by Ute Craemer
translated, from the German, by Frank Thomas Smith
In this book the reader will find diary entries made from the time I first set foot in a Brazilian favela, or slum, as a social worker in 1965. It also covers the later years when I started a favela project together with students from a Waldorf School, which continues to this day. It shows how such a project can become a life's work, and how experiences from childhood, adolescence and adulthood can acquire meaning.
As a child during the Second World War, while begging for food in the Austrian countryside, I realized how valuable a slice of bread can be, how good it smells and tastes, but also how humiliating it can be when the farmer's wife turns her back and you have to try somewhere else.
During my adolescent and young adult years, I often thought about the injustices in the world and how one might remedy them. I thought especially about the "underdeveloped" countries, in which I had lived many years. So in 1965, when the German Development Service (the German version of the Peace Corps - trans.) was founded, I volunteered immediately. You could work for two years in Asia, Africa or Latin America in slums, in the countryside, hospitals or trade training centers, for which you were paid some pocket money. This was the way I intended to make my contribution to the elimination of the world's injustices.
However, the problem continued to worry me and from my present place of domicile and work, Sao Paulo, Brazil, I am still trying to make my contribution - but with an essential difference. Favelados (occupants of Brazil's urban slums) and the poor in general have long since become more than mere hardship cases. They are human beings through whom I can become a human being myself. While I am trying to help them in their development, they make their contribution to my understanding of myself and the world.
When you open the newspaper and read statistics your flesh creeps at the revelation of so much cruelty. Here, for example, are some facts about Brazil:
There are thirty-six million needy children. Seven milion of them live on and from the street.
Approximately a half million children are housed in state orphanages.
Thirty-five per cent of the population has had no schooling.
Of the seven million underage criminals, sixty per cent are from broken homes.
Thirty per cent of the population lives a nomadic existence, continually looking for work.
Such statistics can go on forever. But what good are they if they only serve to paralyse our will and create psychological defence mechanisms? Nevertheless, this feeling of complete helplessness and impotence can awaken a strength that lends us wings and stimulates us to action. The inventory of facts and their translation into reality then makes sense.
In order to make sense of this avalanche of horror, injustice and inhumanity, two different theories can be applied:
The first contends that in order to eliminate injustice from the world the institutions, forms of government and laws must first be changed.
The other says that you must first change people in order to develop a humane world.
Once you have worked and lived for many years in a favela and have attained an insight into the social structures and the secret wishes of the people who live here, you understand that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Why? A slum, a favela, is the result of an unjust socio-economic system in the country and in the whole world. It is capitalism's final destination. This historical fact is given a very personal, mostly painful stamp in a favela inhabitant's life.
From the situations I have tried to describe in this book one can easily come to the conclusion that the system must be changed. During the years I have worked in favelas as part of the Monte Azul Community Association I have noticed, however, that phenomena such as exploitation, displays of power, manipulation and discrimination against those who are different are also practiced in them. In every favela there is a shop-keeper who overcharges for food and other essentials and exploits those who must buy on credit. There are those who are somehow cleverer, more favored by destiny, perhaps even more diligent than others, who despise those who aren't able to rise above the lowest level of existence. Those who are different, such as homosexuals, are discriminated against by the so-called "normals". These are just a few examples.
The insight grew stronger in me that only a transformation of the individual in the direction of a loving empathy towards other human beings can result in a lasting, meaningful reduction of misery in the world. It is self-evident that worthy schools, hospitals, trade-schools and dwellings are necessary, that is, social institutions that respond to the inner human need for personal development. It is also self-evident that people should participate in voluntary initiatives for better health, dwellings, cheaper and healthier nutrition, agrarian reform, child protection laws, etc., in order to create the framework for a more human existence. However, in my opinion the history of the past decades has shown that these outward changes and improvements will only have a lasting effect if they go hand in hand with a profound understanding of the miracle of man - knowing the human being not only in his visible physical form, but also in his original spiritual essence. To recognize in every individual a creative, spiritual Self who has come to the earth in order to evolve toward freedom and love and to carry this result into future lives on earth, is an enhanced point of departure for today's social work, social art, social science.
