The JRB presents an excerpt from Bakwa 09: Taxi Drivers Who Drive Us Nowhere and Other Travel Stories.
The excerpted story is by Bissau-Guinean writer Yovanka Paquete Perdigao.
Bakwa 09: Taxi Drivers Who Drive Us Nowhere and Other Travel Stories
Edited by Dzekashu MacViban
Bakwa Books, 2019
Read the excerpt:
A Family History in a Passport
In 1998 I was six years old when I arrived in plastic slippers in Lisbon. My grandmother Mamie grabbed me and my sister’s hands so hard she left the imprint of her rings on our wrists. In the airport we were led to a queue where volunteers from Expo ’98 were handing out little mascots of Gil, a plushie that looked like a dolphin in yellow shorts and a red shirt. ‘Bem-vindo a Portugal,’ said one of the volunteers as she handed me a doll. Outside, Tiozão was waiting for us. He was so tall I could barely distinguish his facial features; my head only reached his knees. But I could hear his roaring laughter as he showed us the way to the car. I peered out of the window in the backseat and saw Portugal with new eyes.
I had been born in Lisbon, which earned me the nickname of ‘alfacinha’, the name given to the city’s offspring. I had also visited Portugal a few times on summer vacation but had no real memories of what was supposed to be my country. My big sister had been born in France but had a Bissau-Guinean passport, so I was the true Portuguese person in the family, as my parents liked to tease. Naturally, when fall came and I was enrolled in primary school, I proudly proclaimed to the other children, many of whom had never seen a Black child in Queluz, that I was Portuguese. They were incredulous.
‘But you are Black!’
‘Black people are not Portuguese.’
‘White people are Portuguese.’
‘You are Black, so you can only be African!’
By the time my grandfather Papi showed up to collect me after school, I was deeply troubled. We walked back home without me uttering a word, just dragging my feet. Papi, as usual, was quiet himself until my mood persisted three more days. He asked what was wrong and I responded: ‘Who is my grandfather?’
Papi had a deep laugh like Tiozão.
‘Me, of course!’
‘But you are Black like the night and I am brown like the sundown.’
Papi almost folded himself from more laughter. I was even more confused. If the kids at school were right, this man I had loved so deeply couldn’t be my grandfather. If you had to be one colour to belong somewhere, then why was Papi black like the night and the rest of us brown like sundown? I explained my childish logic and he patted me on the head.
‘Humans come in all colours,’ he said. ‘It’s like painting. You take white pink like Mamie and mix it with black night and a tinge of yellow, and it becomes brown like your Maman and Papa. Since they are both brown, they made brown babies.’
It made sense, although white pink and black night did not make brown, but I didn’t tell him that. Suddenly a weight was lifted from my heart. Papi was my grandfather after all! But, wait a minute, if he was right about colours then I was still Portuguese.
‘Papi, eu sou Portuguesa?’
‘Sim claro, nasceste aqui.’
‘But at school they said I am not. I have to be White to be Portuguese.’
‘That’s because they don’t know, they don’t understand.’
That day I went straight to those children who had stripped me of my nationality and told them I was Portuguese. They scoffed but I persisted by explaining my grandfather’s analogy of colours: I was brown because I had Black night and White pink. They didn’t get it but since I was the tallest child in my classroom, they didn’t dare to challenge me, and for the rest of primary school, no one dared tell me I was not Portuguese.
Years later, I carried my little red Portuguese passport, travelling at ease with no regard to others without that privilege. I never knew any other life until my sister told me about the constant paperwork our Mamie had to fill for benefits while we lived in Lisbon.
‘Don’t you remember the table always covered with forms? Mamie was always filling them up to get money to take care of us, but it was always hard because we were not Portuguese citizens.’
‘I was not Portuguese?’
‘Yeah, dummy. We came here with a Bissau-Guinean passport. What did you think?’
Naturally, at six years old, I had not been preoccupied with passports, visas or renewing documents, and when I was old enough to be responsible, I travelled with the famous red passport. So I had assumed, all these years, that I was born Portuguese and had been a citizen of Portugal with its ‘rightful’ passport.
‘But I was born there, Maman always joked I was an alfacinha!’
