Jardim Horizonte Azul

Today I am going back to the slum. I have been postponing writing properly about the organization where I spent one week because I want to be the most accurate on the information as possible. As time goes by however, I loose the accuracy of feelings.  But this weekend as I spent the days in a mountainous region around Sao Paulo, with people who rock climb I was given back both the feeling of encountering within, and new possibilities of movements in my foot.


I stood there night and day far from the constructions of the city watching the sun set with even more colours then in the Mekong. What is about the sunset and me? When it starts, and I feel a relief for the day being swallowed by the night I always become static. It is not any sunset that does this to me. It happens only with the ones that take time, the ones where the disappearance of the sun is in fact but the beginning of it. The festival of colours then seems to never stop. It is never just a fast transition between night and day. It is a whole journey that seems to pass through infinity of colours that never repeat.


I sat there watching the night little by little swallow the day. Watching every single star show up for work. The moon smiled gently there in the horizon just a bit above the mountains. And as I looked at the moon I remembered the joy I felt in this institution in the slums of Sao Paulo.


I left you last time in the buses. And so it is that as I walked out from the last bus, I had to walk up a street to find the Associacao Jardim Horizonte Azul. It was not too hard to find it I had to just follow the sounds of happiness. The gate opened into a large green area with little houses built simply but full of colours. Inside, and I could see from outside children laughed and ran and played.


As I went in everyone in my path greeted me. “ Are you a foreigner?”. Or are you here with the school? Probably both, probably none I thought to myself. “I am looking for Joana.” “Oh, you are looking for the teacher? She is always everywhere.”


Joana is my aunt, and what an exceptional woman she is! I always knew that but spending this week with her and her 12th grade class there made me realize it even more strongly. She takes her year 12th of middle upper class students to spend a week volunteering in this association. She is not only a teacher. She is their council, and friend, and idol. It is not because she is perfect. Not at all, it is simply because she has taught them as she has always taught me that we must embrace our vulnerability. Accept the possibilities of our behavior and never compare ourselves to others, neither to feel better, nor worse.


A week in an Association in a very poor area of our city trashes all of our conceptions. It is hard for me who have been working on it for years for those 17 years old full of doubts, and dreams it is mindboggling.


Why should I be talking about them and not the association is the question in my mind. Well, it is because it was through them that I discover the work of the Association. This 17-year-old boys and girls worked everyday from 7 to 4 in a range of activities. We painted houses to make them more colorful for all of us, we worked in the vegetable garden to have real food, organically grown for the children, we worked in the kitchen making breakfast and lunch that would pass any considerations of Jamie Oliver. We helped the workers in the nurseries, and in the classes from babies to 17 year old. We worked on crafting and of course through all this work we met the community and each other.


Every night my aunt made the class seat in the room we all slept to tell their day. It was a written journal. It was moving beyond belief to hear these sheltered kids tell of the tiredness, joy, and difficulties during the day. It was wonderful to be able to share with them what happened and together discover parts of the place we could not have seen on our own.


I spent lots of time in the kitchen. Anyone who knows me well knows how truly remarkable that is. I don’t really cook. I like kitchen tales though. And Silvana the lady who lives there in the community and works in this kitchen for years feeds not only people’s body but also their souls. She was patient to have us there I d imagine probably making it all slower. She always smiled saying we were helping. And as we cooked, and cut and talked the children from the Association would stop in front of us on the open kitchen window to talk to the ladies and men who worked there. From little children to 17 year old they all came after having left their school.


These are the lucky ones, who have gotten a place in the Associaiton. It takes about 2 years for them to be able to get in. Not enough place, nor money for everything. They never want to leave there. It is incredible. I feel like it does not matter how much I write I will not be able to convey the importance of this work. When these 17 years old are there learning music, planting, playing, wood work they are not in the streets falling prey to drugs. When these children come it might be the first time they ever have fruit in their lives. When their mothers start to participate in the project they learn how to keep breastfeeding longer, how to raise their children in a healthier way.


This became clear to me when I visited the UBS ( Basic Unit of Health) in the area. This organization is so respected that the government of Sao Paulo put them in charge of taking care of 14 UBS. I went for a visit and by chance arrived on a day where mothers with babies of the slums, and neighborhood around where there for a talk. I was quite moved to see how clean and spotless was the place. There was even a garden built with money of the workers to make the place nicer. I sat in the meeting and saw the lady of the Institution I was coming from invite these mothers to join them in the Institute for a weekly conversation on motherhood.


“All of us have something to learn”


She put it nicely.


