Wednesday, July 1, 2009


This past Sunday was the championship match of the FIFA-Confederation Cup between the U.S.A. and Brazil in South Africa. This is the tournament which serves as a prelude to the World Cup next year. At halftime, the U.S.A. was winning 2-0, which was incredibly surprising, since earlier in the tournament, Brazil beat the U.S. 3-0. I filmed my hosts/friends at half-time. You can tell how surprised and anxious they are about the game.
But in the second half, Brazil scored two goals very quickly. Then they scored a 3rd goal which wasn't counted because the referees really messed up--it was quite clear in the replay that Brazil scored. (I guess they don't have a slow-mo replay challenge rule in soccer.) Now everyone was really mad, because Brazil SHOULD have been ahead, but they were only tied. Finally, with only a few minutes left in the game, Brazil scored again. The film tells the story about how happy my friends were. In fact, they were in my face for the rest of the day, and the neighborhood made miming gestures of me crying for the next day or so. A good time was had by all!

A moment of sublime absurdity

A quick post: I just discovered that for the last two months I've been using the word for "recipe" as the word for "receipt." So every time I've gone to the store to buy materials for Quilombo Zeferina, and hired workers for jobs at QZ, I've asked them for recipes instead of receipts. If that's not sublime absurdity, I don't know what is! :-0

Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson dies and Pirajá burns

These events aren't related, of course. And, to tell the truth, Pirajá isn't burning, but there were many bonfires up and down the street the other night to celebrate the São João holiday. If asthmatics exist in Brazil, they probably were all in the hospital this week.

São João (Saint John the Baptist) is probably the most celebrated holiday in the northeast outside of Carnaval. I don't know if it's bigger than Christmas, but I think it is. Officially, São João lasts 2 days -- the 23rd and 24th of June. In practice, the celebrating geared up last Thursday (June 18th) and putters along until the end of this weekend (June 28th). In other words, a week without much work! School is closed all week. Stores are mostly closed. It seems to be the goal of many people to drink beer continuously for a solid week, with a break on Tuesday and Wednesday, when they drink many of the special fruit liquors distilled for the occasion instead.

The city newspaper's website had a survey asking what São João traditions were most important. Number 1 was making a trip to the interior (anywhere outside of Salvador), where people REALLY party and dance all night, and by day pretend their farmers or cowboys. William and Claudio (Fabricio's brothers) spent one whole day on a horse ride of about 20 miles. The number 2 tradition (a close second) was drinking many different types of fruit liquors--tamarindo, jenipapo, cajá, pitanga, jaboticaba, abacaxi, banana, murici, cambuí, umbu and others, including mint and chocolate (source:

The required foods for the holiday include steamed or boiled peanuts (in their shells), roasted corn on the cob, and an endless variety of snacks and sweets made out of corn, tapioca, or cassava. Besides food and drink, you see lots of people dressed up like "country folks" with straw hats or frilly shirts. Basically, imagine a holiday based around Country and Western music and you get the idea.

Michael Jackson's passing spread like wildfire after I first announced it to my hosts last night. Everyone LOVES his music here, and they've been playing it all day on stereos and on TV. As if they needed another excuse, Fabricio said that when someone famous dies, nobody goes to work! LOL :-D

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Building Momentum

A few people back home heard me griping last week about the powerful force of inertia here in Pirajá. I was complaining that nothing seemed to be getting done. Mind you, this wasn’t necessarily any one person’s fault, but rather was a combination of circumstances, bureaucracy, procrastination, and vagaries of the calendar. I had moved out here on May 29th, and the power and water were supposed to be installed by the end of the weekend, May 31. Here it was, the middle of June, and still the Quilombo didn’t have power or water, and to top it off, the whole community was partying on Thursday because it was a holiday (Corpus Christi), Friday, because it was a holiday (Lover’s Day), and Saturday, because it was Antônia’s birthday. To tell the truth, I was starting to get a little bit frustrated, and went to work at the Quilombo by myself on Friday.

When I returned to the house, Antônia’s oldest daughter, Theresa, had arrived for a surprise visit from Juazeiro. She’s a history teacher there, and seems to have a lot of experience in dealing with administration. She was sitting on the back porch with several of her sisters (Paulinha, Christina, Georgina, and others) drinking beer and chatting. I came in and someone asked where I had been. I said I was working at the Quilombo, and they immediately looked shocked—it seemed unfathomable to them that someone would work alone. This prompted them to invite me to sit down and join them, and I guess I vented a little bit about my frustration with things.

