourism). Although the next sections will also illustrate observations that are unique to each case study and its respective example of Quilombola travel, collectively they demonstrate the power of travel as resistance, and efforts to maintain the circulatory nature of Quilombola exchanges.

Quilombos as travel destinations

The Quilombola community Campinho da Independência, which is located in the city of Paraty, is a main tourist destination in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Official state recognition as a Quilombola community in 1999 (Fundação Cultural Palmares, 2008), along with land titles, also contributed to their development as a tourist destination, as visitors became inclined to learn about the community’s history and culture. Daniele, a local leader who participates in the community’s leadership association, commented on the benefits of being officially recognized as a Quilombola territory: “When we received the title of our land, we became Quilombolas, we have different ethnicity and recognition of our culture. It raised our self-esteem, without any shame of the race. It was the most important thing that happened”. One of the direct benefits of official recognition was an influx of investments and protective policies to ensure the development of tourism within the community.

In 1999, to celebrate their official recognition as a Quilombola territory, the community began to organize an event called the “First Black Meeting” in partnership with the city council of Paraty, the company Eletrobrás and the Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA). The event promoted valorization for the local way of life and Quilombola identity, in addition to becoming an important political tool to promote exchanges with other Quilombola communities, scholars, activists and tourists. Since then, the “First Black Meeting” has taken place each November, in celebration of Black Consciousness Day, a national holiday. Event activities include workshops, movies, debates with other Quilombola communities and local cultural attractions, such as the Jongo, an Afro-Brazilian dance. The next section will demonstrate how the community organized itself to receive tourists.

Preparing to receive tourists

The beginning of touristic activity in Campinho da Independência did not occur with community consent, but with the rise of self-guided tourism and the threat of external companies. As a result, community members expressed not feeling as though they had had a real choice on becoming a tourism destination. “Tourism does not ask for a license, it is an economic activity that arrives with or without an invitation”, stated Waguinho, an interviewee. “People arrived individually or in small groups wanting to talk with [their own] tour guides. They came here telling stories that I don’t even know what they were telling, taking a tour of the community” Ronaldo, another interviewee added. Waguinho and Ronaldo’s comments reveal that prior to developing community-led projects, local tourist companies had begun to appear in throughout the territory, taking control of visits and arranging tours without consent.

As unsolicited visits increased, leadership in the local community association (AMOC) realized their tourist potential and decided to organize themselves to take ownership of the management and control of tourism in the area. This process led to the strengthening of AMOC and local organization, can be thought of as an unintended yet positive consequence of officially sanctioning visitors. It also contributed to youth education, as several young community members were invited to take courses on ethnic tourism through an initiative funded by Fundação Cultural Palmares in Rio de Janeiro. Other community members who had previous experience with the tourism industry also became involvement with the development of tours, facilities and activities.

As collaborative effort, Ethnic Tourism in Campinho da Independência was built with the experiences of community members who worked with tourism outside the community, knowledge from newly trained youth, and leadership from community elders. As an interviewee stated:

It was a community-building [project]. AMOC invested in it. There were some people who already worked with tourism and brought some experiences [and] we bet on things [that tourists demanded], such as gastronomy. Now [we] always think about … this concept of ethnic and cultural tourism.

The combination of this inclusive development strategy along with the ongoing arrival of more and more tourists helped popularize Ethnic Tourism not only within the community but also among its neighbours, many of whom had never thought of Quilombola tourism as a possibility. One of the first activities to demonstrate this was the development of a local travel circuit. As Ronald states, this was a learning process:

We didn’t know what we wanted to show. We just knew that there was an interest in getting to know us because people arrived before [being] invited, which is interesting, so we started to invent [activities], but for us the [most] relevant, the fundamental thing is to talk about our history, be it a half-hour itinerary or a three-hour itinerary, for us the central point here is a story memory and culture.

