African Library: The water house by Antȏnio Olinto

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Antȏnio Olinto: The water house (1969)

While the Afro-Brazilian connection through transportation of enslaved West Africans to Bahía and other ports and parts of the “New World” is well known, this novel does the unusual thing of depicting the return of one such (former) slave to the Yoruba region of her family origins. Only the text’s opening section is set in Brazil, and as the narrative starts, the plan of going back to Nigeria has been put in motion by the family matriarch, Catarina – mother of Epifânia and grandmother to Mariana, who is the novel’s focal character. Fifty years before her decision to return to Nigeria, Catarina, while on a visit to her uncle in Lagos from Abeokuta (where she had been born), discovered that her uncle had already arranged for her to be sold to some men who would take her to Brazil as a slave. She was eighteen at the time. After landing in Bahía, she was taken to the smaller town of Piau, where she has lived ever since with her descendants. Mariana is ten at the time that Catarina tells her that it is time to go back to Nigeria.

Olinto actually wrote a trilogy of novels to celebrate the connections between Brazil and Africa, and of these three, The water house was the first. His wife was a great enthusiast for Africanness in Brazil, with a particular interest in Yoruba culture and Candomblé spiritual-cultural practices, even though she was, like Olinto, a “white” Brazilian. Olinto sought a diplomatic posting to West Africa, and was appointed cultural attaché to the Brazilian embassy in Lagos, where he and his wife arrived in June 1962; and they left to return to Brazil in February 1964, Olinto having campaigned to be replaced by an accomplished “black” Brazilian. Olinto remained committed to the cause of fostering Afro-Brazilian links and the opportunities brought by these. He described himself as having been an author without a subject before going there, but as having gained the topic of “Africa itself” by travelling to and living in West Africa, even though fairly briefly. It is, perhaps, because of his sense of connectedness to the continent and its people that the unnamed, unidentified narrator of Mariana’s life journey places himself not as a distanced, omniscient narrator, but states at the outset:

I could have chosen the device of a separate narrator, removed from the events, but Mariana’s story is so much a part of me that it seems I can only pass it on by putting myself inside it and telling it as if I myself were, at every move, taking part in the scenes, hearing the words spoken and experiencing the emotions of the girl’s long journey. (1)

Old Catarina felt that “she had a duty to get back on to the path from which she had been turned aside […] as if she were winning back a life that had been lost” (32). As the small family – Catarina, Epifânia, Mariana and her younger siblings Antônio and Emilia –board a ship for the long voyage, a man who has become very fond of Catarina wishes her and her fellow departing family members “fire in the hearth, food in your store-cupboard, joy in your life” (52) and “much palm-oil, much fish, much flour, much yam, fruit in great quantities […] and if it is your desire may you never be without cachaça [strong liquor made from sugar cane juice]” (53). The ship is becalmed for many, many weeks on the open sea, resulting in a number of deaths, so that they reach Lagos only after six months on board. When they are allowed to disembark, thirteen-year-old Mariana has her first period, as if to symbolise the start of the girl’s adult life on the African continent.

In Lagos, the family is given rough shelter in the Brazilian quarter, but make their way as soon as possible to the grande dame of the Brazilian-Nigerian community, Dona Zezé, to ask advice about how to make a living in Lagos. Told that they have nothing, Dona Zezé offers to let them have tobacco and cola nuts, which they can sell from a street stall, which they start doing the very next day. Getting to know Lagos, the family soon discovers that, as Dona Zezé said, Nigeria is not paradise, and that sometimes tensions between “Africans” and “Brazilians” erupt in street fights. There are also reassuringly familiar practices and customs, such as the egungun festivals, when masked figures that represent honoured ancestors parade in the streets, for many such African festivals were also a feature of life in Brazil. Seu Gaspar is another “Brazilian” of high standing who lives near them; he is in charge of the egungun and organises the cult of the orishas in their part of Lagos. The children often accompany their grandmother on visits to Seu Gaspar, marvelling at the statue of Shango. When Mariana asks her mother whether they are African or Brazilian, she replies, “We are both, my child” (86). Some time later, old Catarina, who, in Lagos, has reverted to speaking only her Yoruba mother tongue, falls ill. She announces that she is to be known as Ainá, the name by which she was known in her youth, and dies not long afterwards. Mariana, who has learnt English, is asked to help the priests [who speak no Yoruba] to teach the catechism in the Catholic church, which the girl enjoys doing. The members of the group who came over together on the boat from Bahía keep in touch with one another, but they are also now beginning to feel “at home” in Nigeria, even going (on foot) to the city of Ibadan, a Yoruba intellectual and cultural centre, to explore it. Although Epifânia still misses Brazil and the lover she had there, Mariana, growing up fast, does not want to live in two worlds; she walks all over Lagos and makes friends with both Yoruba and Ibo families.