What followed was a 5 hour conversation about the Quilombo and what it could and should do, how it should be run, what needed to be done to jump-start work on it, and how the community might be able to maintain it in perpetuity. Jocelita came in about an hour into the conversation and vented a little of her own, but soon we were all in agreement: it was time to take the bull by the horns and get something done!

Since then, things have moved forward by leaps and bounds. Even during the HUGE 13 hour party on Saturday with 50 family members present (15 of them under 18) consuming about 8-10 cases of beer, lots of the conversation was about the Quilombo. Isabel seemed to be energized to volunteer more, and had a conversation with Leonide (an in-law) about plastering. Christina said she wanted to get involved and promised to organize a meeting. Theresa was facilitating things with her knowledge of administrative structures. I was pleased that despite the fact that this was a party and that everyone was drinking (heavily), they still had the Quilombo on their minds.

On Monday, the water system was miraculously installed, including moving the water tank to the roof, and installing the supply line to the street (but not connected to the supply yet). Nadson worked all day chiseling a furrow in cinderblock for plumbing in the second bathroom. Fabricio and I went for a meeting with Marlene, Eli, and Marilene at ITEBA in the evening. Afterward, on the bus, Fabricio and I had an amazing discussion about ideology versus practicality with regard to feminism. This, of course, was stimulated by Marlene’s strong feminist ideals.

Tuesday, a bunch of people showed up to break furrows in the bricks for the wiring conduits in the upper floor, including Isabel and Jamele!! This was not an easy job. It required lots of pounding with hammer and chisel to break through the mortor, and was dirty and dusty. Casilda’s boys, Tio and Morillo, helped out more than they usually do. Fabricio was in high gear. He constructed the rebar frame for the power post out front. (I had given him a hard time the day before, because he had been promising to do this for two weeks.)

Wednesday, Sergio Sr. and Fabricio worked all day on the post, while Naia worked on cleaning out the water tank. Joselita, Casilda, Nilzete, and Isabel had a conversation early in the morning, basically initiating a coup d’état attempt to get control of the Quilombo out of Marlene's hands once and for all. I’m still unclear on the details of all this, but am glad that they haven’t involved me. It would be awkward because it would put me in a position of opposition to Marlene. I fully support the efforts of the women of this community to have control over what is rightfully theirs, but also support Marlene in all her work with ITEBA, YAMI, and, historically, Quilombo Zerferina.

I typed up a to-do list for Fabricio, which scared him a little because it was so long. He is just like me in that he says “yes” to everything and is always offering ideas or help, but forgets to follow through. He is now diligently working his way through the list. He just told me a couple of hours ago how anxious he is for the Mutirão to be begin and for the American’s to arrive. Everyone is really excited about the soccer game AND the American football game. They’ve contracted a policeman to be present so no one gives us trouble. (I jokingly accused him of expecting violence from the Americans when they lose!)

Momentum is really building, which is good because a huge holiday (São João) arrives next week, and we need to have everything in line before that begins. I have no doubt that the Mutirão is going to be a great experience for both the North Americans and the Brazilians, and that the Brazilians will use it as the springboard to a fully functional Quilombo.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Needs and Desires

Living in Pirajá has shown me the stark difference between needs and desires. It seems that, often, needs go unnoticed because people have become accustomed to living without. At the same time, their desires burn hotly in their minds and fantasies. So, for example, when Fabricio learned that he could buy a computer on eBay for very little, he obsessed about it until he (we) won an auction. But he neglects to contact Tanya about the simple matter of obtaining medicine for his lupus condition. He has come to believe that a computer will open the doors to prosperity for him, but has learned to live with his lesions.

There are lots of things that people desire—TVs, stereo systems, cell phones with all the bells and whistles, nice hair, nice clothes. Their desires mirror the desires of the more financially fortunate people of the world. And the flame of these desires is fanned by TV advertising and other media outlets, just as it is in the U.S. In other words, a consumer culture exists here in Brazil, but with a huge segment of the population unable to participate without making serious sacrifices in fulfilling their basic needs. And, because they are accustomed to their unfulfilled needs, they are willing to continue sacrificing them to their consumer desires. This impacts our work with Quilombo Zeferina directly.