Overtime, and with a predefined focus on “memory and culture” the community’s leadership group (AMOC) developed an itinerary. Visitors began their tour by meeting with a Griô (someone who passes on their societýs history) or community elder. Ronaldo explained the role of Griôs as follows: “The Griô has always existed because we lived with elders and elders told stories”. Involving Griôs in the tours has helped reassert their relevancy within the community. Conversations with Griôs are now integral to introductory visits to the circuits because visitors are introduced to stories of how the community was formed through the Griô’s life story and knowledge of culture, struggle, and resistance. This meeting is described in the itinerary as a “Roda dos Griôs” and is typically followed by conversations with local leaders; visits to various parts of the community, such as a craft house and an agroforestry project of juçara5; meals at a community restaurant; and the option of viewing a Jongo performance. In developing this itinerary, community members reversed their initial experiences with tourism by dictating the “when”, “where”, and “how” of tourists' visits. Also, as the infrastructure to receive tourists developed, tourists no longer showed up unsolicited and unexpectedly. Instead, they became welcomed guests poised to have a great experience.

In 2002, the community received grants and technical support from several entities6 for the development of its infrastructure. Projects from this period were geared towards generating income through Ethnic Tourism, but also included components related to environmental protection and social services. As such, the community was able to develop its infrastructure, and construct sustainable, income-generating facilities, such as the aforementioned community restaurant. The result of such investments was to ensure residents could support themselves through community-developed projects, and no longer depend on external employment. According to Waguinho, the community restaurant “ … is an opportunity to generate income but also to maintain the territory and culture. Community members have the opportunity to work in the community, be close to their family and passing their culture to their children”. Iza, one of the restaurant’s employees, remarked that the opportunity changed her life: “I came to work here in 2007 so I could stay close to my daughters”. In the next section, we discuss perspectives from the tourists.

Tourist experiences in the Quilombo

Today, Campinho da Independência receives tourists from different parts of Brazil as well as from other countries. In 2014, for example, the community hosted a group of exchange students from Princeton University. The students, who visited with their professors, tasted feijoada, a national dish, at the community restaurant. Then, they listened to the Griô’s story. One of these participants, Sarah, an African American, discussed her impression of the community and of general Quilombola history:

Because of my interest in the African elements of Brazilian culture, the culmination of my trip to Rio was undoubtedly the Quilombo trip from Campinho da Independência. Listening to the Griô talk about traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation, Quilombola’s struggle to maintain their lands, with the risk of government appropriation and the desire to establish a school that would include Quilombola history and cultural practices as part of their curriculum. I admire this community so much that I was immediately offended when someone told me that there was nothing special about Quilombo do Campinho da Independência. I couldn’t understand how anyone could fail to see the importance of such a community that reminded me so much of the Gullah and Geeche people on the islands of the United States Sea, that I thought I had found it in the heart of Black people in Brazil.

As illustrated in Sarah’s statement, visiting a Quilombola community can contribute to visitors’ understanding of how various peoples have worked to maintain their independence. The connection to the Gullah and the Geeche peoples further positions not only this particular Quilombola community – but Quilombola/Maroon communities in general – in a global network of resistance and Africanness. For Sarah, and persuadably other visitors, Quilombolan identity came to represent “the heart of Black people in Brazil”. However, she also laments speaking with someone who saw “nothing special” during the visit, a hint that not all visitors are affectively moved by the community.

Today, the majority of the tourists reach the community through pre-scheduled tours. However, the community’s restaurant and craft store, both of which are visible and easily accessible through the highway BR-101, attract a great number of people who stop at these locations without knowing they are entering a protected territory. However, unlike the unexpected visitors discussed earlier, these visitors are welcome since the community is now able to entice them into formal tours after their time in the restaurant and giftshop or give them information for future visitation. In the following section, we expand on other positive outcomes of Ethnic Tourism within the community.