In the group were two ladies who had been part of the program (which for lack of money is now closed) “Dear Mom”. The program took 40 pregnant women and taught them about being mothers. It paid them about 150 dollars a month in order to keep them from working for 6 months so they could stay home and breastfeed, and take care of their babies. In this meeting there were two ladies who had been part of the group before. They immediately said they would come for the weekly meetings, and praised how much that project had made the development of their children better.


Later on, I sat with the nurse watching the procedure with babies of the community. Apparently, mothers should bring their babies every month to check if all is ok. I watched lots of mother come in. The nurse always asked them what they were feeding the babies, and about their general development. I could see empirically how the program “Dear Mom” worked. All other mothers except from the ones who had taken part on the program had babies that were less developed. The mothers who had been to the program not only were more articulated, but fed their children fruits, and vegetables, had breastfed them for a longer time, and did not use walkers, nor baby bottles, nor pacifiers. They also had adopted Steiner philosophy for toys, preferring wood and invented ones, to plastic ones bought in a store.


I was moved beyond belief. So much of my own (hidden) prejudices being trashed there. The idea that nothing works in Brasil, the idea that poor people don’t care, don’t know, the idea that little interventions in a sea of disparity does not make a difference. There I watched people from the community working hard as hell in maintaining something they could see (just as I could) made their lives better.


How many times did I hear from the workers that if the money was to finish they would have to work somewhere else but would come to volunteer there. It is not an aseptic place. It is full of emotions. Sometimes 17-year-old stop in front of the kitchen to tell something awful they did in the school. The ladies in the kitchen give advice. Sometimes 7 years old stop in front of the main office. The coordinator asks “ Do you need something”. The child says no. “Oh. I know what it is. Do you want a hug? I want a hug!” And so defying all laws in the developing world these workers hug and children and adults feel happier and continue their day.


That is what it is. This association is a place that not only brings food, medical care, and activities for these communities. But it actually turns them into a community where people realize how important they are for each other’s lives.  It is a place of tolerance to diversity, of craving for knowledge, of the possibility of art and holistic approach to living. But above all, it is a place that teaches what my aunt has taught her students and me.   We must embrace our vulnerability. Accept the possibilities of our behavior and never compare us to others, neither to feel better, nor worse. Only in the limits of our development can we truly encounter others. We have to be honest about that. In doing so we transpose our own limitations. This would become even more clearer later on the night of poetry, and on the farewell day where 12th graders from upper class Sao Paulo where put to exchange openly with the 15-17 year old kids from the area their perceptions of each other. There all of our limitations and prejudices would be spoken out loud. I felt like in an encounter of Israeli and Palestinian. I was somehow shocked to notice how deluded we are in Brasil to ignore the fact that this is just as much an apartheid state. But I guess I will have to write about this later.

The Slums, and the border of within

People were always intrigued that I was never afraid of crossing borders to arrive in places that most people do not go to. It is true that when I crossed the wall to stay in the houses of strangers in Palestine I was slightly scared, or that when I visited Bolivia on my own I was at first apprehensive, or that when I decided to celebrate Ramadan in Kashmir (against all advices) I had a small hesitation. But never did I actually believe it was difficult to get to those places. I took all forms of transportation to arrive in the last village in Nubra Valley and climbed a rocky mountain, which was a few km from Pakistan without thinking it was far. I always ignored these voices of hesitation because I wanted to meet the other. As I have often put it: I wanted to hear those who have no voice.


So when my aunt, who teaches in a Waldorf school, invited me to spend one week volunteering in an association in one of Sao Paulo’s slums I was quite intrigued to realised I thought it was so difficult to get there. I did not really research the association I just asked her where it was. And my first thought was that it was too hard to get there, too far, too dangerous. I did not voice the thought, out of shame, but the truth is that my first impulse was of ‘impossibility”.  It is just out of the question to go there, I thought. This thought brought me immediately the question: How could it be that I who cross all kinds of borders. I who fly for days, and take several times buses for dozen of hours, and ricksaws, and tuk tuks, and boats, and shikaras in countries I often know no one nor speak the language found it sooo hard to take 3 buses to get to a slum in my own city of Sao Paulo?


It is because going to the slum in Sao Paulo involves crossing the borders of within. And those are way harder to cross. The return to my own country allows me to finally hear all of those who have no voice next to me.


It is also not without reason that I was apprehensive. As I talked to my Israeli friend who was talking on the Gaza situation I decided to research the statistics of homicides in the area of the association I was going to go to. In one of the neighbourhoods I was passing by only in one year (a bad one) 1777 people were killed. We are talking of one neighbourhood that houses 300 thousand people!


But so it is that puzzled by my own prejudices I decided to put my back on my back, retrieve my adventurer soul, a bit left aside since I arrived here, to cross all the borders of my own prejudices.


