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Representing Afro-Brazilians in the works of Conceição Evaristo and Eliana Alves Cruz and contemporary Brazilian media

Pauline Champagnat
Traduction de Susan Pickford
Cet article est une traduction de :
Conceição Evaristo et Eliana Alves Cruz : portée politique, traitement médiatique et littérature [fr]


Eliana Alves Cruz’s 2018 novel Água de Barrela recounts the author’s own family saga, from the arrival of her African ancestors in Brazil to the present day. Conceição Evaristo’s narratives of contemporary Brazil underscore that the wounds of slavery are still very much unhealed. This study explores the capacity of literature to counter the selective empathy promoted by Brazilian media in their handling of Afro-Brazilian topics. It opens with a brief historical introduction, then turns to the relationship between media representation and structural racism in Brazilian society. It then sets out to analyse the political scope of the two authors, who both weave the idea of reparation into their work, suggesting that the Afro-Brazilian community should seek to enter sites of power and decision-making from which they have historically been excluded.

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  • 1 Almeida, S. (2019). Racismo estrutural. Pólen.
  • 2 Behind this concept is one of the most significant Brazilian intellectuals of the twentieth century (...)

1In 2018, the lawyer Silvio Luiz de Almeida, currently Brazil’s Minister of Human Rights and Citizenship, published a book on structural racism in the country.1 It hypothesised that racism underpins all constructions in Brazilian society, since the nation was founded largely on slavery, itself a crime against humanity. In Brazilian slavocratic society, all roles were defined with extreme precision. The many slave rebellions, often unrecorded in official historiography, were crushed and their authors punished with performative cruelty. Contemporary Brazil still bears the scars of the racism that founded the nation in the belief that everyone should conform to their assigned place in a society long described as a “mixed-race Utopia.”2

2During the colonial period, slaves would live in the senzala, or slave quarters, alongside the Casa Grande, or master’s residence. Following the abolition of slavery in 1888, some slaves stayed on the same plantations working for the same masters for lower wages, while others left to begin a new urban life. This was particularly the case in Rio de Janeiro and other major urban centres, where the slaves lived in city centre cortiços. These were slum settlements, hugely overcrowded to yield the highest rents, deeply unsanitary, and major vectors of disease.

3The end of the nineteenth century saw the launch of a hygienist policy to clean the centre of Rio de Janeiro and other major Brazilian cities. The aim was to improve the capital in terms of architecture and urban design while stamping out the infectious diseases that ran rampant. However, the underlying motive was that the Brazilian elite could not countenance sharing the same urban space as former slaves.

4The elite therefore sought to exclude recently freed slaves from central spaces, relegating them to the urban periphery and the favelas that gradually extended over the hillsides. The two authors studied in this article, Conceição Evaristo and Eliana Alves Cruz, write against the social marginalisation of Black Brazilians and develop new imaginaries challenging their historical marginalisation, which has often taken the form of selective empathy towards the community in the media and in broader society. In this context, literature is one way of promoting Afro-Brazilian voices and foregrounding their legitimacy as part of the Brazilian nation state.

  • 3 Becos da memória was first published in 2006. This study refers to the Brazilian edition of 2017. T (...)

5This study therefore opens with an analysis of several extracts from Conceição Evaristo’s novel Becos da memória.3 The author belongs to the first generation of Afro-Brazilian writers in Brazil, publishing her earliest writings in the journal Cadernos negros, founded by the Quilombhoje collective. Her works speak out against the structural racism of Brazilian society, often by alternating two narrative strands, one set in the time of slavery, the other in the present day. The rapid shift between times and spaces highlights the extent to which the conditions faced by Afro-Brazilians have stagnated since slavery.

6Eliana Alves Cruz belongs to the new generation of Afro-Brazilian writers. Like Conceição Evaristo, she speaks out against structural racism. Her 2018 debut novel, Água de barrela, traces the genealogy of her own family, from the capture of her ancestor Ewà Oluwa in Africa to the birth of the current generations. Her most recent work, Solitária (2022), evokes the lives of Brazilian housemaids, often still associated with slavery. The novel refers to a tragedy that shocked Brazil at the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, when a housemaid left her young son, Miguel, with her employer for a short while to run an errand for the family. The employer neglected the child, leaving him alone in the lift of the luxury apartment building. The child got lost and fell from a great height while looking for his mother. Solitária recounts a similar case: a maid leaves her child with her employer for a few minutes while she runs an errand. The woman takes her eyes off the child, who falls from the window. Here, literature echoes a real-life tragedy that shocked the entire country, sparking a debate on the treatment of housemaids.