Ethnic tourism outcomes

For much of its history, the Quilombo do Campinho da Independência was a relatively isolated community. This condition drastically changed in 1999, when the community became the first Rio de Janeiro community officially recognized as a Quilombola settlement (Gusmão, 1999). In addition, public policies aimed at protecting Quilombola territories, improving racial equity, and advancing community infrastructure, as well as government funding for Ethnic Tourism projects have given voice to the residents of Campinho da Independência. For members of this community, collective Quilombola identity is built through cultural expressions such as Jongo, the Black Meeting and exchanges with other Quilombola communities. Thus, in addition to raising awareness of Brazil’s African heritage and the need for social and racial justice, quilombos as travel destinations also contributes to communal identity-making and narrative ownership.

Ethnic Tourism contributed for narrative ownership and valorising their memory Ronaldo stated “we can recognize ourselves and rescue our own history, our own memory”. Tourism also brought economic changes to the community. As Tina stated, “tourism has changed our lives … I meet different people from all the world [and now] my husband can relax. He doesn’t have to kill himself to work, we can survive with what we have what we”. In making a living within the territory rather than seeking employment elsewhere, residents have found greater economic security while simultaneously securing the development and maintenance of their territory.

As this case study demonstrates, Ethnic Tourism, when pursued ethically and within community-led parameters, greatly benefited participating communities. For residents of the Campinho da Independência, this includes increasing public valorization of local tradition and history while also generating income and self-recognition. It also brings tourists closer to the realities of Quilombola struggle and resistance, which can have broader impacts as visitors become aware of other communities or transnational issues. Having demonstrated the potential benefits of Quilombola travel through the development of destinations, we now examine transatlantic Quilombola travel.

Quilombolas and transatlantic travel

In the parallel study of Quilombola travel to Africa, interviewees reminisced on their 2010 trip to Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. The 14-day journey, titled The Journey of the Quilombos: from Africa to Brazil and the Return [to Homeland],7 consisted of visits to memorials, museums, cultural centres, and schools as well as invitations to a number of functions and dinners, one of which was attended by Pedro Pires, then president of Cape Verde. In addition to these visits, participants also spent time with local communities, such as the Rabelados8 community of Santiago, Cape Verde, and a range of tabancas, or villages, in Northern Guinea-Bissau. And on three different occasions, they performed regional dances, such as Tambor de Mina and Tambor de Criulou, in festivals specifically organized to celebrate their homecoming. As a form of cultural exchange, Bissauan and Cape Verdean dance troupes also performed their own local and/or regional dances. One of these events, the Festival Cultural de Cacheu went on to become an yearly affair that attracts many visitors to the city of Cacheu (AD, 2020).

The goals of the trip and its itinerary were manifold. First, as described in a booklet distributed to participants, the project intended “to enrich intercultural dialogue through the protection, valorization, and dissemination of Quilombola culture” (IMVF, 2010, p. 3). Secondly, it aimed to (re)introduce participants to a continent they had long dreamed of visiting. Lastly, it aimed to provide enslavement memorialization opportunities for participants and those they met throughout their journey. These intentions have outlived the project, particularly in the creation of Cacheu’s first enslavement memorial-museum,9 inaugurated six years after the trip, and within participants’ communities, where its events are still discussed and celebrated. According to Quilombola interviewees, travel strengthened their ancestral ties to Africa, introduced them to diasporic kin, and helped challenge mainstream images and ideas about contemporary Africa. In the following paragraphs, we examine these outcomes by analysing pre-travel, travel, and post-travel experiences and memories.