Once this conviction has impregnated our human encounters, the struggle for each individual soul can develop into a multiplying movement which is a formidable opposition to the forces that are based on hunger for power, self destructing influences and contempt for humanity. The scenes of future conflicts aren't battlefields visible to the eye, but the souls of men - even though, as an extension, outward warlike conflicts will arise. The antidote for power-hunger, hate, sectarianism and fundamentalism is a loving approach to the other, an understanding of his differences, sympathy for his capacity to learn and develop thanks to his individual spiritual essence.
Diary 1965 - 1967
Rudely awakened at five a.m. by the noise of the ship being unloaded, jumped out of bed, put on jeans and a sweater and went out on deck. I watched the unloading of meat from Argentina and then took a stroll through the harbor area where I discovered a wonderful Flemish gothic church.
Le Havre, August 25
We've started to save money and now use the menus as post-cards. It feels as though we're on vacation and it takes a great mental effort to realize that in three weeks we'll be working in the favelas. But now we're being drowsily rocked on deck by long, softly rolling waves.
At sea between Le Havre and Vigo (Spain), August 26
A storm today! Waves all around, unbridled, spraying water on deck and a wavelet in our cabin. Quite fitting for Biscaya. Wrapped in leather coats, our bodies at a 45-degree angle, we went for a "stroll" on the deck of the Laennec.
Lisbon, August 27
We sweat in a Portuguese café, tired from the heat, which is gradually taking on Brazilian characteristics, and try out our newly acquired Portuguese phrases for the first time. Portugal is a true developing country - wonderful flowering gardens and villas, liberally laid out streets, beautiful gothic churches from Portugal's heyday. And, alongside them, beggars scavenging, abandoned children. It seems not quite European. But it probably depends on your perspective. Coming from Brazil, the fact that one gets a feeling of history and tradition because of the churches and monuments, makes it part of Europe.
Today we leave Europe!
Rio de Janeiro, September 7
After the ten-day Atlantic crossing we are feverish to have land under our feet again. Rio, the cidade maravilhosa (wonderful city), is in sight under a blue veil of haze. Miles of white beach devoid of life. Seemingly hostile forests cover the mountains in the background. It's difficult to imagine the nearby metropolis. Entry into the harbor is really beautiful: the Sugarloaf, the many inlets and islands, behind them the skyscrapers of Copacabana and, like a frame, the thick rain forest with its unknown trees surging exuberantly up the mountains from the sea. The first impression is of an American city lost in the tropics. The "white" face of Brazil is the first to be seen. The black one presents itself immediately afterwards however, in the form of the many black workers who unload our ship.
Estamos chegando o Rio. (We are arriving in Rio.) The phrase from our language book has become reality.
Santos, September 11
We left the Laennec for good and have been hanging around Santos for two days, ill-humored and numb, with our crates and suitcases. Yesterday the customs officials ransacked my lovingly packed bags and temporarily confiscated my tape recorder. Finally Nivea cream and Otto's opera records served as bribes. Tomorrow we continue by bus, a twelve-hour drive to the interior, to Londrina.
Londrina, mid-September, 1965
Our reception here was touching: the house was decorated with little flags, a rocket was launched as we descended from the jeep; three children, fit representatives of racial mixture, one blond, the other brown and a third black, gave us flowers. Fray Nereu, a Franciscan monk who has taken on the favela's sanitation problems, gave an impassioned speech full of genuine Latin pathos. All this under the eyes of television and the Londrina newspaper, in which we are to be admired on the front page of today's edition.