I was just finding out that Portugal operated a jus sanguinis law: my grandparents and parents were Bissau-Guineans; my birth in Lisbon had not granted me Portuguese citizenship. The process by which I had found myself travelling the world carefree had been a deliberate, exhausting, and humiliating ordeal, leading to the question I had posed years ago to my Papi. I had grown up thinking of myself as exclusively Black, because in Portugal I was always thought of as the African girl. I also had no white family on the other side, no white grandparents, or white uncles and aunts, or white cousins to compare. My family was an array of colours ranging from pearly to mahogany, to indigo blue, but we all called ourselves Black. Mamie who had Black Indian hair and porcelain skin, and thus was often mistaken for Lebanese, never even considered claiming her father’s whiteness. On the other side, my father’s father had curly hair and a nose that was Portuguese aristocracy. And in my father’s family, every generation carried a boy named Francisco or Macario, the legacy of the two Portuguese brothers who had come to make fortunes in the colonies and left a Black family.
It was in our blood, Portugal’s colonial legacy but also Africa’s screams. It marked us different from both sides and made us a family that could never settle anywhere. My family had been always the first to embrace change. We were never patriotic, except for my father who had given his best years to Guinea-Bissau. My mother’s side had always been an odd mix of foreigners, from Goa to Cape Verde, from São Tomé and Príncipe to Guinea-Bissau. The intersection of the -isms—imperialism, colonialism, racism—meant that one had to always be ready to become something else. Like my Indian ancestor, Damasceno, who had ended up in Guinea-Bissau studying the tsetse fly. The Portuguese had found it tedious to send their own white doctors to African colonies, so they figured they could train Indians in Goa and ship them to Africa. Damasceno was groomed to serve the Portuguese Empire in Mozambique and Cape Verde, and he settled in Guinea-Bissau. He later disappeared. Some say he found his way back home, but not before leaving a baby boy Pedro behind.
My grandfather had a slightly different story: his mother forced him to leave São Tomé at the age of twelve to be a tailor in Guinea-Bissau. A massacre orchestrated by the Portuguese, which killed thousands and left the waters around the island crimson, had put the fear of God in my grandfather’s mother; she was sure that one day the Portuguese would be back to slaughter more innocents, so she told my grandfather to run and never look back. He didn’t until he met his wife Guida, the love child of a naval officer and Indian-Guinean girl.
Fausto Bogalho had met my great-grandmother Mariana in Bissau and they conceived Guida. Fausto returned to his already established family in Lisbon, leaving young Mariana pregnant and poor. All the money her ancestors who once came from Goa and Cape Verde had had been squandered on gambling, so Mariana pulled up her sleeves and raised a mixed-race baby in a country trying to liberate itself from Portuguese oppression. Guida never met her father, only saw him once at eighteen, and a few months later he was dead. She had only one picture of him and she was twirling it between her fingers, thinking of the irony she found herself in, sitting in her kitchen tile in Lisbon. She had vowed to never ask anything of that Portuguese side of hers, yet she knew that if she didn’t dial her White half-brothers’ number, she would regret it one day. Guida had to decide to take the Portuguese nationality to protect her family. It was the early 2000s and Europe was turning to multiculturalism, but Guida knew it was not for long. She had worked long enough in the colonial administration to know that. The Tugas could only stand Black people long enough to leave a trail of mulattos. War was also still raging in Guinea-Bissau, making home a distant dream. Guida’s husband squeezed her shoulders and she finally dialled her White half-brothers’ phone.
Guida and two of her half-brothers went to the civil register where they declared her to be their father’s child born in Guinea-Bissau during his colonial service. Guida got her Portuguese passport and passed her citizenship to her husband and three children.
For my father, it was simpler. It was well known that the Perdigão family in Guinea-Bissau was from an aristocratic family from Coimbra. Little was known of the two offspring of an influential judge except that they had not pursued the more respectful way of living having set out to the colonies. Macario and Francisco ‘married’ local women and their descendants became influential mestiços living in lavish homes in colonial Bolama. My grandfather had been born witnessing the last remnants of this luxury but had held on to the documents that proved his jus sanguinis status. He passed it quickly to his twelve children except my father Caio. My grandfather believed my father was to be the next great Bissau-Guinean politician to walk in the footsteps of Amilcar Cabral, so Caio was groomed to take that path and was spared Portuguese nationality.