We’ve encountered a roadblock in our pursuit of autonomy and continuity at Quilombo Zeferina because only one of the women involved, Jocelita, has a “clean” name at the bank. This means that all the others are in debt seriously enough to prohibit them from sharing in the role as financial caretakers of the Quilombo. Two people from different families are required by law in order to access a bank account of the type established for Quilombo Zeferina. Thus, the money is inaccessible without the direct involvement of Marlene at ITEBA.

One might say—so what’s the problem? Just let Marlene help access the money. Marlene, however, is strongly focused on her feminist ideology and the implementation of her ideology. She has her own ideas of what the women in Pirajá need, and that may be in conflict with the actual, realistic needs of the women in Pirajá. Also, it may conflict with what the women in Pirajá think they need, which sometimes is really just what they desire.Ultimately , the women in Pirajá feel they can't fulfill what Marlene thinks are the necessary steps to be administrators of the Quilombo. To satisfy her, they would need to take classes at ITEBA and adopt her feminist ideology, which is unlikely to happen, both practically (transportation issues and family responsibilities) and philosophically. A meeting is needed between the women of Pirajá and Marlene to settle some of these questions.

In the meantime, we Americans, as supporters of ITEBA and Quilombo Zeferina are left with a conundrum. Do we pressure Marlene to moderate her views in order to move forward with the Quilombo? Or do we support Marlene’s vision without question, hoping the women of Pirajá see the light? I have found myself walking a fine line between supporting the women of Pirajá and supporting Marlene’s vision. I am currently in a position where I am the go-between; the one who must seek compromise and creative solutions to give the women of Pirajá some hope of momentum, while at the same time living within the boundaries of the Quilombo’s constitution as written by Marlene. God give me wisdom and strength!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Holidays and R.I.P.

The São João Festival is fast approaching, and people are already gearing up for it. Two "warm-up" holidays are "Dia de Namorado" (their equivalent to Valentine's Day) on June 12, and "Dia de Corpus Christi" on June 11. Yesterday was also Paulinho's birthday (14yo), and tomorrow is Antônia's birthday (78yo). One of Antônia's daughters arrived yesterday on a surprise visit from Juazeira. Lots of her other kids and grandkids who I don't see too often have been around the house, as well. This weekend promises to be one long party! (And little work done on the Quilombo :-(

On a sadder note, the other night Fabricio, Monalisa, Naia and I were reminiscing about past Mutirões, looking at pictures from 2000 and 2002 in my computer, when we came across the picture at left. It turns out that Tio, the fellow seated on the right, was stabbed to death at his birthday party about a year ago. He is the first person I've been acquainted with to die a violent death. Rest in peace, Tio.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hã

(written about June 4-7, 2009; 30th-33rd days in Brazil)

This past Thursday through Sunday I went with a group of women to southern Bahia for a seminar called “Women of the Northeast in Search of Justice and Economic Solidarity and Autonomy” with the Pataxó Hã-Hã-Hãe indigenous group (indígenos). Unlike the indígenos of the Amazon region, who have received a lot of attention from the international press and subsequent support for the continuation of their cultures by the Brazilian government, the Pataxó lands were assimilated and converted to agricultural centuries ago. Thus, the Pataxó people live in a twilight zone between cultures. They work hard to try and preserve their indigenous heritage, but can’t fully return to the way of life that served them for hundreds (thousands?) of years because their land has been completely transformed into grazing land or cacao farms. Thus, they are forced to live in an economy that gives them few opportunities unless they decide to abandon their homes, families, and way of life.

Sergio drove us in his microbus, picking me up on the side of the freeway as he passed near Pirajá (unlike in the U.S., people can stand and wait on the side of the highways here). Most of the trip, about eight hours, was on a two-lane, heavily trafficked road similar to a U.S. route like route 40 or 19. Except for 5 or 6 small towns, it was rural driving all the way. There were lots of “rest stops”—churrascarias, roadside stands selling food or crafts, pousadas (b&bs)—that reminded me of what American highways were like before the 50s and the interstate highway system. Quite a pleasant trip, all in all.

