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FAVELA CHILDREN

Ute Craemer

 

Chapter 3

Londrina, January 1966

Recently I had an interesting conversation with the GDS (German Development Service). As I was originally supposed to be working here as a teacher, but found upon arrival that there was already a school with six teachers, I suggested that we organize a kindergarten and a sewing circle. "But that isn't social work," was the answer. Now, however, it has been recognized as social work and I am even to be allowed to take a three-week kindergarten course in Gramado (Rio Grande do sul). The GDS decisions are unfathomable. "Impenetrable like the GDS" has already become a slogan.

Rio Grande do Sul is well suited to Europeans due to its temperate climate and having been mostly colonized by Germans - and, to a lesser extent, Italians and Poles. German - or Platt dialect - is mostly spoken, except in the big cities. It is a far cry from the real Brazil; no black faces, no openhearted sloppiness, no Brazilian giria (slang). Instead "Cultivate the German heritage" is the motto. Children, blue-eyed and blonder than in Germany, typical German farms with cackling hens on dung-hills and carefully cultivated beets, apple and pear trees instead of mamao and abacate, wine instead of cafezinho.

Yesterday we went on a great excursion. After walking five miles we came to a waterfall surrounded by pine trees. Unfortunately, the place had already been "opened" to tourism -- cars and transistor radios were all over the place. To be sure, we almost forgot this when we climbed down a sixty-yard steep slope through the jungle, scrub, prickles and lianas. Half crawling and with courageously suppressed fear of tree-snakes, we made our way to the waterfall. We saw no snakes, only two oncas, tiger-cats, who glared at us from a branch, then quickly disappeared.

Londrina, February 1966

Events overlap: a trip to Mato Grosso, the opening of the kindergarten, a thief in the house. Let's start with the thief.

At six o'clock this morning I heard someone moving about and thought it suspicious because on Saturdays everybody sleeps longer. I investigated and found Helmut wandering around the kitchen and dining-room. He jumped down my throat furiously in my half-awake state: "Whose idea was this joke?" "What joke?" He told me about his clothes being scattered about, the suitcase found chewed up by goats in the garden, and his radio that had disappeared. He thought we had hidden his things in order to inaugurate his moving into the new room. The affair was cleared up when I found traces of red earth on the easy-chair and windowsill as well as a clear footprint and fresh terra roxa on the stoop - the thief was clean enough to wipe his shoes before entering. A ladrao (robber) had honored us with his presence during the night.

Helmut, in good detective form, found more footprints and measured the length of the stride, from which he determined that they were made by a man with a 35 inch stride. We were told later that there are maconha cigarettes here, the smoke of which can temporarily weaken the ability to react, to the extent that a scoundrel can take something out of your pocket with complete peace of mind. Helmut, lulled by the maconha smoke, slept through the robbery. Also, the open window must have been too great a temptation for the thief.

In defense of Brazilians and the favela, I must say that until now nothing had been stolen from us despite the house door being unlocked day and night. Shoes and laundry remain on the porch during the day and we are often absent for days at a time. When the favela people want to steal they probably do so from the rich in town -- where, however, the houses are guarded at night.

Now to Mato Grosso. The trip goes under this name, although we barely touched its outer edge -- Tres Lagos and the satellite city of Pilotos. Pilotos is a city for the workers who are building two dams on the Paraná  River which are to supply Sao Paulo and Paraná with electricity. It will be one of the world's most important dam complexes. The work rhythm corresponds to its importance. Everything is well-organized, clean, expedient, clear and "technical". The modern, aspiring side of Brazil comes to light here. The workers are well treated, they earn more than usual, at least $100 monthly with free housing, inexpensive food and free medical care. We saw no one in rags, no beggars or rubbish lying about. Early in the morning we saw men raking leaves, mowing the grass, repairing defective lights. Everyone has his job, everything fits.

From Pilotos we went to Guararápes in the State of Sao Paulo. The parents-in-law of Manuelo, a carpenter from our favela with whom we were traveling, live there. As though it were the most natural thing in the world, we were fed and the family squeezed together so we could also sleep there.

We experienced the desolation of a medium-sized city in the interior of Brazil, and the life of a Brazilian family which, although it is beyond the anxiety about its daily bread, is completely untouched by culture - a not very happy in-between stage, as they have left childish simplicity (most favelados) behind them, but haven't yet discovered thinking.

I almost forgot the funniest part. As I jumped out of bed early in the morning raring to go and to see everything, I realized that my right eye was stuck shut, only a tiny slit remaining open. During the day this also closed and when I awoke the next morning both eyes were so swollen that I had to grope blindly about. I, who had set out to see Brazil, could barely make out the coffee cup in front of me. Kaspar said I should go to a doctor. Luckily, we had the idea to buy sunglasses, after which the swelling went down to the extent that I could see again - a la Japanese. During the third night I got a clue to the cause of this strange swelling. I woke up with a dreadful itching, put on the light and saw a horde of bed-bugs hurriedly disappear into their hiding-places. I fell into a true scratching ecstasy, controlled myself for a few seconds, then went at it again in full frenzy until, exhausted, I let the beasts have their way with me. Apparently they had also bitten me on the eyelids.

And now to the kindergarten! I have two groups, one from eight to eleven o'clock, the other from one to four. I have at my disposal four balls, match-sticks, some homemade dolls, jump-ropes and all kinds of miscellaneous stuff like coconut shells, rags, crayons, paper, etc. What makes the work difficult is that the children are especially jumpy and unconcentrated, never want to occupy themselves with one thing for more than five minutes. Most of them didn't even know what toys are. Another problem is that they have so little sense of community. They want to pick up as many toys as possible and, from fear that another will take them away, hold on to them compulsively instead of playing with them. My back is no sooner turned than the toys are fought over, sometimes quite violently. With my squeaky voice trying to be thunderous, I restore order. Sometimes I think that I am too strict. After all, it's only too understandable that they are so greedy. But at some point they must learn to do things in community.