That was until the 1998 civil war made our family refugees in Lisbon. This was why my grandma was filling out forms for benefits for her two granddaughters who were Bissau-Guinean citizens and not worthy of any assistance in Portugal. My father went down to the civil registrar where he had been left out as a child of his father, to prove he was indeed his son and thus eligible for Portuguese nationality. He passed it to my mother, my sister and me.
This is how I became the holder of the red passport that opened doors anywhere in the world.
I was twenty-six years old when I became aware of the burden of travelling with an African passport. Twenty-six years of being blissfully ignorant and privileged thanks to the complex imperialist forces that had brought colonialism and slavery into my blood. I had travelled back and forth between Europe and Africa without the hassle of visas, travelled the African continent and been greeted with enthusiasm and no suspicion.
But if my short life was one of privileged travel, there was never a time White people let me forget that I was ‘lucky’ to possess these documents. Just like when I was six years old in the playground, I realized I was always going to be an anomaly to my Portuguese White peers. As a Black person with a Portuguese passport, it guaranteed my access to privilege but came with conditions. Every single time I had to renew my passport, my family and I were the subject of ignorant and racist remarks. When we went to renew my little sister’s passport, we were baby-talking in French and one of the attendants rolled her eyes and said: ‘They give nationality to anyone these days, even those who don’t speak Portuguese.’
My other sister and her husband had gone to register her child at the Portuguese embassy in London and were served with outlandish interpretations of the law that shifted every time she protested.
‘Some people have clearly been living far away for too long they don’t even know their country’s laws,’ the man behind the glass spat out in disdain.
Renewing our documents was always a complicated, tiring, humiliating experience we underwent because we knew too well the power of that passport.
But, to me, it also became a game. I always identified as Black, the first thing I had been called in my so-called mother country, but I loved parading my passport in front of White Portuguese people. I would serve my best Portuguese interspersed with French and English, delighting in their horror, throwing them off. I would remind them I was born in the famous Francisco de Xavier hospital, right at the centre of Lisbon, in one of its most affluent neighbourhoods, just to irritate them even more. I walked with the confidence of an Angolan entering a Cartier store in downtown Baixa, just to smirk in their faces. I was just like them, Portuguese but Black. It was perhaps important to me at that time because I knew instinctively that not having that passport was the gateway to being dehumanised. Portugal’s colonial past is often seen as a technicolour Tropicalia dream, with well-intentioned Whites, mulatto babies, invisible-yet-there Black people smiling and samba music in the background. After all, it was the Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre that had argued that the Portuguese were better colonisers than other European nations. The warmer climate and rich history of the Celts, Romans, Visigoths and Moors had made the Portuguese more humane colonisers. A despicable lie that other Africans repeated when they found out I was from Lusophone Africa. A lie my grandfather had felt kneeling in glass shards for days for daring to dream of independence. He walked touching the walls, a habit he picked up from being thrown in jail and talking to the walls. It was only three years but it had consequences that went beyond and touched even those that were yet to be born. And there were other families, others who had even stayed decades, others who had lost their sense of self, others that had self-destructed. In the bush, others were faring just as bad. The same weapons of destruction used in Vietnam were being deployed against those who had run to join the guerrillas of the PAIGC, napalm, and defoliants. Eyes, legs, arms, whole bodies dancing in a frenzied way. Old and young, man and woman, they were all dying, killed by the very ‘humane’ Portuguese forces. We thought it was over when independence came, but a lot of us found ourselves with one foot in Africa and another in Portugal. The mother country could never be home, no matter how much you tried, but the passport was the only thing that saved you from being desecrated in the ghettos of Lisbon. I did not know the struggle of other Africans, but I knew what that passport was keeping me from in Portugal.
Years later, my mother said it was time we renewed our Bissau-Guinean passports.
I raised my eyebrows at that suggestion.
‘What do you mean why?’
‘You’ve never even taken us back.’
‘You know exactly why, it wasn’t safe.’
‘What’s the point of having that passport when you have not been back in almost fifteen years and don’t speak the language? You almost forbade us to speak Crioulo!’
‘Yovanka, really? When did I forbid you guys?’
I shrugged. It wasn’t that I did not want the Bissau-Guinean passport, but I saw no use having a document to link me to a country that had chased me out in plastic slippers. It was also the same place that had fractured my family and engulfed so many others. I wanted to go back but I also didn’t want to go back, and I didn’t need a reminder of this contradiction.
