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Favela Children

Ute Craemer


Chapter 6

Consulting room in the favela

Londrina, February 1967

Time flies. It's almost July, when my work here will be at an end.

My birthday was the occasion for a three-day celebration. It enriched me with a porcelain penguin of considerable size, two small porcelain dogs of various breeds and several bowls and dishes. On the previous day the wood-burning stove was inspected for serviceability, we gathered wood in a forest and vegetables on abandoned farms. We cooked, roasted, baked, one cake-pan after the other was shoved into the oven (over 100 children and adults had to be provided for), pipoca (popcorn) puffed, many tins of mamao-marmalade (a kind of tree melon) prepared, while we drank cafezinho - it was really gemütlich. I was only allowed to watch, not lift a hand. If I wanted to intervene, the work was immediately snatched from my hand. Gelsa baked a twelve-storey birthday cake! And best of all, the children earned the necessary funds with their knitting. In the evening we continued the party in Cido's house. His father's boss donated a barrel of beer to commemorate my "self-sacrificing" work.

On Sunday the play "Little Red Riding Hood" was performed, twice, because not everyone fit into the kindergarten at once. Also extemporized skits about Brazilian comical figures in which the contrast between country bumpkins and city people lightly touched by civilization were characterized. The city folk, even the poorest of the favelas, consider themselves to be on a higher plane. And, in fact, most favelados are really a step higher on the social ladder. They have schools, aren't so at the mercy of illness or dependent on the coffee monoculture.

Londrina, April 1967

There was finally an article in Folha de Londrina (Londrina newspaper) with the elegant headline: "I. Exposicao de Artisanato da Vila de Fraternidade" about the voluntarios, that is, social development workers: our bazaar was opened. Last month (during Lent, when we were supposed to be calm, diligent and not playful), we worked like maniacs and when I desperately needed money for more material, we took courage and went public with our handmade products. Now we sit every afternoon and evening in the Engineers' club, which was kindly put at our disposal, selling our necklaces, bracelets, wallets, book-markers, our embroidered and knitted articles. Between sales we play quartet (in German!), dance the twist, paint cloth and paper. It is a lot of fun. In the evening Otalino brings our royal supper: rice and beans. We sit in a circle around the pot. Everyone helps himself -- like gypsies.

Although the exposition is well attended, you can see that most of the visitors make no attempt to understand what such an accomplishment means to favela children. Children who until a few months ago never had a needle in their hands, who no one had ever helped until recently; who, though enthusiastic, have difficulty with sustained work, and are now experiencing how High Society comes to admire what they have accomplished. For the children it is a wonderful experience. For the rich it is, unfortunately, just another way to spend their free time.

While we were preparing the bazaar and exposition, hordes of powdered and painted "society ladies" came fluttering around to see the children at work. It is strange how little contact they have with the lower classes and how insecure they are even with the children. Made somewhat uncomfortable by the closeness of the room, the numerous shabbily dressed children and the smell of poverty, they don't have more to say than -que bonitinho- "oh, how nice". With many promises to return with work material, they disappear never to be seen again.

There seem to be two Brazils. The one that Europeans know: white population, American style skyscrapers, Catholicism, in short, a tropical Europe. Then the other Brazil: colored, living in poverty, with a culture and religion which don't derive only from European Christianity, but also from African and Indian tribal cultures -- And both parts feel Brazilian. The gap between the upper and lower classes isn't only that of the unequal division of wealth. The contrast is more profound than that of rich and poor. Two different worlds seem to exist alongside each other, without touching, without mutual understanding.

Even the origins of the upper and lower classes is different. In general, the upper class is composed of the descendents of Portuguese colonialists and later European immigrants. The lower class largely consists of blacks and mixtures of Black, Indian and European. Europeans and European consciousness opposed to Afro-Indian origin and Afro-Indian consciousness. The former is immersed in the development of the intellect and will to freedom, while the latter don't yet seem to be able to utilize to the full their intellect and reason (which doesn't mean that they are stupid!). They are in the process of emerging from an existence devoid of history, unburdened by questions of where to? why? where from? Mostly their lives are unorganized, without orientation (Where am I in the past, present and future? What is my place in society? Is this place just, changeable, or ordained by God?).

Modern thinking and mechanization have uprooted these people and they have lost their culture through contact with Europeans. Therefore the argument that they have always been poor and why should they suddenly be different, is not valid. They already suffer the negative effects of industrialization; it is only just that they also enjoy some of the blessings of civilization.

Londrina, June 1967

After not having rained for three months -- one literally sank ankle-deep in fine red dust and passing cars covered the houses with clouds of dust -- the daily processions praying for rain finally worked: it is pouring ceaselessly and the soft dust has changed to slippery mud in a matter of hours.