Discipline is unknown to them and they don't even obey their own parents. To form a circle or a line is practically impossible. When I have the last ones in order, the first ones are already dancing out of line. They simply cannot wait.

Another difficulty is that children of the same age are in such different stages of development. Some are in the crawling stage, others toddling, some draw people with their arms stuck onto their heads. They are all five to six years old but very different in their physical development. The black children look to be the strongest and the blonde, light-skinned ones seem to have the least resistance to the climate and illness. Most of the children look under-nourished. They are regularly given rice and beans for lunch but lack protein and vitamins. The food here is very poor in mineral salts and in general is less nutritious than in Europe. This may be why they mature too early under the tropical sun and don't have time to draw strength from the earth. It seems to me that the apathy and debility of many Brazilians can be traced to this century-old vitamin deficient, carbohydrate-based diet. In the kindergarten, spontaneous outbreaks of unalloyed joy of being are followed by hours of indifference and sleepiness. Recently a little girl said with true self-knowledge: "Today I'm especially lazy." She hangs over the table and can't be moved, not even to put a crayon in her hand.

That's the negative side, which, as is well known, is so much easier to relate. How shall I describe that they are dear and affectionate? They bring me flowers, they share with me their only sucked-on candy, want to give me their hamster. They fan me with admirable endurance when it gets too stuffy in the kindergarten.

Today I again noted how little family life there is in the favela. During the mid-day break I was at Darcy's, my keenest morning pupil. The family is very orderly, the father works for the prefecture as a street-sweeper and therefore belongs to the favela's "privileged" class, because he has a regular income and will receive a small pension later. Darcy sat in a corner with a plate of rice and beans on her lap and ate her lunch. Mirinha, the younger sister, squatted on the stoop and picked obstinately at her food. No table, at which the family could be together, at least for lunch. At that moment the table became the symbol of family life for me. Usually one doesn't even think about it, but here in Brazil, and especially in the favela, it becomes increasingly clear to me how important it is that children have a proper space in which to pass their young lives. And a daily program with regular mealtimes, during which the family is together, belongs to this. In Germany the home is the center for the family; here everything is aimed away from the home. Even the sick would rather hang around a street corner than stay in bed at home. Getting up early at a certain hour certainly belongs to this regular daily program, and children are sent to bed at a certain hour. Here the children are often out on the street until midnight before they go to sleep - often in a family bed - and are so tired the next morning that they have no desire to go to school.

May 1966

Today is Mother's Day. Apparently it is celebrated much more here than in Germany. The school celebrates with cookies and lemonade, the prefecture distributes meat and noodles in the favela. Like the churrascada for the prefecture employees on May Day, this distribution in the favela seems so patriarchal to me. It's nice of them, somehow human, to think of the poor, but it is not enough when, with a sincerely friendly smile, you give presents to minimum-wage earners. You should rather give them the opportunity to buy meat and noodles for themselves, to struggle and to stand on their own feet. In my opinion, the most important thing is educational reform, and not only in a general sense (schools for all), but in a more profound sense (better school programs).

Yes, person to person Brazilians are generous and willing to help the poor. But the same people who give Fray Nereu a check for housing in the favela refuse to cooperate with decisive steps which would bring about fundamental changes (land reform, educational reform, street construction, reduction in coffee planting).

Every day I see Dona Dita walking in the midday heat with a load of freshly washed laundry balanced on her head. And an hour later she goes in the opposite direction with a bundle of dirty laundry under her arm. She works for some rich city families in order to earn school money for her son. It is admirable with what perseverance she washes in the stream hour after hour in order to give her son a high school education. She has discovered that you can only escape poverty through learning, learning and more learning.

But even when they have been to high school and have learned a trade, it is difficult for the poor to get a good job without having connections. More so if you are black. How stupid it is to characterize blacks as inferior and lazy. Brazil wouldn't even exist without the blacks. They worked like animals on the sugar plantations of Bahia and Pernambuco and in the mines of Minas Gerais and in this way kept the Brazilian economy viable. Furthermore, it was the intermixing of the Portuguese masters with their black slaves which - purely numerically - made the settlement and development of Brazil possible.

It wasn't only their strong arms, their labor-power, that they brought to Brazil, but also their abilities, their craftsmanship, their artistic sensitivity and their experience with tropical agriculture. They were far superior in agriculture and cattle-raising to the Indios and Portuguese. Also their food habits were less one-sided. Many plants, such as beans and bananas, were brought in by the blacks. Even cattle: the goats and sheep were imported from Africa.

The Sudanese, of Islamic religion, brought a specially active element to Brazil. They organized the slaves, gathered runaways and led them to the jungle where they organized their own settlements, the so-called quilombos, which prospered and offered proof of the Blacks' ability, especially in agriculture. They read the Koran in Arabic and thus it happened that in the early Portuguese colonization period there were fewer illiterates in the slave-huts than in their masters' mansions. The slaves were more cultured than their masters!

However, the reverse is now the case: the blacks are neglected and barely educated. That's why it is so important that a black woman like Dona Dita goes to so much trouble to send her son to high school.

What would Brazil be without blacks, without the contagious laughter of a Didi, the African rhythms of so many songs and dances, without Macumba, without the calm composure and motherliness of many black women, or the childish devotion of a Tereza? It is all a necessary counter-weight to the somewhat melancholic, reserved character of the Indios.


Ute Craemer is the founder of the Monte Azul favela educational and health centers in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Waldorf pedagogy is applied under conditions which are very different from those encountered in the usual middle-class milieu where Waldorf schools are usually found.

Ute Craemer

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