At sixteen, Mariana is considered marriageable and, indeed, soon her family is told that a young man called Sebastian Silva (from a family that had come over from Brazil earlier than her own) would like to marry her. Sebastian is an acceptable match; he is educated and works for a British firm. Mariana thinks he has a “good face” and she likes his “slow smile” (106); although his family is not wealthy, they are well regarded. Soon, the young couple start going about together, and they get ceremonially engaged at a jolly party. Olinto’s narrative is punctuated with numerous descriptions of social events – very aware of the communal aspect of the lives evoked, he gradually gives his readers a greater sense of the increasing complexity of Mariana’s inner life. Indeed, the entire narrative has both a lyrical and a saga-like quality. The engagement includes the following moment:

Then a big noise came from outside, happy cries, shouts in Yoruba that seemed to mark the rhythm of a dance, and Sebastian came into the room with lots of friends, he was wearing a suit of fine English wool, his waistcoat adding a final touch of elegance, his friends were dressed in African style, coloured cloths draped round their bodies, embroidered caps on their heads, there were blue robes, red ones, everyone was smiling, the flute broke into a series of variations, everyone clapped their hands, Sebastian knelt in front of Epifânia, put his forehead to the ground, then sat for the interrogation, all around him everyone was laughing, Seu Alexandre asked:

“Have you enough money to support a wife?”

The laughter grew even louder, old Teresa wanted to know: “Do you know how to treat a woman, in bed and out of it?” (113)

Afterwards, “Mariana spent the months of her engagement getting to know Sebastian, each meeting took them further into their knowledge of each other” (114). A maturing Mariana develops a new habit of thinking in the rhythm of the oríkìs (prayer-like invocations or greetings) that she first heard in Brazil, even though they derive from Yoruba ways of speaking:

“O bridegroom, you who come to give me sons, may you be chief of the land and master of horses, O mother who brought me to the light and taught me to walk, to see and to judge, may your serenata [funeral commemoration] be celebrated after a hundred years” […] She thought up orikis for the children who came to her classes, […] on Sundays she prayed in orikis, “O Lady of Joy may you always be my guardian, O Blessed Holy Ghost of Piau [in Brazil], holy bird, sacred bird, may your wings be for ever beautiful and may you light up my mind so that I can understand everything that should be understood,” orikis came to her for Shango, “O lord of the fire and the thunder may we always receive justice from your two-headed axe,” for the soul of the dead, for Ainá, “O you who are gone […] may you be happy wherever you are,” […] she made the orikis in Yoruba and in Portuguese. (115)

Clearly, Mariana’s mingled heritage has enriched her mind rather than divided her psyche, and Olinto’s lyrical style reflects this blending melodically and referentially.

Unfortunately, Sebastian decides to close down. After some months of fruitless job searching, he decides to take up an offer of employment on the island of Fernando Pó, and this leaves Mariana with their two young children, Joseph and Ainá, as well as her mother and brother to make do in their small household, even though he promises to send money home. Since her mother has become increasingly inactive and unenterprising and her brother as a carpenter’s apprentice gets no wages (only food), Mariana has to find a way to feed six mouths. This is where she first shows her mettle and her courageous, enterprising nature. She notices that the people of Lagos buy household water that is brought downstream on canoes from another town, and decides to have a well dug on the property that her family rents – it is located well inland. She finds the men who can do the work after consulting books with the necessary information in the British Council Library, but when the well is about to be completed, she realises that she will have to buy the land and their home to secure ownership. She borrows the sizeable sums required from Dona Zezé and Seu Alexandre, assuring them that she will soon repay the loans from selling the well water and undercutting the “imported water” sellers. When water is found, Mariana gets a sign painted saying “omi agua water” (136) in the three locally spoken languages (Yoruba, Portuguese and English), and soon money starts rolling in.