After 8 hours, we turned on a smaller two-lane road winding into the mountains to the small town of Pau Brasil, which is nominally the home of the Pataxó. In reality, they live out in the country on about 53,000 hectares of land (about 200 square miles). This is where things got interesting! The sun had gone down, and some guys from the community were waiting for us in town to guide us out to the location of the meeting. We turned onto a dirt (mud) road and spent the next two hours bumping and sliding our way to the farm and community center of the Agua Vermelha branch of the Pataxó. At one point, we got stuck going up a hill. We all got out to push, but our feet had no traction in the mud (not that it would have done any good trying to push a bus!). We ended up having to dig a little before the bus could maneuver its way backwards away from the ditch that was precariously close to causing the bus to tip over. While we were stopped, someone came out of a house nearby and asked the guys who were guiding us if they would take a girl to the hospital, they carried her out to the car in agony. I have no idea what she had—dengue, malaria, tetanus—but she looked like she would die of pain any moment. They turned around and went back to town, and we relied on Patricia, a young Pataxó indígena who was accompanying us from Salvador, to guide us the rest of the way.

Once we arrived , (I thought) all the women went inside the house while Sergio and I waited on the porch. He had a few smokes and drank some wine to recover from the harrowing trip. (He wasn’t told he would have to maneuver a dirt road.) What I didn’t realize was that the women weren’t in the house, they were on their way to the farm, which was another kilometer away. In about ½ an hour, a few women (with candles set in pots held on their side to serve as flashlights) showed up to escort Sergio and me to where we would ultimately sleep for the next couple of days. We couldn’t really see where we were stepping, so we stumbled through the mud, waded across a swollen river, and finally made it to the cultural center.

Despite all the hassle of getting there, it was really great to be out in the country. The sounds of nature—frogs and other critters in the dark, running water, wind, and the relative silence of the country—always help me relax. It’s funny. I have no trouble sleeping on a concrete surface if its out in the woods. The living conditions on this trip weren’t all that different from being on the Appalachian Trail, which suited me just fine.

Things got started the next morning really early. We had breakfast in the kitchen in the house next to the community center, which I learned belonged to Maura, the matriarch, and her family. Her son, Paulo, is the leader of the Agua Vermelha branch of the Pataxó. His brother, Luiz, is a representative of the Pataxó to the federal government. (He was in Brasilia when this event started and didn’t arrive home until Saturday night after the seminar was over.) Living in the house as well were son Marcio and his 5 children. The house back up the trail on the road had more relatives. I couldn’t begin to keep track of everyone. Although the house was small for the number of people who lived there, it was very pleasant. There were beautiful plants next to the house, and the veranda was a great place to hang out and enjoy the day. The kitchen was large, and had both a gas stove as well as an open wood fire stove. Their refrigerator was mostly empty, but it worked, and someone had bought soft drinks for the occasion. There’s nothing like the smell of coffee on a rainy morning at 7:00am.

I didn’t expect to see any Pataxó ritual while I was there. I don’t know why—perhaps because it was a seminar being led by Marlene and ITEBA. But the seminar began with a ritual blessing by Paulo, accompanied by dancing and singing. Dancing and singing were a key element of the whole weekend, with five extended periods of ritual, starting and ending each day and an extra one at night to teach the young people the songs. Instead of describing it in detail, I’m including two clips of video. The first one took place in the evening of the first day, and started as a youth activity to teach the younger kids the songs. But as time passed, others joined in. This clip is about halfway through the hour ritual, and has some nice moments. The second clip (further down in this blog entry) is the morning of the second day, and includes a pretty intense segment of Paulo going into trance.

Briefly, I would describe the music and dance as a typical variant of almost all indigenous American music. They used rattles to keep a beat, and marched in short steps two to a beat. The songs were all quite melodious, and usually had a simple A-B form. The lyrics were a combination of Portuguese and Pataxó languages with periods of vocables. There was a little bit of call-response between men and women. As the ritual progressed, the dancing became more energetic, and the tonal center modulated upward until the men really had to strain to hit the notes. They didn’t use any falsetto like one would find among the Plains Indians of North America.

Attending the seminar were women from several Pataxó communities. Some had walked 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) to get there. Several of those were in their 70s or 80s. About 25 women were in attendance at the seminar. Almost all wore traditional Pataxó dress, which included decorative headbands and clothes made entirely of grass/tree fibers, including braziers. Many used special face- or body-paint in patterns. Several of the men had feather headdresses. The seminar started with the women joining in an “ice-breaker” song simulating the sifting of farinha flour (a staple starch made from manioc that they add in great quantities to beans and soup). Their behavior resembled children singing children’s songs. My impression is that women in this culture are typically so home-bound and sheltered (repressed), they have little interaction outside the family. The whole idea of this seminar, where they were encouraged to find voices to talk about their needs and problems in a safe and supportive environment, was probably a bit intimidating for them. Their participation in the song showed this moderate discomfort in that it resembled children having to perform in public—somewhat hesitant, mannered, shy.