The day before yesterday the bishop of Londrina was here in all his finery, including lilac stockings, and last night the criminal police inspector came to visit and offer us his services - you can never know! He learned from the newspaper that we were living in Londrina's worst quarter. Right behind our favela is one of Brazil's most infamous red-light districts. Whereas in the favela the women only show their breasts when nursing infants, the women in that district do so while the men pass through on their way to work, even when in the company of the priest. As the police inspector make a very unpleasant impression - he is of German descent and looks like a Nazi storm trooper - we believed only half of what he told us about the many gangsters, muggings and robberies here. As far as we can tell so far, the favelas are not meeting places for criminal elements. The favelados are simply poor due to lack of employment and schooling; and they are possessed by an irrepressible wanderlust that pushes them on to another city with all they own as soon as they have earned enough money.
I must tell the story of the rats. Our house previously belonged to a Japanese fazendeiro (farmland owner) who disappeared when his debts became too large. The house stood empty for many years and the cellar became the undisturbed meeting place for Londrina's animal world. During the second night, awakened by a scratching sound, I carefully switched on the light and saw a fat rat scramble away from a carrot a foot from my head. I ran to our men who, armed with a broom and club, drove the wildly scurrying creature away. I was far from calm however, as the beast had bored a hole through the floor from the cellar and was surely only the advance guard of an army. The animal life in our house is active indeed: flying, clothes-eating cockroaches, hordes of mosquitoes, mice, a hairy poisonous spider, fleas and beetles.
The favela is depressingly poor, but even such poverty is relative; the favelas in Rio or the slums in India are worse. Even the poorest seem to have someone poorer than themselves. Horrible holes serve as dwellings for countless children and their parents. A family of five lives in a discarded bus together with chickens, a dog, a sewing machine and an open cooking fire. The father gets up every morning a 4 a.m. to collect scrap paper from the street and sell it. They came, as did most of the favela residents, from Brazil's impoverished northeast. The favela residents aren't anti-social, but simply poor people who, because of their low income, cannot afford decent housing and therefore nail together huts made of boards on the edge of the city. The wives' additional income doesn't suffice for a better life. Many women and children work at picking coffee beans. They earn about a dollar for a thirty-pound sack of beans. I only realized how tiring and time consuming this work is when I tried it myself.
The men mostly work as unskilled laborers in factories where they receive the legal minimum wage of fifty dollars a month, or as coffee-bag carriers in the warehouses. (The faster you can run with a sack the more you earn.) Or they sell fruit, sweets and roasted peanuts on the street.
The racial mixture is unimaginable, although in the favela the majority is black. One sees Negroid kinky hair in blond editions, or Blacks with slanted Mongoloid eyes, or Aryan blue eyes. Besides these hybrids, there are also the more or less "racially pure" Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, Russian and German favelados - the jetsam of various immigration waves. And they really get along with each other. What they told us in Germany is true: how friendly, obliging and, despite their misery, how happy Brazilians are! During our rounds through the favela we are always received with a smile, a cafezinho is offered (and drunk, despite the axioms learned about "tropical hygiene"). When you take a child - usually covered with terra roxa (red earth) and full of sores - into your arms, contact is quickly established. We have yet to see a mistrusting or closed face.
Londrina has about 120,000 inhabitants. The city stands (or falls) with coffee. Thirty-five years ago, we are repeatedly told with pride, it was all jungle here, which is hard to imagine when you look down at miles of coffee trees from one of the city's skyscrapers. The jungle was so mercilessly cleared away that the climate has changed in the last decades -- there is no longer a regularly occurring rainfall and the earth threatens to erode. The mato (jungle) seems inexhaustible, but all that remains of it are little jungle-islands. It seems that every country must live out its own experience with soil exploitation -- just as today's youth refuses to learn from the mistakes of the older generation. Eucalyptus trees are planted for reforestation. They grow quickly, but exhaust the earth's alkaline content even more.
Londrina, September 18, 1965
The visits seem never to end. High society rushes to the favela with Brazilian beginner's zeal. Favela social work is the current craze. My head reels from so many new faces bubbling with torrents of Brazilian sounds. I am so confused by all this that my brain cells can no longer differentiate between Portuguese, French. Serbo-Croatian and Russian.