When Mariana goes to Seu Gaspar to have a ram sacrificed to Shango to invoke the god’s blessing on her enterprise, she is for the first time in her life referred to as “the Sinhá” (137) – a term that means something like “grand lady”. She can now afford to send her sister, who is running a little wild and is sexually precocious, to the Catholic girls’ boarding school, to which she herself was sent. Leaving her sister behind at the island school, “she felt sorry for her, Emilia was so full of life, she loved dancing, singing, flirting, men, and she had to stay there, far away from it all, but it was the best thing for her” (138). Still in her twenties, Mariana has taken charge of her family, employing her entrepreneurial spirit and foresight to everyone’s benefit. She decides, since the debts are soon paid off, to enlarge their home for increased space and comfort, and to turn it into a proper sobrado – as Brazilians call the typically designed double-storey, grander homes with carved shutters, large rooms and imposing façades. Not long afterwards, the British authorities summon Mariana to a meeting to announce that the colonial government is about to start sinking wells in Lagos to supply the local population with drinking water. Undaunted by this news that her own venture will be challenged by alternative water supply points, Mariana on the same day decides to move on in the business world: she sees a somewhat dilapidated but well located house, which she decides to turn into a shop that could, in due course, sell imported goods from Brazil and England.

Emilia, who has been on a visit to Ibadan, returns with the announcement that she wishes to get married to a Christian Yoruba man from that city, Ebenezer Okinoyi. Epifânia is opposed to the idea of her younger daughter marrying an African with no Brazilian connection, but Mariana explains to her that the man is of good character and that there are no valid reasons to oppose the match, so overruling her mother, but handling it tactfully. The shop is, by now, up and running and doing good business, incorporating Mariana’s brother Antônio’s carpentry skills by selling and renting out tables and chairs constructed by him and his teacher, but Mariana is worried about the absence of any word from Sebastian. She writes to all the authorities on Fernando Pó, but gets no useful information. But, he turns up suddenly shortly afterwards, telling her that his earnings were poor and the conditions terrible, that he was lucky to escape from there, as some fellow employees remain trapped in virtual slavery by the low wages paid. Their reunion is blissful, and Sebastian is quietly pleased with all the developments and the family’s increased prosperity; he and Mariana decide that he will manage the shop. A peaceful time ensues, during which Mariana has more time to enjoy her children and her household. Hearing from Seu Gaspar that Emilia in Ibadan is expecting her first child and that she now has a shrine to Shango in her house, Mariana goes to visit her, expressing her approval that her sister is honouring their grandmother’s religion. She is inspired by this to ask Seu Gaspar to make an image of the mother goddess Oshun for her own home when she returns, but Mariana discovers that Ebenezer is deeply dissatisfied with his wife’s temple observations. A somewhat fundamentalist Christian, he is taken aback that the “good Catholic girl” he married appears to have changed her orientation. The tension in the relationship is unpleasant and palpable and troubling to Mariana. When Mariana returns on another visit just before her sister gives birth, she finds that things have deteriorated even further, and that Ebenezer wants to abandon his settled life and set off as an itinerant preacher and self-appointed evangelist. Emilia gives birth to twin boys, but Ebenezer seems hardly interested.

