When my boyfriend’s housemate, Nadia, invited me to accompany her, and a colleague, Sílvio, on a trip to visit Quartel do Indaiá, a quilombola community 50 km from Diamantina , I jumped at the chance.
Quartel do Indaiá is just one among the more than 1,500 officially recognized comunidades quilombolas. Its 100 residents are descendants of several quilombos that date back to the 1740s and to the beginning of diamond mining in the region surrounding Diamantina.
Indaiá is a species of native palm that bears an onion-sized edible fruit of the same name. As Nadia took Sílvio and me around the village and along dirt trails that led to a red-bottomed river, the shaggy palms were everywhere. Indaiá fibers covered the roofs of many of Quartel’s simple houses and were also used to make intricately woven fences that separated gardens and kept chickens from roaming too far.
The residents of Quartel were delighted to see Nadia. As we made our way down the main path, which was lined with the majority of the community’s 25 houses, we stopped and chatted with a dozen, most of whom were taking shelter in the shade or gazing out their windows from cool interiors. In tones languorous and hospitable, they invited us into their gardens to pick ripe limes and tangerines, and insisted that we take refuge from the noonday sun inside their homes, where we were plied with hot coffee and refreshing passion fruit juice, and treated to local gossip.
A few residents talked to Nadia about practical matters: medical ailments, legal issues, visits by “outsiders” interested in purchasing their land. Although diamonds can still be found in these parts, there is a growing interest in the region’s potential as a rich source of manganese and iron. At the same time, chunks of the surrounding area have recently been designated as state and national conservation parks, a decision which forbids citizens of Quartel from hunting small game and gathering wild fruits, items that for centuries have served as supplementary food sources. The conversations hit home how truly isolated Quartel’s residents continue to be, despite the fact that the 18th century has morphed into the 21rst.
Most of Quartel’s inhabitants are illiterate and/or semi-literate and live off subsistence agriculture; aside from raising chickens, locals grow their own coffee, beans, sugar cane, and corn as well as fruit. Those considered well-off are elderly residents who earn a government pension equivalent to the monthly minimum wage of R$622 a month (around $330).
Quartel has no post office or medical center (the closest hospital is 50km/90 minutes away in Diamantina). There is no public phone because the phone company will only install phones in settlements of more than 100 people; a sizable chunk of Quartel’s 100-person population consists of children, whom apparently don’t count as people. Quartel is also off the grid in terms of cell phone and Internet coverage. Although a few residents own horses, nobody owns a car. The nearest bus is in São João da Chapada , 9 km away.
Accessing “civilization” means traveling up and down the red dirt road for hours to reach São João. We encountered several residents at various stages of this journey, including a trio of women, with towering sacks balanced upon their heads. They had traveled to São João in the hope of selling locally cultivated indaiá fruits and urucum (an ocher colored spice used to season many local dishes). They make the 18km journey every day, and often return home without have sold anything.
I was struck by how abandoned and isolated these quilombolas were – and also how kind they were. We had lunch – galinha caipira (a delicious chicken stew made from a freshly throttled chicken), feijão (beans), rice, and salad -- at the home of Sineca, whose kitchen is in an adobe shack whose walls are covered with pots and pans and whose center is dominated by an enormous woodburning stove.
In his 80s, Sineca’s father, Seu Pedro, is a former diamond miner and one of the oldest living residents of Quartel, which these days is populated mostly by the elderly, children, and women (most men live in towns and cities where they can find employment). He is also one of few remaining guardians of vissungos , traditional chants that have been passed down through generations from African ancestors.
While many comunidades quilombolas in Brazil have retained vestiges of African languages in both their speech and songs, in most cases, the language in question is Yoruba. What’s incredibly rare about the vissungos sung in Quartel is that the verses are in a mixture of Bantu languages (one of the most prominent being Kimbundo).
Rarer still is to find people that know how to sing vissungos, songs that were chanted by groups of slaves under extreme duress; usually while toiling away in the diamond mines or while transporting their dead for miles, along rugged paths, in order to give them a proper cemetery burial in the nearest town.
These days, mining, if done it all, is carried out solo. Meanwhile, the creation of roads and increased access to transportation solutions means it’s no longer essential to carry the dead manually. As a result, the contexts in which vissungos were historically chanted are disappearing.
(That said, if you want to hear Seu Pedro mourning the death of his friend João Batista, during the funeral procession in which the defunct was carried from Quartel to São João, try to get your hands on Terra Deu, Terra Come  a 2010 documentary by Rodrigo Siqueira that won top prize at Brazil’s prestigious “É Tudo Verdade”  (“It’s All True”) documentary film festival)
We were only planning to spend a half-day in Quartel, but by the time we finally hit the dirt road that led back to São João, the sun was pouring golden light across the mountains and clouds were glowing pink. By the time, we got back to Diamantina, it felt as if we’d been gone for much longer than a day and much further than 50 km.