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.

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