• Once she began to speak, it was like a dam that busted open. (Supplied. )Source: Supplied.
I took upon myself the audacious task of recording and transcribing my mother's more than seven decades of oral history, or at least, the fragments she was happy to tell me.
By
Guido Melo

23 Feb 2022 - 9:21 AM  UPDATED 25 Feb 2022 - 2:21 PM

When I moved to Australia in 2003, it would cost up to four dollars per minute to speak with my mother and my family in Brazil. In the last few years, since the invention of WhatsApp and because of its popularity in the developed world, most mornings, I have had the privilege to wake up to my mother's audio messages.

“My babies are growing,” she says. By “her babies” I know she really means avocados, passion fruits and papayas that grow in her tropical backyard.

A few years ago, I heard comedy writer Cord Jefferson tell the Invisibilia podcast a heart-warming story of how he kept his mother's voice messages recorded on his mobile after she passed away. Inspired by Jefferson, after my father was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, I began recording conversations with him during what I would find out was his final moments on earth.

I couldn't leave my kids and my business behind in Australia to be with him in Brazil, so I got an app to record phone calls. By the time I started to record his voice, it was too late, and I didn't get much out of it, except a couple of muffled and emotionally charged conversations: “The show must go on”. He spoke. “Things will be fine”, he continued, attempting to sound confident. Nevertheless, all I could hear was a goodbye whisper, as his voice was too enfeebled by the diabolical disease that was slowly consuming his body. “You've done a great job raising me, Papa!” My eyes teary, and my voice breaking with pain and anger while, alone in my kitchen, I nodded across the oceans. From time to time, to this day, years after his passing, I still listen to the recordings because it is the only way I can hear him speak.

By the time I started to record his voice, it was too late, and I didn't get much out of it, except a couple of muffled and emotionally charged conversations: “The show must go on”.

Determined not to make the same mistake I've made with my father, I took upon myself the audacious task of recording and transcribing my mother's more than seven decades of oral history, or at least, the fragments she was happy to tell me. Historically, there was a precedent in the Western African culture: The Griots. They were the guardians of wisdom. Their task was to pass the knowledge down through the new generations utilising storytelling, poetry, and music.

Because of Melbourne and Rio de Janeiro's 13-hour time zone difference, the ideal face-to-face interview would have to include travelling and free time. Both of which are impossible to have when you are a father of three, running a business and studying full-time as a mature person while living during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. We agreed on voice messages via WhatsApp instead.

As I prompted her with questions, each audio was more intriguing than the other. When the recordings started to arrive on my phone, there were stories of modern slavery, kidnapping and stolen wages. I've recorded over 15,000 words through many of her life anecdotes so far. When I listen to it, I feel her voice is secure and full of enthusiasm, reminiscent of the Griots that certainly live inside of our peoples DNA. It is like she was waiting for a long time for any of us (I have four siblings) to ask those things.

Once she began to speak, it was like a dam that busted open. On the recordings, mundane stuff like her recount of growing up in a rural setting: The red dirt on her feet and the drought times where she needed to carry water on her head for several kilometres. “When I was a toddler, my mother [my grandmother] and I used to wake up at five in the morning to get milk from the cows. We used to call that the cambreche time.”

Some stories helped me connect the dots, like when I've learned how her long-life fear of water was caused because she almost drowned when playing with other kids in a billabong in country Bahia. Other stories were more whimsical, like, for example, how she met my father. He followed her to her apartment door after she stepped out of a bus ride – today, we would call this stalking. Another fascinating story is how she discovered she was pregnant with me when she felt a sharp pain while training in a capoeira class. She told me over joyful laughs about how she discovered my embryo. "I felt a sharp pain in my lower back… it hurts more than usual. The next day, I visited a doctor, and the doctor said, 'You are not injured; you are pregnant.'” 

It felt like I was reading a history book, except it was not a book: It is my mother's life.

It was poignant and revealing yet not surprising listening to the stories of resistance, sexism and racism she faced throughout her existence. It felt like I was reading a history book, except it was not a book: It is my mother's life. She told me that she was stolen from her family at eight and forced into indentured servitude. It is unclear if she was taken or sold by my grandmother "for a few coins". Either way, it was a white family who took my mum away.

In Brazil, after slavery ended in 1888, the practice of kidnapping young black boys and girls for free labour was widely incentivised and accepted. The ruling class got accustomed to the crutch of human bondage, underpaying the proletariat (primarily black and Indigenous people). This practice is macabrely similar to what happened in Australia to First Nations families during the stolen generation's years. 

Living under false imprisonment, my mother subsisted in many houses as a cleaner. As a late teenager and after much suffering (which she purposely used vague words to describe during our audio transcriptions), she eventually escaped from the city she was living in into the capital of the state of Bahia, the city of Salvador.

Once she got there, still unable to sustain herself financially, she worked and lived as a maid for a white middle-class family. “They were nice and treated me good and let me go out anytime I wanted,” she says. “They also gave me nice clothing and some pocket money.”

My mother never had formal schooling. Still, all those years ago, she introduced me to the alphabet. Astonishingly, those humble educational beginnings led me to be the man I am today. I am edging closer to finishing the Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Digital Media. My mother never had a vehicle to tell her story to a large audience. She never had an opportunity to tell her narrative. In these recordings, she describes life as she saw, lived, and experienced. Finally, through these recordings, she has her agency. She is in control. Genetically and historically, I am the continuation of my parents. As I write this piece, I am helping share her voice, my mother's voice, with the world.

This article has been published in partnership with Sweatshop: Western Sydney Literacy Movement.

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