As July and our departure date is not far off, a good-bye atmosphere is gradually being felt, as well as a kind of last-minute panic. Our heads are full of ideas, only time is lacking. Some children want to learn to crochet, we want to organize a exhibition and a trip to a nearby river; I want to enroll some boys in the senai-school (trade school), others in the escoteiros, the Boy Scouts.

Even the Boy Scout movement is for wealthy children. There also only white faces. By favela standards the uniform alone costs a fortune. Despite their poverty, Otalino, Zeca and Joao have been accepted -- I was glad that they introduced Brazil's brown element there. Such enthusiasm has never been seen among the boys of the favela. Whenever our new Scouts return from their tents or meetings they are immediately surrounded by a crowd of the curious, to whom they must relate their experiences in detail.

We are rehearsing the quadrilla, a folk-dance that will be performed during the St. John's season, on the Sao Joao, Sao Pedro and Sant' Antonio holidays. A children's wedding is also part of a real quadrilla. Tereza as the bride has been talking for months about this, the happiest day of her nine-year-old life. Her bridegroom takes his happiness more calmly -- he is, after all, only eight. The wedding is performed by a thirteen-year-old priest in the "church", an empty house which we have decorated with an altar, pictures of saints and flowers. The wedding dance and dinner follow, and in the evening you sit around the fire roasting mandioca- roots and sweet-potatoes, pine-kernels and churrasquinho, pieces of meat on a spit. The whole favela is invited. You can imagine the crowd and the congestion.

Santos, August 2, 1967

I'm going home! It's hard to believe. I'm sitting here in the port of Santos on the same bench as two years ago, while Kaspar is looking after the tickets. One day walking around Sao Paulo -- that city is a real lunatic asylum --, one day walking around Santos and today, we hope, se Deus quiser, we sail for Genoa.

Maybe I'll come back soon. Dona Lina, the president of a Women's assistance association who obtained the space for our exhibition, has had for years the idea to organize work-at-home so that women may earn something extra by selling homemade articles. Many work in the city as maids or do laundry for the rich, but this involves the disadvantage that they must work regular hours and therefore leave their children alone. Something similar has already been done with success in Sao Paulo: One favela weaves, for example, another crochets, a third sews and a fourth knits (on a knitting machine bought on credit and paid off monthly with the proceeds of the work). A senhora from sociedade is responsible for a certain favela, teaches the women how to do the work and then organizes the sale in a Sao Paulo shopping center. Dona Lina has something similar in mind for Londrina and as I know at least one of the favelas better than the Londrina rich do, and as I already began something in this direction with our bazaar-exhibition, she thinks I should help her to tackle this initiative.

Thank God the farewell from the Vila is over. The whole gang brought me to the train. The station has probably never seen so much shouting, hooting, vivá calls and running after the departing train. Today I leave Brazilian soil and on the 20th of August arrive in Italy.

Chapter 7



A talk by Francisco Juliao, leader of farm workers and lawyer of the northeast:"...I speak to the forgotten and to the abandoned in the jungles of the amazon and on the Babacú-settlements in Maranao, I speak to the workers in the palm-tree forests of Ceará, in the sugarcane fields of the northeast, in the coffee plantations in the state of Bahia and in the far south. I call the rice planters at Sao Francisco, the men who grow mate-tea and the men of the pampas. They are all hungry. They are all poor. They are all exploited by the land-owners. They are all slaves. They can't offer resistance to their misery because they are illiterate, because each knows only his own misery, because they are afraid. Therefore I appeal to them to unite like bundles of firewood and march for their rights. For when the masses unite they are so strong that not even the land-owners can withstand their might..."

Development aid works on the premise that the problem of the poor in developing countries can be resolved by giving them food, perhaps also by building schools and hospitals. But the problem also lies in the fact that the lower classes are considered by the rulers to be objects and do not participate in the decisions about their lives.

And that isn't automatically achieved by giving the poor something to eat. Perhaps that's why communism is so appealing to many: it not only promises them bread, but also participation in government.

Suppose development aid achieves the following: agricultural counseling, construction of dams and irrigation projects, fertilizer, etc., an increase in production which would alleviate nutrition deficiency; industrialization and, with technical help, the creation of employment for people in distressed areas; trade and other schools which would prepare them for life in an industrialized country;

controling the population explosion through education.