7This study hypothesises that one of the tasks of Afro-Brazilian literature is to critique racial injustice, even at the cost of challenging the concept of the mixed-race utopia, which still resonates deeply in the Brazilian imaginary. Conceição Evaristo and Eliana Alves Cruz challenge the concept by pointing out how, to this day, Afro-Brazilians are marginalised by the government in many ways, including racism and unequal access to housing, education, and healthcare. The study now turns to the treatment of Black Brazilians in the media, before analysing the two novels outlined above.

The treatment of Black Brazilians in the media

8Moïse, a Congolese immigrant who moved to Brazil aged fourteen, was murdered shortly after requesting two days’ unpaid wages. Amarildo, a bricklayer who lived in Rio’s Rocinha favela, was tortured and killed following a police raid ironically codenamed Paz armada (armed peace). His body has never been found. He was one of thirty suspects rounded up during the raid, though he was not involved in illegal activities. Marielle Franco was a Black lesbian city councillor born in Rio’s Maré favela, assassinated alongside her chauffeur on her way home from a political debate. The list of killings from the past decade goes on and on. What do all these cases have in common? Black Brazilians are 2.6 times more likely to be murdered. Analysing this data point with a gender violence lens reveals that Black women face the greatest threat of femicide, while Black men are generally victims of state violence, carried out by agents of the state in a climate of institutional racism (Da Costa, 2022).

9The way modern Brazilian society treats the Afro-Brazilian population offers a tragic instance of necropolitics (Mbembe, 2006). Why, when such crimes occur, do the media fail to mention the skin colour of the victims, carefully avoiding the obvious conclusion? The nation of the mixed-race utopia and illusory racial democracy uses euphemistic turns of phrase like “tragic misunderstanding” and “unfortunate circumstances,” attributing blame to the marginalisation that exposes those living on the periphery to a level of crime driven solely by socio-economic conditions in the favelas (Da Costa, 2022).

10Black men and women make up more than half the Brazilian population, but they are rarely shown in books, including schoolbooks, or on television or other media. When they are, the depictions tend to be stereotypical. Black authors are almost entirely unrepresented in schoolbooks. This could be interpreted as Eurocentric formalism, excluding dissonant voices on the pretext that they do not meet the literary standards or style of a given time period (Dalcastagnè, 2011).

11Regina Dalcastagnè’s study of the literary representation of Black Brazilians studies a corpus of 258 novels published in Brazil between 1965 and 2011, identifying around 80% of White characters. She also notes that racism is not a theme in Brazilian literature. Her study concludes that the shortcomings of contemporary literature reflect those of Brazilian society more broadly, excluding the Black population from spaces of production and expression (Dalcastagnè, 2011, p. 310).

12Dalcastagnè makes the case that Black characters are almost entirely absent from Brazilian literature, and even when they are included, they are presented in stereotypical ways in line with theories inherited from slavery. For instance, Black female characters are described as housemaids or objects of desire, foregrounding the utilitarian dimension of Black female bodies in their capacity for labour or hypersexualising them. Both conceptions have obvious links with slavery. Black male characters come in a similarly restricted range of thief, dealer, bandit, malandro—a wastrel leeching off other people’s income—and, again, object of desire. The impossibility of moving on from these categories reflects the limits of Brazilian literature in translating the Afro-Brazilian experience from their own point of view.

13Dalcastagnè’s study focuses on Black representation in literature, but similar stereotypes of gender and skin colour are also widely found in Brazilian media, from tv documentaries and series to telenovelas and news programmes. Stuart Hall (1981) argues that promoting and transforming ideologies is a key sphere of operation for the media (p. 31). He explains the deep-rooted connections between the media and the construction of racial ideologies: “An intervention in the media’s construction of race is an intervention in the ideological terrain of struggle” (p. 31). The question then becomes the extent to which the Brazilian media play into the construction of racial ideologies or theories derived from them, such as the ideal of Brazil as a mixed-race utopia. Such ideological constructions can be considered a partial explanation for selective media empathy towards Black Brazilians, who are largely invisible in the media, despite representing over half the population, except in situations of poverty, criminality, and marginalisation. In such cases, they are showcased without being granted the opportunity to speak for themselves (Albuquerque, 2016, p. 26). Their voice is usurped.

