February 25, 2020 by Meghan Stephens
African Lisbon Tour: A Conversation We Need to Have
Portugal is a land of explorers, they’ll tell you. Discoverers. Great men who boldly set sail to foreign lands, establishing an empire through bravery and cunning and boats, lots of boats.
But that’s only half-true. As you’ll learn on the African Lisbon Tour, it’s only one side of the story with regard to Portugal’s history of exploration. However, that one-sided narrative is the prevailing school of thought, perpetuated formally by textbooks, politicians, and the media, and informally through a lack of knowledge and understanding.
Naky, originally of Togo, West Africa, is an independent educator working to correct that narrative. He leads the African Lisbon Tour, a four-hour stroll through some of the city’s most beautiful historic neighborhoods, during which time he shares some of the untold stories of the sights and streets: the little-known facts about Portugal’s key role in the slave trade, the atrocious early experiences of Africans in Lisbon, and the resulting post-colonial legacy.
It’s as heavy, captivating, and significant as it sounds, and it’s an essential experience for visitors and residents alike. (But also, the whole thing culminates with African food and liquor and you’ll get some good ‘grams off, so, no excuses.)
After being absolutely floored by the tour myself, I chased Naky down to continue the conversation.
How did the African Lisbon Tour start? What made you want to do this?
I arrived in Portugal in 2014, and it took 11 months before I was able to work legally. During that time, I saw a lot of Africans and people of color in the streets, and I was impressed by that — before Portugal, I’d lived in Berlin and Seville, and I didn’t have the opportunity to get along with a lot of Africans. Africans appear more comfortable here, but they face the same issues: Africans are not visible. They’re not represented in politics, not represented in the government, and they live in a secondary layer of the city. There’s a lack of information and a total absence of African visibility in media and policy. The history of Africans isn’t known — even they don’t know their history.
Because I couldn’t officially work, I had the ability to start doing something to educate the population about African history in Portugal. Part of the history of Africans in Portugal, of course, is the slave trade and the post-colonial legacy. I love history — so I gathered information and started building narratives.
How have you developed and defined the tour’s path?
Everything about the tour — the content, the itinerary — has changed over time based on group engagement. The most important thing is the content; the spots where an African presence was visible back in the day, before it was lost in the earthquake [of 1755]. As I continue to research and find more information, I’m able to expand what I share. The tour is concentrated in the center of the city, but that may change in the future based on new information that I’m able to connect to new sites. It used to be five hours long, and we covered a lot of distance. Today, it’s four hours long and it ends in a restaurant, and that feels good.
What is the general reaction of people who take the tour? Do you find people getting emotional?
A lot of people get emotional. People aren’t expecting this sort of information. They come along wanting to see Lisbon, and I not only provide that, I provide information about aspects of life for Africans here — their treatment, the revision of history, and the policies today. For people who live in Lisbon and have never heard these stories, it completely changes the way they see the city. They’re walking on a street where they’ve been walking for a long time, and now they have a different perspective. They can see themselves in slave times. The goal is to provoke, and people leave really satisfied by what they got.
What kind of impact do you want to have?
I want to raise consciousness among people — for people to know that the history that’s been taught in Portugal is not accurate. We expect the curriculums in schools to be more advanced. We need to update the “glorious history” that’s written in the schoolbooks. It’s not wrong, but there is another side to what happened. There were crimes that were committed, and the expeditions weren’t all positive. I would love to see this in textbooks in the near future, to teach children and enable them to think globally about what the world was and what it is today. We need to embrace the history of humanity, the history that is common to everyone. This tour is to reflect and to share, and we need to reflect and share. I hope we can feel the world to be one, not one where one is less.
To learn more about Naky and schedule a time to attend the African Lisbon Tour, which will take you to Praça do Comércio, Igreja de São Domingos, Bairro Alto, and Miradouro de Santa Catarina among other locations, visit his website or send him a message on Instagram or Facebook. The tour schedule is built on a rolling basis, based on the availability of attendees, but during the summer, he leads three to four per week (never on Sunday). There’s not a lot of information about the tour itself online, and this is purposeful — Naky would like you to come and have the conversation in person. It’s a conversation we need to have.