I took the first bus seeing things that were at first familiar. I drove it till the last point by that time not recognizing anything else anymore. On this bus alone it took me 1,5 hours. As I took this bus I kept thinking of the thousand (or maybe millions) of workers who take this journey (that only one part took me over one hour) every single day.  The second bus in another hour was going to take me to Jardim Angela the neighbourhood, which was considered in 2001 by Unesco as one of the most violent places in the world. It was truly like being in a different country for me. I knew nothing around and when I finally took the third bus with my backpack on my back intrigued to see how green this area was I was asked whether I was a foreigner.


I was puzzled. Has the time I have spent abroad changed me so much? And pondering about it I remembered that when I visited the neighbourhood where many illegal African immigrants live in Tel Aviv (which is so feared and avoided by my Israeli friends) people often started conversations immediately in English. I am usually taken for being Israeli in Israel and all over the world, but in that neighbourhood they never thought I was. It puzzled me then, like it puzzled me here. But I came to realise that that assumption had to do more with my attitude then with my looks. The truth is that the only volunteers, or people who were not from this poor neighbourhoods that went there were foreigners. This conclusion brought me another insight. Maybe it is because for all of us it is easier to help where we “know” of the less the context. It is probably easier to be empirical where our societies have not tainted us by prejudice of so called “factual information.


People looking like me in the slum are foreigners. They, probably like me, are not capable to cross the borders of within in their own countries so they take buses and planes and do it somewhere else. And quite honestly it does not matter to me where we help and encounter the other. It is the fact that we do that matters. It is in going to those places that we might start to learn to challenge our own prejudices which are always there does not matter what we do or where we come from.


And so it is that I arrived. I arrived in the Jardim Horizonte Azul. I arrived in an association that did far more than my wildest dreams. An association created by a German woman in the end of the 70’s. The work of this lady has transformed the lives of babies, children, adults, and the physical structure of three very poor areas in Sao Paulo. I in crossing the borders of within have been able to finally see what I always knew from the world. It does not matter where we are, we are always so alike.


It was an intense week. And I want to write properly about it. I want to write about the different experiences I had. But I will do it in parts. So first I will start here. Where it started for me. It started on the simple but incredibly hard first step. It commenced on the internal one, on the decision to go where you learned never to go to, nor to see.


On the way there, on the first bus, I stood next to an old lady. She had a perfect posture that was not destroyed by the years, nor the hard work I could see marked by the lines in her face. I hesitated on whether to tell her about it or not. She did not look particularly happy, nor did she look sad… It was just a resignation of someone who takes probably many buses to go to work everyday. I thought she looked so beautiful, in her flawless posture, in her austere presence. And I wanted to tell her about it.


So I did. She was touched. And decided to tell me her life. She told me she was 78. And then she told she came from the slums from a very poor family and that she had been the first black woman in one of Sao Paulo’s prestigious Universities. She had studied pedagogy. She had worked very hard in being the best student there. She told me she had studied to prove the world, and herself that the colour  of a person skin does not matter. I heard her quite moved.  And pondered about our country that prides itself of having no racism. I heard the woman in a mixture of admiration and sadness. I admired her austerity and strength but was sad that somehow she had needed to fight so hard against racism. I also felt uncomfortable that she searched in me some sort of validation. Then I realised I also searched in her, and in our conversation a validation. I expected in our brief encounter to erase the centuries of separations between classes, which in Brasil is highly correlated with colour. I was also searching for some kind of redemption.


I had no idea on that bus how much I would understand that better on the days to follow. How much I would understand how the capital culture, as Bourdieu puts, it is used to reinforce social distinctions. I never imagined how much of our relationships would be coloured by these distinctions. I never knew on that moment how much of my prejudices I believed not to have would be massacred listening to the poetry night in the slums. So I can’t let you know in one go. It takes time to discover the association, their work, the people, the art, the boundaries, the social and physical structure of the poor suburbs of Sao Paulo.


On that bus I carried my backpack as a foreigner. Because yes, that is what I am. A stranger. A stranger who is always searching for connection. We all are. On that bus I started to cross the frontiers of within. And I invite you all to do it. To help, to see those we have heard are so different than us. If you still can’t do it next door go far away. But go because we cannot afford to just stay still watching TV and reconfirming our untested judgments. I invite you to learn more about this world I have discovered this week. A world that was always there, next to me, a world which inhabitants work on our houses in the centre, our bars and restaurants, beauty parlours, stores, buses, subways, constructions, supermarkets etc. I invite you to learn about what happens to their children when they take every single day this journey, I thought it was impossible, to come here and work on this side.