14In this context, literature could be considered a potential tool for counteracting Brazilian stereotypes based on skin colour. This is a point made forcefully by Conceição Evaristo in an interview, challenging the symbolic sites to which society tacitly relegates Afro-Brazilians. When they seek to leave such sites, they are brought to task, sometimes brutally:

Black women can sing, dance, cook, sell their bodies, but write—no, writing is a thing… a practice the elite thinks it alone is entitled to. […] So as I like to say, writing, the practice of writing, is a right open to everyone. Like the practice of reading, the practice of pleasure, like having a home, like having food. […]. Literature written by ordinary people breaks with that pre-established site. (Conceição Evaristo interviewed by Bárbara Araújo for Blogueiras feministas, 30 September 2010)

15The idea of breaking free from the place assigned by Brazilian society chimes with Regina Dalcastagnè’s study. It also echoes the author’s own trajectory, studied in the next section on her work Becos da memória.

Conceição Evaristo: banzo and open wounds

16Conceição Evaristo was born in 1946 in a Belo Horizonte favela. In 2015, she was awarded Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti prize for her writing. Most of the women in her family work as housemaids. She worked as a cleaner herself while training as a primary school teacher. The qualification put her at implicit odds with the place tacitly assigned to her in Brazilian society, working in the homes of wealthy families. Her work as a writer only earned her recognition in 2016, when she was 71 years old. Her writing was overlooked for decades, though she had submitted it to numerous publishers. As she often points out, when Afro-Brazilian literature decided to move beyond folklore and take on a more dissenting tone, no longer tolerating the usurpation of Afro-Brazilian voices, the literature became less accepted in the dominant, hegemonic discourse of Brazilian society.

17Her debut novel, Ponciá Vicêncio (2003), was selected as a set text for the Enem (high school graduation examination) in 2018. In 2016, she challenged the organisers of the leading Brazilian literary festival Flip about the lack of Black writers. The following year, a round table paid homage to her and Ana Maria Gonçalves. She was programmed at the festival again in 2021.

18A writer like Conceição Evaristo is particularly significant in the Brazilian context, speaking on behalf of the voiceless and shedding light on aspects of history that are often left unspoken and underscoring the social dynamics set in motion under slavery that exclude and discriminate against the Black population to this day. Her oeuvre promotes fair and equal citizenship for all.

  • 4 [...] “ellipses dealing not with a single portion of elapsed time but with several portions taken a (...)

19The suffering of Afro-Brazilians is a major theme in her work. In Becos da memória, the main protagonist, Maria-Nova, seeks inspiration in numerous references to history for her speech revolting against the exclusion inherent in the hegemonic system. The novel features several iterative ellipses.4 For Maria-Nova, it is always crucial to link particular aspects of the age of slavery and the contemporary period to highlight their similarities. When two events take place in two different time periods, the narrative suggests the wounds are still open, reminding the reader of the persistence of the hierarchies prevailing under slavery, even though slavery itself has been abolished.

  • 5 [...] “anachronic groupings governed by one or another kinship (spatial, temporal, or other)” (Gene (...)

20Temporal syllepses5 likewise offer grounds for allusions to the wounds of the past, handed down from generation to generation. Many take place in different temporal spaces, but are connected thematically. There are repeated references to banzo, the deadly melancholy that afflicted some African slaves on arriving in Brazil, and to sharp stones symbolising Afro-Brazilian suffering and making hearts bleed for generations after the abolition of slavery:

Sometimes, in the fields, my father would tell me stories, and he always talked about a strange pain that squeezed his chest on the hottest days. An eternal pain, like God, like suffering. Toto understood, he was a child, but he too felt the knife in his chest sometimes. A sharp, chilly pain that triggered long sighs. Toto’s father called the pain banzo. (Evaristo, 2016, p. 17)

21The pain transmitted from generation to generation can be seen as an affective burden inherited from the brutal lives of Afro-Brazilian slaves in colonial Brazil and the subsequent generations, who encountered racism—albeit in modified forms—in their daily lives. Banzo can, for instance, arise from racist discrimination experienced in contemporary society.