Good, let us suppose that the poor gradually ease into a middle-class situation and lead lives that are relatively secure. Then we would no longer see people in rags as opposed to the privileged governing upper-class, but better dressed, moderately prosperous citizens. But the problem that they would still be without equal rights would remain. The question is -- once having escaped from dire poverty, would they accept being treated as children by a small clique of privileged people, to not have any influence on the political, economic and cultural life of their country? Not being fully occupied with earning their daily bread, would they be willing and able to revolt against this domination? Or would they feel so satisfied with their modest prosperity that they would not want to risk it by engaging in a revolt with unknown consequences?

The Londrina students believed a well-fed favelado does not rebel, that only one who is hungry is willing to risk everything because he has nothing to lose. Therefore for them development aid only delays the inevitable social revolution. Gifts soothe the consciences of the rich and dampen the poors' wish to revolt.

Nevertheless, the students think that a push from outside is needed (the students themselves as yeast for the favelados) because the poor, having to occupy themselves almost exclusively with obtaining food and clothing, and the feeling, ingrained for centuries, that they are objects and not the acting subjects of their own lives, do not even think of rebelling. There are only occasional, quickly ignited and just as quickly dampened, disturbances when the droughts in the northeast impel them to plunder shops in the cities.

Is the Brazilian situation revolutionary? Objectively yes, subjectively no. The objective conditions for revolt are present: land distribution -- accumulation of property and capital in the hands of few; wages which only guarantee a minimum existence (or not even).

- Education monopoly: Universities are almost exclusively attended by the wealthy; most farm workers have no schooling at all; the primary schools in the peripheries of the cities are inferior in the extreme; there are hardly any trade schools for workers.

- Political power in the hands of few. In other words, political, economic and cultural power is concentrated in the hands of a minority.

However, the subjective conditions, except for small beginnings by intellectuals and students, are not yet present. The awareness of the necessity for change and the certainty of change being possible are lacking. The people are not yet conscious of the injustice, and even if they were they would see no possibility for change. The following conversation with Dona Maria from our favela will illustrate this. We were coming out of a department store in which only the wealthy shop and I asked her, "Doesn't it infuriate you to see how well some people live, who carry home baskets full of goods, who own apartment buildings and fazendas, while you can consider yourself lucky to have a job in order to eat rice and beans and have a wooden hut to live in?"

"No, I'm not angry. After all, the wealthy worked to get what they have. And my patrao, where I work now, is very nice and gives me a present now and then."

The answer is typical. She is neither angry nor envious because she doesn't see the connection. That her employer gives her used clothing because she can't afford them with her $25 monthly salary is, for her, cause for thankfulness, not for hate. She doesn't think about class differences, but sees the individual human being: here herself, there her employer, who treats her well and is occasionally generous.

The few on whom it has gradually dawned that the rich are rich at the cost of the poor shrug their shoulders and are resigned: what can a poor person do against the power of the rich? In the face of an injustice he acts as an individual, never in a group. He may quit his job, for example, but doesn't go on strike.

In my opinion, the favelado's situation is the following: As long as he has a roof over his head and he and his family don't starve, he is in equilibrium. Once one side of the scale is tipped more than usual due to circumstances beyond his control, the balance between life's burden and his subjective abilities is disturbed. The burden grows -- through illness, loss of work -- but the ability to bear these additional burdens is the same as before. He has neither outer reserves (savings), nor inner reserves (solid training in his trade). Additional burdens have him peering into the abyss on the edge of which he previously balanced. At this critical point the tendency is to fall. According to disposition, the reaction to misfortune varies. Either he unloads by drinking -- like Virginia's father, who traded his horse and wagon, his means of existence, for pinga; by aggression and fury -- like Irany's father, how took out his pistol and, in desperation, tried to kill his family; in apathy - like Otalino's mother, who, ill with schistomosis and completely worn out at 36 years of age, gave up. In all three cases, the human being is no longer master of his problem, but the problem is master of the human being.

Or: On the scale of subjective reality there is such a strong vitality that it cannot be broken by any misfortune. Like Careca's mother. Her husband is operated on and can no longer work, she is expecting her tenth child. Despite the daily uncertainty as to how this family is to be fed, she is happy and full of the joy of living. She masters the situation in her own way.

Or again: he accepts the help of a third party who can increase the subjective ability and outer possibilities so that the increased burden of life becomes bearable. This is the starting point for all social work: stimulate the individual's own strength, create educational possibilities, supply new work, prepare social legislation, etc. This is partly a task that a simple social worker can take over, but it is mostly a duty of the state, which must first create the basis for a comprehensive social security system which embraces all classes.