A comical side of our life is the constant shuttling between the poorest, shabbiest part of Londrina and the city's prominence. Suddenly it's "to the mayor!" and we hastily wipe the red dust from our shoes and the red ring from under our fingernails (po, dust, is the number one subject during embarrassed silences instead of the weather), try to cover up flea-bites, rip off the favela clothes and rush to the prefectura (city-hall).
We hardly arrive home with our faces stiff from smiling when the next visitor is announced: a German family which is "developing" in Bolivia. They no sooner leave than two nuns arrive who are in turn replaced by the business manager of Fuganti's, Paraná 's Macys.
The following is a song about a child from a Rio favela who died because "there is no telephone in the favela to call a doctor and no car to fetch him".
(The doctor comes too late because there is no car to come up to the favela, there is no telephone to call him, there is no beauty to see, and the people die without wanting to die.)
"O menino está morrendo!" - The child is dying. Maria came running to fetch us. We went. It was already dead, lying on a wide board alongside the other sleeping children. Why didn't the mother go to the Santa Casa clinic as Ute had urged her to? The child died of dehydration. Dysentery and the heat deprive the body of so much liquid that it dries out. They sit there crying and do nothing, call us when it is too late. Were the poor in Germany ever so apathetic? Are apathy and thoughtlessness the results of misery (which would disappear with better living conditions), or are they characteristics of these people?
You suddenly feel empty, helpless, stupid, knowing nothing. What can you do? I snap off my flashlight, a definitive sound, like an exclamation point behind the morto.
Here you are closer to life than would ever be possible in Europe. Birth, death, marriage, sickness, crippling, idiocy -- you're right in the middle of it and not shut off by walls from all the vital, essential human events as in Europe where sickness is hidden behind hospital walls, madness within a sanitarium, birth behind maternity ward walls.
At a birthday party for a one-year-old Syrian boy I studied Londrina's haute-volée. The party took place in the living room and on the balcony. Suddenly I realized that I hadn't previously noticed the strict separation of sexes. I speak with a man on the gentlemen's balcony - for shame! The ladies sit stiffly in the living room like hens on a perch wearing powder and mascara masks, praising the birthday child who is plump and overfed, a little Farouk. With much effort they are able to coax a smile from the fat dumpling face. The child isn't treated as a human being but as a curiosity for the grown-ups to dance around.
The children of wealthy parents, spoiled and pampered, are in stark contrast to those others who will not even be born because their potential mothers are too weak and under-nourished.
During the night Dona Antonia sends for us. She has had a miscarriage. The third in her twenty-five years. The long shadows the petroleum lamp throws on the walls make everything seem even more wretched than it is.
"E dura a vida da casada." A married woman's life is hard. Nevertheless, the women of Brazil, rich or poor, black or white, yearn for only one thing: to marry as soon as possible, despite their daily experience that drudgery begins with marriage -- especially for the poor, of course.
Their lives are determined by the great rhythms of life - birth, marriage, motherhood - to which they are harnessed as though under a compulsion they must obey. A compulsion which gives their lives a certain structure, but no freedom to move outside this pre-ordained course. Life exhausts itself in namorar, casar, criar (fall in love, marry, bear and raise children).
I recently experienced a similar apathy and resignation in a dream. I lay stretched out on the earth (red earth!) and was about to be burned. I covered myself with paper so the fire would ignite more quickly. Adolf and Kaspar stood to my left and right and watched, unmoving. I said goodbye to them and lay down again with my arms stretched out wide and my face towards the sky. No fear, no desire to be saved, resigned, as though a will stronger than mine had decided.