22Education and writing are often evoked in the novel as key routes to escape the heavy burden of suffering borne by Maria-Nova, like all Afro-Brazilians. Yet she feels ill at ease in school, as if she does not belong to a space that symbolises the exclusionary power of the hegemonic state. Classes on Brazilian history describe Afro-Brazilians as the vanquished (in Benjaminian terms) of History, bearing the stigmata of slavery. Their revolt, resistance, and struggle always go unmentioned, hindering the construction of a positive Afro-descendant identity.

23This negative depiction of Africa and Afro-Brazilians at school has gradually changed since 2003 and Law 10.639/03, which made it obligatory to teach African and Afro-Brazilian history and culture. This reflects a clear will to highlight the positive contribution of diverse African cultures and their significance in the construction of Brazilian culture. Prior to 2003, the Black population was presented in the classroom as the objects, rather than subjects, of their own history. Relations between Africa and Brazil were framed solely in terms of the triangular trade, colonisation, and slavery. African cultural heritage in Brazilian culture, pre-colonial Africa and African kingdoms, and the recent history of Portuguese-speaking Africa including the independences of the 1970s, all went undiscussed.

  • 6 Defined by Genette (1980) as an anticipatory summary (p. 67).

24This is where Conceição Evaristo’s work takes on its fullest significance, in restoring marginalised, subterranean memories devalued by a hegemonic society. Becos da memória features several narrative anticipations or temporal prolepses,6 offering a glimpse of the possible rewritings of history from an Afro-Brazilian point of view: “The thought burst forth, as clear and limpid as lightning: one day, she would write it all” (Evaristo, 2016, p. 182). These prolepses, where Maria-Nova pictures herself as a future writer, mingle the figures of writer, narrator, and character in a particularly meaningful manner. The idea of amplifying the smothered voices and shouts of her people likewise echoes the perspective of the collective I:

She fell silent, though knowing she would, like him, keep moving forward. Yes, she would keep moving forward – and now she knew what her weapon would be: writing. One day, she would recount, set free, amplify the smothered voices, murmurs, silences, shouts, of every one of them. One day, Maria-Nova would write the word of her people. (Evaristo, 2016, p. 200-201)

25The character of Maria-Nova—surely one of Conceição Evaristo’s most autobiographical characters—announces how she stands up to the pain, injustice, hatred and anger engendered by several centuries of marginalisation and silencing of Afro-Brazilian voices.

26Faced with media silence on such themes, Conceição Evaristo’s oeuvre represents an opportunity to spark a discussion on how Brazilian society treats the descendants of slaves. While this debate underscores the racism inherited from the age of slavery in contemporary Brazilian society, it is also fundamental in terms of representation. Regina Dalcastagnè’s study critiqued the under-representation and stereotyping of Black Brazilians in literature and their role in upholding structural racism. She explains that the problem is also one of aesthetics, insofar as the range of character depictions is considerably impoverished as a result (Dalcastagnè, 2011). The will to overturn such stereotypical representations challenges the symbolic violence underlying them, to spark greater empathy towards the Black Brazilian population. The work of Eliana Alves Cruz reflects the same will to overturn symbolic violence through the power of the written word.

Eliana Alves Cruz: ancestrality and justice

  • 7 This is a public institution founded by the government in 1988 to promote equal, inclusive cultural (...)

27Eliana Alves Cruz is a Brazilian author and journalist, born in Rio de Janeiro in 1966. Her 2018 novel Água de barrela was awarded the Oliveira Silveira Prize, sponsored by the Palmares Foundation.7 The novel recounts her family’s journey from Africa, beginning with her ancestors Ewà Oluwa and Akin, taken captive and forcibly transported to Brazil on board a slave ship. The narrative framework is reminiscent of Ana Maria Gonçalves’s 2003 novel Um defeito de cor, which caused a huge stir in Brazilian literary circles in the early 2000s, fictionalising the life of the mother of the famous Brazilian abolitionist and poet Luís Gama. Água de barrela is therefore part of a broader trend towards cultural reassessment and the discovery of ancestrality, both of which are strong presences in today’s Afro-Brazilian literary field.