After their return to Lagos (Sebastian accompanied Mariana), they sit on chairs outside their home one pleasant evening, when there is a hullabaloo in the street almost immediately in front of them. It is a knife fight between two unknown men. When Sebastian steps between them to stop the fight and tells the knife wielder to surrender his weapon, this man stabs the peacemaker to death in an unanticipated attack, and both men flee. The overwhelming suddenness of the event and the loss of the husband she has come to love so deeply leaves Mariana almost comatose, even as she participates in the burial rituals before withdrawing for three days to her bedroom. In the aftermath, Mariana decides that she wants to leave Lagos for a time. A friend earlier invited Sebastian to come and explore the possibilities among the Brazilian-linked population in Dahomey, the territory that neighbours Nigeria, so Mariana goes to the city and region of Ouidah. As she walks along their streets, exploring this city in the pleasant company of Jean da Cruz, “a cheerful boy who told stories”,

she saw the Brazilian doorways, visited the house that had belonged to Xaxa da Sousa I, the Brazilian who had grown rich in Ouidah and had founded a dynasty, the friend who had written to Sebastian was related to the Sousas, she stood on the beach where huge numbers of slaves had been put on ships for Brazil, everywhere she saw new things, and the possibility of a new life. (171)

Some way outside of Ouidah, Mariana finds “a stretch of land in front of a beach running down to the sea [where] you could smell the salt on the wind” (172), and here, she decides, she will build another and larger sobrado as her new home. Money being no problem, the construction goes ahead. This is the dwelling that will be named the Water House, from which the novel takes its title. Mariana also discovers that she is pregnant, and when the baby boy is born, she immediately names him Sebastian. The two of them go home to the Water House, even though it is not yet complete. The christening is in Lagos, with the baby’s grandfather (Sebastian’s father) officiating in the absence of his son. He is given to taste water, salt, honey and palm oil (which everyone else also takes a fingertip of) to complement the Christian ceremony with the traditional.

Back in Dahomey, Mariana is now a person of consequence addressed as “Dona” (Lady). She brings her other children there to live with her, employing likeable locals like Jean da Cruz and his young wife to live with or near her and to help run her household and the smallish shop she sets up in Ouidah. Her mother visits and stays a year, but decides to return to Lagos and to take the two older children back with her. Mariana visits her sister upon hearing that Ebenezer has abandoned his wife to preach. As her children grow, it becomes necessary to send the older two away to school in Lagos; little Sebastian remains with Mariana, and “Fat Maria” (as she is throughout referred to, an older friend of Mariana’s who was on the ship coming out to Nigeria with them, years ago) is brought to live at the Water House and to run the household for Mariana. World War I comes and goes, and when Sebastian is old enough, Mariana engages a clever Frenchman to tutor him in the town where her shop is and where she has acquired another small house. In due course, Joseph is sent off to London to study law, where Ainá, probably the most intellectually gifted of Mariana’s children, will later join him to study medicine. “Ainá had a calm, serious face, she seemed like a grown woman analysing the behaviour and the words of younger people” (207), so Mariana has no qualms about her ability to take care of herself in the UK. Later on, young Sebastian, who has been educated largely in French, is sent to France to further his education, too. Sebastian has turned into another very serious and idealistic young person; he decides to qualify as a teacher so that he can come back and contribute to the educational advancement of his compatriots. With rumours of another world war beginning to be heard, Sebastian’s thoughts turn to the possibility of political independence of African countries, especially his own, which the author names Zorei.

When Joseph returns to Lagos, where Mariana has returned for a period, he does so in the company of a British friend and former fellow student, Adolph Twelvetrees (a strange combination of names). Mariana welcomes him, but as the weeks pass later on, she is perturbed by a strange apathy on her son’s part. He seems reluctant to seek steady gainful employment, instead spending a lot of time in the company of Adolph (who is working). She goes to consult her community’s spiritual leader, Seu Gaspar, who tells her bluntly, “Adolph is in love with Joseph. They sleep together like a man and a woman. Joseph is the man, Adolph is the woman” (236). Seeing the situation as highly problematic, Mariana speaks privately to Joseph about it, warning him that although British society might tolerate homosexuality [she does not use the term], Nigerian society might make life very difficult for him if the nature of his and Adolph’s relationship became more widely known. Joseph explains to her that when he felt lost and lonely in England, Adolph’s friendship and help sustained him, until becoming sexually intimate seemed natural; “even though he’s not much older than me,” adds Joseph, “he has been everything to me, father, mother and friend” (239). Later on, Mariana goes to speak to Adolph, who on one occasion tells her, “And don’t you think that, if I could, I wouldn’t be far away from here, doing other things? If I could, if I had been strong enough,” he adds, “I would have stayed in England. I came to Lagos because I could do nothing else” (248).