Pre-travel anticipation

When recalling their anticipations for the trip, older interviewees overwhelmingly described visiting the African continent as a long-term dream. As João Batista of Santa Joana stated, “our dream was to learn where we came from”. Anacleta of Santa Rosa dos Pretos added: “this trip … in addition to being an affirmation of our identity, was a dream we [were able to realize]”. Those able to realize this dream shared it with community members who were unable to go, including older and younger generations. The “dream” quality of return speaks to the expectation of experiencing a place/space long imagined and celebrated within participants’ communities through historical, cultural, and religious means. Another contributing factor is the aforementioned juxtaposition of superficially recognising of Quilombola/Maroon heritage while actually denying them full citizenship (Bilby, 2005; Kenny, 2018; Leite, 2000). Part of the dream, in this case, is countering state-sponsored systems of inequality, inequity and racism with international forms of recognition of recognition, as illustrated by the trip’s mission. Thus, for participants, as well as for many other people within the broader African Diaspora, homecoming continues to play an important role as a dream of self-realization, recognition, and resistance among the African Diaspora (Abaka, 2012; Bonacci, 2015; Harris, 1993; Hartman, 2008; Holsey, 2008; Queeley, 2011; Reed, 2014; Safran, 1991; Schramm, 2010; Wamba, 1999).

Dreaming of returning to the African continent is also rooted in resistance against misinformation and mischaracterization about people of African descent. For example, older interviewees discussed being told that they “hadn’t come from anywhere” in school, and thus dedicated a portion of their interviews to critiquing the absence and/or distortion of African and African Diaspora histories and heritages in formal and informal education settings. They criticized Brazilian society’s deep embedment with racist ideologies intent on reproducing stereotypical views of people, spaces, and activities associated with Blackness, including erroneous associations of Black and Brown peoples with violence, laziness, and passivity (Araújo, 2004; Leite, 2011; Pina, 2009; Vogt & de Brum, 2016). Others discussed their expectations of images they had seen on Television, mainly of African poverty and deprivation, and realizing that the Africa they encountered did not match the continent’s limited depictions on news reports and TV shows. Dissatisfaction with portrayals of Africa, Africans, and Africanness in schools, media, and other settings contributes to communities’ projects of self-education and self-recognition, such as building their own schools and offering continuous Black Consciousness programming (i.e. Resistência Quilombola Luta, 2019). For participating communities, travel was paramount to this mission, and thus highly anticipated.

Travel experiences

Throughout the trip, participants visited rural, urban, and suburban settings in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, and interacted with peoples from diverse ethnic, linguistic, religious, economic backgrounds.10 The affective potential of encounters, meetings, and experiences helped solidify participants’ affiliations with the continent. Anacleta, for example, reported that although she had always known about her roots, travelling enabled her to feel her roots. To exemplify this, she described a powerful experience of affective memory (Munroe, 2016) that solidified her affiliation with Caió, a tabanca the Cacheu region. Anacleta stated inexplicitly crying during her entire Caió visit: “from the moment I stepped out of the car until I got back in my face was full with tears” Anacleta interpreted this experience as an indication of finding the roots of her roots – in other words, a homeland within the homeland. Anacleta’s oldest daughter, who also went on the trip, described a similar attachment to the region, which has since begun to express by self-identifying as “filha de Guiné”, or “daughter of Guinea”. For these participants, visiting different parts of the continent allowed them to explore their connections to specific spaces and where they felt most at home.

Interactions with kin also contributed to feelings of belonging. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, both Quilombola participants and local Bissauans reported that the group was received by large crowds at various segments of the 2010 visit. Often, receptions were described as lively events with food, music, and dancing, as well as intense emotional exchanges. For both groups, the celebratory nature of meeting one another accompanied sadness over the circumstances of their encounter. The Transatlantic Slave Trade, as manifested through generational trauma, is also an all-too-recent past actively recollected in Quilombola communities and along the Cacheu region. Violence and fear associated with slave raids, particularly in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, is evident in remnants of the trade, which include discarded iron chain, cannons and cannon balls, fortified “maze-like” houses intended to discourage capture, oral history about the port of Cacheu and other lieux de mémoire found throughout the region (Barry, 1998; Hawthorne, 2010; Henriques, 2005). The pain endured by descendants who “stayed behind” is evident in an exchanged relayed by Nielza, a Quilombola participant from Filipa. Nielza stated:

I became emotional then, when they said “We know of the ones who went from here to Brazil, many were subjugated and died … [but] what about the others [who survived]? Did they marry, and leave children?” Then [he] approached our group, and [someone from our group] said this to them: “That is why we are coming here, to tell you that we are descendants of that generation.”