Over the three sessions, the women were to come up with some concrete ways to find sovereignty over their own lives, both in their health needs and economic autonomy. In the first session, they were divided into three groups, and were told to make an inventory of ways they didn’t have autonomy or solidarity in their lives. The second session was devoted to identifying one thing from all the groups’ lists that was common and would be most likely to affect change. This turned out to be the creation of an association that would meet regularly and would represent women to the outside and to other organizations (some indigenous, some not). There was disagreement over the viability of creating an association. After all, how many women could take time from their responsibilities in the home to make the trek to a meeting place? What if women who weren’t at the seminar wanted to participate? What if different communities had different ideas or disagreements? The second session ended with things very much up in the air.

The next morning began with ritual, but this is when Paulo found his orixá (with the help of the substance he was smoking, which wasn’t marijuana or tobacco, but definitely had the effect of a drug) and spoke with the authority of god and ancestors to everyone gathered, including observers such as Sergio and me. His messages to a particular few were evident, despite the fact that his supernatural tongue was unintelligible. He took Patricia out of the circle for a special admonishment to remember her roots and respect her elders. He told me to take the story of his people back to America. He wept upon reaching his younger brother, who has 5 children and has a hard life. And when he reached one of the elderly indigenous women who was sick, he drew out the sickness, gagging as though it had transferred from her to him. At this point, Maura brought him more smoke. The process of going into trance and coming out of trance was painful, and a bit excruciating to watch. Like I said, it was intense!

After the special visit from the orixá, the women found common ground and consensus, and agreed to the formation of an association for the betterment of their constituency. Tears were shed by Patricia as she addressed Maura, the matriarch, directly. Tears were shed by Maura in return. Everyone from ITEBA made a speech, including me (yikes!—public speaking in a language different from one’s own is definitely a scary experience). Then several men decided that since I, as a man, was given a chance to speak, then they, too, needed to speak. They all had nice things to say in support of women and their efforts, though I wonder when it comes to brass tacks whether they will be as supportive.

Because things ran long, Sergio decided we should stay another night rather than drive after dark, which is dangerous because of highway bandits. All of the people from other communities departed, leaving only Maura and her large family (four sons were there by this time), some of the neighbors, and us. Sergio disappeared in the middle of the afternoon, going to town with one of the guys in their car to buy stuff for the night’s requisite festivities. Some of the teenagers were hanging around on the veranda drinking cachaça and singing songs accompanied by makeshift percussion instruments. I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with the younger kids, who wanted to practice their English with me. I taught them a few words, and we had fun. The adult men found me rather amusing, and liked to tease me. They tried playing a trick on me by getting me to eat some pimenta (VERY hot pickled peppers). I knew better, but took a tiny bite anyway. Of course, I love spicy stuff, so I told them how much I liked it. They found this hilarious. Then they gave me the raw pepper from which the pimenta was made, called biri-birí. It wasn’t hot at all, but was very sour. I liked it a lot, too, since I like sour stuff, and asked for a second one. They found this even more hilarious. Then they offered some cachaça to wash it down with, and I drank it straight from the bottle without touching the bottle to my mouth. This took the cake, because not only did I not spill the cachaça, I also didn’t give a glimmer of a wince at the kick of this strong liquor. From this moment on, I think they were offering cachaça to me every 5 minutes, including at breakfast the next morning.

After trekking out to the bus, Sergio managed to get it stuck in the mud again while trying to turn around in the small space, and it took the whole tribe about two hours to dig it out. I think Sergio was a bit embarrassed and mad at being stuck, so he did most of the digging. The Pataxó guys weren’t too thrilled to have to work so hard at 8:00am, wearing clean clothes and sporting hangovers. Even eight guys pushing behind a bus can’t make it move when all they have for traction is mud the texture of pudding. We ended up removing the large fence post on one side of the gate (three guys for this job) and bringing in about 50 ceramic roof tiles (three guys) which we broke and put under the wheels and on the tracks to help with traction. Finally freed, a few of the Pataxó joined us for the trip to Pau Brasil. We stopped one time and met Paulo’s father, who for some reason doesn’t live with Maura, but rather a couple of miles down the road in a VERY simple thatched homemade house.

I could go on for days describing what I saw, speculating about the culture and family dynamics, and commenting on the various attitudes towards their native culture, but I’ll let the pictures speak for me, and my speculation/impressions probably aren’t accurate enough to be in print, anyway.