Mariana orchestrates a meeting and even a tentative relationship between Joseph and a lovely young woman – the daughter of one of her old friends from as long ago as the ocean voyage to Nigeria. Ana and Joseph get on well and seem suited, but Joseph goes back to Adolph. Eventually, when Joseph gets serious about Ana, a shocking event curtails his previous relationship: Adolph dies by apparent suicide, having flung himself down from high up in the building where he worked. Joseph is horrified and guilt-stricken. What had been acceptable in Britain, he himself tells Mariana, in Lagos “started to be ugly and every time I saw Ana I knew I had to change. Last night he asked me to spend the night there, he wanted to talk to me, I wouldn’t. Now I feel it was my fault” (271). Some readers may be very disappointed at Olinto’s tracing of a sacrifice of the cross-racial and homosexual relationship (at the cost of a life!) for the resumption of a heterosexual and mono-racial normality in this narrative, but he does treat this theme fairly delicately and depicts Adolph from the start as a tragic figure, rather than demonising him as a reincarnated, predatory colonialist. Mariana, too, feels obliged to question her own role in separating the young men, and has her share of sorrowful and guilty feelings to cope with. She prays in her heart, “[H]e had loved Joseph,” though she adds, “loved in the wrong way, but loved, O Shango who have the gift of justice look at me and see that I fought for life, not death” (272). She and her family (after contacting Adolph’s relatives) organise and pay for his burial and see to it that his funeral service is conducted by the local Anglican priest.

Time passes; Joseph and Ana get married in due course, and Mariana gets a letter from Sebastian (still in France) to say that he believes war (WWII) is pending and wants to return to Zorei “and begin work there” (281) as a teacher. Ainá, too, returns from Europe; she is a fully qualified doctor. Filled with pride, Mariana observes her daughter: “all her movements were strong and confident, she spoke freely, words came readily to her, she listened when it was time to listen” and she fits easily back into the Nigerian social milieu. She has been “asked to run the paediatrics department in the [local] hospital” (287), though, as Mariana predicts, this daughter of hers (known for her brilliance) will soon move on to higher appointments. In Ouidah, Sebastian is already well known; the Yorubas say to Mariana, “[T]hey say he is a powerful chief and respected by the French” and that “he is a clever man and will teach our children to be clever too” (294). Mariana has, by now, acquired a young male companion. The boy is one of the very many sons of the Candomblé seer whom she consults in Dahomey; his name is Fadori. He is a clever boy, intellectually curious and a gifted artist, and his company and talk help fill Mariana’s now more leisurely days. His father is at her side when, at the Water House, they hold a welcoming feast for Sebastian – the child to whom Mariana feels closest, probably because his birth after the sudden loss of her husband came as an emotional compensation. At the feast, “they opened bottles of wine, toasts were proposed on all sides, the sound of drums and xylophones [marimbas] filled the air with rhythms” (299) – great conviviality characterises the drawn out event.

Some time after his return to Zorei, Sebastian, by now a well loved and admired member of the local community, informs Mariana that he intends standing as a candidate to represent his country in the French Assembly. If successful, he tells her, he would be going to France and able to assist Fadori, whose further studies in Paris, in art, Mariana will fund. Mariana feels this is right; she much admires Sebastian – “this son [who] moved through life serenely, his face so like his father’s, his eyes grave like the eyes of someone with judgement and foresight, so close to her that she never felt the need to prove his closeness” (338). Nevertheless, Sebastian is moving into turbulent times. Not long after the start of his campaign, the French colonial authorities in Zorei jail him merely for having raised the topic of future independence for Zorei. Mariana holds a vigil outside the jail, and after five days, Sebastian is released; his detention raised great clamour among his crowds of supporters. Mariana thinks to herself that “she had always felt herself to be independent, because she had come from Brazil which was already independent” and “had never felt herself dependent on the English or the Germans or the French” (the colonial authorities in the areas where she lives and has lived); indeed, “she had hardly ever spoken to them” (341). But, the hard world of politics is now palpably present in her life, too, since it has impinged on Sebastian – “her dearest child her last child, the one who had always made her feel safe” (341). When he resumes his campaigning, Sebastian announces that what is to be fought for is not only the attainment of the Zorei seat in the French Assembly, but a joint struggle of African states for political independence from the colonial powers. Soon afterwards, he is elected. On the eve of his departure for France, Sebastian tells his supporters, “For any political matter, when I am not here, I ask you all to talk to my mother, here or at the Water House, just beyond the Frontier in Dahomey. She knows what I think and has enough good sense to resolve any unexpected problem” (356).