28The positive reception of the novels by Eliana Alves Cruz and Conceição Evaristo echoes Brazil’s positive reassessment of its African cultural heritage over the past two decades, leading to new laws that have helped spark a deep-seated change in the social mechanisms of exclusion—though the results will not be apparent for a long time to come.

  • 8 Orixás or Orishas are divine spirits in Yoruba mythology, brought to Brazil by slaves and taken up (...)

29The novel opens in Africa. The family’s patron saint is Xangô (Cruz, 2018, p. 22) in the West African religion that was the point of origin for the Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé. In candomblé, Xangô represents the orixá8 of justice, thunder, and power. All three concepts are guiding threads throughout the narrative.

30When Akin is captured, he manages to smuggle a family rosary dedicated to Xangô on board the slave ship. The object proves a precious guide in tracing the family’s history. The novel also features a mysterious “thunder stone” (p. 169) that crops up throughout the narrative. At several points in the novel, family members are described as having “voices of thunder” (p. 137, 173), echoing Xangô’s divine roles. For Édouard Glissant (1997), Africans torn from their native soil to be reduced to slavery in the Americas became “naked migrants”: unlike more chosen forms of migration, they were unable to recreate their cultural and family memories by means of symbolic objects.

31Akin and Ewà Oluwa’s forced crossing in the slave ship is the first in a long list of injustices they and their descendants face. This is when Akin (given the new name Firmino on arrival in Brazil) first invokes his family saint:

Walking on the sandy beach, Firmino felt a powerful energy. He gripped his rosary, closed his eyes, and whispered, “Xangô is king. He is walking by my side: sooner or later justice will be done.” (Cruz, 2018, p. 29)

Subsequent family members challenge the unjust, cruel system they live in. The same sentence is repeated by various characters throughout the novel, taking on a quasi-religious meaning: “Justice is our path” (p. 168, 172, 295).

32The concept of injustice in the novel is closely bound up with the cohabitation between slaves and masters and the transmission of goods and power down the generations of the Tosta family, who buy Akin and Ewà Oluwa as slaves. The narrator portrays them as the pale copy of an aristocratic European court recreated in colonial Brazil, doing everything in their power “not to let the tiniest speck of their domains escape their closed circle” (p. 33). Their use of the same forenames from generation to generation, which occasionally makes it hard to track which character is which, demonstrates their determination to keep within their closed circle. The aim is also to perpetuate a history that works to their own advantage, maintaining their status quo. As a result, roles are strictly delineated in the colonial society according to a specific racial hierarchy: “Everything would always stay the same. The Blacks over there, and themselves, the Whites, here. Without the cruelty of the past, in her view, but the roles had long been clearly attributed and defined, and would stay that way” (p. 150).

33The determination of the Tosta family to maintain a foothold in the legal sphere is not about a thirst for justice per se, but rather a need to perpetuate the injustices that have shaped Brazilian society for several centuries in their favour. In the closing chapters, the Tosta family descendants are clearly in decline, having lost much of their earlier privilege; the “hermetic seal” (Cruz, 2018, p. 300) that enabled them to maintain power within their closed circle has broken open once and for all. As a result, when Damiana’s grandson passes the entrance exam for a law degree, Dona Maricota struggles to accept that the descendants of the family’s former slaves now also have access to the sphere of power and justice. She is uncomfortable at the news, yet curious:

The entire family in Dona Maricota’s lineage worked in legal professions. They were all judges, lawyers, or professors with diplomas from the most reputed institutions in Brazil and elsewhere. She found it curious that the descendant of all those women—Umbelina, Anolina, Dasdô, Martha, Damiana and Celina—should choose the path of Law. If Firmino could have read her thoughts, he would say there was nothing strange or curious about it. He would say ”Xangô is king. He is walking by my side: sooner or later justice will be done.” (Cruz, 2018, p. 301)

34The novel closes with the prophetic words that guide the narrative framework: “Xangô is king. He is walking by my side: sooner or later justice will be done.” The narrative is threaded with depictions and counter-narratives of the age of slavery, repeatedly silenced in Brazilian history, implicitly underlining the mistaken belief that slaves did little or nothing to revolt in protest at their condition. A character like Anacleto manages to slip through the net of slavery thanks to his medical and esoteric knowledge, becoming a respected healer not only for slaves, but also their masters, who visit him discreetly (p. 64). The novel also includes a reference to the Malê revolt (p. 67), one of the most significant slave uprisings in Brazilian history.