This interaction demonstrates that Quilombola participants, as members of the African diaspora, and the Bissauans they met, residents of the African continent, were mutually interested in meeting one another. In contrast to studies by scholars such as Edward Bruner (1996, 2005), that highlight diaspora/continental friction, this interaction underscores comradery, solidarity, and curiosity brought upon or resolved by travel.

In addition to appreciating “general kinship”, Quilombola participants and many of the Bissauans they met were also interested in finding “specific kinship”, or people with potential blood and/or special spiritual connections. Interviewees recounted seeking out people whose mannerisms, personhood, and/or visage resembled that of loved ones. In turn, they recalled being sought out when their own likeness was recognized by someone else. Connections were also forged when people realized they or loved ones shared the same name or surnames as well as through requests to become a child’s godparent and reciprocal gift-giving (at different parts of the journeys Quilombolan participants distributed items they had brought from Brazil, such as special foods from their region, an act reciprocated by people they met along their journey). These various exchanges, as described by interviewees, often involved physical affection, such as hugs, handshakes, and teary goodbyes.

The emotionality of the trip was heightened by continuous engagement with enslavement memorialization. For most interviewees, this memorialization was inseparable from ongoing resistance against racism, violence, and other forms of oppression. As documented in the literature, the affective nature of enslavement heritage sites and artefacts is not the same for everyone (see Hartman, 2008). At least one interviewee, for example, recalled not feeling any particular way about this part of their past. All other interviewees, however, recalled experiencing sadness, disgust, and/or anger when face to face with remnants of the trade. At one point, the sight of metal chains hanging from tree branches elicited strong emotional responses from several participants. The chains crossed between the present and the past. It reminded participants of the violence associated with enslavement, but also of the industrial prison complex and contemporary forms of enslavement. Thus, discussions about enslavement heritage were rarely devoid of discussions of contemporary issues, triumphs, and resistance. Interviewees also considered how the legacy of enslavement affected the people they met, particularly in the Cacheu region where there is great economic need. As a participants stated, “[in Cacheu] we found many things that were really similar, the ills of colonialization, but also the goodness of life” Overall, interviewees saw themselves and continental Africans, particularly Bissauans living in Cacheu, as sharing similar trials and tribulations. In echoing Pan-African perspectives, participants interpreted their homecoming as a collaborative liberation effort, one that as the following section will demonstrate, continues to impact their respective communities.

Post-travel considerations

As a highly communal process, enslavement memorialization travel, or more broadly, Personal Heritage / Roots travel, facilitates the transference of post-travel knowledge among participants and their respective communities through the telling and re-telling of memories and experiences. As data from travel circulates, it begins to encapsulate non-participants in its folds. In Santa Rosa dos Pretos, for example, offspring of participants have grown up hearing about the trip and their parents’ and siblings’ perspectives of the continent. Zica, an activist and artist, relayed this point. Zica, who is Anacleta’s daughter, was too young to participant in the 2010 trip. However, she asserted that physical participation did not deter participation: “when they went, we all went”. Other interviewees, whether participants or not, echoed Zica’s conceptualization that those who went “carried” those who did not go. In interviews, and in observing formal and informal exchanges about the trip, specially between elders and youth, it is evident that the takeaways experienced by participants have been transmitted to other community members. Although many still hope for or actively working towards making the trip on their own, participating communities benefited from the fact that some of its members were able to return.

By regularly recounting their memories and experiences and sharing items collected during their trip, participants contributed to their community’s narrative ownership and self-recognition. Zica, for example, characterize the trip’s contribution to changing the parameters through which Afro-Brazilian history is told. She stated:

We were not slaves. We were captured, violated, and enslaved  … [but] we know we are from [Africa] because our ancestrally stays with us. We remember our home because [this knowledge] surpasses time.