On one of Sebastian’s visits to the Water House (with his young wife from Zorei whom he had met earlier, in France), “Mariana found that she was analysing politically each problem her son dealt with, it was as if she had suddenly acquired a new and deeper understanding of things” (359). Her sister, meanwhile, is sinking into something like early Alzheimer’s, behaving in a childlike manner. It is now a time of upheaval, with tribal chiefs from the Zoreian interior coming to speak to Sebastian about independence. Almost all want him as president, but he does have enemies and opponents who threaten and enact violence. His wife is, at last, expecting, but it is a difficult pregnancy. When their baby girl is born, Segui dies in childbirth. The child is named Mariana, and is brought up by her grandmother at the Water House. The older Mariana consults a diviner about her son’s prospects; she is told that “the great leader will have trouble” (373). When Zorei at last attains independence, Sebastian is indeed elected president, as most people have expected. His speech at the magnificent inauguration is sober, however: “This struggle for independence must be fought by each one of us,” he says; it requires from all the need to learn “how to spend the nation’s money, how to keep the administration free from corruption,” and “sacrifice, hard work, integrity” (385).

The newly independent country does have its share of troubles; “in the interior some of the village headmen were fighting with the neighbouring villages,” and both sides appeal to Sebastian for support; the cocoa production falls and the local economy suffers. Ainá has married a Nigerian opposition politician, an idealist like Sebastian, and is head of a hospital in Ibadan. Returning from a visit to Lagos, Mariana (now almost eighty years old) hears terrible news on a radio broadcast: there has been a coup d’état in Aduni, the capital of Zorei; soon afterwards, it is confirmed that Sebastian was shot dead, along with most of his cabinet members. She forbids weeping, departing at once for the presidential palace with her granddaughter, Mariana. The soldiers guarding the palace surrender Sebastian’s body to her, and she takes it back to the Water House with her for burial in the nearby graveyard she has established there. A funeral oration by a family friend is spoken over the body:

O powerful chief, who has abandoned us, who has left us in solitude, you who were master of all the virtues, who were faithful to women and to children, to men and to the gods, may you return to this world with greater power and greater strength so that the deeds of your enemies may not prevail against you. (404)

Perhaps, this funerary benediction is fulfilled, for at the end of the narrative, we are told that the young girl Mariana “by the end of the century would be the most powerful woman in West Africa”, even though at the gravesite, where she stands alone with her grandmother (who has demanded that other mourners stand further off), she is “motionless with horror” as she looks at “the dark face of her father and the tall figure of her grandmother” (406).

Mariana has (it seems) founded one of Africa’s great dynasties, but at this moment of grief and horror, she can only utter a great cry, and the text concludes with its final, moving oriki in the voice of the narrator: “O cry that came from the navel, from the belly, from the bowels, and rose through her whole body before it came from her mouth, O cry, old woman’s cry and child’s cry, O cry that was cry, only cry, cry” (406). Olinto succeeded in creating a worthy addition to the African Library with this impressive and lyrical text, a profound tribute to his own country of Brazil and to the West African countries with which it is so closely connected – honouring a dual cultural-spiritual heritage.

The water house (written in Portuguese and first published in 1969) was translated into English by Dorothy Heapy; the first English edition came out in 1970, and the edition used for this African Library issue was published in 1982.

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