‘Maybe your Dad and I wanted you guys to grow away from Bissau, because we were afraid. I almost lost you, your sister, your father, my parents, my brother and so many more people,’ my mother said, her hands trembling a bit, and I felt her fear. She had been in America when the war started, screaming down the telephone for my father to find a way to get us out.
So we went to the embassy of Guinea-Bissau in Senegal. Even stepping there with so many curious faces brought me a bit of anxiety. To start with, I did not speak Crioulo but my last name would not let me pass for nothing else than a Bissau-Guinean. The lady behind the counter looked at my documents and promptly asked, ‘Your name? Is your father in politics?’
‘No,’ I answered. I sensed it was a trick question coming, to suss whose child I was, but I was grateful she didn’t ask more. Guinea-Bissau is a country so small that everyone knows each other, and almost very likely, everyone is related. My own parents met as flower boy and flower girl at a wedding of two family acquaintances. The first question people from Guinea-Bissau always ask is, ‘Your last name?’ followed by ‘Who are your parents?’ and—boom!—they know right away your whole family history.
The lady made me take a picture and sign. I was to return the following week to collect the passport, which was never used. There was no much point, as using it would have meant visas and questions, and with Guinea-Bissau being touted as a Narco-state, I was going to risk having immigration asking me if I was transporting drugs—a joke overplayed at school that got tiring to the point of tears. The passport stayed pristinely the same until it expired and I still never went back to Guinea-Bissau. It did make me feel more legitimately Bissau-Guinean though, even as its blank pages reminded me firmly of my self-imposed exile. There was always a good reason not to go back, another coup, finances, university exams, even though I travelled frequently to see my parents in neighbouring Senegal.
Finally, my sister thought it would be a good idea to start a PhD with our country as a subject, and so she had to go back. As the younger sister, I followed her on a second trip, with my father. I got a visa on arrival with my Portuguese passport, and I was back eighteen years later. It was very simple after all.
I spent two weeks going back to old places like our first home, our grandparents’ house, our church, the square we went to on Saturdays, the shawarma place. At every turn there was a familiar face but I couldn’t remember from where, even though they remembered me and marvelled at how big my sister and I had gotten. It was the end of a chapter but I realized as we were leaving that nothing had really changed. I had come back thinking that a huge part of myself was going to be healed or that I would suddenly feel a surge of love and longing to stay, but none of that happened. With an African passport or not, I had never stopped ‘feeling African’. I might have had Portuguese nationality for most of my life, but I always felt like a tourist in Portugal yearning to go back to the African continent. Like brother Chullage rapped, ‘Koração lá e korpo ká em Pretugal’. As we drove through the countryside, I marvelled at the sun setting in the green hills and felt at ease despite the eighteen-year lapse. I left with my Portuguese passport, but I was still African—maybe just one whose ancestors had sacrificed so much for the privilege of travelling without borders. I am reminded of this every time the White man at the counter of the airport still raises his eyebrows at me.
‘O seupassaporte? Portuguesa?’ he asks.
‘Portuguesa sim,’ I say, and smile sweetly.
- Yovanka Paquete Perdigao is a Bissau-Guinean writer, editor, and translator. Born in Lisbon, Yovanka grew up in Guinea-Bissau until the age of six, a civil war in 1998 forced her to relocate to Lisbon and she has since lived in Ivory Coast, Senegal and now London.
About the book
In Bakwa 09, we explore what it means to travel as an African. Herein are stories about passport privilege and air and road trips to destinations diverse and peculiar—from Douala, Lagos, Lisbon, through Berlin, Sylt, Maputo to Kousseri. A journey down memory lane with the inglorious history of an airline, and a cab driver’s unheralded analysis of Captain Marvel.
Bakwa 09 includes pieces from Florian Ngimbis, Anne-Marie Befoune, Yovanka Paquete Perdigao, Sada Malumfashi, Nkiacha Atemnkeng, Munukayumbwa ‘Mimi’ Mwiya, Howard M-B Maximus, Kay Ugwuede and Raoul Djimeli. It also features an online-only excerpt of the novel Whites Can Dance Too by Kalaf Epalanga.