35Exploring the theme of injustice in Eliana Alves Cruz’s novel offers a contemporary reading of the media treatment of Afro-Brazilians, particularly those living in disadvantaged communities and favelas. While the Brazilian media typically represent the men and women living in the favelas as stereotypes, the characters in the novel have genuine psychological depth. Eliana Alves Cruz’s work, like that of Conceição Evaristo, offers an important key for understanding contemporary Brazil: studying the country’s past as a society based on slavery sheds light on how racism manifests in the modern day. Their writings clearly foreground the theme of historic reparations for slavery as a crime against humanity.


36This study concludes by underlining the importance of these counter-narratives of Brazilian slavery in reversing the flagrant trend for selective empathy in the media’s treatment of Afro-Brazilians. In today’s Brazil, Black men and women are the sector of the population most statistically impacted by police violence, shortened life expectancies, and sub-standard housing. Literature has a role to play in highlighting such disparities in the Brazilian population and in challenging structural racism. However, it is apparent that while literature is a powerful key in modifying the Brazilian imaginary of the history of slavery and in speaking out against the modern-day experience of Afro-Brazilians, it cannot on its own bring about lasting change in a society structured by racism. Other public policy and media levers must come into play to challenge stereotypical representations of the Afro-Brazilian population. Literature has the power to censure and critique extant imaginaries and build new ones. Conceição Evaristo and Eliana Alves Cruz use this power to give voice to a sector of the population systematically silenced and minoritised: Black Brazilian women.

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1 Almeida, S. (2019). Racismo estrutural. Pólen.

2 Behind this concept is one of the most significant Brazilian intellectuals of the twentieth century, Gilberto Freyre. At a time when racist and eugenicist theories were held in high esteem in intellectual circles, he was one of the first theorists to discuss métissage in positive terms. His 1933 study Casa-Grande e Senzala explored, among other points, the almost “genetic” Portuguese capacity to adapt to all sorts of peoples and climates and the resulting métissage: it laid the foundations for Luso-Tropicalist theory, which still resonates strongly in Brazilian society. The concept of a mixed-race Utopia or nation is part of this ideological strand of thought. Freyre held that Brazilian métissage would result over generations in a profoundly multi-ethnic society, which would eventually eradicate racism altogether.

3 Becos da memória was first published in 2006. This study refers to the Brazilian edition of 2017. The book was translated into French by Paula Anacaona for Éditions Anacaona in 2016. It has not been translated into English.

4 [...] “ellipses dealing not with a single portion of elapsed time but with several portions taken as if they were alike and to some extent repetitive” (Genette, 1980, p. 53).

5 [...] “anachronic groupings governed by one or another kinship (spatial, temporal, or other)” (Genette, 1980, p. 85).

6 Defined by Genette (1980) as an anticipatory summary (p. 67).

7 This is a public institution founded by the government in 1988 to promote equal, inclusive cultural policies and Afro-Brazilian history and to organise arts events acknowledging the contribution of Afro-Brazilian arts and culture to Brazil’s cultural heritage.

8 Orixás or Orishas are divine spirits in Yoruba mythology, brought to Brazil by slaves and taken up as part of the new Afro-Brazilian religion candomblé.

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Pauline Champagnat, « Representing Afro-Brazilians in the works of Conceição Evaristo and Eliana Alves Cruz and contemporary Brazilian media »Hybrid [En ligne], 11 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2024, consulté le 23 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Pauline Champagnat

Pauline Champagnat holds a PhD in Portuguese literature from Rennes 2 University. Her thesis explores minority identities in the works of Conceição Evaristo (Brazil) and Paulina Chiziane (Mozambique). She is an associate member of the ERIMIT research team and teaches at the University of Agrocampus Ouest in Rennes.

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