While we are on the subject of dreams, here is another of my Brazilian ones. I am on a jungle river, probably a tributary of the Amazon. Hanging plants dip low to the shallow, turbid, lazily flowing water. I know that dangerous Indians live nearby. Then a huge, wild-looking, bearded man emerges from a cave. Quickly I hide among the hanging plants. He disappears into the cave. Shortly thereafter a half-civilized Indian emerges and just as quickly disappears. Then an Indian splendidly dressed in brocade appears - he seems to shine - with a child in his arms. He shows it to me and speaks calmly and peacefully to me. I think: these are the three phases of human development - the caveman, the normal, average man and the royal man, shining from within.
Londrina, September 28, 1965
We were invited to a children's party at the home of a black family. Their hut always seemed somewhat mysterious after some children told us that the Holy Ghost puts up there. Recently we heard, at night, loud tom-toms, African jungle drums in their monotonous singsong. Curiosity overcame my indolence and I went there. Through the window I saw women dressed in long white gowns dancing in a semi-trance. In a monotonous chant, gradually increasing in volume, they cried, Domini! Domini! It was Macumba, a mish-mash of Catholic belief and African hedonist exorcism through which sickness is apparently cured (white Macumba) and spells are cast (black Macumba).
Now to the children's party. I was prepared for a birthday party but not for what awaited me there. As the daughter of the house led me into the shack I heard a wild drumming and smelled a penetrating odor of wine, incense and other indefinable things (mostly blood as I later learned).
The first thing I discerned in the semi-darkness was a black woman dressed all in red kneeling in the middle of the narrow crowded room. She held a convulsively twitching chicken fast while a fat black woman hung with pearls and chains (apparently the high priestess, she looked weird with one eye half-closed and the other goggling fearfully) cut the chicken's throat, caught the blood in a bowl, mixed it with oil, wine and honey and drew a cross on the other woman's forehead and throat with it. The one in red then drank the horrible brew and immediately went into ecstatic convulsions, similar to those of the slaughtered chicken, fell down, sprang into the air, danced wildly and finally threw herself onto the floor and rolled her eyes. Then another went into the circle, knelt, another chicken was sacrificed and so on; some fifteen times in my presence.
The atmosphere was uncannily thick, somehow stimulating and oppressive at the same time. It was like being in deepest Africa, although by no means only blacks participated. At intervals the drums stopped beating, the priestess rang a delicate bell and all was still. She said something about Jesus Christ and Domini (I had the impression she felt duty-bound to introduce a Christian element) and at once the singing, dancing and twitching continued. All this in a tiny, dim, candle-lit room crammed with sweating people and many children who delightedly clapped their hands and sang along and who I drew around me as a protective wall. Everyone was very attentive to me, held my bag, secured a good place for me to see, fanned fresh (sic) air in my direction. I was invited for the evening session and, being most curious, I didn't let the opportunity pass.
The atmosphere was completely different: calm and solemn. The initiates, the filhas de santos, also children, were dressed in blossom-white gowns trimmed with lace. They formed a circle around a white tablecloth spread on the floor. A child put candles and flowers on it, then six plates. Bahia food was brought. Six children were allowed to eat of it, representing all the children in the world, for the ceremony was an exorcism of the spirits who can harm children. This part was most solemn, only be transformed suddenly into violent drumming and dancing.
But I didn't have the impression that the people thus carried away -- and it was real, not faked -- were any happier for it. Their faces were distorted with pain, sudden cramps shook their bodies, they put the backs of their hands on their spines as though they had motors there that called forth the ecstasy through cramps and writhing. The Macumba priestess told me afterwards that the descending spirit occupies the lower vertebrae, literally possessing the person.
It was somehow nice when a nine year old child sprang into the circle, danced delicately, jumped for joy into the air and took my hand and placed it on an old woman's wrinkled face. She was the only one whose facial expression was calm and happy.
Then I was called aside. I expected the worst. I was to try the Bahia food. Manioca meal mixed with some green stuff and a mountain of meat that threatened to stick in my throat: the chicken which I had seen twitching several hours earlier. The thought of the flowing blood and the memory of the penetrating odor so nauseated me that the physical exertion of forcing it down brought tears to my eyes.
To be continued in the next issue of The SouthernCross Review
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