The most appropriate moment to intervene is when this balance between the burdens of life and the ability to meet them is disturbed. Now, when his life's symmetry is destroyed by an unbearable burden, he is shocked, angry, indignant, also more open for something new. Anger and indignation provide an impetus that can have a positive effect as long as it channeled into group action. A gathering force must arise which moves people and encourages them to act in groups and which first thinks about the situation. Such lines of force, which transform a multitude of individuals into a group which is capable of acting, could be drawn by social workers. Emotional indignation must be followed by a situation analysis and an investigation into the causes. For example: Why am I unemployed? Why are my children always ill? Here the individual realizes that he is not alone with his problems. Previously each complained for himself without noticing that everyone around him struggles with the same difficulties. This is the first step to the awareness that "we in the favela are all in the same boat".

The social healing process that corresponds to this first step is the formation of practical working groups. Their themes are supplied by the foregoing situation analysis. For example: Why are my children ill? Because they have worms, etc. The result would be an information campaign about the contamination of water, the continual repetition of infections through parasites, viruses, etc.

Courses for children and adults could be organized, work-at-home promoted, youth groups with theatre, sports, etc., founded, help with school work and much more. Tasks would be tackled which pertain to the favela as a whole. Besides mastering specific problems, the favela should grow together and the self-respect of the individual as well as of the favela as a whole would thereby be strengthened. The feeling of inferiority in respect to the wealthy would be gradually reduced.

At least in my field, work with children, I have tried to act according to these principles: not to be too accommodating, but to free their latent forces; to formulate a task that they already have the unconscious wish to perform and for which a working group is now formed; to encourage their creativity and then show the results in public at an exhibition. The profit from the exhibition is then returned to the community and not to individuals, which would only stimulate their egotism.

It sounds banal. But in practice social work usually proceeds from the patriarchal principle. If the wealthy or the government have guilty consciences, they give the favelados something, for example, they build a modern laundry in a slum, which then shines there like a alien body. Then they wonder why it's not cared for and that after a week all the faucets have disappeared. Their conclusion is that it's a waste of loving kindness to worry about the poor. Such installations must grow from within, be wanted by the favelados and, if possible, be made with their help. Giving makes no sense, it spoils the poor and weakens their own will to act even more.

Once a community has been formed from individuals, when they are proud of what they have accomplished and have the feeling of being worth something, then you can go one step farther: raise their indignation to a higher plane. Gradually they realize that countless favelas exist, in Londrina, in Paraná, in Brazil, in the world. They begin to see that their own poverty is immersed in a sea of poverty.

Their indignation becomes an indignation for the generality.

"Poor of all nations, unite!" And the super-personal indignation which arises from an analysis of the social situation expands to the deeper causes of poverty. Why does this gap between rich and poor exist? Why can't my children have a higher education? Why are my wages so low? etc.

Thus we integrate poverty into the whole social-political structure of the country and the world and begin to understand something about the oppression practiced by the ruling oligarchies on the un-franchised masses. A Dona Maria would then probably not remain so calm when viewing the riches of her patroa. And each one would no longer feel powerless and alone at the mercy of the wealthy, but would sense the strength that comes from the thousands who bear the same poverty.

How will this awareness manifest itself? As soon as the favelado no longer accepts his poverty as ordained by God, as soon as he realizes that change is necessary and also possible, then something must happen. The subjective conditions for transforming the social structures have been created. One can imagine that the poor would receive help from outside (for example, targeted development aid which would enable them to improve their lives. Schools and hospitals would be built, employment created, agriculture modernized, etc.; paralyze the factories, public transportation and commerce through passive resistence and exert massive pressure on the government.

Help from outside would go hand in hand with domestic assistance, from government offices; and development aid would only be granted when the poors' own efforts can be verified. The state would probably initiate partial reforms. Strikes would force the rulers to make life easier, by wage increases, school construction, cheaper medicines. But these are merely concessions, which would not resolve the problem in its entirety. It is not only that the favela people live on a bare existence minimum, but also that they are treated unequally.

The objective is that they become the subject of their own lives and the life of their country; that they participate in the country's political life, that they be represented in congress and in the government. Will the ruling power-groups voluntarily give up their key positions?

Chapter 8


Macumba is a widely disseminated religious cult in Brazil, a spiritist movement with Afro-Indian roots mixed with Catholicism and even Islamic elements.

It is hard to imagine a Macumba without having heard the wild, hours-long, stimulating yet monotone drumming through the night, and without having seen the participants falling into convulsive ecstasy as though shaken by a powerful invisible hand. It is questionable whether the word human can be used to describe these volitionless, wildly dancing creatures. They seem rather to be vessels into which a god or a spirit has been poured, who acts and romps and uses the mouth of an earthly being as his instrument, giving advice and answering questions which are asked via the medium. Human means to be able to say "I", to use your head. But the overwhelming impression one gets at a Macumba is -- away with the head, away with thinking and consciousness. The I is extinguished in order to make room for a supernatural being.