Unlike older interviewees, Zica and others in her generation grew up knowing that she has a history. And through knowledge of the trip, engagement with specific localities and diasporic kin that extend notions of belonging. As this case study demonstrates, return travel, though not experienced the same by everyone (see Harris, 1993 or Hartman, 2008), can contribute to self-recognition, narrative ownership, relationships with diasporic kin, and affiliations with homeland, and therefore, to projects of resistance against racism, violence, and other forms of oppression.


The case studies analysed in this article illustrate different engagements with Quilombola travel and travel to Quilombola communities. In showcasing perspectives from different communities in Maranhão and in Rio de Janeiro, one functioning as guests and the other as hosts, this research contributes to notions that when pursued ethically and independently, tourism can be a powerfully effective tool for community-making and engagement. In both case studies, Quilombola participants relied on travel to communicate their respective community’s history, practices, and traditions through practices of narrative ownership. In the first case study, Quilombola participants connected with members of the broader Afro-Brazilian populous, while the latter engaged in transatlantic diasporic exchanges. In both cases, travel facilitated friendships, comradery, and fraternity related to Black Consciousness and opposition against racism and violence. While no participants had the same exact experience and perspectives, travel appeared to strengthen opportunities for self-recognition, internal and external validation of ancestral ties to the African continent, and recognition of each community’s contemporary contributions to the African Diaspora. At the same time, the case studies also demonstrate challenges in amplifying access to travel and in protecting the integrity of community-led initiatives (making sure power remains with communities and not with external entities).

Continued research in this domain is needed to understand potential variations in communities and destinations, as well as the effects of current events. For example, how does the intersection of COVDI-19, as a global pandemic, and the Black Lives Matter movement, as an increasingly international phenomenon, impact Quilombola travel? At the time of publication, Quilombola communities have been simultaneously battered by the former and lifted by the latter. Insufficient access to quality medical care has posed a grave threat to Quilombola territories and other politically marginalized communities, for whom virus testing and resources have been relatively limited (Augusto, 2020; Izquierdo, 2020). At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly through the subset Quilombola Lives Matter, has raised the national and international profile of many Quilombola activists, whose life-long commitment to Black liberation and resistance have been crucial to anti-racist policy and education (Rapoport Center, 2020). By extension, attention on activists as sources of knowledge appears to be raising the overall profile of Quilombola communities, some of which, as indicated through informal reports, are meeting increased and/or continued demands for travel through virtual means. While it is too early to know the long-term effects of these events, it is clear that travel, physically, through the retelling of memories, or even virtually, remains important to many Quilombola peoples and their respective communities.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information


This research was partially supported by the West African Research Association, Boston University and the Tinker Foundation.


1 Quilombolas are residents of Quilombos or places that are reminiscent of Quilombos, which are defined in this article as communities historically rooted in anti-slavery and anti-colonial resistance (Miki, 2018).

2 The process of territory recognition for Filipa (CPISP, 2020a) and Santa Joana (CPISP, 2020b) commenced in 2004, while Santa Rosa dos Pretos commenced in 2008 (CPISP, 2020c).

3 Real names are used in instances where participants consented to the use of their first name.

4 This Bissauan organization as one of the key organizers of the 2010 Quilombola trip from Maranhão, Brazil or Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau.

5 Endangered palm tree variety.

6 Secretaria de Políticas de Promoção da Igualdade Racial (SEPPIR), Ministry of Social Development (MDS), Petrobrás, and the University Foundation of Brasilia (FUBRA).

7 “O Percurso dos Quilombos: de África para o Brasil e o regresso às origens.”

8 An independent community forged in opposition of liturgical reforms enacted in Cape Verde in the 1940s (Júnior, 1974).

9 Organizers of Cacheu’s Memorial da Escravatura e do Tráfico Negreiro, which was inaugurated in 2016, recognize the Quilombola visit as one of the catalysts for its development (Caldeira, 2016).

10 Some of the concepts described in this section have been further developed by one of this paper’s authors in a different publication (Silva, 2020).


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