Macumba has a hierarchy, as do all religions. A head priest or priestess (macumbeiro, mae de santo) is at the top. At her side is an assistant priestess and the circle of initiates (filhas de santo) surrounds them. The word medium is appropriate. What is meant is that the spirit descends from heaven, called down by the atabaque drums and the rhythmic, repetitive cult-songs of the filhas de santo. The filhas are the instruments, so to speak, that call down the spirit from heaven and create the connection between heaven and earth.

No sooner have the drums, the singing and rhythmic hand-clapping ceased than the macumbeiro is possessed with the spirit. It is called Pegar espiritu, receive the spirit. "Possessed" should be understood literally. When I asked Dona Jacinta, the Londrina favela's Macumba priestess, what she felt and saw at that moment, she said: "The spirit sits on my back, on the spine" - she showed me the exact spot - "and speaks through me." It is not a redeeming experience, rather a burden. The face is contorted with pain. Cramped and twitching, the possessed one lays the backs of her hands on her spine as though she felt pain there. At the moment when her own consciousness has been completely overcome through the penetration of the spirit into the volitionless human sheath, the filha de santo hands the priestess a cigar or a pipe and a glass of pinga, from which she drinks first and then passes to the other participants. Now is the time to ask her - or rather her spirit - for advice and help. It is also the moment that she cures illnesses.

A real macumbeira unites the qualities of priest, teacher and healer. They have a different understanding of the nature of illness. It is not caused by bacteria or viruses, but has spiritual origins. Pegar o mau espiritu, to be occupied by a bad spirit, is the same as being sick. To exorcise the bad spirit is to heal. Surely truth lies behind this view, if only a half-truth, just as the extreme materialistic view of the nature of illness and its healing by the use of chemical-based drugs is only a half-truth.

It is very easy for such truths to degenerate into superstition however. For example, when the macumbeiro transfers the illness to a fetish which he lays at a crossroads, hoping that someone will step on it and absorb the illness. This magical technique belongs in the realm of black Macumba. Where you see the remains of a slaughtered black hen and a burnt candle, you can be sure that black Macumba was at work. The favela is full of stories about magically acquired sickness, people suddenly dying and unexpected loss of work. These stories are told with such conviction that I believe them myself.

A Macumba priestess's community-building power in a favela should not be ignored. To be a favelado means to be uprooted, torn out of the old tribal or clan relationships, alienated from the traditional mythology and religion. Not yet accepted in modern civilization and culture, most favelados swim between two worlds and lead meager lives, inwardly and outwardly. Only those who gather around Dona Jacinta -- a tranquil base in a dissolving world -- carry within them the pale reflection of a world-view which orders their lives and gives them support.

What can Macumba give to a European? If we resist the temptation to see it as nothing more than a folkloristic element in Brazilian life, and try to see through the confusing details to the world which determines these people's lives, we can understand something of human historical development. It raises somewhat the veil which divides the present from past human cultures. We begin to understand that human consciousness has undergone an evolution from the more intuitive, community oriented human being and leads to the discovery of the I, the individual, and to conscious thinking. Christianity, combined with the cultural forces of Europe, led to modern intellectual consciousness, whose egoistic will is so firmly anchored in the body that practically the only things that can separate this wakeful I-consciousness from the physical are drugs and other synthetic means.

On the other hand, a macumbeira still lives on the other side of this I-development. Her spiritual experience is not expressed in such an abstract form as body vs. spirit. Body and spirit still form a unity, so that the spiritual-religious can be physically experienced, and, with the help of the body and certain materials taken from nature (honey, blood, oils), the spiritual world can be brought down to the human level.

This connection with the spiritual world is purchased with the loss of individual consciousness, however, and doesn't allow for a rational penetration of the supernatural. Therefore, Macumba for a European is a regression to a method for obtaining supersensible experiences which is no longer in accordance with the times. One stumbles effortlessly into a spiritual world which, because of the capacity for logical thinking and the discovery of the Self, should have been achieved through the training of thought.

Translation from the German: FTS

© 2000 Ute Craemer/Frank Thomas Smith

Ute Craemer is a social worker and teacher who has worked for over thirty years in the favelas of Brazil, where her initiatives have had a healing effect (spiritual as well as physical) on many of the poorest of the poor. Her pedagogical methods are based on the indications of Rudolf Steiner. To read the previous chapters of "Favela kinder", click on "Back Issues" below.

Monte Azul - ascmazul@amcham.com.ar



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